Obama and Personal Responsibility

by Benjamin Studebaker

Last weekend Barack Obama gave a commencement speech at the historically all-black, all-male Morehouse College. Why we still have colleges that are segregated on race/gender lines is beyond me, but that’s not my topic today. My topic is what Obama said and the positive reaction it has gotten, despite the indisputable fact that if someone like Mitt Romney went to Morehouse College and gave the speech Obama gave, we would all be apoplectic.

The relevant bit is this:

We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. Growing up, I made a few myself. And I have to confess, sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. But one of the things you’ve learned over the last four years is that there’s no longer any room for excuses. I understand that there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.’ We’ve got no time for excuses – not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame.

I recall another speech from Barack Obama in which he said something entirely different:

There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me – because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you don’t succeed on your own, you don’t fail on your own either. If racism and discrimination still exist, by definition they have force, they negatively impact people’s outcomes in an unavoidable and measurable way. To the extent that racism and discrimination still exist, real people really have been denied opportunity. It’s not an “excuse”, it’s a fact of life, and saying to all of those people that it’s because they just didn’t work hard enough is akin to telling every American that if you just tried hard, you could be a doctor or a lawyer or a business executive. The economy only supports so many great jobs; everyone working hard and being really smart doesn’t fundamentally change the basket of goods and services our economy must provide. There are fundamental economic and structural forces at work that keep large portions of the population poor and miserable. It is possible for any one individual to escape poverty, but only by pushing someone else down into it. The poverty rate has worsened significantly since 2000; 16 million more people are in poverty and and the rate itself is around 50% higher now than it was then:

This doesn’t mean that people are somehow lazier as a group than they were in 2000, it means that the structure of the economy has not added enough decent jobs to accommodate population growth. This represents a failure of economic policy, not a failure of character or responsibility. Whose economic policy? The economy policy of the Bush and Obama administrations, in particular, the former which allowed the recession to happen and the latter which has failed to enact useful policy to bring poverty back down.

For this president to go before any audience and say that they “don’t have time for excuses” when his administration is part of the failed structure, when he is part of the reason that they cannot find great jobs when they come out of college, part of the reason they find themselves burdened with student loans that they cannot repay, is utterly ridiculous. It’s absurd, and the absurdity would be obvious if it were Mitt Romney who lectured the Morehouse men.

But Barack Obama is permitted to do this? And why? Because he’s black? Isn’t that the very racism we’re trying to overcome here? A wrong view is just as wrong when it comes out of the mouth of a white republican as it is when it comes out of the mouth of a black democrat.This is the man who is meant to be the most powerful person in the country, and he’s scolding his people accusing them of “making excuses” when it is his failures of policy and leadership that cause them to fail. It’s like holding a lollipop just out of reach of a baby and then accusing it of laziness when it fails to grab the thing. And to point out that the only reason the lollipop can’t be grabbed is that it’s being held out of reach, that it has nothing to do with any failures of the baby’s character? That’s an “excuse”.

The left would eat a Mitt Romney or a George Bush alive for saying anything remotely similar.

Fundamentally it must be recognised that if the left is going to deny that rich people deserve to keep their income, it is supposing a disconnect between what a person deserves and he receives naturally through the market. To say that the rich are not successful alone necessarily entails that the poor do not fail alone. It entails recognising that every poor or unhappy person is a product of social and natural forces that our society has failed to correct, just as every rich or happy person is a product of good social and natural forces. Successful people had great parents or great teachers or great friends or great genetics or some combination of these things, and failures had their inverse. Those social forces are the genuine reasons that people fail. In the individual case, is it perhaps more advantageous to operate under an illusion that those forces are not the cause or have diminished importance so that one continues to try to overcome them? Perhaps. But to ignore those forces as a society is to perpetuate them and the poverty and misery they produce. In this respect Barack Obama is now part of the problem, not part of the solution.