Tag Archives: Kevin Williamson

You Didn’t Build That

Detroit did not need a Thomas Jefferson or a Mohandas Gandhi or another great political philosopher with a world-changing idea — it needed someone to fix the potholes, balance the books, keep order on the streets, see to the schools, and keep the city agencies orderly and honest and effective. Without that, all of Detroit’s productive capital — physical, financial, and human — was devalued and ultimately dispersed.

A nation as rich as ours can afford a great deal of stupidity, but hubris is expensive.

Detroit’s success was a very complicated story. Its failure is a simpler one.

How did Detroit become the “Motor City” at the center of the U.S. automotive business? It wasn’t obvious that it would be: At the end of the 19th century, more than 100 automobile companies were organized in the United States, most of them in New England and Ohio. But Michigan won out because it had a hugely important advantage in one natural resource: smart people.

Ask a half-dozen car guys why Detroit beat out the rest, and you’ll get a half-dozen answers: Maybe because Henry Ford and Ransom Olds lived in Michigan, or maybe because Standard Oil helped to lift the gasoline-powered Michigan manufacturers over competitors in Cleveland and Boston, which leaned toward steam and electric power. (Electric cars — imagine that.) But one of the main reasons Detroit became the Motor City is that it already was a motor city: Before it was a powerhouse in the automobile business, it was an important center for manufacturing marine engines (as was Cleveland), and as such was home to a work force with skills relevant to building automobiles — metalworkers, mechanics, engineers, machinists, experienced laborers. The most useful kind of intelligence resides in particular people and in particular intellectual communities, whether those are theoretical physicists or construction workers. That kind of intelligence cannot be boxed up and redistributed like surplus cheese. It is where it is, and it is there because of organic developments that cannot be managed.

Henry Ford offered good wages and an intelligently organized production process, but he didn’t exnihilate those skilled workers into existence; he just hired them. The larger and more complex the intellectual ecosystem of Detroit became, the greater the advantage provided by its workforce was — and the more it became a magnet for the best workers.

And Henry Ford wouldn’t have got very far without them.

. . .

(I will here offer the obligatory periodic reminder that the story about Henry Ford’s bootstrapping the automobile market into existence by paying his workers enough to afford his products is a myth, pure folk economics.)

Henry Ford’s problems are our problems still. North Carolina is the Detroit of the American upholstered-furniture industry, and its biggest problem right now is finding skilled workers to man the industry’s factories. A program set up by furniture manufacturers and a local community college is training up new workers as fast as it can, but that is not fast enough: “The good news is we can graduate 150 people a year,” one furniture executive told the Wall Street Journal. “The bad news is that the industry needs 800 to 1,000 people.” Another recruiter described hiring an upholsterer through a temp agency as “winning the lottery.”

And yet millions of Americans somehow manage to languish in persistent joblessness.

The story is familiar, with businesses ranging from the literally old-timey (mechanical-watch manufacturers) to the high-tech (chemical companies) complaining loud and long that they cannot fill their openings, that highly skilled, reliable labor is impossible to find. Old-fashioned business strategies such as (radical idea!) substantially raising wages are not always effective. (Keep trying, guys; it worked for Henry Ford — eventually.) Industry groups have put together training and apprenticeship programs such as the one for furniture-makers in North Carolina, where a $600, eleven-month course prepares workers for jobs that can pay in excess of $75,000 a year. The Institute of Swiss Watchmaking operates training programs in Fort Worth, Texas, along with Hong Kong and Shanghai. For those on shorter timelines, there are still a bunch of oil-and-gas companies that will pay you to get a commercial driver’s license and then hire you when you do.

If the demand-side story is familiar, then so are the excuses from the potential supply side. If you’ve followed the intramural debate on the right between the classical free-market conservatives and the new right-wing anti-capitalists, then you’ve heard this before: “I want a good job, but I don’t want to move to one of those awful, expensive, godless coastal metros to get it.” “Okay, but there are lots of jobs to be had in lots of other places that aren’t Palo Alto.” “But I don’t want to invest four years in college and go into debt to do it.” “Okay, there are jobs to be had in West Texas gas fields and North Carolina furniture factories and all sorts of other places that don’t require a four-year degree.” “But. . . .”

There’s always another “but.”

