There seems to be much confusion these days over political labels. What do these terms even mean any more? What is a centrist? A liberal? A libertarian? A conservatarian? A classical liberal? A neo-liberal? A neocon?
What is a conservative, in today’s world?
To begin answering that question, it is helpful to understand where modern conservative thought in America comes from, and how it evolved.
There were two dominant themes of conservative thought in the middle of the 20th century. One was what we refer to as Buckley Conservatism. This strain of conservatism emphasized the role of traditions and established hierarchical organizations in promoting social order; preferred limited government, recognized the roles of religion and shared culture in social cohesiveness, distrusted rationalizations and promoted the view that people are, at our core, emotional beings. Buckley conservatives accept that private ownership of property, capitalism and free trade economics are the surest path to economic prosperity for everyone.
The other predominant view of conservatism was Coolidge Conservatism, which traced its roots back to the mid-19th century. This version of conservatism differed from Bucklian conservatism in that it viewed the corporation as the principle driver of both economic and social policy. It eventually merged with Objectivist theory to form the modern Libertarian party.
During the 1970s, a third strain of conservatism arose. We came to call this version of conservative thought neoconservatism, although it might also be called Bush or Kristol Conservatism after the men who exemplified its ideas. This version arose from disaffected liberals, although it hews close to the pre-existing Northeastern Republican thought of the day. Neocons espouse that military adventurism in replacing totalitarian regimes with democratic ones is a laudable use of military power, that government intervention in society to promote social change is not only acceptable but necessary, and a general belief in capitalism, but not free markets (Irving Kristol referred to this as “bourgeois capitalism”). While they agree with their forebears that people are not rational beings, they accept the idea that rationally developed plans, implemented by people who were educated and trained to ignore their emotional impulses, could improve the lives of everyone. This includes a belief that a strong welfare state is a requirement for a modern society.
Buckley conservatives were represented by Barry Goldwater’s quixotic presidential run in 1964 and reached its zenith with the Reagan presidency of the 1980s. But the GOP soon shifted from Buckleyism to Neoconservatism under the leadership of George HW Bush. Interventionist foreign policy and regime change became the order of the day, along with increased taxes and government intrusion into some of the social ramparts, such as local schools and civic organizations.
It is the neoconservative view that most Americans came to associate with being a conservative by the time of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign of 2012. While a great many conservative thinkers, politicians and writers paid lip service to the Bucklian concept of limited government and free markets, they only took that so far as limited taxation on businesses. Beyond that, they still practiced government regulation like a Rockefeller, practiced foreign interventionism like a Bush, and railed for government solutions to social problems like a liberal. Buckley Conservatism seemed an outdated anachronism by this point.
The funny thing about that is neoconservatism was actually the least conservative of the three dominant conservative philosophies that came to be in the 20th century. It owes its existence to liberals who were repulsed by the leftward lurch of mainstream liberal thought during the late 1960s. Neoconservatism shares many views with its liberal roots, although in attenuated form. As Irving Kristol once remarked, “A neoconservative is a liberal who got hit in the face by reality.”
That being said, neoconservatives also adopted Bucklian language in deference to the last truly successful Republican president, in Ronald Reagan. So, we have neoconservatives praising free markets when in reality they haven’t actually practiced free market economics. We have neoconservatives pledging fealty to fiscal responsibility, but refusing to actually do anything about it. We have neoconservatives decrying the welfare state, but refusing to do anything about the two biggest social welfare programs managed by the federal government.
Indeed, it is this aspect of the neoconservative takeover of the Republican party that has led many voters to think of it as nothing more than the flip side of the Democratic party coin. Is it any wonder the average person has no idea what a conservative is?
Into this vacuum stepped one Donald Trump. While almost nobody would consider Trump a died-in-the-wool conservative, he was able to capture the nomination of the Republican party by espousing many conservative views on issues, such as fealty to the letter of the Constitution, lower taxes, less regulation, an end to foreign adventurism, etc. At the same time, he promoted ideas that should have been anathema to any conservative: trade barriers, managed economies and a personal moral code that could be best described as immoral.
Some have described Trump, and his policy goals as a form of right-wing populism. It may well be, but I suspect that Trump has so completely rebranded the moniker of conservative (abetted by a very liberal press that wants nothing more than to permanently discredit conservatism, in all forms) that conservatives will need to re-examine their ideals to see which can be modified, and which of the new ideas can be absorbed, into a 21st century conservatism.
For instance, many conservatives are loathe to accept the idea of nationalism as being a conservative goal. At the same time, one of the core tenets of conservatism – irregardless of the particular flavor of 20th century conservative thought to which one might subscribe – is the notion of a cohesive society, built around a shared history and culture. That is the very essence of nationalism. To some, this smacks of the jingoism and xenophobia associated with the extreme nationalism that punctuated the 1930s. But it need not be. Acceptance of the United States as unique among nations extends back throughout our history, there’s no reason we should deviate from that today.
The best way to judge whether conservatism, as both a political and societal philosophy, is at all compatible with elements of Trumpism is to see if the general tenets of conservatism are compatible with them. Perhaps no finer mind than that of Russell Kirk laid out those general principles 25 years ago in a terrific essay (you can find it here). So, if we do that comparison, which are – and which are not?
- Human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. – NO
- Trumpism doesn’t address human nature at all, nor does it consider it as a guiding principle in any policy decision. Morality is paid lip service, but in practice ignored, both by Trump and most of those in his inner circle.
