Noah Millman

There’s a Land That I See Where the Children Are Free

Now that Rick Santorum has made himself a footnote to history by blowing Michigan, I’ll take the opportunity to join the great “do kids make us free” debate. It starts here, with Santorum’s WSJ editorial, continues here with Will Wilkinson’s rejoinder in The Economist, and then goes here and here and here and here with Reihan Salam, Wilkinson Again, Salam again, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.

A huge amount of this debate revolves around a lack of agreement on what constitutes “freedom.” Is freedom a formal maximization of choice? Or a maximization of individuals’ ability to take advantage of life’s choices? Or the minimization of the experience of external constraint or control? Or is freedom, as Robert Frost said, “moving easy in the harness?”

I think it’s all of these, and to some degree they are mutually-reinforcing concepts of freedom. But not always.

The first and the second concepts are obviously at odds from a policy perspective. “Freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” are real freedoms. Aristotle thought only propertied men could be free for that very reason. If we want to be a society in which everyone is free in this sense, it’s going to cost money. The money has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is taxpayers – and taking their money reduces their freedom in the first sense.

The third and the fourth concepts are also at odds. The experience of constraint, in the process of acquiring a discipline, is what leads to the experience of freedom, in the sense of being able to practice the discipline fluidly. You can say, “well, but the government isn’t going to make you practice the violin” – but education policy is set by the government, and children do have the experience of freedom and the experience of constraint, and I don’t see why their experience is irrelevant if we’re totting up how much freedom a particular set of rules produces.

And I haven’t even gone into the idea that freedom is collective self-government according to the ethos of a particular society, which is what a great many people mean when they talk about freedom.

Will Wilkinson defines his free society thusly:

I don’t actually agree that social engineering through fiscal policy is unavoidable. Of course, every effective legal rule shapes choice. That’s the point of rules. The philosophically liberal ideal is to have rules that more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective. The illiberal idea is to have rules that compel everyone to conform to a substantive idea of how people should live that some of us reasonably reject. To live within such an order defined by such rules is largely what it means to be free, politically and economically.

That’s one definition – as I say, a great many people think being “free” means almost precisely the opposite of this, means being allowed to organize their society according to their society’s ethos without being constrained by outsiders or a class of guardians charged with limiting their free choice of rules (such as the military in Turkey or the Guardian Council in Iran – or, and I’m being deliberately provocative here, the Supreme Court in America or Israel).

And as I’ve argued with Damon Linker before, I think this vision is unworkable except in the context of an extremely minimal state. Should the state teach evolution or not? If you say yes, then you’re having the state “indoctrinate” a new generation in values that a very significant fraction of our society consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” If you say no, or if you say, “teach the controversy” then, from the perspective of those who care about the integrity of science, you’re “indoctrinating” a new generation in values that they consider abominable. Not a rule that “more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.”

When Rick Santorum said the following:

I understand why [Obama] wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.

He was talking about a very real experience of freedom, and a real conflict between the state wanting to prepare its citizens for a life that maximizes their freedom (in the sense of being able to take advantage of life’s choices – this is the state’s perspective on the kids’ freedom) and families who dissent from the moral value of some of those choices wanting to raise their kids the way they please.

So: can we get back to subsidizing family-formation?

The easiest way to defend the proposition on the grounds of freedom isn’t to say that pro-natal policies lead to economic growth, but to say that the decision to have children is a profoundly important one for many people, a life-defining choice, and that it is also an economically burdensome one. It’s very simple redistribution, no different, in principle, from the progressive income tax, but it’s a redistribution scheme that accounts for the fact that some decisions are more fundamental than others.

Raising a child, going to college and keeping a boat are all extremely expensive propositions. For pretty much everyone I know, the decision whether or not to raise a child is life-defining. For most people I know for whom this was a choice, as opposed to a given, or who have thought about the choice at all, the decision whether or not to go to college was life-defining. Indeed, it’s not just that they are both profound choices in and of themselves; it’s that they are gateway choices. If you don’t have children, you can’t have any of the wide range of life experiences that flow from having children. If you don’t go to college, a host of options, economic and social, will be relatively unavailable to you thereafter. People who can’t afford a child experience, in a profound way, a lack of ability to take advantage of the choices life offers. Ditto those who can’t afford to go to college. People who can’t afford a boat, not so much.

So, we care a lot about whether, as a society, we are making it possible for everyone with the talent and determination to go to college. And we should care a lot about whether, as a society, we are making it possible for everyone ready to make and see though the commitment to raise a family. And we should care only a little bit about whether, as a society, we’re making it easy or hard for people to keep a boat. (And yet we should care a little bit – I’ve had limited experience sailing, but from that limited experience I can tell you that there is a unique sense of freedom in being on the water, and it is a loss when people don’t have the opportunity to experience that, even once.)

You don’t have to affirm the choice to have children in order to see the case for subsidizing it as a case for increasing freedom, and you don’t have to go into an argument about whether such a policy would increase or decrease economic growth. You just have to recognize that kids aren’t a mere consumer good. They are life-shaping commitment that matters deeply to many, many people, and that we should therefore care about whether, as a society, we’re making it easy or hard to make that commitment.

So I want to go back to Wilkinson’s definition of a liberal society. He says, “The philosophically liberal ideal is to have rules that more or less everyone can affirm from within their own moral perspective.” And I think that’s too strong. I think the word should be “respect” rather than “affirm.” The stringency of “affirm” is what forces any society with significant moral disagreement – such as ours – either to cease being liberal (whether it acknowledges that change has happened or not) or to devolve into a minimal state (which, contra the more extreme libertarians, I don’t think maximizes human freedom). We want the state to do things that we don’t all agree on. So I think we should relax that stringency. We won’t affirm every rule from our own moral perspective. We should be able to respect them all, though. And because we as a society recognize that not all our rules are affirmed from every moral perspective, we should make room for alternative perspectives to flourish – which doesn’t mean only or even primarily protecting the individual dissenting conscience; it means allowing institutions to develop that promulgate ethoi that are divergent from the hegemonic liberal ethos.

