Is serious social unrest in our future?

Ron Smith says that with 77% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the Occupy Wall Street movement may be just the beginning

October 06, 2011|Ron Smith

As it turns out, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meant it all those many times he said he wasn't going to run for president. After saying a final no despite pleas from Republicans desperate to avoid being stuck with the current crop of White House aspirants, we have a strange situation: a president who loses in the polls to a generic GOP candidate but beats any specific candidate except Mitt Romney.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that opposition to President Barack Obama is growing rapidly, with 40 percent of Americans "strongly" disapproving of the job he's doing. Dig deeper and it gets no better. Forty-three percent of independents and forty-seven percent of voters 65 and older strongly disapprove of his performance. These numbers are way up from earlier this year.

The anybody-but-Obama crowd is burgeoning, while his core supporters are losing their enthusiasm. This is not a good sign for the president, though a lot of time remains before the election, and things could change in his favor. It's just hard to see how at this point.

Our national debt is growing at the rate of $3 million a minute. Despite everyone with a brain knowing this spells disaster, nothing of any consequence has been done to even slow down this headlong sprint toward fiscal disaster.

Last week, USA Today reported that retirement programs for former federal workers — civilian and military — are growing so fast, they now face a multitrillion-dollar shortfall nearly as big as Social Security's.

"The government paid a record $268 billion in pension and health benefits," says the analysis, "to 10 million former civil servants, military personnel and their dependents, about $100 billion more than was paid a decade ago, after adjusting for inflation."

The kicker is that unlike private pension plans, required by law to be funded by employers — and even state and local government plans, which have $3 trillion in retirement funds — the federal commitments are backed by nothing. That's a $5.7 trillion unfunded liability, which is on pace to grow even faster in the years ahead.

Economists keep debating whether we're about to fall into another recession, wondering whether we can keep that "recovery" going. Ordinary Americans aren't fooled by academic gibberish. A recent poll found that 90 percent of the people see economic conditions right now as "poor."

According to a Harris poll late last year, 77 percent of American families are living paycheck to paycheck, up from 43 percent three years earlier. There's no reason to think that situation has improved over the last 10 months.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, if one can call it that, is a creepy thing, featuring would-be anarchists coupled with union activists proclaiming that they want — well, what? The "leaders" of the OWSers disdain policy goals in favor of meaningless chants, like, "We are the 99 percent." British journalist Tim Stanley says if they want to make a difference, they should link up with the tea party, which knows what it's after and how to achieve it politically.

It's a pretty safe bet, however, that more serious disturbances will take place as the government begins taking back some of the unsustainable expenditures of the welfare/warfare state. These benefits, taken from Peter to pay Paul, have not been granted because the rulers are filled with compassion for the masses, but rather to keep a lid on social unrest.

The last bubble to burst will be governments. They have piled up debt to historic heights in their creation of a consumer-driven economy. We are bombarded with thousands of advertising messages every day. Cheap credit allowed people to live way above their means, buying things they couldn't yet afford with money they didn't yet have.

As the debt spiral speeds up, we are reminded that the problems of debt cannot be solved by assuming more debt. Lacking anything resembling an actual fix, the folks in charge have been doing just that. It won't end well.

It makes me wonder why anyone would want to become president in these times, although I suppose a person with an ego big enough to seek the office would believe he (or she) could turn things around. Barack Obama probably knows better by now.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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