- The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. – MAYBE?
- Trumpism has a dichotic relationship with this idea. On one hand, Trump was elected precisely to upend conventional politics and institutions. On the other, many of his supporters want a return to the customs and conventions they recall from their youth.
- Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription. – NO
- This is one area in which Trump’s liberal roots come shining through. Rather than base his decisions on what worked in the past, he very much is out to completely remake the world order in his own image.
- Conservatives are guided by prudence. – NO
- Not unlike most other politicians of the current era, this principle does not apply to Trump. Every decision he makes is weighed against immediate impact, not the effect on the nation or world five or ten years hence.
- Conservatives pay attention to variety. – YES
- Kirk wrote, “The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law…” This is a principle that is upheld under Trumpism, much to the chagrin of liberals – who are determined to end the inequality of outcomes.
- Conservatives understand that humans are not perfect, and cannot be made to be perfect. – NO
- This is another area in which Trump demonstrates his liberal leanings. By action, he shows he believes himself to be perfected. He believes he can also bring perfection to any number of situations. Such self-confidence is a key part of his appeal, even if it is misguided.
- Freedom and property are closely linked. – NO
- The Trump administration has fought efforts to end the abysmal practice of civil forfeiture, and followed Trump’s long history of supporting using eminent domain to seize property. That speaks for how strongly this principle is detested by Trumpism.
- Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. – NO
- Trumpism is all about big, beautiful, federally driven solutions to problems that certainly would be better left to states and localities. Repealing Obamacare would be great, replacing it with another monster federal program not so much. A $1 trillion infrastructure program, with funds doled out by bureaucrats in Washington, will be as much a boondoggle as the “shovel ready jobs” Obama stimulus program.
- Government and government officials need restraints on power and human passions. – NO
- One glance at the headlines or Twitter on any given day tells you all you need to know how Trump (and due to their slavish devotion, most of his supporters) feel about this principle. That Trump came into the Oval Office thinking he had near kingly powers is pretty obvious, and the fact he doesn’t chafes at him probably more than anything else about the job.
- Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. – NO
- Kirk meant this in terms of the tension between a normal society’s natural desire towards social progress versus its foundational aspects. As noted previously, Trump is in many ways out to obliterate many of those foundations, without regard to what may replace them. Yet at the same time, his supporters look to return many established norms of prior eras while removing some of the progressive aspects of modern society.
So based on Kirk’s criteria, Trumpism is not particularly conservative, although there are parts of his agenda that will certainly appeal to conservatives – particularly conservatives who have been able to divorce their societal impulses from their views of governance and morality. Still, we can safely say that most who subscribe to Trumpism are NOT conservatives.
Likewise, we can safely say that those who subscribe to neoconservatism are not conservative, either. The entire philosophy of neoconservatism disagrees with Kirk on points 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. Think of the headlong rush to impose a Pax Americana by force of arms, to alter the nature of education and force federal intrusion into the same, and so forth. None of those policies nor the reasoning behind them were conservative in nature.
Thus, the confusion for us in determining what conservatism is and who in our country actually is a conservative. Our media, for 30 years – two generations – has conflated “conservative” with Republican. In no small measure, Buckley is responsible for this. He once wrote, “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.” This led the publication that Buckley founded, over the years, to support all four Bush candidacies, along with the McCain candidacy in 2008 and Romney candidacy in 2012. That sort of cover is precisely what the media (which has been unabashedly liberal for at least 40 years) has needed to paint the neoconservative movement as actually conservative. Likewise, the principle espoused (despite NR’s vociferous objections to Trump during the 2016 election) by Buckley has allowed them to paint Trump as a conservative.
So the answer to the question “what is a conservative” is the same as it has always been. If the question is, “who is a conservative,” though, and you refer to national leaders and politicians, then there is no obvious answer these days.
A little over a week ago, I posted my thoughts on why the election turned out the way it did. As I wrote,
When you’ve already been painted as a racist misogynist homophobe, a dolt incapable of anything other than collecting welfare and shooting heroin, you’re not going to worry too much about voting for a guy who actually is a racist misogynist – after all, it’s not like you have anything left to lose.
Since then, I’ve seen some postings on various blogs (like these, here and here) that show a few liberals have figured this out. But far too many have taken the wrong lessons from the election, or no lesson at all. The recent kerfluffle over the the way the cast of Hamilton has reacted is one example. The Democrat party’s seeming determination to shift even further left is another. And finally, there is the unending grief I and other conservatives are receiving from the on-line liberal tribe, as well my liberal friends. None of them seem capable of recognizing, much less understanding, what happened in this election.
So here’s a quick synopsis for you.
- Donald Trump did not win this election, so much as Hillary Clinton lost this election. This is an important point to remember.
- This was not an election about issues. Equally important to remember. This was not about emails, Benghazi, immigration, or “identity politics”. In the end, none of that mattered. The great swath of undecideds didn’t break for Trump because they agreed with his plans, or because of Hillary’s probable corruption. They didn’t abandon Hillary because she’s a woman, or out of racism.
- This was an election about attitudes and respect. This is the point that liberals are getting especially hung up about. If the election was about respect, how could the least respectful candidate since George Wallace win? It’s because they ignore the first half of that statement: attitudes. For a generation, the great swath of middle America has endured an attitude from the genteel class that says their values and lifestyle are worthless. This was the year when they finally told the genteel class to go to hell.