This is what I mean when I say I want a dominant liberalism that is thick and humble rather than a liberalism that is thin and arrogant. Instead of limiting the number of fundamental commitments that a liberal state can endorse, but making those commitments absolutely mandatory (and dissent from them a reason for being banished from public discourse), I want liberalism to have the confidence to promulgate the fundamental commitments that it really believes in without shame, and the humility to recognize that significant numbers of people have good reasons for dissenting from those values, and that those people may, in the fulness of time, turn out to be right.

Finally, a few words on PEG’s and Reihan’s contributions. Reihan’s core argument is that pro-natal policies promote economic growth, and that economic growth promotes freedom because, basically, it makes more of everything possible. PEG’s core argument is that people, as active agents, are the only things that experience freedom, and therefore ipso facto more people equals more freedom, all else being equal.

I think Reihan should consider whether the question of the relationship of population to economic growth isn’t more complicated than that, unquestionably in the short run, but also in the long run. It’s not at all clear that we know the optimal rate of population growth to maximize long-term per-capital economic growth (which is what matters for his equation of economic growth leading to greater freedom). There may be circumstances where it is highly positive; there may be circumstances where it is low or even negative. The “birth dearth” that much of the developed world is experiencing had very positive consequences for economic growth in the short term (as the demographic “bulge” moved into the prime productivity years) and more negative consequences in the medium term (as the proportion of elderly grows larger). We don’t know what the long-term looks like, though. What we can say is that societies that experience population growth that outstrips their ability to provide economic opportunities go through very bad times indeed. You don’t have to be a Malthusian to believe that population growth can be bad as well as good, depending on the circumstances. (And I’m not going to go into the composition of populations – I’m not opening that can of worms in this post.)

As for PEG, I have to say, that perspective is historically un-French. France is notable within Europe for having a lower population density than its major neighbors (half as dense as Germany or the UK, for example). This disparity is not of recent vintage, and relates to a longstanding disparity in fertility rates. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the historically high quality of life in France relates in part to an appreciation precisely of that quality – and to an appreciation that, contra PEG’s contention, stuff is not people; rather, people appreciate stuff, but stuff has an independent existence, and if you have lots more people some kind of stuff will be harder to appreciate, or will even cease to exist. The historic French relationship with the land is in part a product of that relatively low population density. That relationship is very different from the American relationship – which is also related to historically low population density – but it’s also very different from the relationship in, say, the Netherlands.

I live in Brooklyn. I’ve obviously got no problem with living in a very dense space. And there is a unique kind of freedom that one experiences in a big city. But it is not the only kind of freedom. India is a less-free society with over a billion people than it would be if it had only three hundred million, even if per-capita income was the same – simply because there’s less room to stretch out, which is a very basic form of freedom from constraint.


Horses Still Racing

The realistic-worst-case scenario for the Romney campaign that I laid out on February 8th began:

He wins Arizona, which is winner-take-all, while Michigan is a split decision, with Romney winning his natural demographic and Santorum winning his natural demographic.

Depending on how the delegate split winds up looking in Michigan, and what the final margin is, that might be a reasonable description of what just happened.

The rest of that scenario involved Romney losing most the next twenty contests over the month of March: Washington, Alaska, Georgia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana, and possibly Ohio.

Could that still happen? Could Romney really go on that big a losing streak, winning only Wyoming, Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia (where Paul is his only opposition), Hawaii, Puerto Rico and (his one big win) Illinois?

Sure. It would require five things to happen:

  • There is no “rally around the obvious nominee” effect – GOP primary voters remain unconvinced that they have to give Romney the prize, and decide the subsequent contests based on their preference for who should win, not their impressions of who will win.
  • Angry conservatives out to bloody Romney’s nose again dominate the Washington caucus, and give Santorum a nice compensating victory.
  • The demographic factors that drove the vote in the February contests also drive the vote in the other March contests (which would mean Romney loses the Southern and border states by huge margins, loses the high plains states solidly, and I think loses Ohio narrowly).
  • Santorum raises the money to compete in those contests where he needs to spend to win (Ohio most prominently).
  • Gingrich doesn’t prove a spoiler, enabling Romney to win contests that would otherwise be out of reach by splitting the anti-Romney vote.

The first of these is the one that is the most uncertain, it seems to me. The media narrative tomorrow is going to be very positive for Romney. A three point win is close, but it’s clear, and unless the Romney campaign is totally incompetent (which, to be fair, they may well be) they should be able to spin this powerfully as Romney’s “Comeback kid” moment. That could move polls significantly – certainly in Ohio, possibly even in the border and high plains states, very likely in Washington. And movement in the polls will be self-reinforcing.

That rally effect usually happens eventually, because most partisan voters really want to vote for their party’s candidate, not have to choose the candidate. But it’s had a couple of chances to happen already and it hasn’t yet. It never happened in the 2008 Democratic race. Maybe it won’t, this time, ever?

If it doesn’t, the rest of the list looks pretty plausible. Even after winning Michigan, Romney could still wind up running a brutal gauntlet in March, and looking a lot more like a loser than a winner at the end.

But even in that realistic-worst-case, he’ll still be well ahead in delegates. And he’ll still be the only one with a plausible path to the nomination. And after California, New Jersey and Utah vote, he’ll have it. Assuming he still even wants it by then.

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For A Gentry With The Common Touch? Or For A Genuine Populism?

Ross Douthat, responding to my post about his column about Charles Murray’s book:

More than at any point in our history, the smartest people generally go to high school and certainly to college with one another, move en masse to “creative cities” after college, marry their fellow high achievers and then raise their kids in the cocoons of what Murray calls the SuperZips. The problem with this system isn’t that the meritocrats look down on working-class culture (though “Coming Apart” does get in plenty of digs at elite snobbery). Rather, it’s that the meritocrats don’t participate in working class culture, and that “assortative mating” and geographic clustering have deprived lower-income communities of the social capital (and with it, strong civic institutions, political influence, and so on) that the smart and diligent possess. In this sense, Murray’s analysis follows the late, great Christopher Lasch in arguing that meritocracy works almost too well: Plucking the best and brightest from every walk of life and then encouraging them to live in community almost exclusively with one another means that the rest of the country is deprived of people who otherwise would have been local leaders, local entrepreneurs, the hubs of local social networks, etc.

