I live in a small coastal town in North Carolina, which is quiet most of the year and then explodes in the summer with a surge of visitors eager for warm sun and sand, fresh fish and cold beer. Taking advantage of the calm before the storm, a group of us went out for the evening at the Yacht Basin, a little cul-de-sac on the water with one of the greatest open-air bars on the East Coast. The weather and the setting were perfect. The only buzz-kill was the line for drinks because there was only a single bartender working. Fifteen minutes for a beer? I don’t think so. People started leaving, including us. We moved on to a delicious grouper salad dinner down the street.
On the way home, we noticed the local Hardee’s was shut, at the peak of the dinner hour. And just down the street, one of the biggest gas stations in town, with about 24 pumps, was also shut down. WTF? Were we witnessing the rapture?
Nope. Welcome to the great labor shortage of 2021. Despite the roaring economy, these places couldn’t find people to work. Amidst the surge of stimulus checks emanating from the mother ship of Washington, DC, apparently some people have decided that it’s more profitable to stay home than to punch a clock. It may be only temporary, but it’s a real phenomenon.
The same night we couldn’t slake our thirst for want of a bartender, President Joe was laying out his $1.8 trillion American Family Plan to Congress, tacking it on to the Covid Relief Package ($1.9 trillion) and the American Rescue Plan ($1.9 trillion). As Kevin Carroll said in the movie of the same name, “That’s real money.” President Joe makes FDR look like a piker. The New Deal cost about $700 billion in today’s dollars. Even President Obama’s Recovery Act of 2009 only got up to $800 billion. We’re at $6 trillion and there may be still more arrows left in Joe’s quiver. That’s the spending side. On the tax side, we may be witnessing a new wave of revenue-sharing that will take the wind out of the sails of even the most ardent risk-takers.
Here’s a snapshot of the government takeover of the American economy, by far the most ambitious redistribution of wealth in history.
I’m not here to pass judgment, but to raise a warning — not about inflation or debt, but about character. With this surge of capital directed toward American households through direct and indirect payments are we putting our national mojo at risk — our heritage as independent, hard-working, boot-strapping risk-takers? Is this the beginning of the end of America as we know it? I think these are fair questions.
At its heart, America is an entrepreneurial enterprise. Granted, we didn’t have a grand strategy back in the early 18th century when the American experiment started in earnest; it was basically a land grab with boundless opportunity for those with strong backs, situational ethics, and a sense of adventure. Then in the 1770s, somebody said, “Hey, we need a vision and a strategy here!” The results were three documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — that enshrined America’s status as a beacon of the future. Part of the genius of those documents was their simplicity. They didn’t micromanage American life — they just put up goal posts and laid out a few rules. The American spirit, and the American economy, were for nearly two centuries built on minimal government, personal liberty and entrepreneurial spirit.
Roosevelt and LBJ started to chip away at that culture with the New Deal and the Great Society. Both programs were critically needed. FDR tried to hold off systemic economic failure and LBJ targeted social and racial justice. The roots of these issues were complex, but it’s hard to deny that the runaway banking system, Jim Crow, and endemic poverty weren’t the detritus of unfettered capitalism.
So one would think that a $6 trillion explosion of government spending would be in response to a national crisis commensurate with its scale. I’m not sure that’s the case. Because of the entrepreneurial nature of America, there’s always something to fix; and, by and large, we fix it. Think about it. Three vaccines developed and distributed in a year. An increase in median income in 2019 of almost 7 percent. A Goldilocks rise in the DJIA of almost 30 percent over the past 30 months. Current GDP growth of more than 6 percent. A national election in 2020 that had a record turnout with almost flawless operations (despite what Rudy Giuliani might say). Amazon investing $1 billion to raise wages for 500,000 workers. A continuing decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And more great TV than we could watch in a lifetime!
Government was envisioned by the founders at worst as a necessary evil, at best as a tool to provide for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If you told the founders that in 2021 the president would call for doubling the size of the US budget in one year, providing payments of $1,400 to 127 million Americans, and promising free college and daycare, they would ask you what kind of hemp he was smoking.
Here’s the point. The scale of the 21st century welfare complex being erected in Washington seems far beyond the pragmatic, incremental solutions that we need at this point in time. In a rush to create an American “transformation,” we could be witnessing the metastasis of the state into something that smothers essential elements of the American character — risk-taking, adventure and innovation. And like a frog in a pot of boiling water, we may not realize it until it’s too late.