In short, for 30 years the vast middle of America was told by cultured elite that they need to respect everyone, but no one need respect them. They were called “bitter clingers” and “deplorable” and “trailer park trash.” Their values, which also happen to be the ageless values of hard work, loyalty, family, church and patriotism, were derided as passe.
Now, as I’ve said, I’ve found very few who lean left who seem able to grasp this simple concept. It might be the heavy indoctrination that turns one into a liberal precludes them from recognizing that heaping scorn on half of the country is not going to endear you to the masses. Instead, I see comments like these:
A significant reason Hillary lost this election was because men (mostly white) came out in unprecedented numbers to remind us – violently & vehemently – that a woman is not welcome at the table.
If you voted for Trump, you might not be a racist, but you support one
The only difference between a Trump voter and a Nasi (sic) is the Nazi has a brain
I’m not saying Trump’s people are idiots, but they can’t spell cat if you spot them the C and A.
And those are the mild ones. The left is intent on casting Trump’s voters as racists, woman haters, gay haters, idiots – in other words, as “deplorable.” When I’ve mentioned that no, most of Trump’s voters are telling you eggheads they’re tired of having their values trashed and lives stepped on, I get replies amounting to, “Who cares? They voted for Trump.”
If I were purely partisan, I wouldn’t much care. As long as the left maintains this tone deafness about America, their electoral chances remain concentrated in the cities. They will never regain any strength in the Congress, and they will continue to lose elections at the local and national level. One of the most shocking results of this election is that Democrats only won 57 counties this year. 57 out of nearly 3200. Now THAT’s deplorable!
But I am not a pure partisan. I am an American, and while we on the right understand the left’s POV (we haven’t been given a choice, really – it’s crammed down our throats), if the left doesn’t understand ours, the country will remain hopelessly divided. Regardless of which side of the political divide you find yourself, I think we all agree that would be a horrible, no good, very bad result.
There’s this notion that Republican Party is America’s “conservative” political force. It was true 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan remade the Republican coalition. It was still true 20 years ago, when rank-and-file Republicans essentially told the reliably milquetoast George Herbert Walker Bush to take his Maine pragmatism and shove it up his Kennebunkport.
There are still conservatives in the Republican Party, but the idea that the Republican Party is conservative is about as accurate as saying CNN is a relevant news organization. It might have been true a generation ago. But not today.
There’s this common theme in mass media and even among members of the party, the idea that Republican Party of today is undergoing a civil war of sorts. It’s the RINOs vs the Tea Party for the heart and soul of the Republican band. Of course, according to those same experts, we should all hope that the RINOs win and put those racist, extremist Tea Party nut jobs out to pasture. Oh, those insane whack-jobs in the Tea Party! How dare they suggest limits on governmental authority, reductions in general debt or enforcing our borders? Hey, it’s a great narrative for selling outdated copies of print magazines and filling dead air during “sweeps” months. And the articles practically write themselves!
Indeed, every “news” organization was so certain of the outcomes of Tuesday’s elections they already had the obituaries for the Tea Party written. The double whammy of blowout victories for this generation’s GHW Bush in New Jersey and Clinton surrogate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia would demonstrate to the entire world that those radical Tea Party gun loving inbreds were finally out of American civic life.
This is modern reality. The Republican Party is no longer a community of like-minded conservatives. We Tea Partiers, those who hold fealty to the conservative ideals of fiscal prudence and personal responsibility, who value life and shun totalitarianism, are no longer welcome members of the Grand Old Party. We’ve mistakenly taken to calling the John McCain’s and Reince Priebuses RINOs. The fact is, in the 21st century we’ve become the RINO: and the party could care less what we have to say. They want our money and our votes, but more importantly, they want us to sit in the corner and shut up. No, these people are not the RINOs we’ve fretted about. They are the Elephants, true to their party’s symbol – large, in charge and afraid to fight even a mouse.
You know what? I’m all for leaving the GOP to the Elephants. They’ve proven they are incapable of fighting for conservative principles. Like all good elephants, the only thing they care to fight for are a few peanuts from their masters in the Democrat Party. If they trample the American people and their own reputations while scurrying after a bit of hay, why should it concern them? After all, they have their junkets to Syria and if they play real nice, maybe an invite to a White House dinner.
They’ve already chosen their standard bearer for the next election, another elephant who talks a great conservative game but runs behind the phantasm of higher elected office when asked to stand and deliver. Yes, Governor Christie talks all the right things on conservative issues – right before capitulating on gay marriage or promoting an Islamic law cleric to the state Supreme Court. He’ll talk about how sacred the Constitution is, before signing into law some of the most draconian gun control measures in the country.
He talks about pragmatism as a governing function, but has defined pragmatism to man capitulation. First, he threw his party’s Presidential nominee under a bus, just to ensure he could get a seat at the federal feeding trough. Now, the incoming chair of the Republican Governor’s Association throws a conservative running for governor under a bus, just to ensure the media plays up how his “pragmatic” approach to campaigning delivers 30 point wins over political nobodies.
In the Elephant Man, the modern Republican Party has found its truest representative, indeed. So I say it is high time for the last conservatives who call themselves Republicans to form a new party, a truly conservative political force that will fight for those bedrock principles that made America great once and can again. We are not abandoning the Republican brand; the Republican brand no longer stands for anything meaningful or trustworthy. So, if you’re a conservative in more than name only, join us! and leave the peanuts for the Republicans!
