Learned Helplessness In Our Nanny Society

By: Robert E. Meyer

Some of the recent happenings in the economy illustrate how the present generation of Americans have learned to become helpless and pathetic. We see the price of oil going up almost daily, yet people see themselves as merely victims of a trend they are helpless to control.

I am on an E-mail editorial panel in a local newspaper. Along with others, I respond to a question from the editorial board every few weeks. Recently, a question was asked pertaining to the high cost of energy. What were we doing about it?

Many of the respondents were complaining about being gouged, about collusion by big oil companies, or the government not doing anything to reduce the price of gasoline. On the other hand, I pointed out to people that I had hedged myself by putting a few thousand dollars in an energy related mutual fund. I pointed out that although I didn’t become rich, I made about enough in profits to cover the extra costs of gasoline in driving my car, and fuel oil for home heating last winter. I also observed that if I had been wrong about my investments, I would have paid less at the pump, counteracting any loses. Therefore the strategy was virtually revenue neutral, and not extremely risky. For people who are grown adults, that don’t even have a few thousand dollars, I suggest that there might be a motivational problem first and foremost.

Does anyone doubt that the rich in this country will do well in any sort of economic environment? I have never met anyone who thought the rich would suffer. I told people that they need to do what the rich do on a smaller scale. Instead people seem to prefer suffering as an exploited class. There is a pervasive attitude that those better off should be penalized for their successes, rather than the belief that we should create a tide to lift all boats.

The same sort of “victimology” is present as it relates to many topics. People complain that so many are without health insurance, yet they often are the ones doing the least on a personal basis to keep themselves in adequate health or physical condition. Unlimited health care is assumed to be a birthright.

People complain about the cost of necessities or about the insufficiency of their wages to procure anything; yet they amass great debts purchasing unneeded luxuries, or squander any discretionary income on perpetual caprice. Back 20 or 25 years ago when I was dating, I told friends jokingly, that I knew a lot of women with 30 pairs of shoes in their bedroom closets, who would laugh nervously if the balance in their bank accounts became a topic of discussion. E.F. Hutton might have been a founding father for all they knew.

I have heard it said that the average family spends more time on the planning of the annual summer vacation, then on financial planning for the future. My uncle once told me about a man he overheard in a retail store. While talking to another individual, he said that he was going to retire in three years, so he had better start saving for it! With priorities like these, it seems obvious that people simply expect to be taken care of.

Another area of ignorance and helplessness is taxation. I know people who year after year fall into the same cycle. They run up credit card bills at Christmas time, hoping to pay them off with their income tax refunds, procured from grossly over withholding all year long. When I ask them why they don’t simply funnel their extra money into an account, I hear the old excuse about how they couldn’t keep from spending it. Again, a case where a lack of self-discipline is more costly. I would certainly take the deal they have with Uncle Sam: Give me some money each week during the year, I’ll give it all back to you the following spring. People complain about not trusting the government, then enter into an agreement to provide an interest free loan to them.

Look at our public educational system. Do most parents even know anything about the curriculum being taught to their children? All we hear about is that more money equals a better education. Are we more concerned that we “teach things right,” or that we “teach the right things” to our students? Ultimately it doesn’t matter, since so many parents simply tolerate the system that’s provided by their tax money. How many parents even know the members of their school board–their stewardship philosophies?

By and large, people seem willing to take a back seat and let the driver take them where he will. An old proverb says there are three times of people; those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who ask “what happened?” Most people are in the latter two categories. We have met the enemy, and it truly is us..

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