Furniture-factory recruiters tell the Wall Street Journal that potential workers sometimes turn their noses up at their training programs because there is no guarantee that demand for workers will be as strong years in the future as it is today. Factories trying to recruit Millennials also have discovered that starting the workday at 6:30 a.m. is an obstacle. The usual thumbsuckers offer the usual thumbsucking excuses. A cynical man might wonder what exactly would get these folks to take the job — an iron rice bowl?

There’s a reason so many of the complaints we hear about China are characterized not by horror at the brutality of the Chinese regime but by frank envy of its command-and-control powers.

Tom Friedman calls it being “China for a day.” Marco Rubio calls it “industrial policy.”

. . .

If you are willing to consider the full, mind-bending complexity of the U.S. economy, then Elizabeth Warren’s “You Didn’t Build That!” argument becomes, in a sense, Leonard Read’s argument in “I, Pencil.” Everything touches everything else, and burdens are shared in complicated ways. Senator Warren’s story is an attempt to create a compelling moral narrative for managerial progressivism, the dusty intellectual antique installed firmly in the center of her brain. But while her political conclusions do not necessarily follow from the facts, she isn’t wrong about the facts themselves. Entrepreneurship does not happen in a vacuum, and nobody seriously thinks it does.

(Senator Warren leans heavily on an old politician’s trick: Arguing with positions that nobody really supports; in this, she is a lot like our friends on the new anti-capitalist right, who believe they have a patent on the idea that there is life beyond the market.)

Consider the early days of the automotive industry: When Alexander Winton drove from Cleveland to New York City to promote his new automobile, the trip took nine days and was thought to be such a feat that he was greeted by a million people upon arriving in Manhattan. The roads were, as Winton put it, “outrageous.” A few years later, an enthusiast in another Winton automobile made the first coast-to-coast automobile road trip in the United States, from San Francisco to New York.

. . .

The complexity of real-world economic relationships is the point of “I, Pencil,” Read’s famous essay, which illustrates that even something as straightforward, ubiquitous, and cheap as a No. 2 pencil relies on a vast network of industrial processes, specialized knowledge, trade, etc. so vast as to be well beyond the comprehension of any single organization, much less any individual. That’s the miracle: Nobody knows how to make a pencil, but we have plenty of them, anyway. Read took this as an argument against central planning, and he might be reasonably criticized for minimizing the role of the public sector; Senator Warren takes the same entangling relationships as an argument for more central planning, even though she occasionally remembers to make a rhetorical gesture in the direction of capitalism. Read was basically right and Warren is basically wrong, but Warren’s distortion of the underlying principle does not diminish the importance of public-sector and non-market institutions in the ecosystem of Readian economic complexity.

The complicated truth is that Henry Ford (and every other entrepreneur) drafted behind both public-sector and private-sector investments that preceded him and his own innovations. The marine-engine business helped lay the foundations for the subsequent success of Detroit’s automotive industry, but so did roads and schools and the like. There’s a word for that: civilization. Isaac Newton was not the only one who stood on the shoulders of giants. All of us do. (And not just giants: Nobody invented the automobile or the internal-combustion engine. There were thousands and thousands of contributors to that subtle and spectacular evolution.)

If it seems like we have drifted a long way from the original point about the role of the work force in the entrepreneurial process, we haven’t.

. . .

The current argument about the future of capitalism is about a lot of different things, some of which are only tangentially related to one another. Some of these considerations are matters of narrow political self-interest: Senator Rubio et al. have discovered that there is some juice in Trumpian neo-mercantilism and believe, with good reason, that there is even a little cross-partisan appeal to it. They have failed to articulate a set of policies or meaningful principles to go along with that hunch, but if President Trump has shown Republicans anything, it is that policies and principles are optional for a working majority of right-leaning voters, who can be had at the price of some vague grumbling about the national interest and intellectually dishonest claptrap about how “market fundamentalists on the right want more record-setting days in the stock market above all else,” as Senator Rubio put it.

I will reiterate here two things: The first is that Senator Rubio is engaged in a political fight to the death with a straw man, and that so far the fullest expression of his conception of the national interest in economic policy is subsidies for politically connected sugar producers in Florida. In politics, vague principles rarely stand up to specific demands from specific constituents.

On the wider cultural front, the fight about the future of capitalism is in no small part a matter of status competition, less a question of economic development than of how we talk about economic issues. Practitioners of resentment politics wish to reduce the prestige of cultural rivals, and so we have the strange spectacle of our so-called nationalists abominating the actual centers of American power, prestige, and influence: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, the Ivy League, Hollywood, etc.

