Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.
That generality—“the world.”
I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.
Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.
And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.
With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks
to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.
Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.
This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.
Today’s Supreme Court oral argument, in the case of Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, is correctly understood to pit defenders of religious liberty against those who believe that the government has a compelling interest in requiring employers to provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization services through their healthcare policies. In significant part, the case hinges on whether the companies—privately held businesses whose owners are unquestionably deeply religious individuals, and who run their businesses informed by those views—can be considered “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I, like many Christians, hope their case prevails.
But while the businesses are often characterized as “family-owned businesses,” each is a national business with hundreds of employees and multi-state operations. Hobby Lobby is by far the larger chain, with 640 stores that employs 28,000 individuals. While it has religiously-themed goods, plays Christian music, and closes on Sundays, in most respects it is identifiably a “big-box” store that can usually be found in major retail corridors, surrounded by acres of concrete and provisioned largely by merchandise made in China. While it is a “family-owned” business, it is hardly a mom-and-pop shop.
The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. It is almost wholly disembedded from any particular community; its model, like that of all major box stores, is to benefit from economies of scale through standardization and aggressive price-cutting, relying on cheap overseas producers and retail settings that are devoid of any particular cultural or local distinction. The setting where one finds Hobby Lobby near us—on Grape Road in nearby Mishawaka—is about as profane imaginable a place on earth, accessible by six lanes of concrete roads where there is a heavy concentration of large chain retailers, where it anchors a sensory-deadening row of retail store fronts that border acres of cracked and barren pavement, awash in discarded plastic bags and crumpled fast food wrappers. On the rare occasion that I enter the store, even amid the Chinese mass-produced crosses and the piped in Christian music, under the endless florescent lighting and displays carefully-managed to optimize impulse buying, I am hardly moved to a state of piety, prayer, and thanksgiving. I am, like everyone else, looking for the least chintzy item at the cheapest price.
Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. He described a sea change of economic practice that took place especially beginning in the 19th-century, but whose theoretical groundwork had been laid already in the 17th- and 18th-centuries by thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. “Ultimately that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system.” Read More…
As coverage of the standoff between Russia and Ukraine continues and debate over America’s role in the conflict rages on, two crucial players have stepped forward to offer support to Russia: China and India. While no assumptions can be made about China’s diplomacy with Russia, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an economic superpower would protect its trade agreements in the region. China is Ukraine’s second largest trading partner, a partnership worth $7.3 billion dollars a year, with a target of $20 billion by 2017.
China likely has no intention of endangering its profitable relationships in the face of geopolitical conflict. There is no indication that China will publicly condemn Russia’s actions: it may instead carefully weigh its options with regard to its political alliance with Russia and future economic opportunities with Ukraine. China has paid lip service to Ukraine, but that may change as the situation develops. A spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry reasserted its non-interventionist policy, but left room to switch platforms if it became expedient:
It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today. China will follow the development of the situation closely and call on relevant parties to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to uphold regional peace and stability.
As it currently stands, China has not made a definitive move towards either Russia or Ukraine. Joel Wuthnow, a China analyst writing for the National Interest, suggests that China may side with its previously established economic relationships: “In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then-president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance.” Much of China’s diplomacy springs out of its business partnerships, and thus far Ukraine does not seem to be an exception. But China also has no interest in estranging Russia, especially after Presidents Putin and Jinping appeared together in public at the Sochi Olympics, sending a signal of solidarity as the Western media raked Putin over the coals. Shannon Tezzi of The Diplomat posits that in spite of deep philosophical misgivings, China will put its developing relationship with Russia above its own political agenda, at least in this case. But public support of Russia is not without risk.
What’s confusing is why India has decided to come forward. Read More…
Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”
We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.
I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.
In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)
Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.
For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!
A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.
I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.
Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.
Bill Kristol does not.
Last week, just as the East Coast descended into a terrifying world of ice and snow, Norm Ornstein proposed “A Plan to Reduce Inequality: Give $1,000 to Every Newborn Baby.” As Ornstein described the details:
It is called KidSave, and it was devised in the 1990s by then-Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, with then-Senator Joe Lieberman as cosponsor. The first iteration of KidSave, in simple terms, was this: Each year, for every one of the 4 million newborns in America, the federal government would put $1,000 in a designated savings account. The payment would be financed by using 1 percent of annual payroll-tax revenues. Then, for the first five years of a child’s life, the $500 child tax credit would be added to that account, with a subsidy for poor people who pay no income. The accounts would be administered the same way as the federal employees’ Thrift Savings Plan, with three options—low-, medium-, and high-risk—using broad-based stock and bond funds. Under the initial KidSave proposal, the funds could not be withdrawn until age 65, when, through the miracle of compound interest, they would represent a hefty nest egg. At 5 percent annual growth, an individual would have almost $700,000.
