An alternative to the president’s pessimistic populist appeal

Thomas Donlan devotes his latest Barron’s editorial commentary to a rebuttal pf President Obama’s recent pessimistic messages about the possibilities of success in present-day America.

According to President Barack Obama, the defining challenge of our time is “making sure our economy works for every working American.” In a recent speech, the president noted that “the American people’s frustrations with Washington are at an all-time high.”

He said the reason is their daily struggles “to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement. It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. And it’s rooted in the fear that their kids won’t be better off than they were.”

True enough, those fears do exist, but they crop up in every generation. Those frustrations are shortsighted, and Obama should not be encouraging them. He should call to mind our inherited economic advantages that they can use, instead of expecting Washington to provide antidotes to their frustration.

Young middle-class Americans as a group enjoy better opportunities to be better educated, better housed, better able to save, and generally better off than their parents, far better off than their grandparents, and unimaginably better endowed than their great-grandparents, who came of age 100 years ago. Barring a catastrophe, their children have a good chance to enlarge the economic opportunities for another American generation.

This is not the best of all possible worlds, but consider some elements of normal American life that have disappeared in the past century, bettering our lives: farm labor, especially plowing behind a mule; walking from slums to unsafe, unhealthy factory work; home coal stoves for cooking and heating; coal mining with pick and shovel; the typing pool; reading, writing, and arithmetic as a sufficient education; college only for the rich and the lucky, with tuition always paid in cash; the military draft; explicit racial and ethnic oppression enforced by law; the five-year mortgage; dirty drinking water from dirty wells and rivers; death by infectious diseases too numerous to list; privation and even starvation in old age.

Government set the standards for many of these changes, but rising national productivity made them possible. Most Americans no longer use their muscles at work; they use machines, chemicals, and computers, which make them more productive.

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