Decades back, when I studied geography in third grade, a nation's wealth was depicted by natural resources on maps -- little coffee cups in Brazil, diamonds in South Africa, and oil derricks in Arabia. Industrial production then replaced raw materials -- a tiny car in Detroit. And years later, the great wealth-generating natural resource was brainpower, so third-graders might see pictures of mortarboard-attired college graduates in Cambridge, MA.
But a radically new wealth-generating natural resource has emerged, one especially favored by the Obama administration. This is dependency, in which recipients of government largess evolve from an unwelcome tax-eating burden to a job-creating assets. No wonder many Americans welcome troublesome immigrants. It is almost as if the 1849 Gold Rush days are here again, but instead of prospectors panning for nuggets at Sutter's Creek, entrepreneurs are packing their minivans, formulating grant proposals, sharpening resumes, and rushing to Arizona to strike it rich by "mining" newly discovered clients.
A Heritage Foundation report shows that thanks to multiple government programs, the proportion of Americans in some way dependent on government largess has suddenly jumped by 31.2% since 2001 after decades of much slower increases. Even in inflation-adjusted dollars, America now spends thirteen times more on public welfare than it did in 1965. Dependency has snowballed in health care, public welfare, and housing, and the upward trend seems likely to continue as Obama's statist polices take hold and baby boomers retire. Indeed, the president plans to spend some $10.3 trillion in welfare over the next decades. In a nutshell, Uncle Sam is replacing the family, the church, private charities, and all other non-government sources of assistance, and this means regular jobs for the new caregivers. And it feels good to work for Uncle Sam: Benefits included, the average federal workers in 2008 earned double what those in the private sector took home. So it is hardly unexpected that since about January 2008, some 7.9 million private sectors jobs have disappeared, while 590,000 public sector jobs were created -- and this trend seems to be multiplying. It's a thoroughly modern ménage à trios of dependent citizens, well-paid government employees ministering to them, and harried taxpayers footing the bill.
To return to our third-grade map and pictures, we might see in Florida tiny likenesses of seniors congregating at Walgreens, Medicare Part D cards in hand. Elsewhere on the map are pictures in countless big cities of federally subsidized child care, after-school enrichment programs, the poor buying groceries with food stamps, drug treatment centers, publicly subsidized housing, and vocational counseling facilities for those unable to find private-sector employment. As in 1849, immigrant-rich California is the El Dorado for wealth-seekers -- public agencies galore catering to troubled immigrants, probation and parole officers by the score, people patiently waiting for welfare checks, case workers counseling the homeless and disabled, not to mention state-paid advocates for sundry others who have not quite yet climbed aboard the government's gravy train.
Here's what makes this "new wealth" so attractive: In today's uncertain economy, it far outshines the old wealth of building things and selling them at a profit. For one, jobs ministering to the dependent are labor-intensive and immune to mechanization. Government jobs are also wonderfully secure. It is inconceivable, for example, that a counselor working with Vietnamese gangs in Los Angeles will be replaced by an industrial robot or that under-employed social workers will also be asked to direct rush hour traffic to trim labor costs. This is not the cost-cutting-obsessed airlines where passengers make their own reservations, print boarding passes, stow their own luggage, and bring their own food. Nor can these interventions be outsourced to foreign competition. Helping the less fortunate has a permanent "Made in USA" label attached -- Toyota has no interest in tackling the pathologies of those living in Detroit.
The supply of these jobs-generating assets is also inexhaustible. America will never, never run out of this newly discovered "wealth." We may deplete our oil and ravage our forests, but what are the odds of drug addicts, the mentally ill, young unwed mothers, and others needing intervention vanishing? Those mired in pathology are a truly renewable natural resource. Social problems do recede, but rest assured, replacements are easily found (e.g., sex addiction). In a pinch, just open the borders and receive a bountiful fresh supply. And compare the ease of setting up an in-school clinic to mentor anorexic, non-English-speaking adolescent girls with low self-esteem versus building a factory. The former is instantly shovel-ready.
Fourth, bestowing social services on the dependent is largely impervious to capitalist cost-benefit analysis. Bad consumer products go extinct, but once in place, a government-funded "help the less fortunate" program usually lingers on forever. No amount of research showing ineffectiveness can dull our appetites for anti-school dropout programs, counseling for crime-prone teenagers, or English instruction for the uninterested, among so many others. Think Head Start -- billions continue to flow despite its demonstrated failure to boost academic achievement. Wouldn't it be nice to work for a firm oblivious to quality control? Just ask some GM workers.
And what about funding all these dependency enterprises? The government is hardly 1960s Motorola faced with competition from cheap overseas TVs, where fighting back required raising capital and eschewing investment elsewhere. Government, unlike Motorola, can rescue an overpriced product by raising taxes, printing up money, or creating a public corporation to borrow on the government's inexhaustible credit line. And what would happen to Motorola executives who guessed wrong on domestically manufactured TVs versus members of Congress who failed to cure poverty or teenage illegitimacy despite squandering billions? The former must face irate stockholders; the latter gain reelection thanks to spreading anti-poverty money to their appreciative constituents. To be blunt, almost nothing short of highly unlikely bankruptcy will kill off failed government-funded enterprises.
Why the shift from treating the troubled as liability to viewing them as a wealth-creating "natural resource"? Lots of explanations, but let me offer just two. Ideology -- the government exists to help the less fortunate -- obviously explains a lot. The left, which is medically addicted to promoting socialistic dependency, has long dominated education and much of the mainstream media, so the swing from individual to government responsibility is predictable. How else can you explain the paradox of costly state-funded intervention, much of it demonstrably futile, going hand-in-hand with growing affluence? Logically, America's endless policy disappointments suggests that now may be a propitious time to pull hundreds of plugs, not waste yet more money. Alas, the belief that since we can spend, we must spend, and how better than to help those "who need it" is now hardwired into our national DNA, or at least President Obama's DNA.
The second explanation is the decline of predators. As the government workforce comes to outnumber those in the private sector, the constituency for even more government relentlessly expands. In fact, as of 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a majority of all union members now work for government. This is deceptively important since, for all their greed, private-sector union workers lacked enthusiasm for big government, since, as taxpayers, they paid the bill. Today, however, synergy replaces conflict -- public employee union members (or at least their leaders) gain as government expands, and the process naturally feeds on itself. So when a manufacturing job migrates to China and is replaced by a unionized public-sector position, the political balance shifts yet further. When you add the ease of creating public versus private jobs, the march toward everyone being on the public payroll seems inexorable. More is involved than inviting Argentina-like national bankruptcy. The Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield in the 1960s feared that President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society would turn troubled American cities into Indian reservation-like islands of dependency overseen by outsider political rulers. This fear needs re-expression. Problems were once liabilities to be cured; today, those who depend on the dependent would have to find new employment if problems were solved. Not only does this interdependency undermine incentives for solutions, but we are also altering the very nature of good and bad, asset and liability -- and this is a far deeper moral corruption.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com