Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Higher Learning: Path to Equality?

Charles Eliot
Charles W. Eliot.    .    . the forty-year president of Harvard beginning in 1869, was a “towering liberal humanist” who followed in Jefferson’s footsteps by .   .   . grounding the aristocracy in merit and the “competitive excellence” of earning a degree through higher education. Democracy, in other words, fostered an aristocracy based on talent and merit: the Jeffersonian meritocracy.

--"Random History of Higher Education”

To Eliot, an American aristocracy is acceptable as long as it is a meritocracy.  But how does that fit with American higher education today?

Donald Kagan
In his "farewell lecture" at Yale, 80-year-old scholar of ancient Greece Donald Kagan faulted universities for no longer providing the clash of great ideas that historically buit a meritocracy :
Universities are failing students and hurting American democracy.  "I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness." Rare are "faculty with atypical views.  Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values."
"You can't have a fight because you don't have two sides. The other side won.  At the university, there must be intellectual variety. If you don't have [that], it's not only that you are deprived of knowing some of the things you might know. It's that you are deprived of testing the things that you do know or do think you know or believe in, so that your knowledge is superficial."
"The other side won."  Kagan elaborated further in a post-speech interview, saying faculties have gained "extraordinary authority" over universities, then used that authority inside and outside academia to move the country toward “equality of result and every other kind of equality that could be claimed without much regard for liberty." That result now means “the menace is certainly to liberty."  

Kagan re-enforces a distinction much discussed in this blog--the tug between liberty and equality.  Liberty--freedom, negative liberty--is connected with conservative values such as individual achievement, hard work, free enterprise, success.  Liberty also means the free competition of ideas, since all begin with "equal opportunity."

Equality of results--“care for victims,” positive liberty--means taking action to rebalance society, government correcting existing inequality, the welfare state, socialism.  It means “the meritocracy,” in the name of “care for victims,” having control over others.

Kagan noted that a century ago, most people worked the land for themselves. Today they work for a paycheck, usually in an office. "Fundamentally we are dependent on people who pay our salaries.  In the liberal era.   .   . we have come more to expect it is the job of the government to provide for the needs that we can't provide." 

The drive for equality of results has left us with a hierarchical, unequal society where a supposedly meritocratic national elite rules over the rest of us.  But at least admission to that elite via universities is open to students from all classes, right?

In their new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, professors Elizabeth Armstrong (U. Michigan) and Laura Hamilton (UC-Merced) present depressing results from a five-year study that tracked the women from one freshman dorm at a Midwestern flagship university: Not a single one of the working-class women they’d monitored had managed to graduate.

Armstrong and Hamilton believe colleges regularly admit students who aren’t ready for college-level work. In 2012, they found, of the 250,000 who took the ACT (the main alternative to the SAT), only 52% scored as college-ready in reading, only a quarter as ready in reading, English, math and science. Yet many started school anyway.

The authors are also persuaded that working-class kids don’t receive the guidance they need. To them, “advising matters.” Better-off students have parents who help them figure out how to get through college — what courses to take, and when; how to manage time, get help or mercy from professors, etc.  These parents also use connections to get their kids jobs regardless of academic performance, while the “intensive advising” working-class students need is vanishingly rare in college today.

Armstrong and Hamilton find that the mission universities seem focused on is raking in money--far from Eliot's promise of a Jefferson meritocracy open to all, with ideas freely competing as Kagan so desired.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Media: the Soiree is the Message

Well, look at that! Mainstream media icon takes a poke at his own kind.

Last year, veteran TV newsman Tom Brokaw bashed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on “Meet the Press.” Just one week after the soiree, Brokaw said it was “time to rethink” the occasion since it “separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve.”

Brokaw hasn’t changed his mind, and won’t be attending this year’s affair either. The retired NBC anchor recently explained to “Politico” he raised the lavish affair’s inappropriateness on “Meet the Press” because:
we were at a point in Washington where the country had just kind of shut down on what was going on within the Beltway. [Folks] were making their own decisions in their own states, in their own communities, and the congressional ratings were plummeting. The press corps wasn’t doing very well, either. And I thought, “This is one of the issues that we have to address. What kind of image do we present to the rest of the country? Are we doing their business, or are we just a group of narcissists who are mostly interested in elevating our own profiles?” And what comes through [on] that night is the latter. . . that dinner, as it has been constituted for the past several years, is saying, “We’re Versailles. The rest of you eat cake.”
Of course, it’s not just the press corps’ soiree that evokes pre-revolutionary France. As we have noted, wealth is concentrating ever more greatly in the green suburbs of our nation’s capital, while America’s economic problems fade ever more from our national elite’s view.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Government F.U.B.A.R.

