panamaWhen I was in college, a popular refrain from many academics was to explain the rise of the “Right” or conservatism in the American South as a dynamic brought about because of race. Books like Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics attempted to link the politics of George Wallace to Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism. And if you are suspicious of that theory because Wallace was a New Dealer there is even an explanation for this lofty leap in a book by Joseph Lowndes titled From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism.

Books like these dismiss the more obvious causes like migration from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt, the rise of the “New Left,” and a surge of evangelicals participating in the political process. The reason I mention these works is because they share a striking similarity to Adam Clymer’s new book Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right. Clymer has his own explanation for the rise of conservatism on a national scale, the Panama Canal Treaties. It is true that the Panama Canal issue was a pivotal issue that helped to rescue the insurgent Reagan primary campaign against Gerald Ford, but Clymer supposes if Reagan had lost in North Carolina in 76, where his back was up against the wall, he would have never ran for president again or won in 1980.

Odd statements like “His [Reagan] five-minute daily commentaries had a good number broadcast outlets, and an audience estimated at 20 million listeners a week, but they never stirred national notice” reinforce Clymer’s misunderstanding of Reagan. Reagan’s appeal was both national and popular, and Reagan was already deeply entrenched in the conservative grassroots movement. His radio addresses were highly effective in selling conservatism to mainstream audiences. Those that listened to him knew he of course wasn’t a single issue minded leader and his career wouldn’t end or be extended with the Panama Canal Treaties.

The Panama Canal fiasco however was a powerful and visible symbol for the decline of American might and influence around the globe after retreat from Vietnam. Reagan and other conservative politicians capitalized on the unpopularity of giving it away while the Soviets were flexing their might across the world. But in its symbolism attacking the canal giveaway represents, especially in regards to Reagan, Cold Warriors frustrated with the overall policy of American retreat and détente, which was magnified all the more under Jimmy Carter’s watch.

Clymer does cite some credible evidence that the canal issue brought grassroots conservative organizations together to raise money, but that was for a short time and other issues like the Equal Rights Amendment surely did the same. Clymer notes:

David Keene, then an ACU board member and subsequently its long-term chairman, observed in 2007 that the Canal issue was a double edged sword. He explained, ‘The canal issue was a great boon for us. It raised a lot of money. Afterwards, there was a letdown and it almost destroyed us.’

Clymer’s overarching point is that the Panama Canal issue transformed the Republican Party into a more conservative party. He also claims that Democrats become more conservative nationally because of the canal issue, a statement many may like to challenge.

Clymer also identifies five conservative Republican Senators who won their seats in 1980 campaigning against the Canal Treaty. But he even undercuts his own premise by noting the Democrat incumbents who lost their Senate seats were probably too liberal for the districts they represent and other issues in those campaigns were often just as formative, if not more so, like high unemployment and inflation to name a few. Ultimately Clymer laments the Panama Canal as a divisive issue because he sees it as a major downfall in the politics of consensus building and the rise of hot button issues like abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage. Clymer bemoans with his own example:

It is not a long conceptual leap from suggesting that a McIntyre or Church [Democrat Senators defeated in 80] is a dupe of the Soviets designs on the Canal to Saxby Chambliss’s 2002 ads suggesting that Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee from Vietnam was soft on terrorists, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden because he voted against the Bush administration on some elements of the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security.

While his book does a respectable job in tracing the canal issue through several presidential administrations and the debate in Congress, Clymer’s conclusions about the canal in relation to the ascendancy of conservatism is over – reaching and incoherent. Much of his evidence seems to contradict his own premises. One is forced to wonder if Clymer came up with the thesis and title before he started the actual research. Those interested in the rise of conservatism would be much better served reading Alfred S. Regnery’s recent book Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism.

In today’s commentary, Sam Gregg writes that “there is little reason to be optimistic about the probable effects of the Obama Administration’s interventionist approach to mortgage relief. In fact, it is most likely to be counterproductive.” More government complacency about moral hazard?

Read the commentary at the Acton Website and share your comments below.

No, not that Friedman. In a wide-ranging lecture for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Policy earlier this year, George Friedman touched on American policy with regard to trade. He says of the United States,

it has the potential to reshape patterns of international trade if it chooses. The United States throughout the 20th century, the second half in particular, has operated under the principle of a free-trade regime in which its Navy was primarily used to facilitate international trade. It did not seek to develop any special advantage from that, save those sanctions and blockades that we occasionally imposed for immediate political purpose.

He concludes, however, “there is no reason to believe, with that enormous power, in the 21st century that the United States won’t choose to reshape international trade if it finds itself under extreme economic or political pressure.”

In pointing out the possibility for the United States to pursue trade policy that is at odds with “the principle of a free-trade regime,” Friedman also notes the definition of so-called “soft” power: “Power that isn’t exercised.”

