Americans look at economic opportunities as problems: George Will

By Kathleen Misovic

When political columnist George Will looks at modern American, he doesn’t see a country lacking in jobs and opportunities. He sees a strong country with increasing opportunities and wonders why so many people are so negative about America’s future.

George F. Will

“American society is unable to accept success,” said Will, who was the guest speaker for Friday’s morning session. Will, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist whose syndicated newspaper column appears in nearly 500 papers in the United States and Europe, spoke on “the political argument today.”

Will started out his speech by acknowledging that his family is no stranger to orthopaedics. “I raised three sons and one daughter who played field hockey, so I’m sure I met most of you,” he told the audience, drawing laughter.

Then he launched into one of his favorite topics—baseball. “I do political writing to support my baseball habit,” he joked.

Will couldn’t resist ribbing the Chicago Cubs for their losing record. “While in Chicago I saw a t-shirt that read, ‘Any team can have a bad century,’” he quipped.

Will grew up in Champaign, Ill., halfway between St. Louis and Chicago. “I had to choose between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox,” he said. “All my friends who chose the Sox grew up happy and liberal.”

Will, a conservative and self-professed pessimist, went on to talk of politics and the contradictions of the conservative view in America. Most of the American population is moving to the area southwest of St. Louis, a traditionally conservative are of the country. Reasoning follows that the conservative population in the country would grow. But Will said this rationale doesn’t hold up.

“There’s no such thing as a clear conservative,” he said, adding that many Americans who label themselves conservatives believe in liberal policies. Will labeled several current political ways of thinking that alarm him: dissidence, entitlement, economic hypochondria, and learned dependency.

Dissidence and entitlement
Will said the modern conservatism grew out of a protest of the New Deal. However, many so-called conservative Americans support ideas that came out of the New Deal, such as social security and welfare. “Many conservatives are actually operational liberals,” he explained. “They are influenced by the two ancient fears—illness and old age and educational deficits.”

Instead of supporting a smaller government, these “conservatives” are in favor of expanding it to provide social programs, which results in an expanding deficit.

Along with their dissent from original conservative ideals, these conservatives have a sense of entitlement in that they believe the government should supply them with all of their health and medical needs.

Advances in medical care, such as the invention of penicillin and antibiotics have resulted in people living longer and healthier lives. In 1906 one in four children died before age 14 of diseases that are not even in our vocabulary any more, Will said. “Americans are delighted to live with these benefits but don’t want to pay for them. Everyone believes they are entitled to the maximum amount of health care without having to ration the care for cost savings.”

With more Americans demanding the maximum in medical tests and care, the country now spends 16 percent of its budget on health care, more than it spends on education for grades Kindergarten through 12th.

“This explosion of entitlement can not extend into the next 40 years, with the continuing high level of immigration and the aging of the population,” Will said. “In 2030 all the Baby Boomers will be retired and we can’t afford to support them. I am not attacking the elderly, I am the elderly; I’ll be 65 in May.”

Americans have this sense of entitlement for things other than health care. “Americans are convinced that somewhere in the Bill of Rights is an entitlement to cheap gas,” Will said, drawing laughs. “Americans are driving around in their Lincoln Navigators, barely making it from gas station to gas station while calling their friends on their cell phones to complain about how difficult life has become.”

Economic hypochondria
Many Americans are also unhappy with the direction of America’s economy and believe the country is losing its edge in productivity. Will believes that although certain jobs and industries disappear from the country, that isn’t a negative thing, it’s just part of a normal cycle. For instance, agriculture made up 47 percent of American productivity in 1900, decreasing to 4 percent in 1970 and less than 2 percent today.

“Some jobs disappear, many new ones arrive to take their place,” he said.

In Will’s opinion, Americans tend to turn gigantic American successes into problems, such as Wal-Mart. He credited Wal-Mart for being the greatest job creator in the country and lowering the prices of goods in all U.S. stores. “So Wal-Mart is a problem?” he questioned. “Americans turn gigantic American successes into problems.”

Will conceded that Wal-Mart has been responsible for other companies going out of business. “Wal-Mart is a problem because it’s competitive. It causes problems for companies that have been operating under stodgy business plans for years.”

Learned dependency
Will also believes that Americans in recent years have shown a diminished sense of individual responsibility. “How do we get to this point where we assume that no one is responsible for anything and if something goes wrong, somebody else has to pay,” he asked.

He cited the directions found with clothes irons as an example of this attitude. “Irons actually come with directions that say, ‘do not iron clothes on your body,’” he said incredulously “How did we get to this point?”

This diminished sense of responsibility shows up in politics, with people expecting the government to pay for all of their needs without supporting it through taxes. “There is a declining number of Americans who pay income tax. The top 1 percent of earners pay 37 percent of the income tax, and the bottom 50 percent pay less than 4 percent,” he said.

Dependency also shows up in health care, with consumers not concerned about the price of their treatments as long as their insurance covers it. Will said that health savings accounts would force the American people to shop around for procedures and not seek unnecessary tests and treatments.

Lastly, Will discussed America’s role in rebuilding the government in Iraq. He questioned why the American government didn’t have a plan in place for running the country once it toppled its government. And he challenged the idea that all countries are ready for democracy.

Will said that not all countries share the same values as America; rather than freedom others prize piety, military power or tribalism.

He compared changing Iraq’s regime to changing the American South in the reconstruction phase after the Civil war. In his estimation, it took until about 1975 for the South to recuperate from the war. “That’s 110 years,” he said. “Who believes Baghdad will be easier than Birmingham, Alabama?”

Will ended his speech with a question and answer session with the audience. When asked his political predictions for the 2008 election, Will said a run by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) would be unlikely to succeed. “You tell me which red state she would turn blue,” he challenged the audience.

He suggested Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a contender. “If he chooses Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as his running mate he could carry 40 states,” Will predicted.

Responding to a question about steroid use in baseball, Will said the sport has been around for a long time and will weather this latest controversy. “What steroids do is force nonusers to sacrifice their careers or their health,” he said.

One audience member questioned why it was a bad thing for the government to spend 16 percent of its budget on medical care. “It seems a good investment; it’s our health care delivery that’s bad,” he said.

Will responded that his point wasn’t that health care spending is bad, but that there’s a lot of waste in the spending. He said efforts to reduce risky behavior, such as smoking, and implement behavior modification, such as exercise, would be beneficial in reducing health costs.

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