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Obama’s "America Has Become 'Soft and Lazy'" Comments

Declining Work Ethic Threatens Economic Competitiveness in America

You may have heard President Obama’s recent statement with respect to the decline of American economic influence around the world and lagging efforts to promote foreign investment – “We've been a little bit lazy, I think, over the last couple of decades." I want to share my thoughts with you as to why this might be the case.

First, there has been a consistent decline in the work ethic in America over a number of years. One reason is an unwillingness to sacrifice short term benefits for the long term good of society. We all want instant gratification and material possessions fueled by a culture whereby events occur with the click of a button. Our culture no longer emphasizes building the American dream. Instead, we emphasize obtaining it. That was the message of the subprime loans and financial meltdown that have negatively affected so many.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville worried that free, capitalist societies might develop so great a “taste for physical gratification” that citizens would be “carried away, and lose all self-restraint.” Tocqueville believed that the genius of America in the early nineteenth century was its pursuit of “productive industry” without a descent into destructive materialism. He pointed to a common set of civic virtues that celebrated not merely hard work but also thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty – virtues that grew out of a sense of morality that informed American democracy and free markets.

Going forward, how can we maintain our preeminence as an economic power in the world? Like an addicted person we must first admit we have a problem. The problem is we have become soft as a nation. This is another point made by President Obama recently when he said: "The way I think about it is…this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and…we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

Obviously, the President did not mean all Americans have become soft and lazy. However, we must recognize that we have morphed into a “what’s in it for me” culture influenced by reality TV programs, over-the-top media advertising, government corruption, and business fraud. These negative images have, I believe, affected our willingness to work hard. I see it all the time as a university professor when students shy away from the difficult fields of study in science and mathematics that are so crucial to our global competitiveness and creating sustainable advances in research and development that fuels technological innovation and economic growth.

We need to start a national debate on these issues before it is too late. We need to develop concrete plans to do what it takes to restore the work ethic that existed when this country first thrived and became an economic role model for the rest of the world. Perhaps no issue more than this is crucial to the future of America.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 22, 2011