As a side note, one way of construing this definition of soft power correlates quite nicely with the reception of the traditional scholastic distinction between absolute and ordained power, potentia absoluta et ordinata. With regard to God’s power, the older, traditional view of the distinction held that the absolute power of God referred to the contingency of the created order, insofar as God could have created, willed, and concurred in things differently (i.e. a different world order). Things could have been different based on a different divine ordering or decree.

This older view did not hold that the absolute power of God was an active reality in this created order but rather a hypothetical possibility standing behind the creation of this world. But in the high to late middle ages another version of the distinction arose, which argued that the absolute power of God exists as an active possibility residing in and with the current created order. This “operationalized” view of the absolute power of God held that God not only could have made things differently, but also that he has an active power that can overrule or act outside of what he has ordained. (We should note that this “absolute power,” when applied to magistrates, is that to which Lord Acton refers in his famous quote appearing as the subhead of this blog.)

A brief illustration might serve to communicate the difference in these two views of absolute power. Under the former conception, the “absolute power” of the United States government would refer to those powers that could have been granted by the Constitution but for whatever reason were not. Bracketing the possibility of changing the Constitution, these powers are no longer real possibilities. Under the revisionist and operationalized conception, the Constitution would describe the way things normally or ordinarily work, but the President or Congress could act “absolutely” without regard to the constraints of the Constitutional order.

We might also note that this definition of soft power is one that defines “power” essentially as coercion, with the “softness” of the power being the implied threat rather than the “hardness” of actual use. Friedman’s kind of soft power is that which gives nuclear deterrence its only viability. As American ethicist Paul Ramsey has written,

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

(Towards the end of the video a questioner rightly challenges Friedman’s definition of soft power, noting in its original context it didn’t necessarily depend on the implied threat of coercive force.)

Friedman notes that soft power, “what you could do that you don’t do,” doesn’t corrupt, but instead “gives you the opportunity to be gracious, friendly, and pleasant.” For Friedman, America’s gracious continuation of free-trade policy represents a clear case of soft power.

There’s a real sense in which he’s right, but only to the extent that America would suffer relatively less economically than other nations through the pursuit of isolationist policies. As Spengler notes in the context of the current global crisis, “Although Russia has taken on water in the crisis, its position relative to its former satellites has actually strengthened.” Friedman’s assumptions about the trump card that America holds in the possibility of reversing free-trade policies assumes that the economic power of the United States would in a similar way be relatively strengthened, and that the economic consequences will disproportionately affect America’s trading partners. But has America’s relative economic strength actually improved already in the midst of the global economic crisis?

In a recent STRATFOR report Lauren Goodrich and Peter Zeihan concludes that

while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.

Besides the US, Friedman opines that Japan, Turkey, and Poland (because it “faces Russia”) will be the major players in the 21st century. But with regard to the fallout of the economic crisis, Spengler summarizes convincingly, “There are no winners, but losing the least is the next best thing to winning. If America turns inward, even an economically damaged Russia will loom larger in the world.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 9, 2009

The World Freedom Atlas, “a geovisualization tool for world statistics,” looks like a very powerful and compelling complement to something like the Gapminder Trendalyzer tool.

Maurice Black and Erin O’Connor, research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, write in “Illiterates,” a column in Newsday, that “younger Americans are deplorably uninformed about economic and financial matters.” They observe that “students who do not understand money become adults who are financially irresponsible.” And, of course, they become adults who are not equipped to understand broader economic issues involving government, such as taxation, debt and spending. From the column:

Some colleges and universities offer programs such as free and confidential peer counseling sessions or classes that teach undergraduates the nuts and bolts of managing their personal finances. But efforts along these lines are not being made systematically. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that only one of 100 leading American universities requires an economics course.

No wonder that a 2008 Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey revealed stunning levels of economic ignorance among the American people as a whole. Only 16 percent could differentiate free markets from central government planning. Less than 30 percent understood the relationship between taxes and government spending, and less than 40 percent knew what sort of fiscal policy would produce economic stimulus.

These problems are deepened by pre-existing deficits in essential literacy and numeracy skills. Some colleges have no math requirements at all. Even at schools that require quantitative reasoning, it’s often easy to avoid math. At the University of Pennsylvania, to take one example, students can satisfy their quantitative requirement with courses on anxiety disorders, perceptual learning or the family.

Support the Acton Institute’s educational programs via this secure online link.

I’ll save you the suspense. No.

Linker, known primarily for betraying Richard John Neuhaus by serving as editor of First Things and then publishing a book accusing Neuhaus of scurrilous theocratic aims, now writes at the New Republic. In a recent post there, he brilliantly claims to have demonstrated the idea of natural law is obvious poppycock. Why? Because he disagrees with two officials of the Catholic Church holding that a nine year old who was raped and with her life endangered by the pregnancy should still have the children rather than an abortion. Linker reasons that if the Catholic Church is wrong about that, then their idea of natural law is wrong.