By reviving a Democratic communitarian policy proposal from the 1990s, Ornstein, a resident scholar at AEI, would probably wind up pegged in the camp of what Ben Domenech branded the “Beltway Burkeans” in an essay last summer. Domenech said, “The Beltway Burkeans talk a good game about shifting the right’s coalition, but the truth is that their agenda represents a much more modest shift, in large part a reworking of the same ideas they’ve been pitching for years.” Domenech argued this Washington-centric view could hobble Republicans by disconnecting them from the populist opportunity that the Tea Party uprising afforded them. To Domenech, “A bolder approach to remaking the coalition would ditch the false promise of technocratic paternalism in favor of a bias toward individual liberty and a rediscovery of the populist agenda.” Paine is the Republican future, not Burke, then. And to the small-government populists, Ornstein’s closing sentiment, “If the cost, in the end, were even $20 billion a year, that is chump change in a $17 [tr]illion economy—and, of course, money that would all be invested in America,” is anathema.
Yet if one thumbs back through history, Tea Party favorite Thomas Paine proposes a roughly similar policy agenda. In his 1795 pamphlet Agrarian Justice, Paine makes the Rousseauean natural law case that “The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized. … Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state.” While acknowledging the property right of those who have improved the land and thus created wealth from it, Paine held that those landowners owed the community a “ground rent” for the value of the land before improvement, which belonged to the whole human race equally. So Paine sought to remedy civilization’s poverty, by providing out of that ground rent (collected as a 10 percent estate tax as the improvers of the land turn over) a sum of 15 pounds sterling to every person upon reaching their 21st birthday. Read More…
Gov. Scott Walker has fashioned a reputation as a fiscal steward and political survivor. He made some tough choices during a severe economic downturn and turned a budget shortfall (how much of one is a matter of some dispute) into a surplus and, for his troubles, faced down a partisan recall effort.
With a nearly $1 billion projected budget surplus expected next year, Walker wants to slash property and income taxes as he heads into reelection this fall — a move many say could also grease a 2016 presidential bid should he decide to run.
The interesting, and to my mind, encouraging, thing is that the move, which will cost Wisconsin an estimated $860 million over two years, has met with skepticism from some Republicans in Wisconsin. Bade reports that “he’s facing headwinds from a handful of Senate Republicans who say the tax cuts should come after paying off a slew of unpaid bills due in just a few years. Walker’s plan would actually worsen the longer-term deficit outlook.” One state Republican senator told Politico, “The tax plan sets us up for a very bad time in the future.”
And Walker would do well to listen to him—because if he’s truly eying a run in 2016, he’s badly misreading the mood of the national electorate and even of congressional Republicans. The salience of revenue-reducing tax cuts as a plank in the national Republican platform has diminished over the years, as gains in income have been concentrated among a small cohort of already-wealthy voters. Recall: Mitt Romney, if only vaguely, promised to pay for lower tax rates by limiting deductions. Rep. Paul Ryan’s most recent budget proposal also was revenue neutral. Sen. Mike Lee’s barebones tax reform proposal is possibly revenue-negative, but it hasn’t been scored and, as written, won’t see the light of day.
The bottom line is that the GOP isn’t anxious to return to the playbook of the Aughts. In his first presidential campaign, Gov. George W. Bush warned against letting Washington get its hands on projected budget surpluses—“the people’s money”—so he promised to cut taxes instead. In office, Bush drained federal coffers of the surpluses—and then some.
Governor Walker is foolish to think Republicans, let alone the electorate in general, want to see that movie again.
When we debate affirmative action, it’s hard to get hard data. We can check how often identical resumes with white and black names get called back for interviews, but it’s hard to check whether a quota system changes those callback rates over time, or whether affirmative action creates a stigma against the people who are hired under the policy.
It’s pretty rare that public policies are ever tested properly (see Obama’s Innovation Centers, which “test” health policy without ever running controlled trials), but, due to a quirk in India’s election law, we have real-world data about the consequences of one case of quotas and affirmative action.
India set quotas for women’s representation for chief councillor on village councils. In other words, in a randomly selected subset of villages, only women were allowed to stand as candidates. A team of researchers conducted surveys before and after villages were governed by women and was able to isolate the effect of the quota system on villagers perception of women as leaders.