Haven’t you noticed? Look at Obamacare--a word the president now (strangely) embraces.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), just before deciding not to seek re-election next year, candidly gave Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius his views on Obamacare, of which Baucus was a principal author:
"I just see a huge train wreck coming down. You and I have discussed this many times, and I don't see any results yet. I'm very concerned that not enough is being done so far — very concerned. Small businesses have no idea what to do, what to expect. You need data. Do you have any data? You've never given me data. You only give me concepts, frankly."
Baucus is, I repeat, a father of Obamacare. And then there is TIME’s Joe Klein, close to the Democratic power center for 2+ decades (he wrote Primary Colors about Clinton’s 1992 campaign), going directly after the president’s health care program:
Obamacare will fail if he doesn’t start paying more attention to the details of implementation, if he doesn’t start demanding action. And, in a larger sense, the notion of activist government will be in peril—despite the demographics flowing the Democrats’ way—if institutions like the VA and Obamacare don’t deliver the goods. Sooner or later, the Republican party may come to understand that its best argument isn’t about tearing down the government we have, but making it run more efficiently.
Government incompetence is so much bigger than Obamacare--failing to fix foreign policy, to achieve economic growth, job growth, or income growth. The Washington Post’s George Will has hit on government’s misuse of debt and regulation, two “legitimate government functions” now being “perverted to evade” the “nuisance” of democratic accountability, and to avoid open taxation, a trend Will calls “politically dangerous.”

Will explains:
Today’s government uses regulation to achieve policy goals by imposing on the private sector burdens less obvious than taxation would be, burdens that become visible only indirectly, in higher prices. Often the goals government pursues by surreptitious indirection are goals that could not win legislative majorities — e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gases following Congress’s refusal to approve such policies.
And deficit spending — borrowing — is[, in the words of the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth] “a complementary means of taxation evasion”: It enables the political class to provide today’s voters with significantly more government benefits than current taxes can finance, leaving the difference to be paid by voters too young to vote or not yet born.
Will notes that before, government used taxes to pay for things — roads, dams, bridges, military forces, and there were limits to what government could buy. Now government spends primarily for consumption. Therefore, in DeMuth’s words:
The possibilities for increasing the kind, level, quality and availability of benefits are practically unlimited. This is the ultimate source of today’s debt predicament. More borrowing for more consumption has no natural stopping point short of imploding on itself.
Government will yet be the ruin of us all. Yet government’s damage to us is much overlooked. To properly convey the government problem’s depth, I give you the well-informed “Zman,” who in anonymously commenting on Mark Steyn’s recent National Review article about how the FBI mishandled two Chechen bombers ahead of the Boston Marathon, said:
All bureaucracies are incompetent. It is their nature. They are inward looking and self-serving. The whole point of having all those meetings and steering committees is to avoid real work and, mostly, real responsibility. Since government is nothing but an enormous collection of giant bureaucracies, government will always be incompetent. Blaming the FBI here is like getting mad at the dog for not doing your taxes.
Therein lies the root problem. The insanity of our ruling classes is this. One side thinks government can and should perform all sorts of duties that have traditionally been the responsibility of the individual. The observable fact that the government cannot do basic things well is never considered. The other end of the ruling class thinks they can make government run properly and do all of these things effectively. The fact it has never been done on earth never occurs to them.
New York Timesman Thomas Friedman upon the resignation of Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad proclaimed:
I coined the term “Fayyadism” — the all-too-rare notion that an Arab leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or resistance to Israel and the West or on personality cults or security services, but on delivering decent, transparent, accountable governance.
Friedman is just 5 words [given in brackets below] from a far more profound truth:
I coined the term “[conservatism]” — the all-too-rare notion that a.   .   . leader’s legitimacy should be based not on slogans or resistance to [the wealthy] or on personality cults or [government unions], but on delivering decent, transparent, accountable governance.
Though “Zman” doesn’t agree government can work, we should keep trying.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Make Way for Muslims

"We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic. . . Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance. 