This explains why Murray’s general case for civic renewal at the end of “Coming Apart” includes a specific appeal to the new upper class, urging them to consider buying homes and joining local associations and raising their high-achieving children closer to the author’s blue collar “Fishtown,” and outside the cocoon of the SuperZIPS.

Douthat goes on to say that this solution is unrealistic because people won’t respond to exhortations like that against interest – but there’s another problem with the idea. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which these days is considered a “SuperZIP.” But it wasn’t always like that. What changed the neighborhood, bit by bit, was the combination of professional-class couples moving in, taking advantage of relatively low housing prices and willing to brave higher crime, inadequate services and housing stock in need of serious repair – and the efforts of community leaders with a deep attachment to place who were determined to do for themselves what the city was unwilling or (more often) unable to do.

The process sounds to me an awful lot like what Charles Murray recommends as the solution to the sorting problem created by meritocracy: take personal risks to get closer to working-class people, don’t hide out in your own gated communities.

And in Brooklyn, the word for that process is “gentrification.” And I’m all for it! It’s been great for Park Slope! But I can’t see how it’s a solution to the problems Murray is talking about.

On this, Douthat and I agree. We agree on a lot, actually. But not on one crucial, central thing.

As I said in my original post, I’m sympathetic to arguments against the ideology of meritocracy. But those arguments, it seems to me, take broadly speaking three forms.

First, you could argue that we don’t really have a meritocracy; rather, we have an elite that, like all elites, seeks self-perpetuation. The meritocratic innovations of earlier generations – like the creation of the SAT – really did open up the elite to a new class of people, but that’s all in the past, and now the elite is more concerned with making sure its kids stay in the ruling class than in making sure that children of the non-elite get a fair shot at moving up. I agree with this argument to a certain degree, particularly if you focus on the very negative impact of the worst schools on the prospects of the “best and brightest” among the poor.

Second, you could argue that sorting by IQ isn’t a great way to select a governing elite – that the very experience of early selection has a negative impact on character, and that the sharp narrowing of our rising elite’s life experience materially harms their ability to do their job well, which is to say: to govern our democracy. I agree with this argument as well – and the best evidence is the astonishing takeover of our elite universities by the financial services industry.

These are both arguments about how meritocracy doesn’t work perfectly in practice on its own terms, and I think they are important arguments to make. We want the doors to the elite to remain open to true merit, from whatever source; we want our elites to understand the country as a whole, and feel a responsibility to it commensurate with their power to shape it’s destiny, and not just feel that since they have great “merit” they deserve great reward.

But they are not arguments against the principle of meritocracy as such.

A third argument would be that meritocracy as such, however well it works at selecting the “best and brightest” for leadership, is only a partial approach to governing society; that in fact, meritocracy isn’t a parody of democracy, but a new – and, I would argue, better – form of aristocracy. (The word, “meritocracy” originates, after all, in a 1958 satire of Britain’s prospective new aristocracy based on test scores, and its literal meaning is identical to the meaning of “aristocracy” – to whit, “rule by the best.”) And for the health of a republic, this new aristocratic principle needs to be balanced by the democratic principle.

I would agree with this third argument as well – and this is the argument that I tried to make at the end of my last post on this subject.

Douthat and I will agree, I think, on many of the policy changes that could help improve the lives of working-class Americans. We both want to shift from payroll to consumption taxes. He favors wage subsidies; I favor a rise in the minimum wage; we both want to bring up wages at the bottom as a policy priority. I think we both favor scaling back or ending the mortgage interest deduction, to end the government subsidy of super-ZIP-dom. I think both left- and right-wing ideas for providing more financial support to families are worth exploring. And so forth.

Where we disagree, I think, is over the kind of politics necessary to achieve these goals – over whether, in a nutshell, right-wing populism is part of the solution or a big part of the problem. He thinks it’s part of the solution. I think it’s part of the problem, because right-wing populism is organized around the principle that class is a distraction, a way of dividing the nation, whereas class is precisely the issue.

As a matter of personal constitution, I’m an anti-populist. I don’t like right-wing populism and I don’t like left-wing populism. But “populism” is what the democratic principle looks like in action – a politics that organizes the people themselves, speaks with the voice of their hearts and looks out for their interests. I can see far enough beyond my own personal prejudices to discern that this principle is weak in America today, and a big reason is that the “party of the people” is resolutely committed to meritocracy (and its corollary, client-service liberalism) while the “grand old party,” historically the party of the elite (and don’t kid yourself, it still is, in economic terms) has parted ways with its one-time pragmatic/reformist wing (and we can debate who left whom all you like; the answer doesn’t matter for my purposes) in favor of full-throated right-wing populism.

It feels very strange to be arguing for the reemergence of a left-wing populist politics, because when and if such a politics emerges I’ll be arguing against it. But I’m increasingly convinced that it’s the essential missing element in dealing with the problems Charles Murray, Ross Douthat, David Frum and I are all concerned about.


I’ll Be Another George Bush, If That’s What You Want

I endorse pretty much everything in this David Frum hit on Romney’s Detroit economic speech.

When George W. Bush ran against Al Gore, his economic program was centered on poorly-conceived tax cuts. But at least you could argue (a) that we had a huge budget surplus, so the proper debate to have was over what to do with the money – pay down debt, reduce taxes, or increase spending – and (b) the previous President had increased marginal tax rates on ordinary income (though Clinton cut capital gains tax rates), so you’d expect a Republican to advocate swinging the pendulum back the other way. The real scandal of the Bush years, fiscally, isn’t that he cut taxes so much in 2001; it’s that he never reversed course (as Reagan did) in subsequent years once it became clear how big a fiscal hole we were in, and that he materially increased the long-term structural deficit with Medicare Part D.

