Sunday, December 26, 2010

Economy v. Culture

“It’s the economy, stupid.” Except when it isn’t. If the economy hums, the people running the country are happy to talk about it. But when the economy’s in trouble, people want to change the subject. They want to talk about enduring values instead, what I call protecting our culture. Here are blog entries, some of my earliest, discussing the tension between economic progress and culture:

Computers v. Culture (Part I)

Computers v. Culture (Part II)

Culture + Computers (Part I)

Cuture + Computers (Part II)

In a more recent blog post, I quoted Washington Post commentator Robert Samuelson’s thoughts about how describing issues in moral terms dodges the need, when money is scarce, to pay for solving a problem:
politicians prefer framing issues in moral terms. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Both sides of the abortion and gay marriage debates believe they hold the high ground.

Obama pitches his health care plan in moral terms: health care is a "right;” its opponents less moral. Why not use this tactic? On a simple calculus of benefits, Obama’s proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage -- about 10% of the population. But for most Americans, the bill imposes costs, including higher taxes, fees, and/or longer waits for service.

Supporters instead back expanded health care as "the right thing"; it makes them feel good about themselves. They get "psychic benefits." Economic benefits make people richer, but cost money. Psychic benefits make them feel morally upright and superior at no monetary cost to politicians! The magic solution.
Neither the right nor left has a monopoly on using moral values to deflect policy away from hard economic choices. Today, though, the left is in charge, and the economy isn’t working. So the left is deflecting.

Here, from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writing in the Washington Post, is a present-day example of a progressive shifting the discussion to culture. Kennedy Townsend does so with a spirited defense of the left's high moral standing:
[Sarah] Palin. . . argues that "morality itself cannot be sustained without the support of religious beliefs." That statement amounts to a wholesale attack on countless Americans, and no study or reasonable argument I have seen or heard would support such a blanket condemnation. . . Somehow Palin misses this. . . she may be appealing to a religious right that really seeks secular power. . . no American political leader should cavalierly - or out of political calculation - dismiss the hard-won ideal of religious freedom that is among our country's greatest gifts to the world.
A contrasting example of a conservative focusing on the economy is Walter Russell Mead’s American Interest article advocating growth through free enterprise not through big government:
For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large. . . we must drastically raise productivity by re-imagining the way our society makes and distributes the services that, currently, the. . . learned professions provide.

The world is moving in ways so opposed to [intellectuals’] most hallowed assumptions that they simply cannot make sense of it. They resist blindly and uncreatively and, unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation that this change can bring, they are incapable of creative and innovative response. . . [they] try to turn this [transformation] into a left/right debate rather than one about the past and the future.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times seems to be one of those Mead describes as “unable to appreciate the extraordinary prospects for human liberation.” Friedman instead wants even bigger, better government with its long-range planning:
given where we need to go, [the Obama-GOP tax] deal is just another shot of morphine to a country that needs to do things that are big and hard and still only wants to do things that are easy and small. . . in the politics of sports, the G.O.P. just scored a goal on Obama. We don’t seem to realize: We’re in a hole and still digging. Our educational attainment levels are stagnating; our infrastructure is fraying. . . We need a plan.
Friedman writes as if he advocates change. But look, he’s defending giving more resources to planners who make big, hard decisions, and we already have the biggest, planningest government in our history. Really Friedman in his own way is endorsing the very status quo Kennedy Townsend seeks to protect when she changes the subject to culture.

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