Both Warren-style progressives and right-wing critics such as my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty seek to undermine the heroic account of entrepreneurship and corporate success traditionally put forward by apologists for capitalism. For these critics, the professional and financial elites represent a morally corrupt class that needs to be taken down a peg — those of you who have followed this conversation for a while will remember that Dougherty’s famous thought experiment about Garbutt, N.Y., had conservatives advancing the interests of “a typical coke-sniffer in Westport” and his in-laws down the road in Darien. Their argument is at heart about social status, holding that the finance workers in Fairfield County and the multinational firms that employ them deserve less admiration, as do the start-up founders and venture capitalists on the opposite coast, which is why it is important that they be cocaine enthusiasts or sexual deviants or whatever for purposes of political narrative if not in real life, where the coastal elites practice the bourgeois values (stable marriages and thrift and relative sobriety and all that) to a remarkable extent.

At the same time, the same critics argue that we should have more sympathy for those who are stuck in economically stagnant and socially backward communities and who do not wish to leave them. Dougherty presents this explicitly as a sympathy deficit on the part of the capitalism camp: “Any investments he made in himself previously are for naught. People rooted in their home towns? That sentimentalism is for effete readers of Edmund Burke. Join the hyper-mobile world.”

Though the protectionism put forward by the likes of Trump and Rubio is couched in the language of national interest, it is the opposite of that: Americans as a whole would be better off with lower food prices, but a small handful of Americans is much better off with higher prices secured by the policies supported by Rubio and other like-minded politicians. Americans as a whole are much better off when markets are allowed to allocate resources efficiently, but there is a vast and politically significant archipelago of communities that would prefer that certain inefficiencies be preserved, because their livings are tied to those inefficiencies and their communities have been built atop them. Detroit in 1960 was on top of the world — it was the highest-income city in the United States. Detroit would have been very comfortable if it could have been frozen in time, economically, in that moment. And a very wide array of politicians and activists, from local union leaders to President Ronald Reagan, took extraordinary steps to try to preserve the position of the U.S. automotive industry, with the disastrous consequences that you can see in front of you in Detroit today.

The things that gave Detroit its critical advantages in the early 20th century were not things that could be planned out in advance by super-intelligent philosopher-kings in the bureaucracies. Creating a marine-engine industry that would help to prepare the workforce for an automotive industry that would not exist until decades in the future is not the kind of plan that mere mortals can conceptualize or execute. If you had tried to explain to the best and most forward-looking thinkers of Detroit’s golden years that China and India would soon enough be significant high-tech competitors, they would have laughed at you. Also, if you’d told them that one of the biggest and most valuable U.S. companies in 2019 would be an electronic bulletin board where you can go to denounce your aunt as a hate-monger, they would have been perplexed, as, indeed, some of us are. Remember that many of the best minds of the time believed that the automobile would be a passing fad.

Conservatives like to laugh at Paul Krugman, revisiting his long-ago prediction that the Internet would prove no more economically significant than the fax machine, but nobody is really very good at predicting the future of economic developments at any meaningful level of detail. Go spend some time around private-equity investors and see how they come by their billions: They are smart, but they are not superhuman, and they do not have any special insight into long-term economic trends — they do a tremendous amount of grunt-work discovering and creating value in ordinary companies and complex deals, inch-worming their way through. That’s how a lot of wealth gets built. That’s the real world. And Senator Rubio scoffs at it as fiddling with “financial flows detached from real production,” as though factories just built themselves.

. . .

You couldn’t have planned Detroit’s success. But you could have avoided its catastrophic failure. Detroit was not done in by lack of clever industrial policy or by shortage of some other species of cleverness. It was done in by corrupt and ineffective government and a local political culture that went from bad to worse to much worse to Coleman Young. They tried to save Detroit with tariffs and failed. They could have saved it with safe streets and functional schools and the hundred thousand other tiny needful things that good governments do well.

Good government — including a steady, stable, predictable policy environment — multiplies the value of labor, just as training and capital do. That is why investment capital around the world for years has flowed largely to well-governed countries, most of them liberal democracies, with the largest recipients of foreign direct investment being the United States and the European Union. (China, the important exception to that rule, is not well-governed; it is governed brutally but predictably, an ugly but useful reminder that stability has economic value, too.) There are many places that businesses could go in search of low wages and a loose regulatory environment, but you aren’t driving a car made in Haiti or using a computer built in Burundi. Investors aren’t putting a lot of money into factories in Yemen or Afghanistan.

. . .

