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The Great Society at Fifty

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What LBJ wrought

For The Weekly StandardNicholas Eberstadt writes: May 22, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society” address, delivered at the spring commencement for the University of Michigan.

[Below: On Jan. 4, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson outlined his goals for a Great Society in his State of the Union. You can watch and read his entire speech at millercenter.org]

That speech remains the most ambitious call to date by any president (our current commander in chief included) to use the awesome powers of the American state to effect a far-reaching transformation of the society that state was established to serve. It also stands as the high-water mark for Washington’s confidence in the broad meliorative properties of government social policy, scientifically applied.

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No less important, the Great Society pledge, and the fruit this would ultimately bear, profoundly recast the common understanding of the ends of governance in our country. The address heralded fundamental changes​—​some then already underway, others still only being envisioned​—​that would decisively expand the scale and scope of government in American life and greatly alter the relationship between that same government and the governed in our country today.

In his oration, LBJ offered a grand vision of what an American welfare state​—​big, generous, and interventionist​—​might accomplish. Difficult as this may be for most citizens now alive to recall, the United States in the early 1960s was not yet a modern welfare state: Our only nationwide social program in those days was the Social Security system, which provided benefits for workers’ retirement and disability and for orphaned or abandoned children of workers. Johnson had gradually been unveiling this vision, starting with his declaration of a “War on Poverty” in his first State of the Union months earlier in 1964, just weeks after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In LBJ’s words,  “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that,” he said, “is just the beginning.”

The Great Society proposed to reach even further: to bring about wholesale renewal of our cities, beautification of our natural surroundings, vitalization of our educational system. All this, and much more​—​and the solutions to the many obstacles encountered in this great endeavor, we were told, would assuredly be found, since this undertaking would “assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America.”

Memorably, Johnson insisted that the constraints on achieving the goals he outlined were not availability of the national wealth necessary for the task or the uncertainties inherent in such complex human enterprises, but instead simply our country’s resolve​—​whether we as a polity possessed sufficient “wisdom” to embark on the venture.
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Russia Is Doomed

Don’t be fooled by Putin’s façade; the pillars of Russian power are steadily declining.

Vlad-the-PutinZachary Keck writes:  Everywhere one looks today, signs of a resurgent Russia are omnipresent. Although Vladimir Putin has undoubtedly worked hard to craft this image, it is a mirage. Russia is doomed over the long-term, and its short-term maneuvers aren’t enough to compensate for this fact.

Traditionally, Russian power has rested on four pillars: population, energy, weaponry and geography. Three of these are diminishing.

The backbone of modern Russian power has been its massive population. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in WWII. Russia no doubt played a leading role in orchestrating Hitler’s demise, starting with its legendary stands in Leningrad and Stalingrad. However, Stalin sapped the military might of Nazi Germany less because of the strategic or tactical genius he possessed, and almost entirely through his willingness to expend the lives of his citizenry.

According to some estimates, the Soviet Union lost somewhere between 22 and 28 million people during WWII. To put this in perspective, the United States and Great Britain each lost less than half a million people and even Germany only lost between 7 and 9 million lives during the war. Nonetheless, for nearly half a century after the war the Soviet Union could credibly threaten the much richer West solely because of the sheer number of men it could put under arms.

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How to go from Health and Prosperity, to Consumption, Disability, and a Geyser of Entitlement Spending, in 50 Years

The election-eve mood is tinged with sadness stemming from well-founded fear that America’s new government is subverting America’s old character. Barack Obama’s agenda is a menu of temptations intended to change the nation’s social norms by making Americans comfortable with the degradation of democracy. This degradation consists of piling up public debt that binds unconsenting future generations to finance current consumption.

“In 1960,” Eberstadt says, “roughly 134 Americans were engaged in gainful employment for every officially disabled worker; by December 2010 there were just over 16…”

So argues Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist and demographer at American Enterprise Institute, in “A Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic.” This booklet could be Mitt Romney’s closing argument.

Beginning two decades after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, who would find today’s government unrecognizable, government became a geyser of entitlements. In 2010, government at all levels transferred more than $2.2 trillion in money, goods and services to recipients — $7,200 per individual, almost $29,000 per family of four. Before

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933. Lietuvių: Fra...

1960, only in the Depression years of 1931 and 1935 did federal transfer payments exceed other federal expenditures. During most of FDR’s 12 presidential years, income transfers were a third or less of federal spending. But between 1960 and 2010, entitlements exploded from 28 percent to 66 percent of federal spending. By 2010, more than 34 percent of households were receiving means-tested benefits. Republicans were more than merely complicit, says Eberstadt:

“The growth of entitlement spending over the past half-century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Between 1960 and 2010, the growth of entitlement spending was exponential — but in any given year, it was on the whole over 8 percent higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat. . . . The Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush administrations presided over especially lavish expansions of the entitlement state.”

Why, then, should we expect Romney to reverse Republican complicity? Because by embracing Paul Ryan, Romney embraced Ryan’s emphasis on the entitlement state’s moral as well as financial costs.

As evidence of the moral costs, Eberstadt cites the fact that means-tested entitlement recipience has not merely been destigmatized, it has been celebrated as a basic civil right. Hence the stunning growth of supposed disabilities. The normalization and then celebration of dependency help explain the “unprecedented exit from gainful work by adult men.”

For every 100 industrial workers in December 2010, there were 73 “workers” receiving disability payments.

Since 1948, male labor force participation has plummeted from 89 percent to 73 percent. Today, 27 percent of adult men do not consider themselves part of the workforce: “A large part of the jobs problem for American men today is not wanting one.” Which is why “labor force participation ratios for men in the prime of life are lower in America than in Europe.”

One reason work now is neither a duty nor a necessity is the gaming — defrauding, really — of disability entitlements. In 1960, an average of 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments; in 2011, 8.6 million were — more than four times the number of persons receiving basic welfare benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Nearly half of the 8.6 million were “disabled” because of “mood disorders” or ailments of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue.” It is, says Eberstadt, essentially impossible to disprove a person’s claim to be suffering from sad feelings or back pain.

between 1960 and 2010, entitlements exploded from 28 percent to 66 percent of federal spending.

“In 1960,” Eberstadt says, “roughly 134 Americans were engaged in gainful employment for every officially disabled worker; by December 2010 there were just over 16.” This, in spite of the fact that public health had improved much, and automation and the growth of the service/information economy had made work less physically demanding. Eberstadt says collecting disability is an increasingly important American “profession.”

For every 100 industrial workers in December 2010, there were 73 “workers” receiving disability payments. Between January 2010 and December 2011, the U.S. economy created 1.73 million nonfarm jobs — but almost half as many (790,000) workers became disability recipients. This trend is not a Great Recession phenomenon: In the 15 years ending in December 2011, the United States added 8.8 million nonfarm private sector jobs — and 4.1 million workers on disability rolls.

The radiating corruption of this entitlement involves the collaboration of doctors and health care professionals who certify dubious disability claims. The judicial system, too, is compromised in the process of setting disability standards that enable all this.

America’s ethos once was what Eberstadt calls “optimistic Puritanism,” combining an affinity for personal enterprise with a horror of dependency. Nov. 6 is a late and perhaps last chance to begin stopping the scandal of plundering our descendants’ wealth to finance the demands of today’s entitlement mentality.

via George Will: The Washington Post