WSJ Review of A Nation of Moochers
On balance, a fair review. I'll take "entertaining polemic" any day.
When historians look back on the early years of the 21st century, they may deem them the era of the tin cup. From banks to GM to underwater mortgage holders, a surprising number of us have our eyes on the public purse. We are, to cite the title of Charles Sykes's latest book, "A Nation of Moochers."
Why moochers? This anachronistic word, according to Mr. Sykes, "perfectly captures the new culture of bailouts and irresponsible grasping." We may have reformed welfare 15 years ago, but our mooching tendencies still show up everywhere, from public "servants" juicing their taxpayer-funded pensions to rich celebrities receiving farm subsidies. "Have we reached a tipping point," Mr. Sykes asks, "where more Americans are relying on the efforts of others rather than their own?"
In one form or another, the question seems to come up fairly often in the GOP presidential debates. Indeed, the 2012 election is shaping up to be a battle between those who favor higher taxes on wealthier Americans and more generous subsidies for everyone else and those who think that enough is enough—that less government and more self-reliance is the path to well-being. Mr. Sykes's manifesto is best viewed as a red-meat kind of book for the second camp. It's an entertaining polemic, complete with worksheets to determine one's penchant for crossing over to the dark side of dependency and fair-minded arguments that condemn corporate welfare as much as the conventional variety.
The reviewer, naturally enough, has a few criticisms, but saves the most substantive for last:
Despite these flaws, "A Nation of Moochers" does offer a jumping-off point to ask what we want our society to look like. Mr. Sykes rightly reminds readers of the many not-so-destitute folks who benefit from government largess or loophole-favors: GE paying minimal taxes despite a global profit measuring in the billions; Archer Daniels Midland making sure we keep subsidizing ethanol; Goldman Sachs using its clout to avoid taking a haircut on its AIG positions. And let's not forget the coastal vacation properties in Hilton Head Island or Florida covered by the National Flood Insurance Program—"the taxpayer's gift to improvident beach dwellers," as Mr. Sykes puts it. Heaven forbid that someone wealthy enough to afford a beach house should pay market rates to insure it.
"The explosion of bailouts and handouts creates its own dynamic," Mr. Sykes writes. "How can you say no to would-be moocher A when B and C are getting mountains of federal cash?" Good question. He notes that "politicians will have to learn to say no—even to ideas that might seem attractive" and "so will the rest of us." Exactly how to pull that off is the trillion-dollar question—and one that, no matter how fun "A Nation of Moochers" is to read, Mr. Sykes doesn't really answer.
My response: I confess that the last point is a valid one. I really do not claim to know how to effectively reverse the path to moocherdom, and do not claim that I do. "A Nation of moochetrs" is a manifesto essentially shotuing "STOP!" But I do offer what I think is a modest start: pointing out the need to address questions of sustainability (what we can afford), desert (what is really fair), and the need to distinguish between wants and needs. the finally page of the book draws a distinction between a compassionate culture and a moocher culture:
A compassionate society makes sure that people do not starve. It does not buy free lunch for everyone.
A compassionate society makes provisions so that the homeless or the otherwise destitute are not exposed to the elements. It does not provide no-down payment, no income loans so that people can buy unaffordable houses at inflated prices.
A compassionate society provides opportunities; it does not treat free cell phones or wireless internet as an entitlement. It does not punish work or make it easier to be dependent than it is to get a job and improve yourself.
A compassionate society provides the opportunity and the freedom to travel. It does not compel you to buy your neighbor a new car.
A compassionate society provides a temporary safety net for the unlucky. It does not provide a soft mattress for a lifetime of dependency.
A compassionate society may cushion the worst effect of the business cycles. It does not provide billion dollar bailouts to the business whose reckless risky bets go south.
A compassionate society takes care of those in need. It does not assume that we are all incapable of making it on our own.
A compassionate society does not infantilize its citizens or corrupt them by making them a nation of moochers.