The U.S. government is in many cases a force for instability and non-confidence in our national economic life. Peter Navarro’s position as Trump’s China hand is as ridiculously implausible as Hunter Biden’s role on the board of Burisma, but there he is, whispering into the president’s ear. Senator Rubio is no less implausible in his belief that he has eagle eyes to detect subtle national interests in complex economic affairs of which he has no substantial first-hand knowledge. His problem isn’t stupidity — it’s hubris.

A nation as rich as ours can afford a great deal of stupidity, but hubris is expensive.

Senator Rubio represents a government that has shown little competence in the small and ordinary things. It cannot even manage to follow its own ordinary processes for creating budgets or appropriating funds, instead lurching from season to season with a series of “emergency” measures in a state of never-ending crisis. You might think that that would be the cause of some modesty and circumspection in Washington. You would be wrong.

Rather than monkeying around with things that are beyond his ken and outside of the credible operating capacity of the U.S. government, Senator Rubio should be seeing to some of the things that might actually make a difference. The U.S. government is on a catastrophic fiscal course that will, without reform, eventually result in a ruinous debt crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. (We’ve seen fiscal crises in Canada and Argentina, but the U.S. economy represents nearly a quarter of the world’s economic output.) We have entitlement programs that are in need of reform, decaying and archaic infrastructure under federal purview, serious K–12 educational problems entangled with federal policy, a tax code in great need of simplification, a series of worldwide military engagements that have failed or are on the verge of failing, enormous deficits, an out-of-control presidency and administrative state, etc., all of it under the responsibility of a federal apparatus that cannot even produce an accurate count of how many programs it administers. Senator Rubio and his colleagues are like fast-food workers who haven’t yet mastered the drive-thru but demand a seat on the board of the company: They are not doing a very good job with the responsibilities they already have.

And many of those are responsibilities that cannot be taken on by anybody else: If the United States is to have an immigration system characterized by intelligence and decency, or a federal criminal-justice system characterized by justice, then the federal government is the instrument that is going to bring that about. These tasks cannot be delegated to the Chamber of Commerce or the Rotary Club. But rather than see to these, and other authentic federal responsibilities, Senator Rubio would spend his days micromanaging the world’s mining markets lest the sneaky Chi-Comms hoard all the ytterbium.

(Seriously.)

What was true for Detroit is true for the United States as a whole. The first step toward success in government is avoiding failure, and what emerges from the complicated story of Detroit’s success and the relatively simple story of its failure is not that government must master economic complexity and put it in harness but rather that government must do a lot of relatively simple things well. Detroit did not need a Thomas Jefferson or a Mohandas Gandhi or another great political philosopher with a world-changing idea — it needed someone to fix the potholes, balance the books, keep order on the streets, see to the schools, and keep the city agencies orderly and honest and effective. Without that, all of Detroit’s productive capital — physical, financial, and human — was devalued and ultimately dispersed.

Detroit’s fall happened hard and fast. As the poet said, Goin’ down slow ain’t the only way to go. Deride “financial flows detached from real production” all you like, but if you want workers to have jobs, then you need enterprises to employ them. If you want enterprises to employ them, then you need investment. And if you want investment, then you need good government and a stable, predictable policy environment, not Senator Rubio freelancing around the economy like a kid trying to play chess without even knowing how the horsey-thingies move.
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The U.S. economy is a vastly complex system with countless variables. Here’s a puzzle with only three variables: 1. There are about 5.7 million unemployed people in the United States right now. 2. We have thousands and thousands of jobs going unfilled because employers cannot find workers to fill them. 3. We spend about $10 billion a week on unemployment benefits.

Sort that out and the ytterbium will take care of itself.

You Didn’t Build That, by Kevin Williamson

Statolatry, Ozymandias

The Clerisy and the Kakistocracy and the Administrative State

If anything, both Left and Right have developed a newly intense resentment of the way in which purely private actors can exercise tremendous influence over their lives: corporate mergers and restructurings take away jobs and upend the economic situation of communities dependent on them; Facebook and Twitter endeavor to silence unpopular political views, or else are used as vehicles for ochlocratic attacks on hapless Starbucks staffers and Chipotle managers; in 2008–09, the world economy was convulsed by the fact that a great many Wall Street firms made bad investments that they did not quite even understand, necessitating trillions of dollars in bailouts and “quantitative easing” to stave off economic disaster. It is easier for a man to walk away from his wife and children than from his credit-card debt or student loans. Nobody seems to really know what his health insurance will cover — or what it will cover the day after tomorrow. A third of the teachers participating in a grant program found themselves saddled with loans — loans they had never signed up for, sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of dollars —because of paperwork issues. Innocent men and women are wrongly prosecuted and end up financially ruined even when they escape jail, and even as prosecutors boldly boast about abusing their powers.