And today’s context is just wildly different from the context of the 2000 primaries. Barack Obama has cut taxes in a Keynesian attempt to stimulate the economy; he hasn’t raised them. And we have a massive budget deficit due in part to the weak economic recovery, in part to structural factors related to entitlements, but substantially because effective tax rates are so much lower than their historic norms.

You want an alternative to “raise marginal tax rates” as a way of closing the gap? Here it is. Sounds like the sort of thing Romney might have considered interesting before he realized he still had to win the nomination. But if he does win the nomination on the back of speeches like the one he gave in Detroit, that fact will determine the platform he will be permitted to run on, and the kind of Presidency he will have should he win. That is to say: one ideologically committed to poor governance.

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Hollywood, Then And Now

Been away for a week on vacation, and just got back in time for last night’s Academy Awards. Apropos of which, a friend said last night, “I think I’ve seen more of the films nominated for the 24th Academy Awards than the films nominated for the 84th Academy Awards.”

It’s a very “Midnight in Paris” sentiment, and people say stuff like this all the time – and, indeed, in our age of cheap and easy access to extensive film back-catalogs, it is possible to indulge in one’s taste for the movies of yesteryear over those of today. But I thought I’d check if it was true for me. The answer: no, but yes, but no.

First, no: of the 55 films of 1951 nominated for awards, I’ve only seen four:  “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Strangers on a Train,” and “The African Queen.” I’m not sure how I’ve gotten to my advanced age without seeing “An American in Paris” or “A Place in the Sun” – I’ll have to fix that. And I’m curious about “Detective Story” and “Tales of Hoffmann.” But at first glance, that’s the list. And I didn’t really like “The African Queen” or “Alice in Wonderland” all that much. 1951 wasn’t my year, and isn’t likely to be.

By contrast, of the 61 films nominated from 2011, I’ve seen ten: “Beginners,” “Bridesmaids,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Margin Call,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Moneyball,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” and “The Muppets.” I didn’t love most of these – “Beginners” has a wonderful performance by Christopher Plummer, but the other two major roles are badly underwritten; “Bridesmaids” left me cold, “Midnight in Paris” is possibly the most overrated film since “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Artist,” which I enjoyed, is not, I think, built to last. But “Margin Call” was not only extremely well-written and well-acted but an extremely rare effort to accurately depict the culture of Wall Street, a genuinely “important” film. And “The Descendants,” if a little dull, and by no means my favorite Alexander Payne movie (and I generally like his work an awful lot) was important in its own small way, covering physical and sociological terrain (Hawaii, the rights and obligations of families with long-standing and profound ties to the land) not often covered in American films. I’m still eager to see other nominated films like “A Separation,” “Drive,” “Pina,” “Rango,” “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And some of my favorite films from 2011 – most notably “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene” – weren’t nominated.

But second, yes. Because I wondered: is it just something about the comparison with 1951? So I took a look at the 44th Academy Awards. Of the 49 nominated films, I’ve seen nine – one fewer than this year, but a higher percentage. The movies: “A Clockwork Orange,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Klute,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The French Connection,” “The Last Picture Show,” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That list includes one of my all-time favorite movies (Robert Altman’s alt-Western, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), four other movies I would watch again in a heartbeat (“Carnal Knowledge,” “The French Connection,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”) and two movies that are plainly significant and worth seeing even though I have major arguments with them (“A Clockwork Orange” and “Fiddler on the Roof”). And I’m not sure how it is I haven’t yet seen “Shaft,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or “The Sorrow and the Pity.” 1971, apparently, is more my year than either 1951 or 2011.

And what about the 64th Academy Awards? 1991 is an interesting year for comparison, because the 1990s was the decade of the rise of independent cinema, and the decade when the studios took more risk on individual scripts and individual concepts than they had since the 1970s. 1991 should look more like 1971 than like 1951 or like 2011. And, indeed, of the 44 nominated films, I’ve seen thirteen – the highest percentage and the highest number, which would suggest an affinity.

But then I took a look at the movies I saw: “Barton Fink,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Boyz n the Hood,” “City Slickers,” “JFK,” “Mediterraneo,” “Rambling Rose,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Commitments,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Thelma & Louise.” “Barton Fink” is a movie I’ve returned to more than once (usually when I have writer’s block); it’s one of my personal favorites. But none of the other movies on the list am I likely to see again. The two Costner films – “JFK” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” – I thought were catastrophes. “Boyz n the Hood” and “The Commitments” were both good, small-scale movies, but neither is a revelation; neither’s as significant as “Margin Call,” or as inventive as “Martha Marcy Mae Marlene,” or as resonant as “Take Shelter.” And “Rambling Rose,” a movie I have a lot of affection for, has two excellent performances – by Laura Dern and a teenage Lukas Haas – but I’m not sure it adds up to a totally successful movie. And of the nominated movies I didn’t see, I’m not sure I can find a single one that I’m sorry I missed. (“Bugsy?” “Backdraft?” “For the Boys?” “Grand Canyon?” “Hook?” “The Prince of Tides?”) Some day maybe I’ll get to “Cape Fear” or “The Fisher King” – but they aren’t very high on my list.

Meanwhile, there are three films on the list of movies I saw from 1991 –  “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Thelma & Louise” – that are unquestionably significant films. That’s three more than in 2011. But I have serious problems with all three of those films – problems with, for lack of a better way of putting it, their honesty. “Terminator 2” is, for me, completely ruined by its sentimentality. I can’t get the comic image of all those guards hopping on one leg because Schwarzenegger has shot them in the other when he’s ordered by the young John Connor not to kill people. It’s the perfect film for the New World Order in which we imagine we can make our killing machines antiseptic, and therefore moral. “The Silence of the Lambs” was pretty thrilling the first time I saw it, but the second time I frankly got bored – I could see the holes too easily – and I can’t get past the fact that the movie is structured to make us cheer for Hannibal Lecter to escape, simply because he’s so obviously more intelligent than his jailers (those jailers really have done nothing wrong to deserve being eaten by him). It could have been an interesting film if it took the audience on this journey and then brought us face-to-face with what we’d come to empathize with, but that’s not what it does – instead, it leaves us comfortable with that empathy, an empathy apparently shared by Clarisse Starling. It’s terrifying when you actually think about it, but the movie encourages you not to do so. And don’t get me started on “Thelma & Louise.” These are the movies that will be remembered from 1991, the movies that make people’s top-100-of-all-time lists, but they are all movies that I would rather argue with people about than see again.

