Friday, November 07, 2008

The Message

Let's grant to David Frum that politics is a game of addition. Who do we add to Joe the Plumber to make a winning coalition? If we go after wealthy coastal voters, we have to be able to demonstrate greater credibility on economic issues than the Democrats. Depending on what happens in the Obama Administration, I suspect that might be very plausible soon enough.

I don't think it will work to shave the values issues. Politically speaking, the differences are too wide, as Ross points out. Not only that, there's nothing we can deliver on anyway. For the bluebloods and the bobos, much of the values conflict (environmentalism in particular) is an attempt to maintain superior social status over the red state bourgeios and those that represent them, ie, the Palins. Given that the Palins are exactly the sort of people who keeping us from being a typical useless Euroweenie country, we gotta have their back. And if it were up to me, this is exactly the argument I'd make to the bluebloods. For whatever is wrong with the USA, it should be clear that it's in better shape than the major Western European countries, every which way it's possible to measure.

The First Thing....

....the conservative movement needs is a message that it's willing to be held accountable for. David Frum is one of the most astute conservative commentators out there, but this wasn't one of his better efforts. If we have a message, we have to propagate it. If we don't, the few Senate seats that are "saved" won't accomplish very much.

If we throw in the towel on the McCain campaign (this was three weeks ago, mind you) the message we're sending is "we surrender" which is definitely not our intent.

Who is John Galt?

In Ayn Rand's dystopia Atlas Shrugged, mainstream culture is gradually taken over by collectivism piece by piece. In response, John Galt and the productive members of society sequester themselves in Galt's Gulch and allow the rest of the world to rot according to its own devices.

This scenario has been suggested (in a couple of variations) in the context of our most recent election. Ie, if my guy doesn't win, I'll just check out and leave the rest of you to figure it out for yourself, and you'll be sorry then. One version of this has to do with Hollywood types who are distraught that the United States is more Republican than they'd like. Somehow they never pull it off. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Sean Penn would have to forgo $10M per picture, whereas those of us in our log cabins would somehow have to make do without Mystic River.

On a slightly more serious note, I think it's much more plausible to consider families like Palins as the John Galt of our time. We might be able to go without Sarbanes-Oxley compliance specialists and auto sales managers for a while, but if people quit having children, fixing transmissions, and plowing snow, we'd be in big trouble in a hurry. But at least as important as what people do for a living is what they do for free. And it's married people with children who populate things like the PTA, the Junior League, and supervise the Boy Scouts. Of course, people like the Palins aren't going to hide from society in a hissy fit. But they do need a fair bit of cultural latitude or their time, money, and inclination to carry the world on their shoulders withers away. As things stand now, people need at least as much space to be normal as they do to be eccentric.

To The Republic For Which It Stands

For those who have been looking for silver linings in Sen Obama's election victory, it has been said (or muttered) that at least the country didn't have to endure riots and post-election anger if Obama had some so close only to have the football snatched away just before he kicked it. For my part, I disagree. There may be some good things about election of Obama, but that is not one of them. In fact, one of the few good consequences of a hypothetical McCain win is the hope that for a substantial part of the million or so Obama fans who gathered in Grant Park on Election Night; the bike messengers, fifth-year college sophomores, and guys who got their city job because their uncle is a supervisor for Streets and San, that they would have rioted for a day or so, and then been so disillusioned with the whole political process that they don't participate in it for the next few cycles.

This seems harsh at first glance, but for the good for the health of a republic, in particular ours. Most appreciate that it's good for social harmony that, by voting, people in general can feel they have some influence in public affairs. But even if that's an important part of the story, it's not the whole story. It's also important important that we are governed by citizens, not people at random, or even people who reside here.