The burden of these developments always seems to fall on those who do not have much money or power. You miss filing a 1040EZ one year and you’ll get your bank account hijacked by the IRS; Lois Lerner hijacks the entire IRS for a political project and she ends up with pension that’s twice what most American households earn in a year. Corporate executives flit from one gilt perch to the next, politicians flout both law and morality without real consequence, and their cronies and minions rarely miss a paycheck. Meanwhile, the New York Times is full of advertisements for Rolex and Cartier, Tiffany and Zegna — and stories about how nobody can really be expected to get by on $200,000 a year.

In Francis Fukuyama’s magisterial Origins of Political Order, he specifies three things that undergird the development of political development: the state, the rule of law, and accountability. The first we have plenty of — more of than we need, really. The other two . . . less so. Irrespective of how you feel about the current legal efforts being made against President Trump, it is impossible for any intelligent person to look at the situation and conclude that anybody — anybody — involved in this mess is simply working to apply the law rather than conducting a political jihad or counter-jihad through legal means — lawfare, as they call it. The rule of law took a beating during the Obama administration, and the chaos of the Trump administration does not seem likely to contribute much to its recuperation.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Crony capitalism and statolatry all the way down.

New ways to be alone

 


Bishop Barron on Contraception and Social Change

 

As our civilization lost its understanding of sacramental marriage, we have dreamt up new ways to be alone.
. . .
It was not the invention of the birth-control pill, or the adoption of no-fault divorce, that hollowed out marriage: It was that we became the sort of people who desired those things. We became — Western civilization became — the kids who flunked the test in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, unable to resist immediate gratification and, having stripped ourselves of the cultural basis for understanding the distinction, unable to tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.

The Psalmist and the Sex Doll

 


Humanae Vitae: Blessed Pope Paul VI’s Prophetic Pro-Life Work

 

Paul VI, Prophet, by Bishop Robert Barron, November 28, 2017

 


Sexual Revolution: 50 Years Since Humanae Vitae

 

Thin-Skinned


If you run into an asshole

There isn’t that much organic outrage in the world; it is by necessity manufactured.

If only there were some easy way to distinguish between the decent and well-intentioned and the callous and hateful. Perhaps we should consider the philosophical maxim of Raylan Givens: “If you get up in the morning and you meet an a**hole, you met an a**hole. If you meet nothing but a**holes all day, you’re the a**hole.”

The Exquisite Sensibilities of the Outrage Industry

Crooked Timber


The Death of Stalin

If you believe that H. sap. is only time’s favorite monkey — that man is meat — then there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the kind of behavior we’re talking about, and no need to justify it, since there is nobody to justify it to. If you believe that man ought to be better, it implies that he can be better, and that “better” means something. And here materialism fails us, which is why Marxism became an ersatz religion. Christianity is a fortunate religion in the sense that the endless moral failings of its leaders (and followers) keeps illustrating, generation after generation, the fundamental facts of the creed. The creeds based on human perfectibility, which is the romantic notion at the heart of all utopian thinking, have as their main problem the countervailing example of everybody you’ve ever met and ever will.

It is tempting to make like the Pharisee rather than the publican and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It is unpleasant to meditate on the truth at the center of Christianity, and perhaps at the center of all wisdom: I am like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous. (I have never been guilty of collecting taxes.) We must sympathize with the victims and care for them, but we must also identify with the malefactors, who are made of the same stuff as we are, cut from the same crooked timber.

Stalin at the Movies

You mustn’t kill your children.

Smoke weed, snort cocaine, watch porn, but don’t kill a living human organism, for any reason, ever. Anyone who describes himself as a libertarian has been subjected to at least one game of “Would You Legalize . . . ?”

For me, the answer is mostly “Yes.”

Weed? Yes. Cocaine? Yes. Heroin? Yes. I’d legalize all the drugs. Not because I am indifferent to drug use — I have seen addiction up close and personal, closer and more personally than I ever wanted to, and I know what it does to people. I’m in favor of drug legalization for reasons deontological (I believe that people have the right to do what they will with their own bodies) and consequentialist (I believe heroin users would be better off if heroin were still made by Bayer, with modern pharmaceutical quality controls).