If I had to rate things objectively, I’d say 1991 was a vastly better year for movies than 2011 – certainly a vastly better year for Oscar movies, films with both large themes and a potentially large audience. But rating things more subjectively, it’s less clear, because the “great” films of 1991 that make it stand out are films that, when it comes right down to it, I didn’t like that much more than I liked the “not-great-enough” films of 2011 – and in some cases, I liked them less.

All of which I guess boils down to an argument for having both personal taste and an objective sense of quality in artistry and craftsmanship, so that you can range across the present and the past with some degree of personal confidence. Which may not be much of a moral – but it’s more than Woody Allen gave us, and he got an Oscar for it.


Wages, Sin, Death

I really shouldn’t talk much more about Charles Murray’s book, since I still haven’t read it. (Maybe I’ll read it on break this week.) But I did want to respond to Ross Douthat’s “one cheer for Murray, one cheer for Frum” response to the book on his blog, as well as his most recent column.

Douthat says Murray gets three important things right that make his book worth reading:

First, he says, Murray “one of the strongest and most lucid explorations of the existing data on the long-simmering social crisis in working-class life, and the extent to which American society’s recovery from the dislocations of the 1960s and 1970s has been a recovery primarily for the upper middle class.” That’s a careful choice of word, “explorations” – indeed, it’s a word that doesn’t usually go with the two applied adjectives. (What’s a “strong” exploration? What’s a “lucid” exploration?)

The word that usually goes with those adjectives isn’t “explorations” but “explanations.” And one of Frum’s strongest criticisms of Murray isn’t that he offers no solutions, but that he doesn’t even offer a diagnosis – that his analysis of how we got here is thin to nonexistent. If true, that’s a huge, indeed fatal omission.

Second, he says, Murray “offers a convincing account of how meritocracy has exacerbated the problems that Murray describes . . . creating a self-reinforcing pattern in to those with much social capital, much more is given, while to those without, even what they have is taken away.” Again, I’ll need to read the book to see whether he gives such an account. I’m extremely sympathetic to criticisms of meritocracy as an ideology, as well as to criticisms about how meritocratic our system actually is (a rising class wins power and privilege by open contest, often overcoming handicaps to do so, but inevitably tries to pass that power and privilege on to its heirs, deserving or no).

But I still want to hear the mechanism by which meritocracy causes trouble for the struggling working class. I’m assuming the mechanism is that the self-perpetuating “winners” of society come not to care about members of the working class, and conspire to promote their own interests to the detriment of those of the working class. But such an argument requires a view as to what that conspiracy consists of – how working class interests are frustrated in the real world. Are they prevented from organizing politically? Or forming unions to promote their economic interests vis-a-vis their employers? Are their wages being forced down by high levels of immigration, or by free-trade? Are taxes diverted to projects and services that benefit the meritocratic elite, and diverted away from areas that are predominantly working-class?

If I understand correctly, the argument Murray makes is that the negative impact is cultural. The “cultural elite” looks down on working-class culture, and at the same time the cultural elite declines to promulgate their own, more stable lifestyles as an aspirational goal for working-class families. To caricature the argument, if wealthy people drank more Bud and went hunting more often, working-class men would work harder to emulate the wealthy by staying employed and marrying their girlfriends.

Implying that he takes this idea seriously, Douthat identifies as the third thing Murray gets right that he makes a strong case “for the power of so-called ‘traditional values’ to foster human flourishing even in economic landscapes that aren’t as favorable to less-educated workers as was, say, the aftermath of the Treaty of Detroit.” It remains true that thrift, industry, marriage, community involvement – these are surer routes by which to pursue happiness and prosperity than any other. But the job of a social scientist is to identify something resembling a causal mechanism. What encourages (and what discourages) thrift, matrimony, etc? In the absence of such a mechanism, a “case” isn’t really being made at all, much less a strong one – unless we really still need to hear a case made that these virtues are actually valuable.

And I really don’t think we do. Murray, after all, agrees that the right half of the economic bell curve does relatively well on the thrift/industry/fidelity axis. They may or may not “preach” that gospel (I hear it preached rather a lot, actually), but they don’t just practice it; they believe it.

Filling in what he sees as Murray’s gaps, Douthat’s most recent column identifies four ways that the government could actually make a difference to working class people:

“First, if we want the poor to be industrious, we should do everything possible to make their industry pay off.” Douthat suggests moving away from the payroll tax toward some other financing mechanism for entitlements. I am inclined to agree – the payroll tax is doubly regressive, both because of the cap and because returns to capital, ignored by the payroll tax, may really be returns to labor. I’m more skeptical of wage subsidies, which I suspect mostly depress pre-subsidy wages. Personally, I think it’s past time to revisit the question of the minimum wage, and whether it shouldn’t really be substantially higher than it is today. At a minimum, the conversation we should be having should be about how to get wages up at the low end. If that’s the acknowledged goal, we can have a good debate about the means to that goal.

“Second, if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young.” Agreed again – and I’m glad to see that Douthat is willing to say that left-wing approaches should be on the table here.

