State of the Union

Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We Lose

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…

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A Long, Cold Lent: David Adams Richards’s Friends of Meager Fortune

I saved The Friends of Meager Fortune, the second novel I’ve read by Canadian Catholic author David Adams Richards, for the polar vortex. If anything can make Boston in January seem warm, it’s this relentlessly grim tale of the last days of man-and-horse lumbering, with horses crashing through the ice and bloodied hands freezing on the reins.

I’m conflicted about recommending the book. What is good in it is immensely powerful. The story of the doomed love of local failure/hero/failure again Owen Johnson and charity case/outcast Camellia Dupuis is suspenseful and deeply moving. Camellia is a luminous innocent who never becomes cloying. She’s gentle, in a profoundly ungentle world.

Even more moving, though, is the portrayal of the grim, death-shadowed men who work for Owen up on Good Friday Mountain, cutting down logs under shockingly dangerous and miserable conditions. The book would be worth reading just for the depictions of the horses, their pride and suffering, as they work themselves to death under the care of proud and suffering men. The economic suspense (will Johnson’s timber haul fail?) and the suspense of the work itself (who will survive the grim conditions on Good Friday?) are as tense as the romance, and the plot twists in these areas made me gasp several times.

And Richards acidly depicts the gossip and judgment of a small town, the way the gazes of our neighbors can destroy us. Read More…

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Companies and Conservatives Prepare for Oncoming Carbon Taxes

As the New York Times reported yesterday,

More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.

This information comes from a recent report issued by the Carbon Disclosure Project, a nonprofit that specializes in organizing environmental information. The CDP report finds major oil companies, Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart, Walt Disney Company, automotive supplier Delphi, General Electric, energy companies like Duke, and even technology companies such as Google and Microsoft all including a future carbon price in their planning. The internal company projections range across industries, but generally it appears that the oil companies are forecasting the highest carbon prices in their internal planning, with BP pricing $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, Exxon Mobil $60, and Royal Dutch Shell $40.

At least three companies, Disney, Microsoft, and Shell, already implement their own internal carbon taxes. According to the Guardian, these companies have been enforcing the price within their own organizations in order to drive down their carbon footprint and increase efficiency. Shell has the highest price of the three, and so only uses the price for planning purposes; no money actually moves around. Nevertheless, Shell officials told the Guardian that they have declined pursuing carbon-intensive projects that a $40 per ton price makes unattractive. Disney, on the other hand, prices and taxes themselves. The funds raised from the tax deposited in their “climate solutions fund.” Currently, they price approximately $10-20 per ton, and have raised $35 million. Microsoft has the most aggressive goal, of seeking zero net emissions this year, and has the correspondingly lowest price, approximately $6-7 per ton.

While there are a variety of motivations for aggressive carbon pricing, the oil companies, such as Shell, are seeking to be prepared for increasing concern in industrial countries about the effect of carbon emissions on global climate change. As there are a variety of proposals circulating the globe, they are seeking a predictable program that will let them stay in business.

In the September/October issue of The American Conservative, R Street’s Andrew Moylan laid out the conservative case for a carbon tax. He looked at the manner in which conservatives consistently denied any problems in the health care industry, leaving the ball entirely in the Democratic court and allowing Obamacare to be passed in the first place. Moylan then laid out a plan for getting conservatives out ahead of the curve. By making the tax revenue neutral, he proposed being able to pursue other conservative policy goals, such as a more growth-friendly tax code, in exchange for addressing climate change.

Such a strategy learns the best lessons on practicing opposition politics from the Viscount Bolingbroke. By addressing a danger widely acknowledged by those of good faith, but in a manner consistent with their principles, conservatives have the chance to wrong-foot their opponents by pursuing positive policies, rather than political stunts.


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The Anti-New Deal Legacy of the Pro-Density Movement

Joel Kotkin continues his battle against anti-sprawl activists:

[The Equality of Opportunity Project study] actually found the highest rates of upward mobility not in dense cities, but in relatively spread-out places like Salt Lake City, small cities of the Great Plains such as Bismarck, N.D.; Yankton, S.D.; and Pecos, Texas — all showed bottom to top mobility rates more than double New York City. And we shouldn’t forget the success story of Bakersfield, Calif., a city Columbia University urban planning professor David King wryly labeled “a poster child for sprawl.” Rather than an ode to bigness, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the study found that commuting zones (similar to metropolitan areas) with populations under 100,000—smaller cities that tend to be sprawled by nature—have the highest average upward income mobility.