You mustn’t kill your children.

What about prostitution? Yes, I’d legalize that, too, mostly for the same reasons I’d legalize drugs. I don’t think prostitution is good for women or men, but I think the criminalization of prostitution makes it worse, creating more problems than it ameliorates. Again, one need not be indifferent to the issue to believe that the police power of the state is the wrong instrument to use in many cases. The state is big, stupid, and violent — violence is what government does — and adding violence to the equation is not very likely to make life better for people working as prostitutes. They endure too much violence as it is.

. . .

Some of my pro-abortion friends are very fond of the Monty Python school of reproductive theology. You know the song: “Every sperm is sacred / every sperm is great / when a sperm is wasted / God gets quite irate.” They ask: “How can you be against abortion while considering masturbation an act of mass murder? Huh? Huh?” (Abortion politics makes people stupid.) One hears a lot from them about “potential” lives.

But on the matter of abortion, we aren’t talking about “potential” anything. A sperm cell or an egg cell has your DNA. It’s part of your body. I may not think everything you do with your own body is good or wise (not every tattoo is advisable), but I’m not going to throw you in prison over it, either.

You mustn’t kill your children.

I have heard endless stupid metaphysical disputes about abortion, from legalistic disputes about “personhood” (a cowardly intellectual dodge if ever there were one) to medieval-style claims about what used to be called “ensoulment.” None of that is of any interest. What happens in abortion happens to a 1) living 2) human 3) organism. The tissue in question is living tissue, not dead tissue; it is human tissue, not rutabaga or aardvark tissue; it is arranged in an organism, not as a tumor or a fingernail clipping. It has its own DNA and it will continue on a life course — maybe majestic, maybe tragic — as it grows, because it is a living human individual at the earliest stages of its development. A “clump of cells”? Yes, which is what living human organism is at that stage in its life.

You mustn’t kill your children.

Not at any age. Not at any stage of development. Not for any reason. Debate, disagree, dissent, fight, cajole, persuade, argue all you want about war and peace, taxes, the welfare state, global warming, the Palestinian question, immigration, Donald Trump, animal rights, the Second Amendment, libel laws, school choice, the literary merits of Ayn Rand. I’ll have all those fights with you and more. Smoke all the weed you like and watch all the porn you want. Keep up with the Kardashians and live like them, too, if that seems best to you. I won’t pretend it’s a good idea, but it’s a free country.

You mustn’t kill your children.

Marching for Life

America, 2018

Why have conservatives abandoned the coasts?

. . .

If real estate cast votes, the United States would be practically a one-party state. And, to be sure, as things stand, the Republicans are doing well, controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress while enjoying a commanding position in the states. “Who needs California?” they ask, often with a sneer. “Who needs New York and New Jersey?”

The answer: America does.

Conservatives, too.

In its quest to “Make America Great Again,” the Republican party, and to a lesser extent the conservative movement that animates itself, has taken a position of enmity toward much of what made America great in the first place. With all due respect to those amber waves of grain, coastal urban America has in many ways led the way: Hollywood, Wall Street, Ronald Reagan, punk rock, Ellis Island, Edison, Apple, Facebook, Google, J. P. Morgan, General Electric.

The modern conservative movement was not a product of the Old South or the Midwest but an intellectual phenomenon that percolated up in Southern California and New York City. (With apologies to Mr. and Mr. Koch, there’s a reason William F. Buckley Jr. did not choose to launch a journal in Wichita.) It’s all good and fine to point to the troubles — and they are many — of the Democrat-dominated states and cities, but in their rhetorical frenzy to abominate the Democrat-leaning parts of the country, Republicans have put themselves at odds with many of our most successful industries, institutions, and communities. Republicans sneer at Silicon Valley and at the elite universities that educate the people who work there. In favor of what? A resentment-driven cultural milieu that insists that the “Real America” is to be found elsewhere, and that the “Real America” looks like Hee-Haw without the music or self-deprecating humor. They insist that San Francisco is Hell on Earth but never ask why it is that so many people want to live there — or they just write off those who do as degenerates and hopelessly un-American.

That’s bad politics.

From Sea to Shining Sea

Beneath the sex scandals, moronic tweets, ridiculous characters, and massive incompetence that dominate Washington in this mean period of our history lie more fundamental geopolitical realities. Increasingly it is economics—how people make money—rather than culture that drives the country into perpetual conflict.

What’s Red, Blue, and Broke All Over? America.