Literally speaking, citizenship is a loose thing. In American law, everybody who is born here (among others) gets it. But there's more to it than that. Not everybody has the credibility, the societal capital, the personal means, or the intent to act on behalf of the community as a whole. The Palins clearly have these things, which is (among other reasons) why some of us were so enthused about them.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Way Out, pt IV

There's an obscure English cliche, "Where there's muck, there's brass." It means that wherever there's difficult or dirty jobs to be done, there's money to be made. The problem with the economic pessimists is that they always tend to underestimate the muck to be shoveled away if people are fairly compensated for doing it. It's a forgivable error. The statistics so beloved of economics measure this poorly, if at all. Free market types are often ridiculed for using phrases like, "unleashing the power of the markets" but sometimes that's just the plain truth of the matter.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? According to Glenn Reynolds, Obama leads in 18 out of 19 states with the largest decline in housing prices (and presumably will win most of them). Thirteen out of the fourteen states where housing values have declined the least, McCain leads.

Now, do we suppose that when The One takes office, and is confronted with the hordes angry at what they see (with some justification) as $700 Bn of free government money for Wall Street, he is somehow not going to try to dole out some largesse to his supporters? I doubt it. The piggy bank ought to be empty for such maneuvers, but somehow I doubt that it really is. The point is, such things cost more than money. They accumulate cottage industries built around the preservation of inefficiencies. But the way out is for people who see opportunities and materialize them.

The Way Out, pt III

Somewhere in my personal list of useless conservatives, Austin Bramwell has a place of honor. So I was somewhat surprised to find that I actually agree with most of his latest effort for the American Conservative. His point is that various conservative intellectuals don't need the conservative movement to thrive. In fact many of them will do better if they are not regarded as being attached to it. (Though, let's also acknowledge that policy implementation and electoral coalitions do require the conservative movement, but we'll leave that for another day.)

In any case, Bramwell mentions an interesting group of scholars, many of which wouldn't be identified as conservative to most people anyway. It's funny that Bramwell cites them as failures of the conservative movement, in particular the failure of the conservative movement to produce and nurture such people. Of course the unspoken assumption behind this is that the such people in some way "ought" to belong to conservative movement. And the only reason why Bramwell assumes this in the first place is that we all take for granted that the liberal establishment essentially been brain dead for thirty years or so and so any public intellectual with a modicum of creativity or who has broken through the ossification of the modern academy is assumed to be conservative by default.

It's very likely we'll need some ideas that we've never thought of before to get out of the straits that we're in. If Sen Barack Obama continues to be a rubberstamp for the liberal Democratic establishment, we'll never get them.

Contra Ross Douthat

As is sometimes typical for pundits backing a loser, Ross tries to blame the campaign for the failures of the candidate. In this case I think it's exactly backwards. I think the McCain campaign has actually been fairly effective. It has taken substantial disadvantages in money and overall environment, and has still managed to be fairly competitive, even to the point of setting the agenda for a significant part of the campaign. Really, the only thing I fault the campaign for is conceding Michigan, and that's probably a money issue anyway.

If he loses there is one overriding reason why. His response to the economic crisis has been weak. It's been weak in substance, and weak in the perception that Sen McCain has the intelligence and energy to get to the bottom of it all and sort it out for the benefit of the country. Frankly, Obama's substance has been equally weak if not worse, but he has been able to project the aura of a person whose elevator is going all the way to the top floor and McCain hasn't.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Way Out, pt II

Or another example, take energy. Obviously for most people the important fact about energy is that the price of oil has declined from nearly $150/bbl to $65/bbl. That seemed likely really good news at the time until the world's attention was taken over by the stability crisis in our major financial institutions.

In any case, it should be clear that we need to increase our capability for producing energy, oil and otherwise. But it's interesting to look at this through the prism of the upcoming recession. As consumer spending decreases, it's very likely that the economy as a whole will require fewer cell phones and mortgage brokers. But we will still need access to more energy, both for our own economy and to help the process of industrialization in China, India, and other countries in the same situation. Therefore we should regard our hard-earned expertise in energy production as an important foothold in working our way out of our economic problems.

