Is Long-term Economic, Political Discontent Ahead?

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson is one of a handful of economic writers I pay a lot of attention to. If you are a political junkie, you should read his April 28 piece The Twilight of Entitlement, which has profound implications for American politics and for the nation’s psyche.

Samuelson isn’t talking merely about Social Security or Medicare when he writes about “entitlements.” Instead, he is talking about a set of “attitudes and beliefs” best expressed by President Bill Clinton when he said, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have the freedom and opportunity to pursue your own dream.”

That’s no longer the case, the veteran columnist writes, noting increased financial anxiety and less optimism about the future in at least two recent surveys.

The post-World War II period offered growth, opportunity and optimism for Americans, but, if Samuelson is right, we have already entered a period which is more about dividing a relatively stable pie than about sharing in a growing pie.

“Popular national goals remain elusive. Poverty is stubborn. Many schools seem inadequate. The ‘safety net,’ private and public, is besieged,” he writes, arguing that Americans no longer believe that they can count on a strong economy, secure jobs, home ownership, fixed tax burdens, college education and an ever expanding government safety net.

But while polling shows a public more anxious about the future and less certain that tomorrow will be a better day, it’s far from clear that most Americans are willing to give up the “entitlements” that Samuelson refers to. Most still believe that they deserve a college education, home ownership, good jobs and a government that is always willing and able to help.

The political ramifications of this change are obvious. As Samuelson writes, “political conflicts — who gets, who gives — and social resentments will be, as they already are, sharper.”

Given the speed at which messages are delivered — via Twitter, Facebook and email — and the increasingly ideological carriers such as MSNBC, Fox News and ideological news websites, the conflicts accompanying the change in the national mood can only be deeper and meaner.

Decide for yourself whether Samuelson is right about the trend and exactly how that will affect our political debate and elections. Read the column and leave your responses below.

Topics: economy