A Return to Aspirational America

Americans have always been an aspirational people. Instead of hardening into permanent class resentment, the less-well-off or just-starting-out generally prefer to think of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as John Steinbeck put it. That faith in the future is vital to our success as a society and we all must see it vindicated.

The post-recession recovery has been the slowest in our nation’s history, with employers reluctant to hire workers to full-time jobs. Consumer confidence is low, unemployment has remained high, and many Americans have simply stopped looking for work. These are alarming indicators and policymakers are correct to focus on the question of how to encourage economic growth and the job opportunities that would accompany it.

The criticisms of President Barack Obama’s economic stewardship are well known: tax hikes, massive increases in federal spending, six trillion in new debt, crony-capitalist boondoggles like Solyndra, health care mandates that suppress hiring, and more hundred-million-dollar regulations issued than by Clinton and Bush combined.

Now, the President is revisiting “income inequality” as a pretext for advancing more of his destructive agenda. “For four and a half years, Mr. Obama has focused his policies on reducing inequality rather than increasing growth,” The Wall Street Journal editorialized recently. “The predictable result has been more inequality and less growth.”

When challenged on the “income inequality” issue in her final Parliamentary debate as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher said of her questioner, “he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. You do not create wealth and opportunity that way. You do not create a property-owning democracy that way.”

By denouncing as “immoral” the results of his own policies, President Obama is attempting to avoid responsibility by changing the subject. In fact, we should be having an entirely different conversation, asking instead, “How can people earn more, keep more of what they earn, and improve their station in life?”

By denouncing as “immoral” the results of his own policies, President Obama is attempting to avoid responsibility by changing the subject.

As Abraham Lincoln believed, you cannot build up the weak by tearing down the strong. Rather than fostering envy and resentment, modern society should recommit to the timeless values which, when applied, lead to earned success.

When I had the honor of serving on Governor Corbett’s Manufacturing Advisory Council, the issue of workforce readiness quickly emerged as the top challenge facing the manufacturing sector. Although manufacturing jobs provide above-average wages and benefits, the difficulty in finding qualified applicants has left thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs unfilled.

There’s an old saying that I like and believe is true, “The person who is focused on self-improvement is least likely to waste his life.” Rather than expecting a job to simply appear, the better approach would be to ask oneself, “How do I make myself more valuable? What is a potential employer looking for?” While some jobs do require specific advanced skills, that employer is most often looking for basic talents: the ability to read, write, do basic math, follow instructions, show up on time, put in a full day’s work, and pass the drug test.

Improving the performance of Pennsylvania’s vastly expensive public education system will be central to the task of preparing our young people for success in life, including success in the workplace. All students deserve an educational experience that is rigorous, challenging, meaningful, and helps them to reach the fullness of their potential. We need to reinvent the vocational/technical system and make parents and students aware of the highly rewarding careers that are available in manufacturing and the skilled trades.

We need state government to reinvent a sprawling $1.6 billion Job Training/Workforce Development system that includes dozens of programs across multiple agencies. That system should be customer-driven to meet the needs of employers and employees and should be connected to the economy, imparting the skills needed for existing jobs.

Most of all, we need to recommit to the social compact that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has an opportunity to thrive. Correspondingly, this social compact expects the individual to avoid the causes of failure and maximize the opportunities for one’s own success. As a Brookings Institution study found, people have a 98 percent chance of avoiding poverty by doing three things: earn a high school diploma, work full time, and wait until marriage to have children (not earlier than age 21).

This is the standard we should demand of ourselves and set forth to our children to guide them. And we should banish envy forever, because, one by one, individual success is what makes America prosper.

David N. Taylor is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association in Harrisburg and a board member of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.