In the villages that had been forced to elect women, villagers were significantly more likely to rate women as competent leaders than in the villages that hadn’t been subject to the quota. The researchers were studying their reactions to women candidates generally, not attitudes about the specific woman leader elected, so it’s possible that individuals were still resented or felt singled out in the manner that Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria and others describe. However, being exposed to a woman governing was enough to shift voters’ general attitude, even though she hadn’t won in a purely meritocratic election.
One reason the quota system may have produced results is that we never live in a pure meritocracy. There doesn’t need to be any malice aforethought or deliberate discrimination to derail meritocracy. After all, we’re still fumbling to find reliable measures of merit. Even rich, data-driven companies like Google have had to scrap their interview questions and GPA cutoffs when they found their measures of merit weren’t producing results. (A similar process occurs in college admissions, but given the incredible diversity of post-secondary education, and the vagueness of what a “good match” entails, I’ll stick to other domains for examples.) Read More…
Center-right wonks are increasingly optimistic that the next Republican nominee will have a real agenda to promote—one that’s attractive to all voters, not just white owners of capital.
There’s the focus on overhauling antipoverty programs from Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan. There’s the family-friendly tax plan of Sen. Mike Lee. There’s the brave gesture in the direction of prison reform from Lee and Sen. Rand Paul.
To be sure, this agenda is still bones and no flesh.
In the meantime, an equally important development is underway.
Byron York reported from the recent House Republican retreat:
At the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Md., Thursday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on GOP lawmakers to take a new approach to the nation’s economic anxieties. Dividing his remarks into four categories — Obamacare, jobs and economic growth, the middle-class squeeze, and opportunity — Cantor’s goal was to try to identify specific problems middle-class families are facing and spark discussion on conservative solutions that might help those families.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cantors presentation was that it included a recognition that in the past Republicans have focused more on the nation’s employers than employees, have talked about small business owners and entrepreneurs to the exclusion of the far greater number of Americans who don’t own their own businesses.
“Ninety percent of Americans work for someone else,” Cantor said, according to a source in the room. “Most of them not only will never own their own business, for most of them that isn’t their dream. Their dream is to have a good job, with an income that will allow them to support their family.”
“We shouldn’t miss the chance to talk to these people,” Cantor continued, according to the source, “which is why we will present and pass our plans to relieve the middle class squeeze.”
This shift in tone and emphasis is key to any hope of a Republican winning the White House again. It is a not-so-subtle rebuke of the disastrous Romney campaign and its self-satisfied and divisive “Yes, I did build that!” rhetoric. It’s the human-interest frame in which to hang the Ryan-Rubio-Lee-Paul reform agenda.
After Ryan’s 2012 convention speech, I wrote:
In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?
There’s an old saying that American politics is fought “between the 40 yard lines.” This is half-true. It skips over the matter of which football field we’re playing on. For the last five years, we’ve been fighting between the 40 yard lines on the football field of low inflation and deficit reduction—spending cuts vs. new tax revenue. What, if anything, to do about long-term unemployment and underemployment is another field altogether—and we barely play on it.
The field on which elite Republicans would like to fight is that of cheap labor, tight money, balanced budgets, hawkish foreign policy and low taxes on capital. On this field, amnesty and gay marriage are between the 40 yard lines.
Not to single her out, because there are all too many Republicans like her in Washington, but this is Jennifer Rubin’s field.
It’s the way to defeat again in ’16.
Cantor’s advice to his Republican colleagues is a critical first-step in ensuring that, for the next campaign, the GOP is between the 40 yard lines and on the right football field.
Conventional wisdom says the Obama administration is effectively toast if Republicans capture the Senate this fall. I’ve peddled it myself, and I’m not certain it’s wrong. But here are a few reasons why it might be:
His agenda is dead anyway. What the moral-equivalence mainstream vaguely calls “dysfunction” is really a poisonous dynamic in which compromise, the mere scent of it, politically lifts Obama and splits Republicans. Of immigration, Carl Hulse writes this morning:
Republicans knowledgeable about the issue said immigration was not yet completely off the table. Instead, they said, reaching any agreement has become appreciably harder because of a Republican reluctance to get caught up in an internal feud and stomp on their increasingly bright election prospects.
This is why new gun regulations were never going to pass. Or tax reform. Or tweaks to Obamacare. Or an extension of unemployment insurance. Looking back, it’s obvious that Congress would pass nothing of any significance after November 2010. This is a pitfall of divided government. You can blame James Madison if you like. (Garry Wills once made a provocative case that our notion of Madisonian checks and balances is so much mythology—an argument for another day.)
