Posts tagged with: America

Working Class Bulwark by Jacob BurckAs I noted last week, my review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s Nation of Takers: America’s Entitlement Epidemic appears in the current issue of The City, a fine publication produced by Houston Baptist University.

Eberstadt provides an important service in bringing home the fiscal realities of the spending crisis facing the American government. But Yuval Levin’s brief reply was, for me, the high point of the book, as it emphasized the indispensability of the so-called “third sector” in social analysis. Eberstadt’s case is helpful for drawing sharp lines, but it’s also worth taking a step back to appreciate the real complexity of the situation.

This is in part why I find any dichotomous breakdown of the situation, whether it pits “makers” against “takers” or the proletariat against the bourgeosie, to be insufficient.

When you have a fuller picture of society than is provided through merely political lenses, it becomes far more difficult to determine who is really a maker and who is really a taker. Or as Joseph Sunde puts it in his review,

The moment we disregard the value in varying social and institutional relationships—beginning with a holistic disregard of the distinct responsibilities of the government vs. the business vs. the school vs. the church vs. the father vs. the daughter vs. the grandmother—is the moment we should expect to see “dependency” become warped toward a one-sided “entitlement archipelago” that serves the self, and little else.

As for the complexity of modern society, Herman Bavinck describes things this way, in a manner that helpfully complicates any simple oppositional narrative:

Current society displays in every respect the greatest inequality and the richest diversity, far greater inequality and diversity than its opponents usually imagine. For they divide society actually into only two classes: the filthy rich and the dirt poor, the superpowerful and the powerless, the abusers and the abused, tyrants and slaves. But the real society, the society that lives and breathes, does not look at all like that; the diversity is far greater, so great that no one can form a complete picture of it. The filthy rich constitute a very small minority, and of these people, membership along a continuum proceeds down to the bottom not by a big leap but rather in terms of a gradual slope in various degrees and in various stages.

For more on these matters, I highlight Bavinck’s insight and the phenomenon of natural diversity, particularly in economic terms, in a recent paper, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”

In the Washington Times, Nile Gardiner praises Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future, the new book by Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Gardiner, the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation and a Washington-based foreign affairs analyst for The Telegraph, says Becoming Europe “should be on the desk of every member of the House and Senate who cares about the future of America as a prosperous and free nation.” Gardiner recommends the book for its “rich detail describing the economic and social ‘Europeanization’ of America, from the rise of vast welfare systems to growing skepticism of the merits of the free-enterprise system.” Excerpt from the review:

“Becoming Europe” is a meticulously researched and well-argued thesis that lays out what is at stake for the world’s superpower, as it faces a stark choice between European-style decline or a return to the original vision of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as the classical liberal teachings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith. Mr. Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute, paints a grim picture of the direction America is taking but, nevertheless, conveys a positive message to his readers. Mr. Gregg argues that while America is indeed on the path to the European model, it can still turn back and avoid the fate that Europe looks doomed to suffer. In many respects, this is an optimistic book based upon faith in America’s ability to renew itself through rediscovering the principles of economic liberty.

I agree with Mr. Gregg’s assessment. As Gallup polling consistently shows, America is still at its core a conservative nation, one that cherishes the foundations of individual liberty. The fire of freedom still burns brighter on this side of the Atlantic than it does in the Old World, where the suffocating supranationalism of the European Union marches on, with the EU heading toward ever-greater political and economic centralization. The European nightmare can be avoided here, however, only if America’s leaders, at both a national and state level, are willing to stand up for economic freedom and reject the destructive ideology of big government. Washington is already on the path to Brussels, Paris and Athens, but it still has an opportunity to reverse course and avoid the road to economic ruin.

Read Nile Gardiner’s full review of Becoming Europe in the Washington Times.

Blog author: jcarter
Monday, November 26, 2012
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Every year Black Friday marks the official beginning of two modern American traditions: Christmas shopping and criticizing Walmart.

Critics on both the left and the right have found a common enemy in Walmart. Those on the left hate the company because it isn’t unionized while conservatives complain because it undercuts mom-and-pop retailers. Some researchers even claim that people are prone to gain weight after a Walmart Supercenter opens nearby.

I suspect if the researchers were to conduct a follow-up study they’d also find that there is about a 99 percent chance you will not be starving to death if you live near a Walmart store. But we live in a strange period in history when the idea of affordable food is considered a lamentable condition.

