Americans want more economic privileges and fewer responsibilities, according to columnist George Will in a speech delivered Tuesday night at Miami University.
The speech was sparsely attended, with a majority of the crowd formed by Miami faculty and Oxford residents.
Miami journalism associate professor Jim Tobin said he was surprised and disappointed that more students didn’t attend.
“This (attendance) reflects the big problem, which is that lots of students aren’t paying attention to important conversations about important issues,” Tobin said.
Senior integrated English language arts education major Tess Allen said that part of the problem with attendance might be due to the publicity surrounding the event.
“I think the university should have done more (publicity for the speech),” Allen said.
In the speech, Will said there exists an “intellectual disjunction” in the country, where people want increased wealth and increased security, but don’t realize this comes at the cost of personal and economic freedoms. Will began with talk of the different premises upon which each political party debates economic issues.
“Conservatives stress freedom,” Will said. “Liberals stress equality – not only of opportunity, but of outcome. This leads to a tension in the American mind.”
But he went on to explain how the problem goes beyond partisan politics and lies at the heart of the economic philosophies of many Americans.
Will said that Americans have a tendency to complain about the economic condition, without realizing how much better it is compared to the early 20th century.
“American people drive their Lincoln Navigators, barely getting from one gas station to another, drinking their designer water, which costs more than gas, talking on their cell phones about how arduous life has become in this republic,” Will said, adding that after calculating for inflation, gas prices at their highest are still less than in 1950 when his father paid for it.
He discussed the issue of the expansion of the welfare state – an increase in spending of entitlements of the federal government for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He said that in order to sustain it, the economy would have to maintain economic growth and dynamism, as well as subsidize retirement and Medicaid, both of which are models created in America within the last century.
“(In the early 20th century), extended retirement from work was rare,” Will said. “Most Americans worked until they dropped (dead) or dropped right after they stopped working.”
Will said that when Social Security began, there were many more workers from the younger population as compared to the older retirees, which allowed for easier funding for the program.
“In the 1940s, there were 42 workers for every retiree,” Will said. “Today, there are 3.1 workers per retiree … By 2030, (at which time most baby boomers will be retired) there will be 2.1 workers per retiree.”
Will suggested that in order to deal with the disparity between the working-age and retired population, the government should raise the retirement age at a level dependent on variables of the population.
“If the government indexed (the retirement age) in 1935, it would be 74 today,” Will said.
Will said that Americans want the benefits of economic progress without having to pay for it.
“(There are) medical technologies we’re delighted to live with and unable to pay for,” Will said. “(Americans have an) entitlement mentality and an extremely low pain threshold.”
Ultimately, Will said that the development of an American welfare state produces a learned dependency on the government, which leads to the government justifying its involvement in the market. This creates a perpetual cycle, which will likely leave Americans still wanting more for less.
Miami first-year Ryan Kalus said that although he came for an English class, he would have most likely attended the lecture on his own accord.
“I’m an avid reader of Will’s Newsweek column called ‘Last Word’,” Kalus said. “He is very neutral as opposed to liberals and conservatives, so his point of view is good.”
Kalus asked Will a question about a Feb. 12 column titled “Inconvenient Kyoto Truths,” to which Will replied with a casual attitude about whether global warming should be a prioritized policy concern - he concluded it isn’t.
During the question and answer session, Will touched on a diverse array of topics, including the Chicago Cubs, which he said – despite rumors that he is a potential buyer – he is “$700 million short” to buy the team, if it is sold for $700 million.
Will also touched briefly on the Iraq war in saying that the country was ill-prepared for democracy to be instated so quickly.
“(Iraq) needs a Hamilton to build an economy from the dust, a Jefferson to bring the different factions of society to live together, and a John Marshall to breath life into parchment, and an astonishing societal soil (upon which democracy can exist),” Will said. “Which is to say, Iraq isn’t close.”
Tobin said the most interesting part of what Will said was his revelation in a smaller question and answer session after the lecture, during which he does not know how to use the Internet.
“I have interns from Georgetown to do that for me,” Will said.
Tobin said that he thought this was absolutely astonishing.
“How can you be in touch with contemporary society if you don’t look at the Internet?” Tobin said.
Yet Will’s observations and answers to his questions all drew him to one conclusion.
“We live in a time immeasurably better than our parents live in,” he said.