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Ivy League Populism By: Victor Davis Hanson
The Washington Times | Monday, February 25, 2008


The rhetoric of Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about the sad state of America is reminiscent of the suspect populism of John Edwards, the millionaire lawyer who recently dropped out of the Democratic presidential race.

Barack Obama may have gone to exclusive private schools. He and his wife may both be lawyers who between them have earned four expensive Ivy League degrees. They may make about a million dollars a year, live in an expensive home and send their kids to prep school. But they are still apparently firsthand witnesses to how the American dream has gone sour. Two other Ivy League lawyers, Hillary and Bill Clinton, are multimillionaires who have found America to be a land of riches beyond most people's imaginations. But Hillary also talks of the tragic lost dream of America.

In these gloom-and-doom narratives by the well-off, we less fortunate Americans are doing almost everything right but still are not living as well as we deserve. And the common culprit is a government that is not doing enough good for us, and corporations that do too much bad to us.

In the new pessimistic indictment, the home mortgage meltdown has not occurred because too many speculative buyers were hoping to flip houses for quick profits. It had nothing to do with misguided attempts of government and lending institutions to put first-time buyers in homes through zero-down payments, interest-only loans, and subprime but adjustable mortgage rates — as part of liberal efforts to increase homeownership rates.

And there apparently are few Americans who unwisely borrowed against their homes a second and third time to remodel or purchase big-ticket consumer items — in the belief their equity would always rise faster than their debts. Nor are we to look at this downturn as part of a historical boom-and-bust cycle in the housing industry — the present low prices and nonperforming loans the natural counterresponse to the overpriced real estate of the last five years.

Likewise, students are failing to graduate from college because there are too few government-guaranteed student loans. We don't hear that thousands enter public universities without basic reading and mathematical skills — or that their college problems might in part be the fault of their own misplaced priorities in high school, and in part the fault of a mostly therapeutic educational system, offering fluffy courses and self-esteem training rather than rigorous math, science, literature and history classes.

Nor is there ever mention of teachers' unions, the system of tenure, or a vapid, politically correct curriculum, as explanations why our students are not competitive in the global marketplace.

We also hear oil prices are sky high and our own auto industry is failing due to windfall profits and corporate greed, but there's no discussion of the fact that oil-rich autocracies like Russia, Venezuela and the Gulf monarchies have obtained a stranglehold on the global petroleum supply.

For Hillary and Barack, our automobile manufacturing crisis is not the result of uniquely lavish union health and retirement packages for American autoworkers. The government is somehow mostly to blame for Detroit's meltdown and the energy crisis, not Americans' own tastes in the 1990s for large gas-guzzlers and big homes, and their concurrent opposition to nuclear power plants, oil drilling off the coasts and in Alaska, and conservation of resources.

Wal-Mart, free trade and our debt to China also come in for blame. Neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton suggests that America's middle classes have more purchasing power and accumulated consumer goods than any people in history.

In reality, our acquisitiveness is a result not of corporate greed, but of our fondness for shopping at discounted warehouse mega-stores, whose goods are the result of hard work of hundreds of millions of low-paid Chinese. They not only toil long hours to make our cheap televisions and stereos, but their government lends us the money at low interest — through massive buying of U.S. government bonds — to buy their stuff.

To the extent we have any social and legal problems from unchecked illegal immigration, it has nothing to do with the cynicism and corruption of the Mexican government that deliberately exports, exploits and profits off its own people. The problem is not the fondness for low-paid, off-the-books illegal labor among the upper-middle classes, nor the disdain for the law of illegal immigrants themselves, who crowd to the front of the immigration line. Instead, America's xenophobia, blame-casting and insensitive government have made it needlessly rough on 11 million arrivals who otherwise did us a favor by coming.

As Sens. Obama and Clinton try to outdo each other in blaming government for our lack of individual responsibility and promising solutions by raising taxes to give us more government, they offer little change and less hope.


Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the author of "A War Like No Other" (Random House).


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