"There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence. . . even in parts of the post-historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. . . But large-scale conflict must involve large states still caught in the grip of history, and they are what appear to be passing from the scene."

--Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” (1989)

The return of Islamic extremist terrorism to our shores reminds Americans that history has hardly ended. Fukuyama’s famous joy over the decline of Soviet--and the transformation of Chinese--Communism in 1989 was premature. No, instead of “ending history,” we find ourselves more in the world of the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s 1993 “Clash of Civilizations” article--the West v. Islam.

Islam is in many forms benign. But the Muslim religion and culture constitute in today’s world a fundamental rejection of the worldwide, Hollywood-based “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” culture. Many (most?) Muslims feel out of place in the West, and are struggling to retain their separate identity. Instead of just asking Muslims to fit in, the rest of the world may have to make room for Islam. Certainly, that is how the future looks from Tehran, Mecca, Cairo, Ankara, Islamabad, and other Muslim centers.

Two reasons why Muslims could change the world:

First, the size and growth of Islam.

(Hit Map to Enlarge)
According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (see map):

The world’s Muslim population is expected to increase by about 35% in the next 20 years, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion by 2030. . . Globally, the Muslim population is forecast to grow at about twice the rate of the non-Muslim population over the next two decades – an average annual growth rate of 1.5% for Muslims, compared with 0.7% for non-Muslims.
As the following chart shows, by 2020, 1 of every 4 people in the world will be Muslim.  

(Hit to Enlarge)

Second, the large population of unemployed Muslim males.

Listen to (Muslim) Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who recently wrote in the New York Times:
The Muslim world is experiencing a “youth bulge.” In 2010, people under 30 comprised about 60% of the population in Muslim-majority countries. A younger population means a bigger labor force. Higher investment and capital is needed to utilize this spare capacity. A big demographic change can warp fiscal policy for decades. . . [T]he short-term impact can be even greater. A youth bulge introduces latent energy into a nation’s economy and society. Left untapped, it can become a destabilizing force. In 2010, youth unemployment in the Middle East was 25%; in North Africa, 24%. Such levels are toxic.
A growing population, especially including unemployed males. A culture at odds with the West. The potential clash is greatest when it comes to the role of women in society. Here’s a map of countries that require modesty in female dress, whether or not the women living there so desire such codes:

(Hit to Enlarge)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Ruining American Education: The Public School Too-long Experiment with “How-to-ism”

Middle School Class, China
Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes in the New York Times about how to fix education. He puts down Michelle Rhee’s reform efforts in Washington D.C. and he puts down the movie Waiting for Superman's praise of charter schools. Instead, he has good words for the teachers unions that are such a roadblock to education reform.

Unsurprisingly, given his ed school background, Mehta recommends more pay and much more status for teachers, seeking to elevate their profession to the level of physicians. And he wants much more money for educational research and development--including at Harvard, one assumes.

In making his point, Mehta notes the U.S.’s poor showing in international student competitions:
In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60% as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America.
These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.
Here’s the problem. The international rankings Mehta references, the Program for International Student Assessment (2009) or PISA, shows 7 entities at the top--Mehta’s 5 plus China and Hong Kong. China, represented by its leading city, Shanghai, in fact leads the PISA world in all three categories--reading, math, and science. Hong Kong finishes ahead of Singapore and near the top in reading and science, and just behind Singapore in math.

The only non-East Asian (Singapore is mostly Chinese) entities at the top are Canada--9% Asian (2006), less than 2% total Hispanic and Black, i.e., not the U.S.--and Finland, a nation of 5.4 million, smaller than Shanghai or Hong Kong, and about the size of Singapore (5.2 million). Finland’s high PISA ranking--2nd in science, 3rd in reading, 6th in math--is so surprising it’s called “The Finnish Miracle”.

In reading, the only category where Mehta’s PISA-referenced report breaks down the U.S. scores by ethnicity, U.S. Asians outscore everybody but China, U.S. whites are even with Canada, and the U.S. ranks 15th overall because of low scores by Hispanics and Blacks (38% of U.S. public school population). Ethnicity, or culture, is the big divider, but in discussing PISA scores (even though he elsewhere mentions, “huge gaps by race . . . persist”), Mehta’s article completely ignores culture.