“The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.” ― John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Recent events in my own life have forced me to re-examine some of my most deeply held convictions. During the time I’ve been absent from this blog (wait – you didn’t notice???), four events in particular gave rise to self-reflection:
- Crohn’s Disease, with which I’ve done battle for 22 years, once again reared up and forced me to the sidelines
- My eldest son, who was born with a developmental disability, is now caught up in the nightmare that is the state mental health system
- I’ve rented a room to a family that is emblematic of all that is wrong with the way government abuses good people
- Another of my tenants passed away during the night
You’re probably wondering why I would spend the time to ponder what one prominent politician describes as “esoteric debates” when life brings such immediacy. You’re probably wondering further why I would take the time to write about that internal debate. The answer is that such internal debates are neither esoteric nor a thriftlessness exercise. It is by determining if our views are malleable to the events in our lives that we discover if our core values are the result of dogma or the sound exercise of judgement.
The overarching theme of President Obama’s tenure is that of “fairness.” Only, in Mr. Obama’s world, the fairness is defined by outcome; one in which those aggrieved receive what they deem to be their just share. This doctrine is exemplified in the policy objectives of his administration. Be it the underlying argument for Obamacare (that the only fair medical system is one in which everyone has health insurance), economic policy, the tacit embrace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the management of foreign policy (attempting the equal embrace of islamist and democratic ideologies abroad) or dozens of other initiatives pursued, Mr. Obama is clear in how he defines “fair.” Further, his actions (including his insistence on defending the possibly unconstitutional and certainly intrusive domestic spying program) demonstrate a certainty that governmental institutions are the best method of obtaining this measure of fairness while denigrating the roles of other, traditional venues.
Unlike many of the President’s critics, I do not think he is an uncaring ogre bent on instituting a draconian new way of life on the American people. Although we disagree on most issues, I certainly applaud his efforts to afford all people equal protections under the law. I think it is indicative of his nature, in that he actually cares about the quality of life afforded ordinary Americans. I think most of my fellow countrymen have that same feeling and that underlying belief in his nature is the ultimate reason he won re-election – even though most of us remain opposed to his specific action plan.
I also think that more than a difference in political philosophy, we have divergent views on reality and possibility that slice to the core of our differences. The President is what might best be termed a government interventionist. Government Interventionism infects both the modern liberal and conservative movements. It is characterized by a belief that not only can the government positively effect outcomes, but that it should. While conservatives and liberals often have different goals in mind, they agree with the principle of a results-based system. As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter is well aware, I have never subscribed to this view of governance.
My introspection of the past weeks has called me to wonder if, perhaps, this approach is best. One of the criticisms of Libertarians is that we are a callous bunch, uncaring about how life’s travails affect our fellow men. Those who know me personally know this isn’t the case. Of the root causes for my self-reflective journey, two involved people that I know cursorily. Yet, they are people who strike me as somehow getting less from life than their character would indicate they deserve.
Allow me to begin with the woman who died in her room last Wednesday. Although I knew her only a few months, what I did know belied her situation. She worked full-time (a rarity in today’s economy) and was well-respected by both her coworkers and employer, she had a large and close-knit family and she was outgoing, gregarious even. Yet, she died alone in rented room, the victim of a long battle with a chronic illness; in her case, diabetes. From what I could see, it was not a pleasant or painless death. She must have known she was in desperate trouble – I found her collapsed at the foot of her bed, in a position indicating she struggled to get to her door, with her phone fallen from her outstretched hand and smashed into bits. If we live in a results based society, why did she die in this manner? What could society have done differently that would have ensured that at the very least, one of her family would have been with her in her time of greatest need? At her funeral on Saturday, meeting her family and friends and seeing the outpouring of grief that overcame them all, I wondered why a woman so beloved by so many, who had done all society asked of her, should have been subjected to such a terrible death?
The week prior to her passing, I rented a room to a family of four. One room, four people, sharing a kitchen and bath with three other tenants. These are decent people, again doing all society says they should do. Both parents work and the mother attends nursing school; the children are incredibly well behaved (I wish mine had been so well behaved!). But they are victims of governmental bureaucracy as much as anything. The father openly admits to making mistakes when he was younger, which resulted in a felony conviction two decades ago. Since then, he’s done the things we tell him he should do: work to support his family, avoid the drama of street life, return to school and complete his GED. He would like to continue his education, but supports his wife as she works towards getting her degree. This is a family, in short, that is playing by all the rules our society dictates – yet they are reduced to living four to a single room, because it is all they can afford. The welfare system, the one that liberals tell us prevents this type of thing from happening and conservatives insist is too generous, is unavailable to them unless the father abandons his family. It is his decades old prior conviction that denies them access to it. Somehow, this result doesn’t seem fair to me.
Along the same lines, my personal struggle with chronic illness – in particular, a 22 year battle with Crohn’s Disease – has become much more difficult over the past two years. Over that time, I’ve had to shutter a business, spent nearly 8 months (cumulative) hospitalized and watched my family’s wealth get drained until we were destitute. I’ve rebounded some financially, but am in no way near the same fiscal position I was in 2011. Most of those around me think it unfair that my life has taken such a drastic turn, or that my reality is I’m likely wheelchair bound within the next two years and probably blind in less time than that. Certainly I wish there were a better prognosis.