“Third, if we expect less-educated Americans to compete with low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America, we shouldn’t be welcoming millions of immigrants who compete with them domestically as well.” One can debate whether we’re actually “welcoming” millions of immigrants or whether we’re merely “permitting” them, but I agree here as well. It’s past time that we retool our immigration policies so that they serve the general interests of the American citizenry rather than the narrow interests of employers. That doesn’t mean closing the doors; it means revamping the system to select for immigrants that will add the most value. I agree with Ron Unz that a higher minimum wage would be very helpful in changing the political dynamic around imported labor at the low end of the wage scale. I think shifting from our current patchwork visa system and the “diversity lottery” to a system of auctioned residency permits would also be beneficial, improving the average skill level of immigrants, making enforcement much more straightforward (businesses who hired illegal immigrants would have defrauded the government by not purchasing a visa at auction, and could be fined some multiple of the fraud as damages) – and would bring in revenue to boot. But ultimately, the goal isn’t to avoid competition with foreign workers – we can’t avoid that entirely, and in many cases if we don’t import the workers we’ll wind up exporting the jobs. It’s to change the dynamic by which we talk as if having low wages is a competitive advantage for an advanced economy. It’s not. And if it isn’t, then if we’re importing large numbers of foreign workers specifically because they will work for lower wages, then we’re doing something wrong.

“Finally, if we want low-income men to be marriageable, employable and law-abiding, we should work to reduce incarceration rates.” The case for better policing and swift justice as both a more humane and a more effective anti-crime policy than mass incarceration is extremely strong.

What strikes me about the list, his original and my additions, is how traditionally liberal it is. The underlying assumption is that people, generally, want to work, want to marry, want to raise their kids right. Not everyone, of course, but the vast majority. We just need to make sure the system isn’t rigged against working people, but rather rigged, ever so slightly, in their favor, and not designed to create perverse incentives that undermine these virtues.

Most strikingly, there’s no “culture war” paternalism here. Douthat isn’t saying that the solution to working-class woes is a new evangelization. He isn’t saying that the way to get working class men to marry their girlfriends is to make contraception less available. I’m not saying he doesn’t believe those things would be good, nor even that he doesn’t think they would be helpful. I’m saying that recognizes either (a) that government can’t do much about them, or, more likely, (b) they are not central.

I call the list “traditionally liberal” because that’s what it is: FDR would recognize it, but so would Lyndon Johnson and so would Bill Clinton. “Raise wages at the low end” is a central traditional liberal goal. I see no reason why liberals would object to a higher child tax credit in principle – and Douthat acknowledges that the other “family policy” ideas on offer are liberal ideas. Immigration is an issue that, to some extent, scrambles categories, but I don’t think either what Ron Unz is advocating nor what Matt Yglesias is advocating are policies liberals should object to, and outright restrictionism hasn’t actually been the policy of conservative Republican Presidents in, well, in a very long time indeed (and if you go sufficiently far back in time, you’ll discover prominent restrictionists on the left as well as the right). And while crime policy today is also something that scrambles categories, sentencing reform is more a project for conservative intellectuals than a mainstream idea in conservative circles, and I think the alternatives to tough sentencing that Douthat alludes to would find a warm welcome in many liberal circles.

But I say “traditionally” liberal because there is a critique of meritocracy that is on-point here, but it’s one that, if Murray makes it, I don’t know how he squares it with his libertarianism. Meritocracy encourages people to believe that their power, wealth and status are earned. Which, to a certain extent, is true, but only to a certain extent. We don’t all start off equally-endowed with all talents, and not all talents are equally valuable in the marketplace.

There is a strain in liberalism – call it “client-service liberalism” – that is the liberal counterpart to conservative paternalism. This view holds that the solution to any social problem is to provide professional services to alleviate it. If, for example, there’s an upswing in teen pregnancy, we need more counselors to talk to teens about making good choices. If too many kids don’t have the skills to compete in the “new economy” then we need to “fix the schools” so that everybody can get a good job. And so forth.

Now, I’m a school-reform proponent in good standing, but “everybody” can’t get a “good” job if a “good” job is a job that requires higher education. Not everybody has the native talent to make it – and somebody still has to do those “bad” jobs.

Helping the working class starts out with a recognition that there will always be a working class – even if it earns its way into a middle-class lifestyle, and calls itself middle class. If we look at the jobs vast numbers of people do, and say, well, they should be low-paying because they don’t (or I don’t think they should) require that much skill, then we really are resigning ourselves to the progressive immiseration of a big chunk of society. If, on the other hand, we start from the proposition that a wealthy society shouldn’t tolerate such immiseration, then you can have a productive argument about what ways of preventing it will be most efficient and effective.

But, prior to having that technocratic argument, helping the working class requires that the working class have political organs through which to help themselves – or, rather, to protect their own interests. And when I look at today’s political parties, and non-party political actors, that’s what I see as most lacking.

I keep beating this drum, because I believe it. Overwhelmingly, Americans today are politically organized around culture. On the right, the strongest single political force is the conservative Christian political movement. This is not a working-class movement; the heart of Christian America is middle, maybe even somewhat upper-middle class. But it’s the biggest “populist” force on the right. And it’s not only not working-class, it’s not organized around class interests at all. And beyond the explicitly Christian right, the rest of the right is organized overwhelmingly around cultural appeals – that’s what the extreme belligerency of GOP foreign policy talking points is mostly about, for example. On the left, meanwhile, it’s still true that the big organizational muscle represents sociological/ideological interest groups and the social-service-providing sector. The big-gun unions are the NEA and AFSCME. Race- and gender-based advocacy groups are strong. There is not, on either side, an organizational structure devoted to advancing the interests of the working class as a class.

I don’t think the culture war is a conspiracy. Nor do I think that the issues that animate culture warriors on both sides are irrelevant – culture matters. And people care about these issues – certainly I do; I don’t lack opinions on these topics. But they are not the organizing basis of my political worldview. The culture war is an arms race that can’t be won because the median voter is at the median spot culturally; move him or her, and you move the political center – but if you’ve done that, you’ve already moved the culture, so why do you need to win an election on culture-war issues? Winning an election requires changing the culture, in other words, but changing the culture was the reason you were trying to win an election on these issues. (Obviously, at the margins there’s some cultural impact to each election, but I doubt the return on political investment is remotely adequate.) Meanwhile, the culture war is mostly just a reliable way to sort voters into political camps, so that politicians on both sides can win their votes without attending to their true interests. As such, the success of culture-war politics is one more barrier standing in the way of the development of a politics that could actually help working class America.