Mehta also draws a failing grade for his assertion that Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Canada “have much stronger welfare states” that contribute to their higher PISA scores. In fact, only Finland and Canada put a higher share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) than does the U.S. into government, with Canada nearly the same; less than 1% higher. The East Asian entities--those with most of the top scores--all have lower government shares of GDP, with Hong Kong, China, and Singapore less than half the U.S.’s share.  Be wary of academics writing in the New York Times.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, has examined the same PISA data as Mehta. He writes the nations that best combine “excellence with equity” include Korea, Finland, Japan, and Canada, where “everyone knows what is required to get a given qualification, in terms both of the content studied and the level of performance that has to be demonstrated to earn it.”

According to Hirsch:
In those countries’ classrooms, opportunities for a student to make correct meaning-guesses and build vocabulary occur frequently because the schools follow definite content standards that build knowledge grade by grade, thus offering constant opportunities to learn new words in contexts that have been made familiar.
Hirsch is focused on the verbal gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, which he calls “the Matthew Effect”--Matthew 25:29 says: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Hirsch believes
Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more; disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students.
Hirsch understands the cultural gap that so pervades U.S. lower education. He concludes with something no ed school professor like Mehta is likely to reveal--U.S. education went bad 80 years ago:
an intellectual revolution needs to occur to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas [such as] how-to-ism—the notion that schooling should concern itself not with mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing, but rather with giving students the intellectual tools to assimilate new knowledge. My hope is that some influential district superintendent will require a specific grade-by-grade knowledge sequence. The striking success of [just] one major urban district could transform . . . the nation.
But don’t we have such an effort in Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top”?   Ze'ev Wurman, a prominent software architect, electrical engineer and longtime math advisory expert in California and Washington, D.C., says of the federal attempt to impose a national math curriculum on America’s schools:
I believe the Common Core marks the cessation of educational standards improvement in the United States. No state has any reason left to aspire for first-rate standards, as all states will be judged by the same mediocre national benchmark enforced by the federal government. Moreover, there are organizations that have reasons to work for lower and less-demanding standards, specifically teachers unions and professional teacher organizations. While they may not admit it, they have a vested interest in lowering the accountability bar for their members. ...This will be done in the name of “critical thinking” and “21st-century' skills,” and in faraway Washington, D.C., well beyond the reach of parents and most states and employers.
Better to keep searching at the local level for solutions that work with disadvantaged students, particularly from ethnic minorities, while staying away from “solutions” favored by status quo teachers unions with outdated “how-to-ism” (or “progressive”) education agendas.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ruining American Education: University Political Correctness

Marxist Herbert Marcuse
“Marcuse . . . asserts in good faith that he remains a Marxist.”

--Robert Langston, “Herbert Marcuse and Marxism,” International Socialist Review, November-December 1968 (Marcuse died in 1979 at the age of 81)

Politics is about power. And power--politics--is ruining American education.

Let’s begin at the top, with America’s highly-respected universities. The progressive elite, centered at the country’s college campuses, draws its power from the Democratic Party--a special interest marriage of our government-media-academia-non-profit sector-entertainment industry-trial lawyer-dominated national elite with the government-dependent coalition that gives the party its votes: public sector unions, minorities, unmarried women, and youth. Identity politics, the mother of “political correctness,” must thrive and dominate for Democrats to retain power.

So no surprise political correctness prevails on university campuses.

Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will quotes Greg Lukianoff, 38, a graduate of Stanford Law School and author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. Lukianoff, who describes himself as a liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, lifelong Democrat, says:
What happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus [because censorship has] downstream effects. . . those with the highest levels of education have the lowest exposure to people with conflicting points of view [, which encourages] the human tendency to live within our own echo chambers.
Daniel Henninger of the conservative Wall Street Journal has dug down to the origins of political correctness:
Back in 1965, when American politics watched the emergence of the New Left movement. . . a famous movement philosopher said the political left should be "liberated" from tolerating the opinions of the opposition: "Liberating tolerance would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left."
That efficient strategy was the work of Herbert Marcuse, the political theorist whose ideas are generally credited with creating the basis for campus speech codes. Marcuse said, "Certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed." Marcuse created political correctness.
And political correctness founder Marcuse was an avowed Marxist, by the way (see opening quote). He was part of an anti-democratic movement that preaches and practices dictatorship (of the proletariat).