Finally, there is my oldest son, Dennis. Some of my long-time readers are aware that he is what society euphemistically calls “developmentally disabled.” His reality is that he will never comprehend things the way you or I do. His IQ is 54; intellectually his development is equivalent to a second grader, emotionally he is at roughly the same stage as most 13- or 14-year olds. So while physically he’s a strapping 25 year old young man, his mind has yet to catch up to his body. Odds are that the two will never be in sync. This is the crux of his current problem. Because of his condition, he finds it difficult to express his feelings, except to occasionally blow up the way most 14 year old boys will. About 6 weeks ago, he found himself in a situation where he was being teased (not an uncommon situation, unfortunately) and lost his temper. The police were called; they followed protocol and brought him to the emergency room for observation. Which is where the nightmare began. Rather than checking his medical records, the hospital diagnosed Dennis as a violent schizophrenic and packed him off to the closest mental hospital. The doctor (I use the term in deference to his degree, not his competence) there confirmed the diagnosis, again ignoring his medical condition. A competency hearing was held, in which the doctor amplified his diagnosis to include the term “homicidal.” And so my son sits in a mental hospital, not understanding what’s happening or why as we fight to have him moved to another facility and have a new diagnosis issued that accounts for his disability. I’m not sure who would consider this outcome “fair.” If the President thought the justice system was ultimately unfair to the family of Trayvon Martin, I can’t see how he could consider this fair.
In reflecting on these incidents, each with an outcome which seems disproportionate in outcome to circumstance, I wondered if the results would be different were the fairness doctrine imposed by society replaced by libertarian values. Chances are that in three cases, the results would be the same but the perception would be different.
- In a Libertarian society, we would acknowledge that the young lady who died chose to live her final days alone. While there still would be sadness accompanying her death, it wouldn’t be considered unfair that she had neither friends nor family with her in her final hours.
- For the family renting the single room, society wouldn’t consider it unfair that a hard working mother and father would resort to housing their family in these conditions. In a Libertarian society, they would be celebrated as examples of how to face adversity.
- As for my health, nobody would consider it unfair that I’m sick and fated to becoming sicker. Unfortunate? Unlucky? Sure, those sentiments would be common. But the choices my family made in previous years were our own and left us in the financial position we find ourselves. I knew my health was precarious before launching my last business; it was our choice to take that route as opposed to my taking a job in what is a poor economy. Using Libertarian values, we took a calculated risk that proved unwise. But in the interventionist society we live in, we demonstrated incredible recklessness and need to be saved from ourselves.
Libertarians believe that fairness in opportunity is far more important than fairness of outcome. After all, if everyone is free to pursue their life’s goals – if they are truly at liberty – then the outcomes are inherently fair. Differences in outcome will have more to do with natural ability and desire than anything a government can do. While the odds are that the above situations would not be dramatically different than in a Libertarian society, there is one important way in which one of those situations would be better. The people above would be less constrained by a restrictive society. The family in one room may well be much better off, since Libertarians tend to look at most drug laws as counter-productive – meaning no felony record for the father. He would certainly have better employment opportunities without that black mark.
As for my son, a Libertarian society would probably mean all the difference in the world for him right now. Without the modern police state in which presumed innocence is nothing more than a tired cliche, it’s doubtful he would be where he is now.
So, yes, I’ve reflected and pondered. You’ve read my conclusions. You may not agree with them, but I end this period of introspection confident in my core belief that the equitable outcomes can only be guaranteed by the one truly fair system ever known to humankind. That is, that by believing in the individual and providing them with the liberty to achieve to their individual potential, a government does its best service to the governed.
There are very few things if which I’m certain. One thing of which I fairly sure is that the political mood of the country is one of anger, driven by fear and angst. These emotions feed upon themselves and if not checked, they become self-replicating and self-fulfilling. If unchecked, the societal impact is not hard to measure. In fact, human history is replete with examples of societies that acquiesced to fear – and in the process destroyed themselves. People of my generation witnessed the self-immolation of Communism. Our parents saw the rise and fall of Fascism. Their parents witnessed the end of Absolute Monarchs. Those political systems were often imposed upon the national populations that fell under their thrall, but society in those countries willingly accepted them.
Fascism and Communism rose to prominence on the backs of charismatic leaders who were willing to demonize segments of the population during times when the general population was genuinely afraid of losing their ability to provide the most basic economic needs and afraid of losing their national identity. In Germany, Adolph Hitler castigated the Jewish population and the allies of the Great War – while promising a path to prosperity rooted in the nation’s militaristic past. In Italy, Benito Mussolini promised to curb the “criminal element” and restore the Roman Empire. Lenin inspired the Red Russians by castigating the White Russians as, ironically, agents of oppression to a populace that for centuries had been oppressed.
The United States was not immune to the social upheavals that led to these dictators rise to power. Our one advantage was seemingly being blessed by having leaders rise to dispel the notion of fear, replacing it with a an optimism borne of hope. From the very beginning, our nation has found itself rescued by leaders who believed that whatever the current troubles, our best days were ahead of us. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton all shared a vision of a nation whose best days were yet to come – and were able to articulate and communicate that vision to the general population. These men all pursued different policy directions, but delivered similar results. What binds them to one another is optimism and hope; their ability to overcome not only their personal fears but those of the nation.
