One consequence of the botched launch of Obamacare is that it has, judging from his plummeting numbers with “Millennials,” diminished Barack Obama’s cool. It’s not merely that the website isn’t state-of-the-art but that the art it’s flailing to be state of is that of the mid-20th-century social program. The emperor has hipster garb, but underneath he’s just another Commissar Squaresville. So, health care being an irredeemable downer for the foreseeable future, this week the president pivoted (as they say) to “economic inequality,” which will be, he assures us, his principal focus for the rest of his term. And what’s his big idea for this new priority? Stand well back: He wants to increase the minimum wage!
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos of Amazon (a non-government website) is musing about delivering his products to customers across the country (and the planet) within hours by using drones.
Who has a greater grasp of the economic contours of the day after tomorrow — Bezos or Obama? My colleague Jonah Goldberg notes that the day before the president’s speech on “inequality,” Applebee’s announced that it was introducing computer “menu tablets” to its restaurants. Automated supermarket checkout, 3D printing, driverless vehicles . . . what has the “minimum wage” to do with any of that? To get your minimum wage increased, you first have to have a minimum-wage job.
In my book (which I shall forbear to plug, but is available at Amazon, and with which Jeff Bezos will be happy to drone your aunt this holiday season), I write:
Once upon a time, millions of Americans worked on farms. Then, as agriculture declined, they moved into the factories. When manufacturing was outsourced, they settled into low-paying service jobs or better-paying cubicle jobs — so-called “professional services” often deriving from the ever swelling accounting and legal administration that now attends almost any activity in America. What comes next?
Or, more to the point, what if there is no “next”?
What do millions of people do in a world in which, in Marxian terms, “capital” no longer needs “labor”? America’s liberal elite seem to enjoy having a domestic-servant class on hand, but, unlike the Downton Abbey crowd, are vaguely uncomfortable with having them drawn from the sturdy yokel stock of the village, and thus favor, to a degree only the Saudis can match, importing their maids and pool-boys from a permanent subordinate class of cheap foreign labor. Hence the fetishization of the “undocumented,” soon to be reflected in the multi-million bipartisan amnesty for those willing to do “the jobs Americans won’t do.”
So what jobs will Americans get to do? We dignify the new age as “the knowledge economy,” although, to the casual observer, it doesn’t seem to require a lot of knowledge. One of the advantages of Obamacare, according to Nancy Pelosi, is that it will liberate the citizenry: “Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer or a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance.” It’s certainly true that employer-based health coverage distorts the job market, but what’s more likely in a world without work? A new golden age of American sculpture and opera? Or millions more people who live vicariously through celebrity gossip and electronic diversions? One of the differences between government health care in America compared to, say, Sweden is the costs of obesity, heart disease, childhood diabetes, etc. In an ever more sedentary society where fewer and fewer have to get up to go to work in the morning, is it likely that those trends will diminish or increase?
Consider Vermont. Unlike my own state of New Hampshire, it has a bucolic image: Holsteins, dirt roads, the Vermont Teddy Bear Company, Ben & Jerry’s, Howard Dean . . . And yet the Green Mountain State has appalling levels of heroin and meth addiction, and the social chaos that follows. Geoffrey Norman began a recent essay in The Weekly Standard with a vignette from a town I know very well — St. Johnsbury, population 7,600, motto “Very Vermont,” the capital of the remote North-East Kingdom hard by the Quebec border and as far from urban pathologies as you can get. Or so you’d think. But on a recent Saturday morning, Norman reports, there were more cars parked at the needle-exchange clinic than at the farmers’ market. In Vermont, there’s no inner-city underclass, because there are no cities, inner or outer; there’s no disadvantaged minorities, because there’s only three blacks and seven Hispanics in the entire state; there’s no nothing. Which is the real problem.
Large numbers of Vermonters have adopted the dysfunctions of the urban underclass for no reason more compelling than that there’s not much else to do. Once upon a time, St. Johnsbury made Fairbanks scales, but now a still handsome town is, as Norman puts it, “hollowed out by the loss of work and purpose.” Their grandparents got up at four in the morning to work the farm and their great-great-great-whatever-parents slogged up the Connecticut River, cleared the land, and built homes and towns and a civilization in the wilderness. And now? A couple of months back, I sat in the café in St. Johnsbury, and overheard a state official and a Chamber of Commerce official discuss enthusiastically how the town could access some federal funds to convert an abandoned building into welfare housing.
“Work” and “purpose” are intimately connected: Researchers at the University of Michigan, for example, found that welfare payments make one unhappier than a modest income honestly earned and used to provide for one’s family. “It drains too much of the life from life,” said Charles Murray in a speech in 2009. “And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors — even more to the lives of janitors — as it does to the lives of CEOs.” Self-reliance — “work” — is intimately connected to human dignity — “purpose.”
So what does every initiative of the Obama era have in common? Obamacare, Obamaphones, Social Security disability expansion, 50 million people on food stamps . . . The assumption is that mass, multi-generational dependency is now a permanent feature of life. A coastal elite will devise ever smarter and slicker trinkets, and pretty much everyone else will be a member of either the dependency class or the vast bureaucracy that ministers to them. And, if you’re wondering why every Big Government program assumes you’re a feeble child, that’s because a citizenry without “work and purpose” is ultimately incompatible with liberty. The elites think a smart society will be wealthy enough to relieve the masses from the need to work. In reality, it would be neo-feudal, but with fatter, sicker peasants. It wouldn’t just be “economic inequality,” but a far more profound kind, and seething with resentments.
One wouldn’t expect the governing class to be as far-sighted as visionaries like Bezos. But it’s hard to be visionary if you’re pointing in the wrong direction. Which is why the signature achievement of Obama’s “hope and change” combines 1940s British public-health theories with 1970s Soviet supermarket delivery systems. But don’t worry: Maybe one day soon, your needle-exchange clinic will be able to deliver by drone. Look out below.