Mindfulness and Other Corporate Bullshit

Buddhism without Buddha promises to make workers happier and more productive.

. . .

Mindfulness training is a $1 billion–plus business in the United States alone and growing robustly.

Why?

Ronald Purser has an interesting perspective on that: As a professor of management in the business school at San Francisco State University and an ordained teacher in the Zen Taego Buddhist tradition, he has a foot in both the corporate and mindfulness worlds, and he is a trenchant, at times scathing, critic of corporate mindfulness, which he dismisses as a kind of prosperity gospel for coastal liberal elites — Joel Osteen in a saffron robe. “I’ve been to a number of corporate mindfulness conferences,” he says, “just as a fly on the wall to see what’s going on. Some of the consultants selling this stuff are Buddhist practitioners. But the Buddhism is backstage. At the Awakened Leadership Conference, a big mindfulness event, one of the consultants told me:

We know we’re teaching Buddhism — but they don’t. “They” meaning the corporate sponsors. In order to sell, they’ve really had to go stealth, selling mindfulness as a scientifically proven method. And the conference was all about how to sell the program, how to sell this stuff in corporate-speak, how to get them to perceive it as a performance-enhancement technique.

Cf. Aetna’s purported $3,000-per-person-per-year productivity kick.

. . .

The embrace of mindfulness need not be understood quite so cynically as Purser and other critics do. It may in fact indicate that among reasonably enlightened, good-faith leaders in the business community, there is an understanding that something is wrong with life here in the rich, healthy, peaceful, free, capitalist world, that something is missing. But if there is a hole in the soul of the West, it probably isn’t shaped like a designer meditation cushion ($349.99 from Walmart), and it probably will not be healed by something so vague and diluted as “mindfulness.”

‘Mindfulness’: Corporate America’s Strange New Gospel

Corporate America always has strange new stuff.

Mothers, don’t raise your babies to be corporate drones….

Suppose your law firm wants a summer associate. A law student with a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford applies. What do you infer? The applicant is probably brilliant, diligent, and willing to tolerate serious boredom. If you’re looking for that kind of worker—and what employer isn’t?—you’ll make an offer, knowing full well that nothing the philosopher learned at Stanford will be relevant to this job.

The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you signal by mastering them. This is not a fringe idea.

The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone“:

Susan Brinkmann: Whether one intends to drift away from Christianity or not, taking up the practice of mindfulness meditation can indeed lead one away from the faith.

CWR: Mindfulness, as you noted, draws on Buddhist ideas. What are the key problems with this approach? In what ways are Catholicism and Buddhism incompatible?

Susan Brinkmann: As Dr. Anthony E. Clark says in the foreword of the book, the direction one drives a car determines the place one arrives at, and our spiritual practice is no different. “When one understands well the intentions of Christian prayer and mindfulness, it is clear that, at their root, they point in contrasting directions,” he writes.

Many Catholics believe Buddhism is not really a religion because it doesn’t involve the worship of a god. It’s more of a philosophy or system of ethics, they say, and is harmless. However, upon closer inspection, we quickly realize that this is just one of many diverging philosophies that make Catholicism and Buddhism completely incompatible.

For example, on the most basic level, Buddhists do not believe in the existence of the soul. They believe people who think they have a soul are rooted in ignorance and in a desire to please one’s “self” and that we become truly enlightened only after we come to the realization that there is no such thing as a soul. Christians not only believe in the existence of the soul, but that the soul can achieve eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Christians believe suffering brings us closer to God and unites us with our Suffering Lord. Buddhists believe suffering is something to be escaped from.

Christ teaches that He is the “Way, the truth and the life,” (John 14:6), but the Buddha teaches that every person must find their own path to enlightenment.

Both faiths teach love but the Christian agape love is personal, individual and free-willed. The Buddhist teaches karuna, an impersonal feeling of compassion. The best way to understand what a stark difference this makes between the two faiths is found in the Buddhist story of the saint who gave his cloak to a beggar. The Christian gives his cloak to the beggar because of Christ’s love for the beggar. The Buddhist gives his cloak to the beggar because it’s the enlightened thing to do. In other words, the Buddhist’s concern is not for the welfare of the beggar, as is the Christian, but for the liberation of the giver from the burden of self.

Another problem I have seen stems from erroneous interpretations of Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. This document says that we are permitted to adopt what is good from other religions because it believes that other religions “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” What is often overlooked, however, is that a reflection of a ray is not truth that is directly from the source, but only a reflection of the source that is found in the Catholic faith.