Henninger continues, comparing Marxist Marcuse to Democratic Party leader Obama:
Marcuse. . . also proposed the withdrawal of toleration "from groups and movements . . . which oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc." Barack Obama [said]: "They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat or whether we should be spending money on medical research."
Marcuse called this "the systematic withdrawal of tolerance toward regressive and repressive opinions." That, clearly, is what President Obama. . .has been doing to anyone who won't line up behind his progressivism. Delegitimize their ideas and opinions.
In the end, Henninger writes,
A Marcusian world of political intolerance became a reality on U.S. campuses. With relentless pushing from the president, why couldn't it happen in American political life? . . . As he said in the inaugural: "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action." That is Marcusian.
And Marxist! Heavy stuff. No wonder Henninger refrained from branding (correctly) Marcuse as a Marxist. But to take it down a notch, it’s all politics. Obama's Democrats would truly love to be the only party, but live with the fact that probably won’t happen. It has largely happened, however, on college campuses, to the detriment of true education for the students involved, past, present, future.

George Will casts the absence of university learning in a different, still-unflattering light:
college has become, for many, merely a “status marker,” signaling membership in the educated caste, and a place to meet spouses of similar status — “associative mating.” Since 1961, the time students spend reading, writing and otherwise studying has fallen from 24 hours a week to about 15 — enough for a degree often desired only as an expensive signifier of rudimentary qualities (e.g., the ability to follow instructions).

Monday, April 15, 2013

Possible economic fixes generate hope and optimism.

The economy is bad, but it’s good that the worldly-wise Economist understands why. The magazine writes:
there are good reasons for thinking that the 21st century’s innovative juices will flow fast. But there are also reasons to watch out for impediments. The biggest danger is government. . . officialdom tends to write far more rules than are necessary for the public good; and thickets of red tape strangle innovation. Even many regulations designed to help innovation are not working well. The West’s intellectual-property system, for instance, is a mess, because it grants too many patents of dubious merit.
The state has also notably failed to open itself up to innovation. Productivity is mostly stagnant in the public sector. Unions have often managed to prevent governments even publishing the performance indicators which, elsewhere, have encouraged managers to innovate. There is vast scope for IT to boost productivity in health care and education, if only those sectors were more open to change.
As for the private sector, one would expect Thomas Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to have a positive response to his somewhat-loaded “big question” of how to get stronger private sector growth that “will put Americans back to work?” And Donohue indeed has an answer:

First, we must attract global talent.

Second, we must responsibly develop our extraordinary natural resources.

Third, we need to sell more stuff to the 95% of the world’s customers who live outside of the United States[, and] welcome global investment—foreign capital directly or indirectly sustain[s] 21 million U.S. jobs.

Next, we must . . .stem the tide of the huge regulatory tsunami that the current administration is planning for the next four years.

And finally, [d]iscretionary, defense, and especially entitlement spending will have to be curbed.

A seemingly more objective expert, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, offered recommendations on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” that are remarkably similar to Donohue’s:

1.  Fix the corporate tax system, lowering corporate rate and closing loopholes.

2.  Arrive at a sustainable budget compromise.

3.  Take advantage of America’s energy windfall.

There is an alternative to Porter’s “closing tax loopholes” recommendation, if the Washington will to close loopholes isn’t there. Reihan Salam, who has a Reuters blog, reports that
Robert Pozen of the Brookings Institution and Harvard Business School and his research associate, Lucas Goodman, . . .call for cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25%[, while capping at] 60% to 85%. . . the amount of interest companies can deduct from their tax bills, sharply reducing debt bias and keeping the proposal revenue-neutral. [S]tart-ups that don’t have the option of raising money by taking on . . . debt would find themselves at far less of a disadvantage[, possibly generating] an entrepreneurial renaissance, as lumbering corporate dinosaurs [currently using] cheap credit to scare off competitors [face] innovative new rivals.
Even within the context of a sharply divided Washington, these are recommendations that might work.

In the end, though, improved economic performance comes down--at least partly--to psychology, to attitude. We need belief in the future.

Here’s Emily Esfahani Smith, in the Atlantic:
having a positive outlook in difficult circumstances is not only an important predictor of resilience -- how quickly people recover from adversity -- but it is the most important predictor of it. . . people who find meaning in adversity are ultimately healthier in the long run than those who do not.
As Winston Churchill taught us, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hope = smaller, more effective government; greater choice.

