The Right Opinion

History Suggests That Entitlement Era Is Winding Down

By Michael Barone · Jan. 14, 2013

It's often good fun and sometimes revealing to divide American history into distinct periods of uniform length. In working on my forthcoming book on American migrations, internal and immigrant, it occurred to me that you could do this using the American-sounding interval of 76 years, just a few years more than the Biblical lifespan of three score and 10.

It was 76 years from Washington's First Inaugural in 1789 to Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865. It was 76 years from the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 to the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Going backward, it was 76 years from the First Inaugural in 1789 to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which settled one of the British-French colonial wars. And going 76 years back from Utrecht takes you to 1637, when the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies were just getting organized.

As for our times, we are now 71 years away from Pearl Harbor. The current 76-year interval ends in December 2017.

Each of these 76-year periods can be depicted as a distinct unit. In the colonial years up to 1713, very small numbers of colonists established separate cultures that have persisted to our times.

The story is brilliantly told in David Hackett Fischer's “Albion's Seed.” For a more downbeat version, read the recent “The Barbarous Years” by the nonagenarian Bernard Bailyn.

From 1713 to 1789, the colonies were peopled by much larger numbers of motley and often involuntary settlers – slaves, indentured servants, the unruly Scots-Irish on the Appalachian frontier.

For how this society became dissatisfied with the colonial status quo, read Bailyn's “Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.”

From 1789 to 1865, Americans sought their manifest destiny by expanding across the continent. They made great technological advances but were faced with the irreconcilable issue of slavery in the territories.

For dueling accounts of the period, read the pro-Andrew Jackson Democrat Sean Wilentz's “The Rise of American Democracy” and the pro-Henry Clay Whig Daniel Walker Howe's “What Hath God Wrought.” Both are sparklingly written and full of offbeat insights and brilliant amerces.

The 1865-1941 period saw a vast efflorescence of market capitalism, European immigration and rising standards of living. For descriptions of how economic change reshaped the nation and its government, read Morton Keller's “Affairs of State and Regulating a New Society.”

The 70-plus years since 1941 have seen a vast increase in the welfare safety net and governance by cooperation between big units – big government, big business, big labor – that began in the New Deal and gained steam in and after World War II. I immodestly offer my own “Our Country: The Shaping of America From Roosevelt to Reagan.”

The original arrangements in each 76-year period became unworkable and unraveled toward its end. Eighteenth-century Americans rejected the colonial status quo and launched a revolution and established a constitutional republic.

Nineteenth-century Americans went to war over expansion of slavery. Early 20th-century Americans grappled with the collapse of the private sector economy in the Depression of the 1930s.

We are seeing something like this again today. The welfare state arrangements that once seemed solid are on the path to unsustainability.

Entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid – are threatening to gobble up the whole government and much of the private sector, as well.

Lifetime employment by one big company represented by one big union is a thing of the past. People who counted on corporate or public sector pensions are seeing them default.

Looking back, we are as far away in time today from victory in World War II in 1945 as Americans were at the time of the Dred Scott decision from the First Inaugural.

We are as far away in time today from passage of the Social Security in 1935 as Americans then were from the launching of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Nevertheless our current president and most politicians of his party seem determined to continue the current welfare state arrangements – historian Walter Russell Mead calls this the blue state model – into the indefinite future.

Some leaders of the other party are advancing ideas for adapting a system that worked reasonably well in an industrial age dominated by seemingly eternal big units into something that can prove workable in an information age experiencing continual change and upheaval wrought by innovations in the market economy.

The current 76-year period is nearing its end. What will come next?

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10 Comments

Capt. Call in New Mexico said:

2017, you say? That will be almost one year after Obama's replacement has been sworn in......If the left is not defeated in 2016, we won't have to think about 2017....that is if we make it that far, and there are serious doubt about that!

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 1:03 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

It's going to be shocking and painful for many to finally realize that the Founding Fathers conscripted Government to be our Servant, NOT OUR MASTER, in a Constitutional Republic. 76---an interesting number, Michael.And speaking of Utrecht, the Dutch selected New Utrecht, as one of the original five towns in Breukelyn(Brooklyn).

