Rich Lowry: Reflections on the welfare statePublished on Monday, May 7, 2012 at 12:12 am | Last updated on Monday, May 7, 2012 at 12:12 am
In the competition for the creepiest campaign material of 2012, we may already have a winner. It is "The Life of Julia," the Obama re-election team's cartoon chronicle of a fictional woman who is dependent on government every step of her life.
The phrase "cradle to grave welfare state" originated with Clement Attlee's socialist government in post-World War II Britain. Back then, it was meant as a boastful description of a new age of government activism. Subsequently, it became a term of derision for critics of an overweening government. In the spirit of Attlee, the Obama campaign revives the concept of "cradle to grave" as it highlights Obama-supported programs that take care of Julia from age 3 to her retirement at age 67.
Julia begins her interaction with the welfare state as a little tot through the pre-kindergarten program Head Start. She then proceeds through all of life's important phases, not Shakespeare's progression from "mewling and puking" infant to "second childishness and mere oblivion," but the Health and Human Services and Education Department version: a Pell grant (age 18), surgery on insurance coverage guaranteed by ObamaCare (22), a job where she can sue her employers for more pay thanks to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (23), free contraception (27), a Small Business Administration loan (42) and, finally, Medicare (65) and Social Security (67). (In a sci-fi touch, these entitlements are presumed blissfully unchanged sometime off in the 2070s.)
No doubt, the creators of Julia — imagine a dour and featureless version of Dora the Explorer who grows old through the years — weren't seeking to make a major philosophical statement. But they inadvertently captured something important about the progressive vision.
Julia's central relationship is to the state. It is her educator, banker, health-care provider, venture capitalist and retirement fund. And she is, fundamentally, a taker. Every benefit she gets is cut-rate or free. She apparently doesn't worry about paying taxes. It doesn't enter her mind that the programs supporting her might add to the debt or might have unintended consequences. She has no moral qualms about forcing others to pay for her contraception, and her sense of patriotic duty is limited to getting as much government help as she can.
The alleged benefits to Julia are exaggerated or nonexistent. Pity the poor thing if she depends on Head Start for her launch into the world. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services last year found that positive educational effects tend to wear off by the first grade. The government assistance she gets for financing college feeds into the maw of inexorable tuition increases. The chances that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is going to boost her pay, as a web designer, are essentially nil. Julia is getting punked.
Her life is framed to show she gets more from President Barack Obama than from Republicans. The same contrast could be achieved differently. She could lose her web-design job and go on unemployment, which President Obama always wants to extend despite Republican objections. With her family's income dropping, she could resort to the food-stamp program, which has expanded massively under President Obama despite Republicans inveighing against the trend. These examples don't suit the campaign's purposes, though. They show government to be a poor substitute for the robust recovery that President Obama hasn't delivered even as he has endeavored to make Julia's birth-control pills free.
The point of view of "The Life of Julia" is profoundly condescending. It assumes that giving people things will distract them from larger considerations of the public weal — the economy, debt, the health of the culture. This view's infantilizing tendency is captured by ObamaCare's insistence that, for purposes of health insurance, young adults are children who belong on their parents' policies until the age of 26. It devalues self-reliance and looks at us less as independent citizens than as drab Julias, bereft without the succor of our life partner and minder, the state. No thanks.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.