Walmart’s very business model—maintain a large and innovative supply chain that keeps prices low—offends the sensibility of those who think that prices should be raised in order to pay employees a higher wage. The idea that the higher cost should be passed on to consumers is typically made by those who would never actually shop at Walmart. A prime example is The American Prospect‘s Harold Meyerson:

Walmart replaced General Motors as America’s largest private-sector employer. Instead of paying its workers enough to buy new cars, Walmart paid its workers so little they had to shop at discount stores like Walmart.

The reason why Walmart employees—and others on the lower end of the income scale—shop at the stores is because they are, by necessity, price conscience shopper. Meyerson and other elites that spend only about 3.5 percent of their income on food at home can afford to shop at Whole Foods. But households in the bottom quintile, which spend 26 percent of their income on food, are eager to keep food prices as low as possible. (During this holiday season Walmart employees receive an additional 10 percent off most food items.) If Walmart didn’t exist they the company’s employees wouldn’t have higher paying jobs; they’d just be paying more for food and consumer goods.

Growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line,  I can appreciate the value of inexpensive food. That is one of the primary reasons I appreciate the company—and the reason I think other conservatives should appreciate it too. There is admittedly a lot to dislike about the company, but as former low-income rural resident I think there are a number of reasons why conservatives should be more supportive of Walmart (and similar poverty-alleviating corporations).
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Writing on The Corner over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg points to the election and, refreshingly, tells us that, “I’m not one of those who, in recent days, have seemed inclined to indulge their inner curmudgeon, apparently convinced that it’s more or less game-over for America and we’re doomed to Euro-serfdom.”

Gregg, author of the soon-to-be-released and available for pre-order Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013), explains why there are, still, important differences between Eurotopia and the United States. For one thing:

… the strength and persistence of private entrepreneurship continues to substantially differentiate America’s economic culture from that of Europe. America remains ahead — and, in some areas, continues to pull ahead — of most of Europe when it comes to private innovation. As noted in a World Bank report earlier this year, the elements that fuel innovation, such as ease in obtaining patents and availability of venture capital, continue (at least for now) to be far stronger in America than in most of Europe.

The same report specified that it is young firms driving innovative growth in America. Among America’s leading innovators in the Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard, more than half were created after 1975. They include firms such as eBay, Microsoft, Cisco, Amgen, Oracle, Google, and of course Apple. By contrast, only one in five leading innovators in Europe is young. In America, young firms make up an incredible 35 percent of total research and development done by leading innovators. Their European counterparts account for a mere 7 percent in the old continent. That’s great news for America and a major headache for Europe over the long term.

Read “Are We all Europeans Now?” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.

As noted already at the PowerBlog today, Sam Gregg has a fine piece on the complex relationship between law and morality, or constitutions and culture, over at Public Discourse.

As a follow-up (read the piece first), I’d like to point to an interesting aspect of James Buchanan’s advocacy of a balanced-budget amendment. As Gregg notes, Buchanan is an example of someone who thought that “America’s constitution required amending to bestow genuine independence upon a monetary authority,” or advocated for the “constitutionalization” of money. A related effort would be Buchanan’s efforts in support of a balanced-budget amendment to the American Constitution, as explored by James Alvey in his piece, “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.”
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Brace YourselvesI was a guest on today’s Coffee & Markets podcast, where we discussed the complex challenges facing America as reflected in recent demographic trends. What do declining birthrates across the developed world indicate?

For one thing, they show that crises are not limited to one feature of our lives and there are important spillover causes and effects across social spaces. So financial crises have impacts on the home, and vice versa. Or as I wrote last year, “Healthy and vibrant economies promote the flourishing of healthy and vibrant families. But the reverse is also true. The vitality of each social institution is linked with the welfare of others, and the microeconomic effects felt by families necessarily have macroeconomic implications.”

The family is in significant ways the vanguard of civilization, and as family life is threatened so too are all of the other civilizational institutions. As Elias Boudinot put it, “Good government generally begins in the family, and if the moral character of a people degenerates, their political character must soon follow.”