Santorum Is Extreme On More Than One Dimension

Jonathan Chait:

Santorum has attracted a terrible reputation among the overclass. He is defined by his crude, bigoted social conservatism, which colors the broader perception of him as an extremist. This in turn leeches out into a sense, often reflected in news coverage, which likewise reflects the social biases of the overclass, that Santorum is a fringe candidate who would repel swing voters.

In fact, there are, very roughly speaking, two kinds of swing voters. One kind is economically conservative, socially liberal swing voters. This is the kind of voter you usually read about, because it’s the kind most familiar to political reporters – affluent and college educated. But there’s a second kind of voter at least as numerous – economically populist and socially conservative. Think of disaffected blue-collar workers, downscale white men who love guns, hate welfare, oppose free trade, and want higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Romney appeals to the former, but Santorum more to the latter.

Of course, he hasn’t just attracted a terrible reputation among the overclass – he lost his last reelection bid by 18 points. But I think Chait is missing something when he describes Santorum as representing “crude, bigoted social conservatism.”

Santorum’s social conservatism isn’t crude and bigoted. It’s ideological. Now, he may (or may not) have come to his extreme positions on social issues via personal disgust, but what distinguishes him is not that disgust but his extreme ideological fervor. And this characteristic is evident in areas beyond his social conservative views – most notably, in foreign policy.

There is indeed a bloc of swing voters that fits Chait’s description – some of them were probably Huckabee voters, some were, once upon a time, Buchanan voters, or Perot voters. A right-wing populist would, in theory, make an effective foil for Barack Obama, who, because of his personal characteristics and style and because of his policies (which appear to have been very solicitous of established interests like the banks and insurers, while not having been very successful at bringing down the sky-high unemployment rate) is going to have a tough time with downscale whites.

But Santorum is only secondarily a populist. He’s primarily a crusader. I almost mean that literally – he defended the justice of the actual crusades in a speech last year. Santorum is a conviction candidate, and if he’s the nominee he’s going to run on what he believes. And what he believes is that we are being way too easy on not just Iran, but Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea.

Is this what these swing voters want to hear? That the ultimate proof that Obama is “un-American” is that he hasn’t launched a world-wide military offensive against the enemies of freedom?

I’m skeptical. And I’m skeptical that the typical swing voter of the type Chait is referring to is actually motivated by Santorum’s ideological social conservatism either. That kind of voter probably is alienated by hostility or even indifference to their social conservatism – they’d rather see a candidate be anti-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage, maybe even anti-women-in-combat, etc. than aggressively pro- any of those things. But it’s a question of emphasis. The people who are primarily motivated by these issues are probably already ideological voters, and will vote Republican – and show up to vote Republican – regardless. Downscale swing voters I’d expect to be motivated by other matters, even if they were more comfortable with a socially-conservative candidate. A Santorum general election campaign that emphasized the centrality of social issues would seem to a swing voter not so much offensive as off-base.

At least I hope so. I find the highly ideological character of Santorum’s mind to be quite scary, much scarier than the specifics of his views. I like to think that this character will be rejected by the general electorate as, well, kind of un-American. But we’ll see. The people elected a guy named Barack Hussein Obama last time. Anything can happen.


Representative Democracy and Marriage Rights

A brief word apropos of Washington’s new marriage law on why, in my view, legislatures – rather than courts or referenda – are the proper venue for securing rights.

With time, I’ve taken a less-and-less fundamental, principled view of the way different organs of power operate within a political system, and more of a realist view. I used to get very hot under the collar about judicial law-making, for example, until it became clear to me that, on the one hand, nobody could agree on what constituted such law-making (was the Rehnquist Court’s “Federalism revolution” law-making or not?) – and, on the other, what principled difference it made whether courts were acting as legislatures, since, in an ultimate sense, they were accountable to the legislatures who appointed them, and hence to the people (or, in some cases, directly accountable to the people, in those jurisdictions where judges are elected).

A more realist view is concerned primarily with the political consequences of structuring your government in a certain way – along with the consequences of uncertainty about what that structure is. So, from that perspective, here’s why I think our elected representatives are the right folks to decide whether, for example, gay couples should have their marriages recognized by the state.

When the courts speak, they say, in effect, that the law already holds this or that. To hold that same-sex marriage “is” legal in a state where it was not previously recognized is, since there is no statute saying this explicitly, to hold that it is implicit in the law that already exists, or implicit in some reality that underpins the law. This, in turn, communicates to the people that the rights and privileges of citizenship are not something they, the citizenry, have secured, but something that must be secured from them. It therefore makes them worse citizens.

A referendum makes people into worse citizens from the opposite direction. When a citizen votes in a referendum, he or she is not obliged to weigh competing interests or objectives. The citizen votes on a single matter, and that is that. This is an infantile form of legislation, because in the real world choices impose tradeoffs. This is obvious if you talk about budgetary matters – the citizenry could perfectly well vote for a balanced budget, to prohibit spending cuts, and to prohibit tax increases, and effectively dare the legislature to get out of the Catch-22. (Some would argue that this is precisely what the citizens of California have done.) But it’s also true in matters that are not budget-related.

When a legislature deliberates, it takes into account not only the preferences of the citizenry, but the intensity of those preferences. If a majority opposes an action, but a minority supports it much more strongly, there is a good chance that the action will be taken – and this may well be a proper result, because the benefit to the minority may vastly exceed the cost to the majority. Moreover, the legislature has the freedom to act as it sees fit, and then wait to see whether apparent opposition dissipates before the next election. It has the leisure, in other words, to deliberate.

