Success in America is an endangered species. Business bonuses are under heightened scrutiny; soon, making the right picks in the stock market or earning more than $200,000 per year will mean higher taxes; even the occasional business trips that “happened in Vegas” to reward top sales producers doesn’t “stay in Vegas” anymore. They stay at home. “Junkets” like that fell victim to finger-wagging rebukes from the president himself. Why blow your money gambling if it can fund another government program?
This animus toward accomplishment is producing significant political consequences. The February issue of Trends Magazine included an article titled, “The War on Achievement and its Building Backlash.”
“For 250 years, America has been known throughout the world as the place where anyone could work hard, scrape together a little money and invest in a great idea,” the Trends writers observe. “But a creeping kind of governmental interference has seriously threatened this ideal,” they argue. In other words, the Trends writers continue, “the very bedrock concept underlying what’s typically called ‘the American Dream’ is threatened by these measures.”
Some early evidence suggests the Trends thesis has some merit. A recent Zogby poll found a 10-point slide in the number of Americans who believe it is possible to achieve the American dream since the November 2008 election.
The Obama administration is testing the Trends theory with a real life experiment. It’s called the president’s agenda. We won’t know the full implications for years. Yet in the short run, the White House’s tax the rich, liberal populism is creating a backlash across America, and producing major political headaches for Democratic candidates running for election in November.
Some specific pillars in the anti-achievement platform appear popular when polled – like raising taxes on the wealthy. Yet that’s because higher taxes on the wealthy is never linked with any costs for the middle class in these surveys. Once voters understand there is a point at which taxing the rich or other perks produces negative economic consequences, the poll numbers would shift dramatically. Just ask the cocktail waitress in Vegas how Obama’s tax and bonus rhetoric affects her economic prospects.
The campaign against success may also restore a broad center-right coalition that elected Republican majorities in Congress between 1994 and 2006. It could reunify a disparate group of social and fiscal conservatives, traditional Republicans, and a majority of independents – the electoral configuration that produced GOP victories in last year’s New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races, and Senator Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts earlier this year.
Michael Franc, vice president of Government Relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. agrees. “It’s kind of like the Cold War but in domestic policy,” Franc told me recently. “This coalition may not agree on all the solutions, but they see a threat -- to themselves, their kids and to our country’s future economic viability. They worry that too much spending, taxes and debt will destroy the American Dream.”
Rather than protecting the middle class, Obama’s policies threaten their long-term ambitions through piling up unprecedented levels of debt justified by scorekeeping gimmicks. The president and his staff argued the health bill would reduce the deficit over the first ten years. But that’s only because it includes ten years of taxes and spending cuts but only six years of benefits. Has Bernie Madoff become the Democrats’ bookkeeper?
Moreover, most Americans – regardless of their income status -- don’t believe demonizing prosperity through hot rhetoric or higher taxes helps them or their children achieve success.
Clearly some business practices amount to raw greed. They are indefensible. Yet is it the federal government’s role to determine the appropriate level of personal wealth? Maybe instead of a public health option, we’ll next get a “public salary”— a fair and reasonable amount of money every America should earn to alleviate income envy and unfairness?
The president and his administration spend an inordinate amount of time attacking the rich and, by extension, achievement. But it’s rare for Mr. Obama to promote “economic success” or “wealth creation.” His rhetoric requires more balance.
It’s hard to know when the war on success will end. Maybe when it’s clear that a country with no winners is only left with losers.