Janesville72.4°

Wake me when it’s over

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Esther Cepeda
December 11, 2011
— Ugh, is this what it’s going to be like until next November? Listening to the campaign’s dueling professors—Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich—give their views on the topic of the American work ethic, it’s starting to feel like maybe we should tune it all out until the election is over.

The president seems to have become set on a campaign platform consisting of one plank—contending that the “breathtaking greed” of the “1 percent” is solely to blame for joblessness, increasing poverty and the crumbling middle class.


“For most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people,” Obama said during his Kansas speech last week. “This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try.”


America never promised that—our political culture is rooted in the belief that there should be equality of opportunity to succeed, but it’s understood that it doesn’t always work out. Not everyone gets what they wish for, even after putting in herculean efforts—just ask all the people who missed the cutoff to become police officers, Olympic athletes or musicians in major symphony orchestras.


“If the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class,” Obama said. Sure, his point was striking, but he made it as if voters didn’t expect the president to push meaningful policies to change this trend rather than settling for pulling a Robin Hood on those who have fared better than average.


Compare Obama’s approach to that of Gingrich, who has made it clear he believes that 30 percent of Americans—roughly the number in or near poverty—aren’t going to fare well because they don’t have a work ethic.


One of the things that many people love or hate about Gingrich is that he often says outlandish things that have a terrible, if tiny, kernel of truth in them. We shouldn’t be contemplating whether poor children need to be relegated to training in the janitorial arts—though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with such honest, humble work because someone needs to clean the toilets. But maybe some youth do need the benefit of learning how to work hard.

To be clear, many high school students work during the academic year to help support their families, or save, and then work through their college years, sometimes putting themselves at risk of failing their courses just so they can pay their tuition. But plenty of others lead comfortable lives where the only “work” they do is preparing themselves for college and, according to some reports, pick easy majors so they can glide through to graduation.


More important, even as employers increasingly complain that neither high school nor college graduates are adequately prepared for the working world, there are fewer and fewer first-job opportunities available because mature workers are filling jobs that, in better times, only young adults would take.


There is an obvious lack of traditional, full-time employment opportunities for the job-hungry but low-skilled or under-educated—and maybe Gingrich’s lack of daily interaction with any actual working-class people plays a role. He seems to think that poor people are lazy, undisciplined and lack ambition. Hey, it’s not as if droves of them gave up their family Thanksgiving rituals to work ultra-early Black Friday sales—oh, wait, yes they did.


But the fairy tale the president is spinning about how mere pluck and good intentions are all that should be necessary to grab hold of the American ideal of middle-class comfort is equally misleading.


Both worldviews are unhelpful in formulating or implementing a set of smart, stimulating policies that will help eliminate income inequities that have not been seen since the Gilded Age. But this appears to be beside the point.


Right now the only thing that seems to matter is whether you’re part of the oppressed-or-maybe-not-diligent-enough “99 percent” or the bad-unless-you-can-contribute-to-my-campaign “1 percent.”


If the candidates keep this up for another 11 months, a good chunk of voters are going to consider themselves 100 percent done with the whole mess.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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