I believe, in other words, in representative democracy. On the evidence, that system is the worst system of government – except for all the others. I’m glad that the state of Washington decided what they did. But I’m also glad that they decided it how they did, by a free vote of the people’s representatives. And if the citizens of Washington are not happy with the decisions of their representatives, they can vote the bums out and thereby teach them a lesson about the intensity of the majority’s preferences in this matter.


Heads a-Bloggin

A couple of comments in retrospect on yesterday’s bloggingheads with Conor Friedersdorf:

First, it was probably a mistake to talk about a book neither of us have read.

Second, I should really learn to say “right” less. Particularly when I’m not. Right, that is.

But I do always enjoy talking to Conor, and I thank him for having me on his show (whatever that word means on the internet).



The Calendar Changes Are Having Their Desired Effect

Oh, well, I suppose I ought to say something about yesterday’s primaries and caucuses. What strikes me most about them is: this is just what the designers of a new, more drawn-out calendar wanted.

Remember 2008? There was a seemingly endless “invisible primary” in which a variety of candidates were suggested (most notably Fred Thompson and Rudolph Giuliani) as alternatives who could save the GOP from John McCain. When they failed to catch fire, the only candidates left standing were: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney.

By the time of the Florida primary, the first large-scale contest, McCain had already won New Hampshire and South Carolina. Huckabee had won Iowa, but was perceived (correctly) as a candidate with a relatively narrow appeal – mainly to southern evangelical Christians (the only states he won outside of the south were Iowa and Kansas). Romney had won the Nevada and Wyoming caucuses, on the strength of Mormon support and organizational prowess, and was running (in spite of his record) as the movement conservative alternative to McCain. Florida was his chance to prove that he could do more than win peripheral contests where organization mattered more than mass appeal. But he lost Florida. And only a week later came Super Tuesday, with a huge number of delegates in a huge number of states in play. In particular, New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois – all states that were relatively receptive to a candidate positioned as a moderate or “maverick” Republican – all held their contests on Super Tuesday. Romney managed to win a handful of caucuses, and Huckabee managed to win a handful of southern and border states, but none of that mattered. McCain had won the big-delegate contests in “blue” states, and it was game over.

The national GOP, deeply unhappy with this result, pushed hard to line the state parties up behind a more drawn-out calendar. And they got what they wanted. A handful of states broke the rules, and were penalized with a halving of their delegate slates, but mostly the calendar looks like what the national party wanted it to look like. In particular:

  • There are a handful of contests in February before Super Tuesday (the three caucuses – Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado – just completed; the Missouri “just for show” primary just completed; the Maine caucus; the Arizona and Michigan primaries; and the Washington caucus). A handful of contests spaced out over time and covering different parts of the country leave ample time for any number of surviving candidates to make a play for popular support, rather than ride momentum from contests just won.
  • Super Tuesday itself is substantially smaller than in 2008. Fewer than half the number of states are involved, and well fewer than half the delegates are at stake.
  • Moreover, Super Tuesday in 2008 was dominated by large, relatively moderate states. Nearly half the delegates at stake were from the four large moderate states mentioned above, plus Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware. (McCain won all these states except for Massachusetts, where Romney had been governor.) This time around, Super Tuesday is dominated by conservative states; the only states that fit the “blue state” profile are Massachuetts and Vermont, who between them have fewer than 15% of the delegates at stake. More than half of the delegates at stake are in Southern or border states: Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. Most of the remaining delegates are the spoils of caucuses in conservative Western states: Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. And then there’s Ohio, a classic general-election “swing” state.

This is the kind of lineup the Democrats picked for the first Super Tuesday in 1988 in order to force their candidates to the right. It didn’t work for them – Jesse Jackson wound up winning the states with the largest African-American electorate, Al Gore wound up winning the border states, and Michael Dukakis wound up winning states like Texas where neither Jackson nor Gore had a clear edge. And it isn’t working exactly that way now – the front-runner is Mitt Romney, who may have run in 2008 as a down-the-line movement conservative, and who has been careful to stay on the “right” side of pretty much every line this time around as well, but who doesn’t seem to be fooling anybody. But it does look pretty much designed to force Romney – or any other candidate without solid backing from the conservative base – to run the gauntlet.

And run the gauntlet he can. The plausible worst-case scenario for Romney looks something like this. He wins Arizona, which is winner-take-all, while Michigan is a split decision, with Romney winning his natural demographic and Santorum winning his natural demographic (and the ultimate winner determined by the degree to which Gingrich proves a factor). Then Santorum wins the Washington caucuses. On Super Tuesday, Gingrich wins Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Romney wins Idaho (a strong Mormon state, similar to Nevada), Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia. Ron Paul wins Alaska, where nobody else bothers to compete, and Rick Santorum wins the North Dakota caucus and, in a three-way squeaker, the Ohio primary.

That sounds pretty terrible for Romney, right? I mean, this is supposed to be a “realistic worst-case” scenario. But it’s a scenario in which both Santorum and Gingrich are well behind him in delegates, and both appear to be basically regional candidates (Gingrich having won only in the South and border states, Santorum having won only in the Midwest and in the Colorado caucus). Romney would still be the only one with a path to the nomination, a path that runs through the “blue” states.

Romney, in this scenario, would still be favored to win the contests in more moderate states. But they won’t come around for a good long time – Maryland on April 3rd, New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island on April 24th, California and New Jersey not until June 5th. As a consequence, Romney will owe his nomination even more clearly to these states than McCain did, and will have been badly weakened by the campaign.

There is logic to wanting a more drawn-out primary process, rather than rushing to anoint a front-runner (as, for example, the Democrats did in 2004). The primaries become a proving ground, testing the candidates to see whether they measure up to their own hyped virtues as vote-getters. But, as the Democrats learned in 1984 and 1988, when you have a weak front-runner or no obvious front-runner, all the long campaign does is reveal that weakness (in the first case), and reveal the divisions in the party coalition (in the second case). The GOP is getting some of both this time.

Bottom line: for a long primary process to reveal diamonds in the rough, the diamonds actually have to be there in the rough for the revealing.

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