Arguably the only thing that President Obama and Congress have accomplished since the GOP House takeover is a sharp reduction in short-term budget deficits. Neither party has benefited politically from this accomplishment. Nor has the economy improved appreciably. Rather, it has probably been dragged down. (One day, historians will look on the period of 2011-13 and unanimously conclude it was utter madness.) Consequently, both sides have wisely given up on debt and deficits for the meantime.
There is the issue of judicial and executive branch appointments. But the heavy lift on those probably has already taken place.
Things may actually improve slightly under a unified GOP Congress. Look at it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, their next prize, obviously, will be the White House. That’s a different ballgame altogether—a bigger, browner electorate. Suddenly the imperative to obstruct the Obama agenda begins to recede. A different incentive structure will take shape: the party will have to govern, or at least appear as though it’s trying. As Hulse writes in the Times, some Republicans “believe it would be smarter to wait until after the midterms and pursue immigration in 2015 leading up to the presidential election,
when Republicans will be more motivated to increase their appeal to Hispanic voters. If the midterm goes their way, they will be strengthened in Congress.
The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP desperately wants an immigration bill. Obama desperately wants an immigration bill. With control of both the House and Senate, the GOP could write a bill that’s more to its liking than the dead-in-the-water bill the Senate passed last summer. And Obama will have no choice but to sign it. It’s the last feather in the cap of his legislative legacy, with the White House now set to pursue the Podesta strategy on unilateral executive action.
If it takes losing the Senate to pass immigration, Obama should welcome it. Come 2017, he’ll be working on his memoirs and running a foundation.
Speaking of the next presidential campaign…
“Republican Congress” will make for a juicy target in ’16. In 1996, President Bill Clinton had great fun turning the moderate Sen. Bob Dole into the sidecar villain of Speaker Newt Gingrich. There’s little reason to think the next Democratic nominee, whoever he or, ahem, she turns out to be, won’t be able to repeat the trick.
If, however, the trick proves unrepeatable—if the attack line that Republicans are extremist refuseniks loses its punch—it will have been due to some kind of thawing in the great cold war between Obama and Republicans. It will have been due to something like, say, the passage of immigration reform (see point two above), plus one or two other major compromise measures. Which, as far as Obama is concerned, would be all to the good.
Put it this way: if Republicans win the Senate, the prospects for getting something through Congress may brighten for Obama. And if they don’t brighten, his frustration—and the country’s—will ultimately redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton, who is faced with a uniformly depressing and horrendous array of potential GOP contenders.
Out of the Republican retreat on Maryland’s Eastern shore comes word that the House leadership is raising the white flag of surrender on immigration. The GOP will agree to halt the deportation of 12 million illegal aliens, and sign on to a blanket amnesty. It only asks that the 12 million not be put on a path to citizenship. Sorry, but losers do not dictate terms. Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO says amnesty is no longer enough. Illegal aliens must be put on a path to citizenship and given green cards to work—and join unions.
Rep. Paul Ryan and the Wall Street Journal are for throwing in the towel. Legalize them all and start them on the path to citizenship. A full and final capitulation. Let’s get it over with. To understand why and how the Republican Party lost Middle America, and faces demographic death, we need to go back to Bush I.
At the Cold War’s end, the GOP reached a fork in the road. The determination of Middle Americans to preserve the country they grew up in, suddenly collided with the profit motive of Corporate America. The Fortune 500 wanted to close factories in the USA and ship production abroad—where unions did not exist, regulations were light, taxes were low, and wages were a fraction of what they were here in America. Corporate America was going global and wanted to be rid of its American work force, the best paid on earth, and replace it with cheap foreign labor. While manufacturing sought to move production abroad, hotels, motels, bars, restaurants, farms, and construction companies that could not move abroad also wanted to replace their expensive American workers.
Thanks to the Republican Party, Corporate America got it all.
U.S. factories in the scores of thousands were shut down, shedding their American workers. Foreign-made goods poured in, filling U.S. stores and killing the manufacturers who had stayed behind, loyal to their U.S. workers. The Reagan prosperity was exported to Asia and China by the Bush Republicans. And the Reagan Democrats reciprocated by deserting the Bush Republican Party and going home. But this was not the end of what this writer described in his 1998 book, The Great Betrayal. As those hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, fast-food shops, car washes, groceries, and other service industries also relished the rewards of cheap foreign labor, they got government assistance in replacing their American workers. Read More…