Kotkin’s data points could stand to be unpacked; the citing of upward mobility rates in places like the Dakotas and Texas cries out for some kind of control for natural resource industries. And while Kotkin compares his Mountain West winners to New York, he conveniently declines to mention Left Coast cities like San Jose and San Francisco, which rank in the top five along with Salt Lake City for upward mobility.

But Kotkin is right to scratch his head at those who insist on the self-evident benefits of piling humans atop humans, at least in this sense: it runs contrary to the legacy of New Deal liberalism. As Michael Lind has argued, FDR-era liberals, in contradistinction to the Progressive era’s technocratic elite, “sought to shift industry and population from the crowded industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest”: “They did this through rural electrification based on hydropower projects, factories supplying the military and federal aid to citizens seeking to buy single-family homes in low-density suburbs.”

You might say this was the dialectic of the New Deal: a flurry of centralization whose goal was, in part, decentralization.

There will, of course, be those who maintain that Obamaites are the legatees of the Progressive left, as opposed to pro-middle class Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson liberals. (Stanley Kurtz, anyone?) But globalization is doing more to concentrate the cognitive elite and lock in the professionalization of the upwardly mobile than yesterday’s Progressives and today’s anti-sprawl activists could ever accomplish on their own. And Kotkin’s oil-and-gas hot spots will do little to change it.

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Why Conservatism Cares About Cities

Should conservatives care about cities? The question cropped up yesterday as conservative urbanists took to the web to argue that Republicans need cities, and cities need Republicans. Here at TAC, Samuel Goldman followed up to acknowledge the good that conservative policies could do for American cities but, he concluded, making urban inroads would require the national Republican Party to take measures that would drive out the party’s existing core of socially conservative support. The point is well taken, and not taken often enough by those in the urban bubble.

A richer question, though, is how much conservatives should care about cities in the first place. From Babel and Babylon, after all, the city has been made a symbol of moral decay. The fast-paced ways of big city living have long been decried as the undoing of community and family alike. For traditionalist conservatives in particular, less enamored than many of their compatriots with the upheavals wrought by commercial society, is there any reason not to condemn the whole enterprise as incompatible with the proper aims of life?

Bill McClay took up these questions in an almost lyrical consideration of the city a few years back, and it’s worth revisiting to remind ourselves, beyond the stratagems and calculations, why conservatism cares about cities.

Read More…

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Obama Should Green-Light Keystone Pipeline

In a recent column mocked by liberal bloggers, David Brooks earnestly suggested that President Obama, Senate Democrats, and the House GOP should “rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust” by working on a series of “realistic, incremental laws.”

With tongue nowhere near cheek, I think there’s a policy snag where this approach makes perfect sense: and that’s the Keystone XL proposal to build an oil (or, rather, bitumen) pipeline that stretches from Canada to Texas.

This should be a no-brainer at this point. The Obama administration’s refusal to approve the pipeline shadily cited a lack of time to review the proposal; a presidential statement last year noted that the delay was “not a judgment on the merits of the pipeline.” Well, time has passed. Environmental impact has been studied.

As the editors of the Washington Post observe:

TransCanada has reapplied with a new proposed route, and this week Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed off on the plan, following an analysis from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The regulators found that the new route would avoid the Sand Hills and other areas of concern. Though there is always some risk of spill, they said, “impacts on aquifers from a release should be localized, and Keystone would be responsible for any cleanup.” TransCanada will have to buy at least $200 million in insurance to cover any cleanup costs.

Adding to that, a letter signed by 53 senators, including nine Democrats, urged Obama to go ahead with the pipeline. “There is no reason to deny or further delay this long-studied project,” it said.

The decision to delay the pipeline reeked of election-year politics. Needless to say, the political calculus has changed. There’s a view that the rhetorical privileging of combating climate change in Obama’s second Inaugural Address will make it hard to throw environmentalists under the bus over Keystone. I think it makes it easier. Approving the pipeline offers Obama a small Nixon-to-China-like opportunity to say something like, We can safely fulfill our energy needs now while laying a foundation for a clean-energy future.

Back to Brooks’s point: Green-lighting the Keystone pipeline would be a relatively politically painless gesture of good faith to Republicans at the outset of what will likely be a series of contentious budget negotiations—a chance to show that he’s still the pragmatic problem-solver he has always claimed to be.

