When You Breed Jerry Springer With Pawn Stars

At the Wall Street Journal American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks recounts his own journey experiencing both Spanish socialism and the modern American version of poverty-lite:

At age 19, I dropped out of school to pursue a career as a French horn player. After a few twists and turns, I wound up in the Barcelona Symphony, which was a Spanish government job.

Even as a foreigner, I had the same lifetime work status as a clerk at the water department. Nobody ever left these jobs, except with lavish disability packages. (One colleague who injured his lips moonlighting at a dance-hall gig ended up spending the next 20 years collecting a full salary to stay home.)

I loved music—but the life of a government functionary wasn’t my cup of tea. And so my Spanish wife and I decided to pull up stakes and start over in America. Neither of us had a college degree, and my wife’s English was limited.

To friends in Barcelona, this move was ridiculous. Quitting a job in Spain often meant permanent unemployment. As we departed, my in-laws tearfully gave us a gold bracelet which, they said, we could pawn in the coming hard times.

We were fairly poor for a few years but just fine. I taught music during the day and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at night. To her astonishment, my wife immediately landed a job teaching English to other immigrants. “America is a great country,” she declared—an assertion I had never heard from a Spaniard.

But where might they have gone to pawn that gold bracelet?

My wife April and I regarded TruTV’s Hardcore Pawn with suspicion and hesitation. We’ve appreciated the History Channel’s Pawn Stars for a long time now, laughing at the the antics of the Las Vegas family of pawn brokers and the historical curiosities that waltzed into the shop.

But with Hardcore Pawn the customers didn’t waltz with treasures, more often they stumble and swagger with junk. On Hardcore Pawn Les Gold and his two adult children Seth and Ashley need a dozen security officers to maintain order in their giant downtown Detroit pawn emporium.

Hardcore Pawn eschews the Americana and historical trivia for Jerry Springer-style cracker culture theatrics. On Pawn Stars when a customer learns their valuable item is actually a fraud worth nothing the worst that happens is they leave muttering to themselves. On Hardcore Pawn customers often insist on receiving money regardless of the item’s worth, threaten violence if their demands aren’t met, and in some cases blatantly try to defraud the store.

So yes, it’s an addictive show (I admit with a measure of shame.) Each sequence brings new surprises and bizarre characters one hopes are played by actors. But who we all know probably are not.

It’s the entitlement mentality on display in its most fully cultivated form.

Brooks touched on a crucial ingredient of this this in his piece:

The opposite of earned success is “learned helplessness,” a term coined by Martin Seligman, the eminent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. It refers to what happens if rewards and punishments are not tied to merit: People simply give up and stop trying to succeed.

During experiments, Mr. Seligman observed that when people realized they were powerless to influence their circumstances, they would become depressed and had difficulty performing even ordinary tasks. In an interview in the New York Times, Mr. Seligman said: “We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being. It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”

Brooks’s solution to problem comes in his new book, The Road to Freedom.

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