Now consider the political leadership we have today, and have had for the first 12 years of this century. The actions taken by the political leadership of both major parties in responding to public fears have only worked to enhance those fears by giving them legitimacy. The Patriot Act, the TSA, the Wall Street Bailout, the Stimulus – all were the result of the public fear about the dramatic events that have taken place. But they have done nothing to alleviate those fears. No, if anything, they have only served to exacerbate them – turning a nation that was more unified on September 12, 2001 than at any time in the previous 60 years into one that is more divided than at any time since the Civil War.
This is the current political landscape: the Commander-in-Chief, instead of building on his election themes of “Hope and Change” and “Yes, We Can” now resorts to using the type of language that would make Lenin proud. He has found his scapegoat: the wealthiest among us, whose “greed and corruption brought about the worst economic catastrophe in three generations.” In his latest national address, last week’s State of the Union, he not only exhorted us to follow the type of robotic obedience for which the military is often miscast, but to grant him the level of control over local matters that any dictator needs. Sadly, the opposition party is led by a cast of characters that alternates between demonizing immigrant minorities, Jews, and pretty much any other ethnic group that can generate a few headlines. On the campaign stump, the current crop of presidential hopefuls extolls the virtues of fear and hate, lambasting one another for not being “conservative enough” while forgetting the true meaning of “conservative.” Indeed, our national politics now rely on fear to such a degree the principle argument of each party is to beware what the other party will do toyou.
The reality is that our nation is bereft of leadership. The modern politician, in a clamor to gain the most votes he can, resorts to following rather than leading. President Obama, seeing polling numbers that indicate the majority of his “base” perceive unfettered capital as their enemy, adopts a socialist stance – even though he has amassed a personal fortune, in large part thanks to unfettered capital. His Republican challengers, seeing polls that indicate xenophobia and racism play well in among their base, use coded language to ingratiate themselves. Both sides in Congress read polls that say compromise is the surest way to face a primary challenge – and nothing gets done.
Throughout our history, we have had the good fortune to find leaders who were able to overcome our baser instincts. As mentioned, there have been national movements that preyed upon fear before: the “Know-Nothings,” the KKK, the anarchists, the Communists all came about because the nation feared losing the things that make us exceptional and failed to see a way to preserve them. Each movement was met by a national political leader who overcame that fear by pointing to descriptions of the US like this:
“Our country is a special place, because we Americans have always been sustained, through good times and bad, by a noble vision – a vision not only of what the world around us is today but what we as a free people can make it be tomorrow”
I still believe that our nation’s best days are indeed before us. In speaking with many of my friends, in reading the posts in on-line chat rooms, in seeing the undercurrent of thought and desire among my fellow citizens I know I am not alone. Yet, I also hear the dual fears of economic calamity and loss of national identity espoused on a regular basis. That our political leaders do not share the vision of hope through freedom, but rather a vision of despair and ruin with our only salvation being to turn from our national character, is the great tragedy of our age.
A positive development in our politics is that attention is finally turning to the debt and the annual deficit. In case you aren’t aware of the raw numbers, the deficit for the past two years has ballooned to more than an aggregated $3 trillion. That has raised the national debt to more than $14 trillion – or, about $123,000 for every household in the United States. I give President Obama credit for finally listening to the nation and recognizing the seriousness of the problem. It marks a dramatic turn for him, seeing as how he spent more in his first two years in office than his predecessor did in eight.
In his speech last week, the President didn’t mince words: he expects the “wealthy” to pay substantially more than they currently do while he continues to spend like a drunken sailor on things only a drunken politician would consider necessary. Lo, the blogosphere and networks have focused on the President’s new Medicare proposal (more on that tomorrow) and how yes, the “rich” should pay more. After all, the argument goes, the middle class is paying higher rates than the wealthy and that is just unfair. It certainly seems a winning political argument; after all, who isn’t for soaking the rich?
This makes for good sound bites and good politics, but bad policy. I realize that in some regions the Democrats definition of “wealthy” (a family earning $250,000/year) might make sense. But in others, $250,000 per year is simply middle class. Upper middle class, to be sure, but hardly wealthy. In the New York metro area, a family easily achieves a combined $250,000 in income with two public sector workers. It is even easier to reach if one person sells cars and the other works in the local bodega. The same holds true for San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major metro areas around the country. This is really a call to arms in class warfare, the destructive political game played by Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, with disastrous effects for the nation – though those effects weren’t felt until decades later. Even liberal icon FDR understood the dangers of the game and generally shied away from playing it.
Fortunately, the IRS keeps records on the truly wealthy and the rest of us. The latest data they have is from 2007; but since the one tax policy liberals love to hate – the “Bush Tax Cuts” were already in effect – it makes a good statistical reference point. You can find it here. In it, the IRS keeps tabs on the 400 wealthiest taxpayers in the country and compares their rates to the rest of the taxpaying public. They began tracking the data in 1992, so we have a 15 year window in the way tax policy evolved through both the Bush and Clinton eras.
At first blush, it seems as though liberals may be on to something. The IRS calculated the effective tax rate on the top 400 earners as 26.38% in 1992, rising to a high of 29.93% by 1995, and then steadily dropping to 16.62% by 2007. But statistics are wonderful things; anyone can quote a number out of context to prove an argument and this is exactly what the liberal media is doing.