Last year, the administration pleaded for more time.

Seems to me, time is up.


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Crunchy Con Councilman

A newly-elected Democratic city councilman from Staunton, Virginia, concludes that his environmentalism stems from conservative values, rather than progressive ones:

For my part, I think that many of the innovations of the fossil-fuel era may ultimately bring more danger than benefit, whether it’s personal cars, coal-fired electricity or the whole chemical industry. This view is making me pretty conservative. Indeed, I’ve gotten so conservative that I can’t help from applying Pollan’s rule to nearly any story in the news:

  • GMO foods? Guilty until proven safe to eat and safe to grow for today and future generations.
  • Political campaign Super PACs? Guilty until proven not to corrupt our democracy.
  • Hydrofracking for natural gas? Guilty until proven not to contaminate water supplies.

This approach basically turns upside down the usual American love of novelty. For the real conservative, what’s New is probably not Improved. As Edmund Burke, one of the founders of conservatism, said: “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

If your first reaction to any kind of new whiz-bang technology is “Gee, that sounds cool!” then you’re certainly no conservative. Smart phones? Gene therapy? Robots on the battlefield, on an assembly line or vacuuming your living room? For the real conservative, they’re all suspect from the outset.

Now, most of the people I respect and admire who are fighting climate change, re-localizing their economies and standing up for conservation and clean energy, wouldn’t want to call themselves conservative. They seem to prefer “progressive,” which sounds like the opposite of conservative. … But these days, is progressive really such a good way to talk about people who really just want to save what we already have or bring back what we used to have?

I’m not sure how I feel about applying the Pollan Test–the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma advised against eating anything your grandma wouldn’t recognize–to public policy, nor do I think that’s a reliable litmus test of whether something’s conservative or not, but he’s got some interesting ideas here that go beyond Luddite-ism.

That’s not to say he’s right on the merits. Banning GMO foods would cause starvation, banning fracking would be a wild overreaction, and Super PACs are one of the least objectionable aspects of campaign finance. It does strike me as a characteristic assemblage of regional grievances though; the Shenandoah looks South and West, down its nose, into coal country, animating resistance to fossil fuel mining. Only recently a swing state, Virginia was deluged in political advertising this cycle both from campaigns and outside groups.

As for the GMOs, Staunton is about a half hour up the road from Joel Salatin’s farm. Salatin should be familiar to TAC readers, he was featured on the cover last year and profiled by Lewis McCrary in 2009.

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Coal — Or: The Mitt Romney Pander Few Will Remember

Yuval Levin’s election postmortem reduced the Democratic party to “an incoherent amalgam of interest groups,” in contrast to the Republican party, which is “much more of a real party,” that is, one that’s devoted to the “good of the whole.”

The Romney campaign, however, did not appear to me to be above micropandering.

One of its targets in this regard was the coal industry, which Romney eagerly stoked with rhetoric about Obama’s “war on coal” and a “job-killing” Environmental Protection Agency run amok. It was an acrobatic flip-flop even for Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts, held a press conference in front of a coal-fired power plant in Salem, Mass., and declared, “That plant kills people.” This, in addition to embracing (if only temporarily) the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a plan to combat climate change involving nine northeastern states.

I wrote a post in September recalling my personal acquaintance with coal, and my family’s dependence on it. I have tremendous  sympathy for miners who feel like their livelihoods are being assaulted by nameless bureaucrats. That the coal industry has been more strenuously regulated by the Obama administration isn’t simply a myth perpetrated by shadowy energy titans whose last name rhymes with “Coke.”

Yet it’s becoming increasingly clear to me, middle-class child of coal, that coal’s biggest enemy isn’t government, but rather markets, disruptive technology, and a quest for greater energy efficiency.

Steven Mufson of the Washington Post has a great long-form story that tells the tale. That plant that Romney accused of killing people? It’s slated to be torn down in 2014 — and replaced by a natural-gas-fired unit:

“When we were first looking at the overall project, it really was a toss-up as to whether it would be more the environmental rules or the gas price that was going to drive coal plants to shut down,” said [power company executive Peter] Furniss, 45. “It now is very clearly the gas price.”

Salem Harbor is a case study of how the shale gas revolution is overthrowing assumptions about energy by undercutting coal prices and usurping it as the nation’s fuel of choice for electric power generation.