Over the last ten years, more than 60% of the three million new jobs in American were created by the nine states without an income tax. Every year for the past 40 years, states without an income tax had faster growth than states with the highest income taxes. Economic growth in the nine states without income taxes was 50% faster than in the nine states with the highest top income tax rates. Over the past decade, states without income taxes have seen nearly 60% higher population growth than the national average.

--Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA)  

policies [that encourage enterprise and spark economic growth] have been pursued not only by Republicans but also by Democrats who don't share their national party's notion that business should serve as a cash cow to fund ever more expensive social-welfare, cultural or environmental programs.

--Joel Kotkin, Wall Street Journal  

historically, “people have always turned to Washington in times of economic crisis, but now they’re losing confidence in the government’s ability to reshape the economy, and that affects their buying and investing habits.”

--Thomas Friedman, New York Times

Conservatives, even Friedman-type moderates, know big government isn’t working. We live with two obvious truths: 1) progressive government is failing to provide economic growth and jobs, and 2) the bottom 75% suffer as a result.

The economy is bad, and geographer and ex-liberal Joel Kotkin thinks he knows why:
the decline of small-business sentiment constitutes arguably the biggest reason for our poor job-creation numbers. If small business had come out of the recession maintaining just the rate of start-ups generated in 2007. . . the U.S. economy would today have almost 2.5 million more jobs.
Kotkin points specifically at the difficulties faced by smaller community banks, those most likely to lend to entrepreneurs. Kotkin thinks the Fed's policies and a growing regulatory environment have created an “unprecedented concentration” of financial assets in the hands of a few large "too big to fail banks," just as the number of smaller community banks is shrinking--330 fewer since the passage of Dodd-Frank bank regulations. Says Kotkin, “In 2013, the top four banks controlled more than 40% of the credit markets in the top 10 states, up by 10% from 2009 and roughly twice their share in 2000.”

The real reason for investment-killing low interest rates: government needs low rates to fund itself. Kotkin laments,
corporate cronyism remains at the core of this administration and, sadly, the once-proudly populist Democratic Party. [It’s all] reminiscent of . . . the declining days of the Roman Empire. The masses get bread (food stamps) and circuses, with virtually all of Hollywood and much of the media ready to perform on cue. The majority, losers in the Bernanke economy, lack the will . . . to realize what is happening . . . "The Roman people are dying and laughing," the fifth-century Christian writer Salvian wrote. Like America today, entertainment-mad Rome suffered from a declining middle class, mass poverty and domination by a few wealthy patricians, propped up by a compliant government.
We suffer from a sharp disconnect between our rulers and the rest of us. As Matthew Continetti at the conservative Washington Free Beacon reported, when CBS asked, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” only 3% of responding Americans said guns, and immigration did not make the list. The economy, the deficit, and health care came in 1,2,3. The American political class is debating issues that have nothing to do with the priorities of most of those the elite claims to represent.

 Continetti believes that
the current liberal moment [won’t] persist indefinitely. The gun or immigration [drive] most likely will fall apart if Republicans, or even Democrats who still might like to speak for the working man, wake up and ask why American politics is occupied by the pet issues of liberal elites.
The libertarian magazine Reason’s Ronald Bailey wants us to remember that total government spending in the U.S. has grown from 17% of GDP in 1948 to 35% in 2010. Remember this growth, because according to public choice theory,
the more resources government bureaucracies control, the more lobbyists, crony capitalists, and entitlement clients will appear seeking to divert handouts into their pockets. Such would-be beneficiaries need experts to construct the facts that they use to justify to political patrons and agency bureaucrats why they deserve a share of the government's largesse. To the extent that we live in a "post-truth era," it is in good measure because it pays so well to dissemble, exaggerate, and spin for government grants and favors.
Public choice theory calls for a reconciliation of social values and individual choice. And Bailey sides with urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, who argued in a 1973 paper that the bias should be in favor of individual choice, which:
“would promote widened differentiation of goods, services, environments, and opportunities, such that individuals might more closely satisfy their individual preferences." Instead of entrusting decisions to purportedly "wise and knowledgeable professional experts and politicians" who aim to impose the "one-best answer," individuals should be allowed to pursue their own visions of the true and the good.
The institution best known, of course, for increasing differentiation between goods, services, environments, and opportunities and for enabling people to express differing values is the free market. Markets don't need experts. Every entrepreneur with a new idea, service, or product can try to profit from what they believe to be the truth.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Conservative “Hope and Change”

“A market economy with many competitors has incentives and constraints that are the opposite of those in a government monopoly. . . businesses know[] that their mistakes have been common and large. But red ink on the bottom line lets them know that they are going to have to shape up or shut down. Government agencies face no such constraint.”

