Editor's note: This column originally ran in May 2008. It has been updated to reflect changes since the 2008 election.
"Gloom, despair and agony on me, deep dark depression, excessive misery — if it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all." That refrain from the 1969-1992 "Hee Haw" TV show appears to have affected the psyche of the majority of political commentators, candidates for elected office, columnists — both syndicated and local — and much of the general public with a malaise last seen during the Carter administration.
This continued blaming of former presidents, corporations, private equity, lobbyists, tax breaks for the wealthy, big oil and "the 1 percenters" for all of the real or imagined ills of the day is not only unhealthy, it also stretches the truth beyond the parameters of logic and reason. In my lifetime, the U.S. has recovered from a Great Depression and several recessions of differing magnitudes, triumphed in a World War, traveled in space, all but cured small pox and other infectious diseases, overcome the evil, incompetent and dishonest administrations of whichever party happened to be in power, and have survived such entertainment fare as "American Idol," "Dancing with the Stars" and the never ending "Survivor" series.
Admittedly, the quadrennial presidential race is a major contributor to this rhetorical overkill inasmuch as the pending election is the opportunity for the out-of-power party to fault the other for everything from fear, famine, pestilence and death. While this is the natural fodder of political campaigns, the underlying message that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, that the working poor and the middle class are endangered species, and that the sole solution rests in creating more and bigger government entitlement programs is hardly more than pandering to the proponents of class envy and social engineers.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of the middle class have been greatly exaggerated, and should be obvious to anyone who frequents shopping malls, restaurants, sporting events and other entertainment events. They find parking lots filled with late-model automobiles, often wait to be seated for meals and endure long lines of shoppers and traffic jams. I doubt seriously if these are “the wealthiest one percent” but are in actuality members of the middle class.
The plight of the working poor is real — the Department of Labor has standardized a range of 5 to 6 percent unemployed as full employment — current unemployment stands at 8.3 percent, fluctuating between 8 and 10 percent for the past three and a half years. The promised "green jobs" revolution of 5 million plus jobs has yet to materialize; despite government subsidies, wind and solar power provide less than 5 percent of energy needs.
The earnings of the working poor will always lag behind those of the middle and upper echelons, simply because as the poor move up to middle class, they are replaced by entry level minimum wage earners — a natural progression. However, during periods of recession, there is little upward mobility as that path is blocked by those on the way down.
The national angst over rising fuel, grocery and energy costs is understood; nevertheless, we have faced crises before and have managed to overcome them. Contrary to the prevailing opinions, Vietnam did not bankrupt the economy, petroleum deposits did not dry up in the '70s, the predicted world famine and ice age did not occur, and we avoided a nuclear holocaust with the USSR.
There will ever be whiners, malcontents and free-riders, but I continue to have faith in the spirit, perseverance, optimism and pride that has made America the inspiration as well as the breadbasket of the world. To the pessimists, those who blame America first, and other purveyors of hopelessness, I ask: If the United States is such a world pariah, why do more people emigrate to the U.S. each year than any other nation in the world?
Many of us can remember when gasoline sold for as little as 14 cents per gallon and the going minimum wage was 40 to 50 cents an hour. A rising cost of goods always triggers a commensurate increase in wages, though it is not always immediate — the market will eventually correct itself. History shows that every recession is succeeded by a period of prosperity that is engineered by private enterprise rather than government.
The mission of government in ending an economic slowdown is to provide opportunity for continued job growth through private enterprise rather than by the promise of cradle to grave entitlement. Those who promise free health care, college educations, et al. should be viewed with suspicion — after all, the government cannot give a dollar to anyone without first taking it from the one who earned it.
The November 2012 election may be the most crucial in our lifetimes. If we, as the electorate, sanction the seating of yet another executive and legislative branch dedicated to merely kicking the entitlement can down the road for the next administration to fix, we may get to emulate "there is trouble in River City."
As voters, the ball is in our court — remember, we get the government we deserve rather than the one for which we wish.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.