So what about social reformation and renewal? There’s no better place to start then your own family and no better time to start than right now. As Hunter Baker observed:

The first moves are the most immediate. If you are a child, be a respectful child who wants to learn and grow. If you are an adult, take care of your parents as they age. If you are a husband or wife, stay committed to your spouse. Work on sustaining a stable and peaceful household in which all the members feel heard, cared for, and respected. If you are a parent, focus on loving your child’s other parent, providing financially and emotionally for the child, and encouraging the child in learning. If you are a grandparent, help young parents adjust to the newness of their role and encourage them in the hard work of taking care of children.

Check out the podcast episode as well as some of the recommended reading below:

Last week, in a reflection about American freedom and Christianity, I contended that the shift from emphasis on the pursuit of “property” to the pursuit of “happiness” illustrated the spiritual insight of the American founders. And today, Joe passed along a piece related to the economic climate in America at the end of the eighteenth century, which suggests that as “America had a thriving middle class,” the United States might have been designed especially to institutionalize, protect, and promote the materially-acquisitive ethos of the time.

That, at least, is the suggestion made by Brad Gregory in his book, The Unintended Reformation. In a chapter on “Manufacturing the Goods Life,” Gregory contends that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the broader vision of social life articulated by the founders was uniquely oriented toward merely material prosperity:

The substantive emptiness of the nation’s founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.

A corollary of this is that America is uniquely anti-Christian:

If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States’ legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seem to be its antithesis.

You might guess what this means for our evaluation of Europe, however, which ends up looking rather more Christ-like by comparison:

But, ironically, more than is true of federal or state institutions in the church-going United States, secularized Europeans’ welfare states since World War II have more in common with the social concerns and the moral commitments of the Christianity that made the Continent and Britain, because they at least seek to meet the most basic needs of every citizen.

It’s true, admits Gregory, that American freedom includes the ability to be spiritually responsible. But even the value of this is doubtful:

So too, it is obvious that he advent of modern capitalism and market-governed societies has facilitated the potential for human flourishing and the possibility of living meaningful human lives for hundreds of millions of people, which considered as such is also a very good thing. But those who are devoted to their families, demonstrate care for others, make charitable donations, and practice self-restraint do so within a world dominated by wall-to-Walmart capitalism and consumerism, with all that this implies.

What all this has to do with the Reformation is something that has to be explored within the larger argument of the book. I’m currently drafting a review of it, but it has already been reviewed and engaged in a number of significant places, like Books & Culture, the Wall Street Journal, and First Things. At this point I can recommend Gregory’s book if you want to see what the Reformation and global climate change have to do with one another (hint: the main link is the American “ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness” outlined above).

Today is Independence Day in the United States, and the Christian Post asked me to weigh in on the question, “What Does American Freedom Mean to A Christian?”

Lord Acton observed that liberty is “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” I reflect in this short piece about the intimate and delicate balance in the American experiment between life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from a Christian perspective.

In the CP piece I note that our earthly loyalties must be properly oriented to our heavenly citizenship. On this Independence Day, then, it is appropriate to pray for the reign of Jesus Christ:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Writing on The American Spectator website, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the strange notion of European fiscal “austerity” even as more old continent economies veer toward the abyss. Is America far behind?

Needless to say, Greece is Europe’s poster child for reform-failure. Throughout 2011, the Greek parliament passed reforms that diminished regulations that applied to many professions in the economy’s service sector. But as two Wall Street Journal journalists demonstrated one year later, “despite the change in the law, the change never became reality. Many professions remain under the control of professional guilds that uphold old turf rules, fix prices and restrict opportunities for newcomers.” In the words of one frustrated advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Even when the Greek Parliament passes laws, nothing changes.”

Politics helps explain many governments’ aversion to reform. Proposals for substantial deregulation generates opposition from groups ranging from businesses who benefit from an absence of competition, union officials who fear losing their middle-man role, to bureaucrats whose jobs would be rendered irrelevant by liberalization. The rather meek measures that Europeans call austerity have already provoked voter backlashes against most of its implementers. Not surprisingly, many governments calculate that pursuing serious economic reform will result in ever-greater electoral punishment.

In any event, America presently has little to boast about in this area. States such as Wisconsin have successfully implemented change and are starting to see the benefits. But there’s also fiscal basket-cases such as (surprise, surprise) California and Illinois that continue burying themselves under a mountain of debt and regulations.

Read “Why Austerity Isn’t Enough” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.

I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.