--Thomas Sowell, Stanford’s Hoover Institution  

"even if a government were superior in intelligence and knowledge to any single individual in the nation, it must be inferior to all the individuals of the nation taken together."

--John Stuart Mill (19th century)  

“The end of American exceptionalism will come not when we run out of gas, wheat or computers, but when we end the freedom of the individual, and, whether for evil or supposedly noble reasons, judge people not on their achievement but on their name, class, race, sex or religion -- in other words, when we become like most places the world over.”

--Victor Davis Hanson

How about this story from the Economist about former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who died this week:
As she prepared to make her first leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1975, a speechwriter tried to gee her up by quoting Abraham Lincoln:
   “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.

   "You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
   "You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer.”
When he had finished, Mrs Thatcher fished into her handbag to extract a piece of aging newsprint with the same lines on it. “It goes wherever I go,” she told him.
The Economist called Lincoln’s words “a fair summation of her thinking:”
Thatcher believed that societies have to encourage and reward the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs, who alone create the wealth without which governments cannot do anything, let alone help the weak. A country can prosper only by encouraging people to save and to spend no more than they earn; profligacy (and even worse, borrowing) was her road to perdition. The essence of Thatcherism was a strong state and a free economy.
A free economy, individualism, individual responsibility. True in the 19th century, true in the 20th, true today. A conservative path out of economic morass that grips our nation and Europe, along with an understanding--now 80 years old--that we owe our less fortunate a social safety net.

What’s truly, completely old fashioned today is the idea that our “betters” should rule over us ordinaries.  Again, from Thomas Sowell:
Implicit in the wide range of efforts on the left to get government to take over more of our decisions for us is the assumption that there is some superior class of people who are either wiser or nobler than the rest of us. Yes, we all make mistakes. But do governments not make bigger and more catastrophic mistakes?
Too many among today's intellectual elite see themselves as our shepherds and us as their sheep. Tragically, too many of us are apparently willing to be sheep, in exchange for being taken care of, being relieved of the burdens of adult responsibility and being supplied with "free" stuff paid for by others.
And from Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute:
America's poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.
Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. . . the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less. . . has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. . . billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan believed in progress, in the individual, in a better future. What is big government--progressivism, liberalism, social democracy--but an historic, outdated response to the Great Depression disaster; an overreaction influenced by Stalinist Russia’s and Nazi Germany’s 1930s economic gains, as both geared up for war?

The West, reduced to slow growth by the 1970s, saw real progress from 1979-83, after Thatcher and Reagan got a grip on their respective economies. Progress continued through the 1980s and 1990s as Soviet Communism collapsed, then Britain under Tony Blair and the U.S. under Bill Clinton and a Republican congress kept government restrained and achieved unparalleled prosperity.

Muslim extremism set back Western progress after 2001, again justifying big government and its ruling class ever alert to new reasons for hanging onto power. Though big government is once more choking economic growth in America and Europe, the hopeful movement toward individual freedom in politics (democracy) and in economics (capitalism) not only remains the logical alternative to stale Western social democracy, it is also the combination bettering lives, at least economically, in much of Asia, Mexico, and Brazil.

Hope and change.

Monday, April 08, 2013

God and Hollywood: Believers Push Back

Jill Abramson
"In my house growing up, The [New York] Times substituted for religion."

--Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times

Right. The New York Times as the liberal Bible. Here we have it, from one of the newspaper’s editors herself.

Hollywood and the media we know today seem shaped by baby boomers’ late 1960s rejection of the conformist lifestyle they knew as children and youth. Their determination to fight for civil rights, equal rights for women, and against the Vietnam war also meant breaking down the barriers organized religion’s conventional Christian values placed between them and a freer, “if it feels good, do it” lifestyle. In their shared university experiences, future members of our national elite learned to side--decisively--with science over religion.

