By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
There is a reason that WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes is one of Wisconsin’s most popular radio talk show hosts. A successful talk show host gathers the information and presents it in a way that is both entertaining and informative to the listener. In A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction To Getting Something For Nothing, Sykes brings his radio host’s skill to writing an indictment of the present state of American culture.
This is not a cheerful book. Dorothy does not click her heels together three times to return to Kansas, nor will wishful thinking suddenly return us to the days of Calvin Coolidge. The assessment of our culture is bleak.
It is the culture, not just our economic situation. While the book is a dismal narrative of statistics detailing the economic impact, the net result of the great expansion of the modern welfare state under both Republicans and Democrats has been to create a culture of dependency, a nation of moochers.
Who are the moochers? As Richard Nixon would have said, we are all moochers now. Moocherism is bipartisan, even nonpartisan, and reaches into every socioeconomic strata.
From Hollywood movie moguls demanding subsidies to pay for movie star contracts to homeowners demanding bailouts for mortgages they could never afford. From free breakfast programs in schools from affluent neighborhoods to Archer Daniels Midland seeking ethanol subsidies. From state employees expecting taxpayers to pay for lavish retirement and health benefits, to middle class college students applying for food stamps. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Our lust for Other People’s Money is only limited by our relative “suckage.”
Competition shifts from the marketplace to lobbying the government for financial boons. My favorite example from Sykes’ book was the decision by Disney to pursue $200 million in government subsidies to promote tourism. If there is any corporation in America that seems to thrive under capitalism, it would be Disney. Yet as we saw recently, the President of the United States made the pilgrimage to Disneyworld to promote tourism.
Ironically, it was President Obama who single-handedly damaged tourism in Las Vegas when he called for corporations to stop holding conventions there. The trouble with crony capitalism is that you never know when you’ll cease to be the favored crony.
Sykes walks us through the bailout of AIG to show how turning corporations into moochers, deeming them “too big to fail,” is ultimately corrupting to the political process. On all sides of the negotiations concerning the failure were representatives and former representatives of politically connected Goldman Sachs. Conflicts of interests were swirling in the room, and AIG’s bailout broke new ground by placing the full risk on the taxpayers. Goldman Sachs took away $13 billion.
The justification for the bailouts was a yawning financial abyss that impended if the government did not take immediate action to stabilize the markets. It’s an appeal that even reaches conservatives. However, had conservatives in Washington known of the cost culturally, would they have reluctantly agreed to the bailouts? Had they been able to envision the bankruptcy lawyers advertising, “the big banks got their bailouts, now get yours,” would the possible financial breakdown been more endurable? We may never know, but the nation is paying the cultural costs of those bailouts now.
But what is a corporation, or a state, or even an individual, supposed to do? If the federal government is collecting from all of us with one hand, borrowing money with the other, and “making it rain” with a third, should we be surprised when everyone starts buying buckets to collect? Should we be shocked when the ethos of our age changes from, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” to, “Where’s mine?”
From there we are set on the road to ruin, despotism, and even “serfdom” in Hayek’s phrase.
It isn’t hard to predict the course we are headed. The financial ruins of Greece are just ahead. We can point to other historical economic calamities as our future, such as Latin America in the 1970s. Further back in time, and we can see the political corrosion of dependency, as when Julius Caesar bought the masses to ensure his popularity. He was ultimately stopped, but by then it was too late for the Republic.
It’s impossible to read A Nation of Moochers without seeing the context of our times. Indeed, Sykes does not shy from engaging current controversies. The battles with Wisconsin’s government employee unions are featured prominently in, “The Moocher Empire Strikes Back.” Sykes puts Wisconsin’s struggle into perspective by reminding us that other states do not allow public employees to collectively bargain at all. Sykes quotes columnist Jeff Jacoby, “democracy, fundamental rights, and freedom were doing just fine in all of them.”
Sykes asks early in the book if the nation is at a tipping point. Can we bring the country back from one of patronage to one of entrepreneurship? Is it too late to stop the mooching? After a dip in the dystopian pond of Ayn Rand (mercifully brief), Sykes says the challenge is to “step away from the trough.”
”…the revolution against Moocherism requires redefining our expectations of what others owe to us and what we owe to ourselves. Put bluntly, we need to restore some of the stigma to mooching,” he writes.
The unanswered question is whether Sykes’ prescription is a little like the doctor telling the patient dying of lung cancer to give up smoking. We may learn this year if the tipping point has already passed us by.