First, I give credit to the IRS for doing what nobody to the left of center has bothered doing in their arguments. Their numbers reflect 1990 dollars ,thereby accounting for inflation (in mathematical terms, they normalized values). So, if the truly wealthy were paying lower effective rates, then the government should have been taking in less money from them, right? Not so fast: in 1992, the IRS collected about $4.5 trillion; by 2007 that figure rose to $14.5 trillion. Why? Well, in 1992 not a single one of those 400 returns reflected an effective tax rate over 31%. By 2007, even with the hated “Bush Tax Cuts”, 55% of the top 400 had an effective tax rate of at least 35%. The lower overall tax rate for these taxpayers is reflected in the fact that 35 of them paid no tax – an effective rate of 0%.
Overall, the truly wealthy combined to pay 2.05% of the taxes in 2007, nearly double the 1.04% they contributed in 1992. In actual dollars, they contributed nearly $23 billion of the government’s total tax take of $1.1 trillion. Those who make up this class are certainly already paying their share and the administrations attempts to paint them as sore winners can only result in flat out class warfare.
We do have a revenue problem, since we’re spending more than 4 times what the government is taking in. A better focus would be on the 45% of Americans who currently do not pay any income tax. Certainly, if you’re gross income is below the poverty line for your region, you shouldn’t be expected to pay, but I doubt 45% of Americans are living in poverty. That certainly seems much fairer and also guarantees that those currently benefiting from living here also gain equity in the system.
However, I doubt we’re going to find $1.6 trillion in revenue by asking everyone to pay their taxes. We still need deep spending cuts just to get the 2012 budget balanced. Tune in as I tackle those issues throughout the week.
Once every two years, Labor Day signals the opening of the “Silly Season.” What is this “Silly Season” you ask?
In a nutshell, the “Silly Season” is when the general populace joins political junkies in paying attention to the politicians running for office in November. And the politicians, on cue, begin campaigning in earnest. But what it makes the season silly is the way the politicians act. Suddenly, Democrats begin espousing conservative ideals. Ordinarily, they’re joined by Republicans discovering their love of liberal programs.
But this year promise to be sillier than most. With an unsettled economy, unemployment rising and public dissatisfaction in both political parties rising to all-time highs, Democrats are in serious trouble heading into the
campaign season. Many Congressional seats once considered safe for the Donkey Party are now in play; seats once considered as being in-play or toss-up’s are now leaning Republican. As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, the DNC is cutting loose many candidates, hoping to minimize losses in the November mid-terms.
In short, what many Democrats are discovering is that the positions they’ve spent the past four years carving out are not exactly what the country wanted. The reason they won most of their seats – including the Presidency – was national dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. The initiatives the current administration have pushed through have proven even more unpopular than the ones proposed by GWB. How bad is it? 56% of Americans want the abomination that passed as health care reform repealed. Republicans now lead Democrats in all ten of the major issues polls.
Not surprisingly, in light of these developments many Democrats are running as far from their own party as possible. It’s amazing how many Democrats are now against the very health care package they passed earlier this year. (Remember when Nancy Pelosi declared that once we knew what was in the bill, we would love it? Oops.) Even President Obama is finding his conservative voice, as reports suggest he will ask Congress to pass “targeted” tax breaks on Wednesday. To add to the sense of desperation from the Democrats, many are hoping to cast their opponents as extremists who would destroy the fabric of American life.
Of course, Republicans are tempted to equally join in the insanity, but so far have held the line on leaning left. They fully understand that the nation has peeked behind the Progressive curtain and been repulsed by the view. This is turning into one of the strangest elections ever seen, where the minority party is the one fending off negative attacks. Normally the reverse is true, but Republicans don’t need to go on the attack in this cycle. The news, even left-leaning organizations like MSNBC and the NY Times, can’t help but report the dismal employment numbers. So Republicans are remaining more or less silent, except to point out that the news hasn’t been good since the Obama administration took over. That’s attack ad enough. Besides, the left is self-immolating itself well enough that the Republicans don’t need to join in.
So kick back and enjoy the Road to November. It promises to be a fun – if bumpy – ride.
There’s been a lot of talk lately, from both the left and the right, that most of the jobs lost in the current recession are lost forever. Robert Reich is a well-respected former Labor Secretary for President Clinton. In his article The Future of American Jobs, he contends that American jobs were permanently lost to a pair of factors: technology and outsourcing. Technology allows companies to increase employee efficiency (more employee productivity at lower labor costs); outsourcing is enabled by technology that enables foreign workers to remain competitive with Americans and can be closely monitored using new technologies. Although philosophically opposed to Reich, James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation reaches the same many of the same conclusions in Reduced Investment and Job Creation to Blame for High Unemployment. The only difference in these two articles is that Reich focuses on job losses, while Sherk focuses on job creation. But in both articles, the authors contend that both near- and long-term unemployment will remain at or near 8%. ( I wrote about the disappearing jobs phenomenon earlier this month)
There are many causes for this, of course, beginning with the fact that United States (and most of the developed world) began moving earnestly away from labor-intensive manufacturing economies towards knowledge-based service economies in the late 1970’s. Although well aware of this, nobody did much to prepare the citizenry for this fundamental economic change. Much as the US experienced a dramatic cultural and demographic shift in the late 19th century as we moved from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy, we are experiencing the same now. Policies over the past 30 years at both the federal and state level, rather than focusing on restructuring education and employment policies, were largely concentrated on sparing the status quo. Although the days of a high-school dropout being able to get a well-paying job for life at the local manufacturing plant ended a generation ago, we’ve continued to subsidize both the labor unions (who rely on perpetuating this myth) and the educational systems (whose labor unions and administrators have been resistant to changing the formulas they’ve worked under for 6 generations). As a result, we have a large segment of the population that is ill-suited for the type of work the modern economy provides.