But as Robert Tracinski, a conservative who writes at “RealClearPolitics,” noted, abandoning religion comes at a cost:
Modernist culture. . . sought to break down traditional values and rules but was unable to replace them with anything better. It left us in a cultural void where, as the New York Times . . . puts it, everyone is afraid that "serious commitment to any belief will eventually be subsumed by an opposing belief, rendering the first laughable at best and contemptible at worst."
In the second half of the 20th century, this corrosive Modernist skepticism brought us the ruling concept of contemporary popular culture: the "cool." Remember the original meaning of the term. To be "cool" is to be emotionally cool, to refuse to be caught up in enthusiasm. . . This is the sense in which James Bond was "cool." But by the end of the 20th century, the culture of cool increasingly came to mean a studied lack of response to values. It meant refusing to be carried away by enthusiasm about anything.
This is the void Hollywood sought to fill, as the well-known and recently deceased film critic Roger Ebert so well understood. Ebert, according to S. Brent Plate writing in the progressive “Huffington Post,” knew that “covering film was not simply to be relegated to the ‘entertainment’ section,”  because movies tap directly into people’s “dreams and fears and desires.”

Yet Hollywood--the dream factory--remains a cultural sewer for that part of the nation still clinging to traditional values. Believers are the people who flocked to the heretofore seldom-viewed History Channel to watch the recent miniseries "The Bible," for the moment making the channel the top cable network. “The Bible’s” March 3 premiere drew 13.1 million viewers, with last episode still holding 12.3 million viewers.

America’s 78 million Catholics, along with millions of other people of faith, have been encouraged by the selection of Pope Francis--a Jesuit priest devoted to the poor and focused on social justice--to head the 1.2 billion member church. As Walter Russell Mead, of the moderate American Interest, wrote about the saint whose name the new pope has taken:
St. Francis holds up a credible ideal for our time, an example that can speak powerfully to the values young people care about. But he’s also a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many. . . The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.
Difficult times indeed for believers, difficulties hardly overcome by a cable TV miniseries or a new pope. Mead, a non-Catholic, is very aware of how the erosion of faith affects those beyond Pope Francis’ flock, having earlier written that Protestant denominations:
are suffering from the same troubles that afflict the Church of Rome.  . . Textual criticism has challenged traditional views about the antiquity, accuracy and authority of the scriptures. The social consequences of cheap and easy birth control have opened a rift between traditional religious teachings about human sexuality and the ideas and behavior of many people in the West. The consumer society and the mass media associated with it constantly pull people, perhaps especially young people, away from Christian ideas even as an increasingly secular civil society pushes religion off to the side of the public square.
Mead identifies the New York Times specifically as a place “where hostility to all things Roman Catholic is a longstanding tradition,” singling out the paper’s Frank Bruni and his article, “The Wages of Celibacy:”
Bruni’s discussion of celibacy omits any possible benefits that might flow from this way of life. . . For millions of Catholic and Orthodox monks, priests and nuns down through the centuries, [celibacy] was a choice that they consciously made. They felt called to sacrifice earthly ties to deepen their relationship with God and to focus exclusively on serving him rather than tending families on earth.
As Mead says,
many great scholars and philosophers have [with Bruni] held [that] God either doesn’t exist or is so much in the background of things that he might as well not be there at all. Satisfaction is to be sought in the here and now; this life on earth offers all we need . . . Forget . . . mystical unions with Christ, forget the ecstasies of the saints, the Beatific Vision, the dream of fulfilling your life by picking up your cross and following Christ as closely as you can. Find an age-appropriate spouse of whatever gender works for you, and lead the rich and satisfying life of an upper middle class professional who enjoys the newspaper of record, and try not to think about old age, death, or anything else that suggests that the natural order is either incomplete or flawed.
That’s the view from Bruni, the New York Times, and much of our national elite. But even if you don’t relate in any way to organized religion, the challenge remains of finding meaning in life beyond an all-too-transitory pursuit of what feels good. Listen to Arthur Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute:
Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien "bourgeois" morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.
While the national elite mostly preaches a secular culture vividly portrayed by Hollywood, it's the poor who suffer most under Hollywood's value system.  Perhaps Pope Francis truly does offer hope in a largely poor and value-challenged world.