Obamacare Taught Millennials to Distrust Big Gov't
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The Fiscal Times
October 16, 2013

The Vietnam War taught Boomers that governments lie. That was a bad thing. Obamacare is teaching millennials that government is incompetent. This may be a good thing.

Young people have grown up listening to parents and politicians who promise that the federal government will solve our problems. But, as they have suffered widespread unemployment, watched college costs soar and seen our legislators wrangling ineffectually, they have begun to doubt the wisdom of their elders. They have, it appears, lost faith in government.

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According to an April survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics, only 39 percent of young voters count on President Obama to “do the right thing,” and only 22 percent trust the federal government. Those are shocking numbers for a group that turned out en masse to support Obama’s reelection.

This increasing wariness could become a life-long habit, just as faith in Washington was a hallmark of the millions who came of age during FDR’s reign or skepticism of Uncle Sam colored those who grew up listening to Ronald Reagan. With government programs spreading like an algae bloom and threatening our solvency, some pushback from the next generation could head off fiscal Armageddon. Today’s young people just need a little more convincing that the feds don’t have all the answers.

That’s where the Obamacare roll-out may be helpful. It is horrific, and for the most mundane reason imaginable – bad software. For a millennial, that’s like a Tesla being disabled by faulty tires. Software and coding are the bread and butter products of today. 

Nothing could have cast a greater pall over President Obama’s signature healthcare initiative than screwing up the programming. Why would those all-important young people have confidence in a program of marginal appeal when the administration flubs the basics?

Millennials may decide that private market solutions are more promising than those handed down from the White House. As a group, they are bedazzled by entrepreneurship, and especially by the tech supernovas like Mark Zuckerberg or Groupon’s Andrew Mason who have changed our lives and walked away with billions.

It seems that young people don’t link those success stories with American virtues like individual ambition and freedom of opportunity - yet. They may believe President Obama’s version, where Zuckerberg and others didn’t really “build” their break-through creations, but rather tagged along on some government-supplied conga line of opportunity.  They haven’t yet grasped how capitalism makes Zuckerberg’s success possible. 

We know this because the country was shocked in 2012 when a Pew survey found that 49 percent of millennials viewed socialism favorably, compared to only 46 percent who had positive feelings about capitalism. This is quite a departure, since 60 percent of the country as a whole has negative feelings about socialism.

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This attitude shift is thanks to the prevalence of left-wing educators, no doubt, and also the aftermath of the financial crisis. However, it may also be because the most astonishing geopolitical event of the past several decades has been the rise of China. How can we deride central planning when China is eating our lunch day in, day out? Beijing’s bureaucrats have brilliantly driven growth in that vast country over the past thirty years, lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty. While stories abound of reckless overbuilding and doomed lending, rumors of China’s imminent collapse are trampled by emerging capabilities. Bravo to the Communists in charge.

That last sentence jars our modern-day senses. Calling China’s leaders Communists seems as retro as poodle skirts or Chevys with tailfins. No one talks about Communism anymore – or argues its virtues versus Capitalism – except maybe in college lecture halls.

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As the governments of the Capitalist West have intruded more widely into private sector activities and the rulers of the Communist East have encouraged entrepreneurial activity to spur growth, the lines have blurred. Most young people would be hard-pressed to define how those over-arching systems organize the leading economies of the world.

Consider the U.S. government’s role in fostering alternative energy, in providing (47) job-training programs, in setting minimum wages, dictating hiring practices, overseeing lending and so on and so on. In our daily lives the feds are equally omnipresent, providing an ever-expanding list of social services that have, for instance, upended traditional retirement saving and home ownership norms. The government provides for the unemployed, the under-nourished, the disabled, those made redundant through technological change – the list is long.

Much of this is welcome. Society demands, and the government dutifully provides, a “safety net” to protect our most vulnerable. But there is a tipping point, when individuals unfavorably compare their earnings potential against a basket of government benefits, and opt out of the workforce.  

Many believe the United States has reached that tipping point. Today only 67 percent of our workforce is actually employed. That compares with 73 percent in Germany and Canada; Italy, though, has only 56 percent participation. What is Canada doing right? What is Italy doing wrong? Concerns about our productivity, about the ratio of workers paying into the government compared to those taking money from Washington is part of what lies behind the feisty Tea Party and others who want to corral government spending.

Of course, the roll-out of Obamacare is not the only challenge tripping up the feds. The current melee in Washington cannot inspire faith in our legislators, no matter what your political persuasion. The Right may be trying to send an important message, but has failed miserably, giving back months of hard-earned gains in the public trust. The Left looks equally lame, in complete denial about the economic impact of Obamacare and the unhealthy trajectory of our entitlements programs. 

The United States faces serious challenges – like upending our education system -- which will fall on the shoulders of the next generation.  We will also need to answer many complex questions. At what point does automated work become a harmful, instead of a beneficial force in our economy? How will we respond to ever-longer lives?

Here’s what we know: the best solutions will derive from private enterprise and free markets. The next generation may come to that realization; Obamacare’s failures will surely pave the way.

After more than two decades on Wall Street as a top-ranked research analyst, Liz Peek became a columnist and political analyst. Aside from The Fiscal Times, she writes for FoxNews.com, The New York Sun and Women on the Web.