Both liberals and conservatives in this country (and other Western nations) are calling for a return to 20th century economies. Liberals believe that the US can return to a manufacturing-based economy, if only certain policies are enacted. Some of these include: engaging in protectionist trade policy (apply punitive tariffs on goods produced in low-age countries); requiring a percentage of all goods sold in the US to be produced in American factories and tightening labor and banking regulations to “protect” the American worker. Conservatives are championing reduced immigration, business credits and lower taxes as the way to spur manufacturing growth. Both of these approaches – or any combination thereof – is wrong, immoral and ill-conceived. They are intended primarily to appease the 60% of Americans whose jobs will disappear or have disappeared in the past three decades.
First of all, thanks to technologies that were not even conceived a century ago, the modern world is more tightly interwoven than at any time in history. When combined with the fact that the days of imperialism ended with WWII, it is now impossible for any nation that relies on exports for economic vitality to successfully engage in protectionist trade policies. Imposing excessive tariffs or limiting imports in any way will, in the end, prove counter-productive as other nations reciprocate the move. Many persons in what we often derisively refer to as the “developing world” consider the steady income provided by manufacturing economies as a vast improvement in their situations. Despite wages that are considered substandard in the west, the mere fact that workers have a steady source of income – and therefore, food and shelter – provides a sense of security previously unknown. This was, by the way, the same attitude that drove many former tenant farmers to migrate to cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the US and Europe. This was despite the advance knowledge that most would work in conditions that we find abhorrent and for wages that we can’t countenance today. Combined with the interactive nature of modern economies, no nation can afford to block goods coming from these nations.These types of policies were tried during the heights of the Great Depression – the result was over 50 million human beings killed in the greatest conflagration in history. Secondly, imposing inane limits on immigration will rob the US of a tremendous source of energy and vigor, both of which are priceless commodities in the new economy (and I suspect that very vitality is what many are afraid of). Finally, any restructuring of tax and revenue policies that ignore the modern economic realities in favor of a long passed age robs the emerging job market of strength and future generations of Americans of a sorely needed simplified tax code.
So, if the modern economy in the West will not be based on manufacturing, what will we do in the future? Where will the jobs come from? Well, first of all, not all manufacturing will be permanently off-shored. For several reasons (including national defense), there will always be some sort of manufacturing in the US. However, the reality is that as a percentage of employment and average compensation, American manufacturing will never return to the halcyon days of the 1960’s and 70’s. The new economy will be services based and requires a more educated and more flexible workforce than the one that currently exists. I realize that when I say “services” many people conjure visions of hotel maids and McDonald’s cashiers. Those type of jobs have always existed and will always exist, but nobody should think we’ll become a nation of gas station attendants. What I’m referring to by services are the types of positions that require more brain power than brawn power; fields like medicine, technology, research, aerospace, education and banking are all services. All are creating jobs right now. The problem is, their growth is restricted by a lack of skilled workers. It’s a fact that none of your politicians want to talk about, because they know in large part they’re directly responsible for this fact.
The answers about what to do for the next generation of Americans is pretty obvious and I applaud President Obama for starting education initiatives that may prove fruitful. (I’m no fan of the President, but you have to give credit where it’s due). However, there are 2 generations of Americans now in the workforce and a third about to enter, whose citizens are ill-prepared for the current economy. The big question is what do we do about restoring some semblance of full employment, and at tolerable wages now? The first thing is for the labor unions to understand that the world has changed and they need to get with the times. Once, the antagonistic approach between organized labor and business in the US led to a system that worked well, in the contained system that was the US. Once the US was no longer the dominant player in manufacturing, though, the unions failed to keep up with pace of global economics. It is long past time for them to seriously engage foreign governments and labor markets -by working to raise living standards oversees, they can reinforce those standards back home. Secondly, our own politicians need to work in ways that remove the yoke of debt from our collective shoulders. The projected national debt for 2020 equates to $150,000 for every family in the US – or more than 3x the anticipated per family income for that year. That level of debt is unsustainable and is largely driven by “entitlement” spending – Social Security and the new Health Care package. It is past time to revisit how these programs are funded before they drive the entire nation into bankruptcy. Until debt projections are reduced, funding for projects needed to revitalize the economy cannot be pursued. In the same vein, the political class needs to be honest about the limits of government intervention in economic policy – aside from fiscal and tax policy, there really isn’t anything they can do for immediate and sustainable growth. At the moment, fiscal policy is stagnated -interest rates are at zero. That leaves tax policy – which will not unfreeze capital markets. However, by implementing a strategic tax policy in coordination with a debt reduction plan, lawmakers can relax market tensions by demonstrating long-term fiscal sense.
However, even if the various entrenched factions were to begin immediately putting these ideas in action, the near-term effect would be negligible. We would still need high spending on unemployment compensation and other safety net program to prevent our society from devolving into absolute chaos. I would like to add a caveat to this spending, though. One thing obvious to anyone who’s driven any road in Pennsylvania or watched a manhole explode in New York City knows our infrastructure is aging badly. I would offer those receiving government assistance the option of either attending training in a new field or showing up for manual labor repairing our bridges, schools and the like. This recreation of the WPA would at least prevent the nation from just throwing money down a rat-hole.