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 6:32 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

I don't understand why every columnist always talks about reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid but never mentions the Welfare system which is just as big a drain on the economy. I guess they are afraid they will offend the "poor" who are living off the hard work of others and never contribute anything to the economy.They think nothing about having another kid they can't take care of because they know the Nanny State,ie, Demorats will make sure they are taken care of. It's time someone who has access to welfare information published an expose of the system.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 6:59 AM

Mindblown in Flyover USA replied:

Sarge, I agree. And I'm tired of Social Security and Medicare being called entitlements. When I started working 50 yrs. ago I wasn't given a choice of NOT paying into Social Security and then Medicare when that came along -- it was mandated by the smrt people in DC. That those funds were then confiscated and wrongly used/wasted is not the fault of those who paid in. Of the three programs only Medicaid is an entitlement/welfare program.

When the subject of cutting spending is raised never is discretionary spending mentioned. Those programs like education, farm subsidies, foreign aid, epa, osha, hud, hhs, labor, grants, food stamps, welfare, etc., etc. -- too many to name. So let's start the cutting in those areas while working on reforming the others.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 9:48 AM

PH in DE replied:

"When the subject of cutting spending is raised never is discretionary spending mentioned. Those programs like education, farm subsidies, foreign aid, epa, osha, hud, hhs, labor, grants, food stamps, welfare, etc., etc. -- too many to name. "

No, they start by cutting earned benefits to military retirees and increasing costs for what were supposed to be free for life. They pay lip service to not hurting senior citizens, but what else can happen by cutting the rates Medicare pays providers? (And military retirees and families are forced onto Medicare against their will.)
They also should start by cutting unnecessary money being wasted--Give the Obamas the same monthly food amount that the military get as their ration allowance. If they want something more, let them pay for it out of pocket. If they want to throw any party, even a diplomatic one, limit the number and the cost allowed per year. Anything more, on them. Cut out all travel expenses for any reason, including use of limos, helicopters and Air Force One. Make them get authorization for a limited amount of truly important business trips--and photo-ops to show how wonderful their policies are don't count. Extend these types of restrictions to all the perks of the administration and congress. We shouldn't be paying for Reid or Pelosi to travel home and back on our dime. If my husband was away on business and chose to come home before the end of his time there, he would be the one paying it.
And yes, we definitely need to eliminate all foreign aid. We don't have it to give it away. Oh, and any "investment" suggested by the Democrats in general and Obama in particular need to be shut down hard and fast. We don't need him flushing our money that he is stealing in the first place.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 1:03 PM

pete in CA replied:

I like the way you think, PH, but let's take it a few steps further.

If you are in office odds are that you are a multimillionaire to begin with, so you work for $1 per year, pay for your own transportation and security, your own meals and parties. Tax payers will allow you a stipend to entertain our allies, but if you want to entertain any state leaders who have expressed at any time any dislike of America take it out of your own pocket. If you want to have your mother-in-law or any other relative beyond spouse and children living with you, you pay the freight. And you pay your own retirement plan. You will not qualify for Social Security or Medicare.

Any office holder elected with a net worth less than $1 million will continue receiving wages and benefits equal to the average of the state or district you represent.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 4:52 PM

Robert in NEW Mexico said:

The next 76 year period will begin with some dramatic transformation in China. It's still about 10-12 years away though.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 10:37 AM

Lee in Phoenix said:

As I type this, I'm listening to the Bonehead-in-Chief's "last" press conference of the term. So far, he's mentioned the importance of "reducing the deficit" about a hundred times and has not come anywhere close to acknowledging that we have to ELIMINATE the deficit in order to have any surplus funds with which to pay down the first dollar of the national debt.

Do we really care what he imagines the administration in 2022 will have to do to recover from all this spending? By then, the national debt should be close to 35 trillion if he gets his way. Our republic can't last that long under these policies.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 12:27 PM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

Lee, I think that is Odumbo's agenda. Spend us into a fiscal disaster and then decare a national emergency and take over every resource in the nation. Also would preclude having an election in 2016.

Monday, January 14, 2013 at 3:28 PM

Honest Abe in North Carolina replied:

Sarge, he will no trouble in California and New York where all the guns will disappear. Just let him try to take Georgia or North Carolina. It will be like the 1775 British retreat from Concord.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 11:15 PM