Unfortunately, I don't see this as likely under President Obama. In particular, it would require the repudiation of the global warming agenda which doesn't strike me as being remotely plausible given that such a large percentage of Obama's base favors it. The are other issues as well that tend to mitigate against any kind of industrial-scale energy production; nuclear, oil, natural gas, coal, electric grid infrastructure. Essentially, the Democratic party has Luddite mentality on the whole issue for thirty years. Maybe President Obama is going to change that, but we haven't seen any signs of that yet.

The Way Out

As this election season nears the end, my anxiety over the prospect of President Barack Obama isn't so much that if he becomes President this or that bad thing will happen. It's more that given what we know of his inclinations and the path he has taken so far, a hypothetical President Obama (and the things that go with that) is likely to deprive us of the opportunity to work our way out of the fixes that we're in, or will be soon enough.

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day and he asked me a question. I forget what it was exactly but I remember the answer had to do with Griggs v. Duke Power Company, a court case almost forty years old now. It's an important case, though hardly a household topic of conversation. It essentially means that a company cannot give standardized tests as a significant part of a job application process unless they can show that minority groups score as white males on the test (which it can't, because they don't) or demonstrate that the knowledge tested for is crucial to the performance of the job sought (which is beyond the capabilities of most companies).

This leads to a crucial defect of affirmative action. Beyond contentious issues of fairness or diversity and so on, there's a little known reality that the impact of affirmative action goes way beyond its intended beneficiaries or its "losers". Take a canonical case where there are ten white guys and one black guy applying for four job openings or slots in medical school or what have you. Most of controversy is usually about whether the black guy gets one of the jobs and the criteria involved for deciding one way or the other. But, as a matter of simple math at least three (and maybe four) of the new hires are going to be white guys. So in order to be successful the HR department or the admissions committee has to make intelligent choices between which white guys make the cut. But the straightforward ways of sorting them out disparately impact minority groups and in many cases are effectively illegal.

Which brings me to this (hat tip to Rod Dreher). Our professor friend pulls the curtain back on some of the lazier aspects of undergraduate education, and university life in general for that matter. Even though the perspective of the faculty is new for me, the overall gist is well-known to most intelligent Americans. Why then, as the value of the bachelor's degree is being depreciated, why do so many young Americans continue to devote years of their lives to getting it? Obviously because to do most things prospective employers (and graduate schools) require it. For people looking at a glance, a 22-year-old BA is thought generally accepted to be ready adult responsibilities and an 18-year-old with a high school diploma isn't. Even if the newly minted college graduate didn't do anything particularly compelling while he was there, he has a few years more maturity and has shown the ability to jump through hoops to accomplish an objective, and in many circumstances that's enough.

The important thing to notice in all this, is that this state of affairs is the result of many smaller things that have built up over time to the point where it is taken to be "the way things are". But it is not an inevitable fact of nature. One of these things is Griggs. Probably not person in ten who has been affected by Griggs has ever heard of it.

Now, as far as this presidential race goes, Griggs is completely uncontroversial. As far as I know, neither candidate has said anything about it, and both sides have been pretty quiet about affirmative action in general. Everybody has adapted to that particular status quo.

But now we are in moment of severe economic uncertainty, with the possibility that "the way things are" that we have taken for granted in many ways are in fact up for change. It very well happen that we'll see a different model for "typical" late adolescence than we're used to. For the sake of saving public expenditure, and reducing young people's debt, more of them might try to start their career path at 19 or 20 instead of 23 or 25. This won't happen because of some mandate from Washington, but it will require some changes to make possible. And it's the nature of those changes (overruling Griggs in some way, relaxing child labor laws, less public spending on education), that I think it's beyond hope to expect from President Obama.

McCain hasn't exactly campaigned on this platform, there's no reason to, we're all used to the way things are. But as it becomes clear "the way things are" aren't working for us any more, I hope we can adapt in good ways instead of bad ones.