Across the country, utilities are switching from coal to cheap natural gas. In April, for the first time, natural gas pulled even with coal as a fuel source for power plants. Through August, the use of coal to generate electric power had tumbled 17 percent while the use of natural gas jumped 27 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As of July, companies had announced plans to close down 30 gigawatts of coal-fired plants, or about 10 percent of the nation’s total coal plant capacity, by 2016, according to a study by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm. These aren’t models of efficiency; the EIA says that the average coal-fired generator to be retired this year is 56 years old.

Overall, this transition might cause the loss of jobs in some coal mines, but it is also creating jobs in areas rich in shale gas. Moreover, the gas glut is cutting utility bills for households and businesses, giving a much-needed boost to the lackluster economy. …

Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal does in a power plant. In the first quarter of 2012, carbon dioxide emissions from coal burning fell to the lowest level for any quarter since 1986, according to the EIA.

Overall, U.S. greenhouse emissions fell to their lowest level in 20 years, though warm weather last winter and lower gasoline consumption also played roles. Still, the United States is roughly on track to meet the reduction in greenhouse gases that President Obama has pledged to hit by 2020.

In his heart, I suspect Mitt Romney knows all this. But he was trying to win an election, for pete’s sake.

To mortgage your political soul like that and still come up short — that’s got to leave a mark.

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Trying to Get A Straight Answer on California’s Carbon Caps

Rod Dreher posted today that he doubts there’s the political will for a major Kennedyesque effort to do something about climate change. An officer in the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus–the first state to institute an economy-wide cap-and-trade program–and contributor to several progressive publications like DailyKos, ClimateProgress, and Grist, took issue (full storify here):

Read More…

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Infrastructure and the Future of the Economy

Last month, Walter Russell Mead published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal criticizing our fixation on infrastructure. Mead acknowledges that building canals, railroads, bridges, and the like, is a traditional function of federal and state government. But he argues that continuing to do so in the future is bad policy.

The main reason, according to Mead, is that the Internet makes the physical movement of people and goods much less central to prosperity. In the 21st century:

The challenge isn’t to move more meat [for example]; it is to move more information more effectively, and to re-engineer business practices and social organization to take full advantage of the extraordinary efficiencies that the Internet affords. The rush-hour rituals of the 20th century aren’t destined to continue to the end of time. Telecommuting, flextime and mini-commutes to satellite offices will change the way we work.

This argument is superficially appealing. It’s also dangerously misguided. Mead is correct that brick-and-mortar projects are not a cure for unemployment. But he’s wrong to conclude that they’re unnecessary because we can all just telecommute or do our shopping online. Retail, hospitality, healthcare, and other industries that require on face-to-face interaction are currently and are projected to remain among the largest sectors of employment. People need to show up for those jobs.

There’s no better illustration of this point that the ongoing effect of Hurricane Sandy. As Nicole Gelinas points out in City Journal, the greatest threat to New York’s economy is the destruction of physical infrastructure like power stations and the immobilization of its transit system.

You might imagine that Wall Street bankers, say, could just log on from home. But they can’t work when the lights are off. And they’ll starve unless an army of cooks, salespeople, dishwashers, and so on can make the long journey from New Jersey and the outer boroughs to the more fashionable neighborhoods where they’re employed. As Gelinas puts it, “the info-economy is utterly dependent on the unfashionable infra-economy. If the river annexes your subway tunnels and electrical substations, no government agency heroically intervenes, and grocery stores stay shuttered, you aren’t going to be designing social-media apps in your bedroom.”

Gelinas’s reference to government is crucial. Infrastructure systems like transport networks and the power grid  are simply too big and complicated be built and sustained by private industry alone. They require government support to function even under ordinary conditions, let alone the challenges posed by a natural disaster.

Many conservatives dismiss such support as wasteful. They’re wrong: subsidies for infrastructure are economically productive when they’re directed toward real needs, such as moving people around New York City. It is politically difficult to limit support to useful purposes: Amtrak loses money, for example, because it’s forced to provide little-used long-distance service rather than focusing on the Northeast Corridor, where it is competitive with travel by air or car. And there is such a thing as overinvestment in infrastructure: China has had problems with building too much, too fast. But fights about the best use of limited resources are worth having, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

American statesmen used to understand the role of infrastructure as a condition of prosperity rather than an end in itself. For some of the background, see James Pinkerton’s piece on the “American system”. We are, admittedly a long way from the Erie Canal. As our governments face tough decisions about where and when to spend, however, we should not let promises of a wired future blind us to our economic and political history.

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