Where to start?

Given that Mr. Linker worked at First Things, I’d figure he had his Aquinas down pat. Thomas Aquinas (AKA, the DOCTOR OF NATURAL LAW) held that we should agree on the first principles of natural law (like that the lives of innocent children should be protected), but that we may well disagree with the application of that natural law on a case by case basis. Well, guess what? Here we have just such a case. Does it mean the idea of natural law is vacuous? No. And Aquinas didn’t think so, either.

Mr. Linker thinks the church (or more specifically two church officials) is wrong about this case. And maybe they are. I’m unfamiliar with it. But does his disagreement with their reasoning about this case mean that the larger principle (the lives of innocent children should be protected) no longer holds? No, that position is obviously incorrect. The broad propositions of the natural law continue to hold.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Monday, March 9, 2009

Washington, D.C., has long been a focal point of debates about vouchers and other forms of school choice–partly because the public schools there are so notoriously bad that a working majority of politicians and parents are open to experiments that might improve them.

Two recent articles highlight interesting developments. First, Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal challenges President Obama to fight congressional action that might terminate the D.C. scholarship program (which currently permits some students to attend private schools with assistance from public money).

McGurn describes “perhaps the most odious of double standards in American life today”:

the way some of our loudest champions of public education vote to keep other people’s children — mostly inner-city blacks and Latinos — trapped in schools where they’d never let their own kids set foot.

Coincidentally, the New York Times looks at the situation at one of the recently Catholic-turned-charter elementaries in the Archdiocese of Washington. This phenomenon is likely to grow more common as big-city Catholic school systems continue to struggle financially. Reporter Javier Hernandez aptly captures both the attractions and the drawbacks of such arrangements: the schools stays open, offering a decent alternative to the conventional public school, but there’s no longer any prayer.

Among the big questions remaining is this: With the specifically Catholic identity of the school no longer in place, how long will the “culture” and the “values” that distinguish it persist?

I have a piece up today at the First Things website on conservative Protestants (like me) and their attitude toward corporate behavior.

Here’s a clip:

Experience and prudence have demonstrated that free markets are demonstrably better than other alternatives. But the problem is that we have tuned our antennae in such a way such that they pick up market problems like the promotion of hedonistic vice but do not take adequate notice of other wrongs. Thus, conservative evangelicals are quick to protest against 7-11 carrying Playboy magazine but are slow to call to account the corporation that deals with employees in bad faith.

Without Christ this is a world in which the strong will abuse the weak, the rich ignore or exploit the poor, and those with authority seek advantages for themselves as they exercise their power. We know these things both from the Scriptures and from examining our own hearts.

If our cultural critique is to have integrity, we must simultaneously respect the market and call the corporate sector to righteousness in its business dealings. As uncomfortable as Mike Huckabee’s concerns with executive compensation made many Republicans, his words suggested a healthy willingness critically to examine corporate behavior. If we question corporations when they produce bad products like pornography and gambling operations, then we necessarily accept the notion that the logic of free markets does not insulate them from critique when they commit other types of wrongs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 6, 2009

Gina over at The Point links to a piece by Jennifer at Conversation Diary, which reads in part,

…I got out a pen to add some things to the store list. I do this about five times every day. But this time, as I wrote “bread” and “black beans” on my little pad of paper, it hit me: I am doing something really, really amazing here. Out of the blue, I suddenly saw writing items on my grocery list in a completely different light: I realized what an incredibly — almost unimaginable — luxury it is to be able to simply write down what I want to feed my children, and be able to go get it. Quickly. Easily. Cheaply.

Jennifer goes on to put this feeling of blessedness in the context of concerns of previous generations. “Can you imagine,” she wonders, “my great-great grandmother watching me do this? Or anyone who lives in a poverty-stricken part of the world today, or who lived more than 70 years ago?”

This reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s observation in his classic, Life Together. He notes that in Scripture “the receiving of bread [is] strictly dependent upon working for it.” But even what we “earn” in our common understanding is a result of God’s grace. “The work is commanded, indeed,” he writes, “but the bread is God’s free and gracious gift.”

When we pray the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we aren’t (usually) asking for God to “miraculously” drop manna and quail from the sky. But we are asking that he graciously rewards our labors with the material needs for our existence. Jennifer’s reflections on the blessings represented by the ability to write up grocery lists reminds us that we ought to be grateful to God even for what we think we earn.

Bonhoeffer concludes, “We cannot simply take it for granted that our work provides us with bread; this is rather God’s order of grace.” Groceries are a gracious gift, and what we owe God is gratitude.

As Dave Ramsey admits, all of the advice he gives is something that you would be able to get from your grandma. It’s a sad commentary on our society that this basic wisdom, that prudential use of money (i.e. thrift) is a virtue, is so alien to us.