The Conversation

The guarantee of success

Among the lines in Obama's SOTU address that stuck out for me was: "It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love."

Really?  Where'd that "basic bargain" go?  Who made it impossible to get ahead based on where you come from, what you look like, or who you love... and why hasn't our massive decades-old engine of anti-discrimination already put them in jail?  

Of course, nothing of what Obama said can be found in our Constitution, as I said in my own take on the state of the Union:

I remember the “basic bargain that built this country” very well.  It involved a vow to defend the inalienable rights of its citizens, not decide which must be sacrificed so the government can enact some “noble” agenda.  It was a bargain made between a limited State, an unlimited people, and a boundless future.  It did not empower the State to decide what we should be, or tell us what we are allowed to be.  It did not hold the people collectively guilty, leaving the State to dispense innocence as it pleases.  That bargain left the American people with a sacred ability to say “no” – to each other, and to the government.  It gave them a precious citizenship that included heavy responsibilities, not just expensive benefits.  It was a very simple bargain… leaving us to make all the complex bargains between one another.

But my colleague David Harsanyi had a more direct, and marvelously grumpy, bone to pick:

Actually, there is no such bargain, nor has there ever been, so there is nothing to restore. It seems that this is the sort of merit-based guarantee of success that politicians like to make. There is no assurance that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities – whatever Obama believes those duties may entail – that you’re going to get ahead in life. Plenty of good people fail and plenty of terrible people succeed. Get used to it. There’s no Fairness Bunny.

This reminded me of a landmark essay by David Wong of Cracked (yes, the humor magazine) entitled "How 'The Karate Kid' Ruined the Modern World."  Wong was also on the hunt for the Fairness Bunny, building from the premise that the super-easy transformation of the Karate Kid into a champion martial artist, via brief and peppy training montage, contributed to precisely the same expectation of well-deserved success that Harsanyi criticized:

It applies to everything. America is full of frustrated, broken, baffled people because so many of us think, "If I work this hard, this many hours a week, I should have (a great job, a nice house, a nice car, etc). I don't have that thing, therefore something has corrupted the system and kept me from getting what I deserve, and that something must be (the government, illegal immigrants, my wife, my boss, my bad luck, etc)."

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, "All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two shitty cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month." So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.

As Harsanyi suggests, enormous power accrues to those in government who get to define what "hard work", "responsibilities," and "getting ahead" mean, in Obama's formulation.  But the "Effort Shock" Wong described has left many Americans too numb to ask tough questions about those very important details.  They just like hearing about the Fairness Bunny. 


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