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Why Millennials Have Less Faith in Democracy

Young people see through empty campaign promises on the economy and entitlements.

The latest media shock from the polls is that millennials have given up on democracy.

A quarter century ago only one-sixth of those between 16 and 24 years of age said democracy was  “fairly bad” or “very bad.” But today that has increased to almost one-quarter among millennials, according to the World Values Survey as reported by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in a recent edition of the Journal of Democracy.

The main reason was that millennials do not think they can influence policy under democracy.

Why the surprised reaction? If the national candidates refuse to discuss the most important issues and keep repeating similar inanities to avoid unpopular realities, wouldn’t cynicism be the proper response?

Donald Trump has endorsed an increase in the minimum wage, following Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—and apparently everyone else in a national consensus to raise the minimum rate of pay.

At the same time, the most liberal city in the U.S. issued a study it commissioned on the effects of raising its minimum wage. Seattle increased its rate from $9.47 to $11 an hour last year and found that the average hourly wage for workers has now gone up from $9.96 to $11.14, which sounds good (although wages also improved for everyone else due to increased prosperity in the city generally).

Still, the same old fly was in the ointment. Those who remained employed did get more per hour but they worked fewer hours and so received less overall pay. Estimates for them varied on whether total earnings increased or decreased by a mere $5 a week. The really bad news was that the universal finding by economists was confirmed: unemployment increased, resulting in 1.2 percent fewer jobs for former minimum wage rate employees.

The tooth fairy did not deliver. So naturally with the labor participation rate the lowest in 30 years, everyone nationally is on board for even higher minimum wages.

How about everybody’s favorite government program, Social Security? Bernie and Hillary have pledged to increase spending for the popular seniors program and The Donald is “gonna save your Social Security without making cuts. Mark my words.”

Spoilsport financial columnist Allan Sloan returned to his Washington Post haunt about that time to present the same old news that Social Security has been in the red since 2012, with more funds going out than coming in. This red ink will widen every year into the foreseeable future if no reforms are adopted. In this case there is some excuse for the popular view that all is rosy, since the government rather hides the facts by claiming the system’s trust fund bonds keep it solvent.

Sloan concedes the trust fund balance is at an all-time high and will not run dry until 2030. Unfortunately, one cannot trust the trust funds. The bonds only count if the government cashes them in and to do this costs the government big money. The Treasury in fact had to borrow $214 billion over the past three years to keep the checks going out. The government reported a $23 billion surplus last year but it actually had to borrow $70 billion to redeem its own bonds, with no free lunch here either.

And the unfunded liability of Medicare dwarfs Social Security’s, and adding other popular entitlements, there is a 30 year deficit of $100 trillion—compared to only $120 trillion in total assets today. Trump’s response is to promise to spend and borrow “at least double” Clinton’s $275 billion on infrastructure. This is the debt former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen called “the most significant threat to our national security,” more than terrorism.

The Commerce Department has reported that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product of all goods and services produced in the U.S. grew by an inflation-and-seasonally-adjusted 1.2 percent in the second quarter. The experts had predicted a 2.6 percent increase. The consumer spending that accounts for two-thirds of the index increased by 4.2 percent but future-leaning business investment decreased to produce the net loss. Indeed, business investment has been negative for three straight quarters. The Wall Street Journal calls it business “on strike.”

At the Democratic Convention, President Obama had just assured that the economy was “stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started.” Compared to what? The George W. Bush “recovery” increased GDP at a 2.8 percent level and everyone considered it a recession. Previous recoveries increased GDP from a 3.6 percent low to a 7.6 percent high.

Government spending—which both candidates want to increase—led to an economic decline of 0.10 percent of GDP this past quarter. Trade—which everyone wants to decrease—accounted for one of the few gains in the report, a 0.23 percent increase in national wealth.

Perhaps the all-powerful wizards at the Federal Reserve will fix it all. Morgan Stanley chief global strategist Ruchir Sharma calls the Fed “the central bank of the world” but finds its “loose policies” building up vast reserves makes it unable to act. “Now every time the Fed tries to tighten, the dollar starts to strengthen and global markets seize up, forcing the Fed to retreat.” Since even Sharma is “unclear” what to do, no wonder the campaigns are silent. One thing is for sure: the little guy that both candidates are going to protect cannot save with a zero interest rate.

Bored with economic issues? A British Medical Journal study found that the third leading cause of death in the United States is medical error, 700 deaths a day or 9.5 percent of all annual deaths. Physician Ben Kocher, who worked with the president on health insurance reform, now opposes the enlargement of facilities under that law as less medically safe. The U.S. suicide rate is now the tenth leading cause of death, increasing 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Alex Crosby traces this mainly to family background—child abuse, parental substance abuse, incarceration, and mental illness. Are health matters worth discussion beyond repealing or increasing Obamacare (if any private firms will keep offering it)?

Major Cities Chiefs Association police statistics for America’s largest cities showed increased homicides in two dozen major cities, with especially large increases in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas. The Brennan Center for Justice found higher rates for Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington. FBI Director James B. Comey noted the “perception” that “police are less likely to do the extra marginal policing that suppresses crime” in the wake of reaction against police racial shootings might have some truth.

One candidate blames foreign Muslims and the other says black lives matter. There is no discussion of how current national racial policy exacerbates already difficult local situations.

And of course, there is foreign policy. Is Putin on the warpath or can he be dealt with? How about China, the Middle East, or terrorism?

The silence on the campaign trail is deafening. It all seems about a wall, immigration, emails, empty words about breaking sexual barriers, and more failed national programs to assist the winsome poor—and of course insults, which all are good for TV but make for meaningless elections.

Why should anyone be surprised that millennials are frustrated about democracy? They cannot influence important decisions when no one discusses them, or lies about the reality when they do. Indeed, Aristotle warned us 2,000 years ago that this was the fate of democracies when they learn they must sugarcoat the truth.

Donald Devine is a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, is the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.