Catholicism and Mindfulness: Compatible practices or contrary spiritualities?

Trump’s Ignorance, Stupidity, Pettiness, and Malice, Continued

President Donald Trump’s recent (most recent) testing of the censorship waters is disturbing in a by-now-familiar way, combining the hallmark elements of the president’s political style: ignorance, stupidity, pettiness, and malice.

. . .

It is not entirely surprising that the president doesn’t quite know what the FCC is or what it does. He was elected to the highest office in the land without quite understanding how a bill becomes a law — alas, Schoolhouse Rock has failed us! — and without really quite knowing what it is a president does. God help us all if he ever gets interested in the Federal Reserve or the Department of Energy.

Trump vs. the First Amendment

D’s and R’s….

The Democrats are torn between being the party of Elizabeth Warren and the party of the guy who cuts her grass, and it is inevitable that the people who provide the Democrats with their votes and manpower are going to eventually start asking why it is that their policy agenda, which is economically focused, is being held hostage to the excretory and sexual obsessions of a relatively tiny cabal of Wellesley graduates and puffed-up assistant vice principals.

You’d think that Republicans, who like to think of themselves as the party of economic growth and opportunity, might reach out to a few of those voters interested in upward mobility for themselves and their children. But Republicans are locked in the political toilet with the Democrats.

. . .

As it turns out, Texas Republicans have a rich fantasy life, too.

Strange Obsessions

Josh Barro is a recovering ex-Republican who is now a member of a niche political group: the non-crazy Democrats. He coined a cute phrase — “the hamburger problem” — to describe the relentless politicization of everything by progressives and Democrats. He writes, “Democrats’ problem isn’t that they’re on the wrong side of policy issues. It’s that they’re too ready to bother too many ordinary people about too many of their personal choices, all the way down to the hamburgers they eat.” He cites nonstop Democratic hectoring on, inter alia, the team name of the Washington Redskins, the way men sit on subway trains, and even some Americans’ choice not to abide by China’s one-child standard as the reasons why the party is today as electorally wobbly as Rocky Balboa in the 15th round. Yet the GOP’s success puzzles him still, because so many core Democratic cultural ideals (notably, gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization) poll more and more strongly.

When John Stuart Mill called the British conservatives “the stupidest party,” it stuck. Today the Democrats are the Annoying Party. The Left thinks Americans are picturing Mary Poppins when they talk about the nanny state; in truth, they’re thinking of Nurse Ratched. The prospect of a new set of nuisances being dreamed up and lashingly enforced by Hillary Clinton is what led voters to roll the dice with an Atlantic City grifter.

It wasn’t that long ago — say, the early 1990s — when Republicans were perceived as intruding into people’s private lives by talking about family values, saying no to drugs, and framing issues in moral terms. Today there can be little doubt that the broad American wish to be left alone is more strongly identified with the GOP, and that the Democratic party is providing a lavishly welcoming political home for the busybodies.

Professional progressives will not eliminate their hamburger problem. They can’t. Their nonstop need to hector others is fundamental to who they are. They genuinely think they’re creating a better world, one tweet or argument or angry unsolicited suggestion to a total stranger at a time.

Jonah Goldberg has been saying for years that progressives are the aggressors in the culture war. The war will never end, because whenever the Left wins a new victory, it pushes forward to the next fight, often over a policy position that would have seemed ludicrously extreme even to Democrats just a few years earlier. Because of what Jonah astutely dubbed “Selma envy,” the virtue-signaling, the marches for this or that, and the insistence on bending the arc of history toward social justice are baked into the cake that the Left demands you provide for it, on pain of destroying your business.

The Left’s ‘Hamburger Problem’ Is Not Going Away

Retail Jobs, First Jobs

One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Those jobs are going away.

. . .

Heritage Park Mall is a tomb, a crumbling and boarded-up monument to a particular weird moment in American history when we did that most American of all things: attempt to perfect a community by rebuilding it from scratch. With its shops and restaurants and public spaces, and its proximity to banks and offices, the American shopping mall was the reincarnation of the downtown business district, moved indoors where it could be air-conditioned, efficiently policed, and surrounded by a sprawling Salton Sea of asphalt to provide ample parking. The old downtown died most places, and, now, the new downtown is dying, too: At the highwater mark, there were about 5,000 malls in the United States, and there are now 1,100, at least 400 of which are expected to close in the next few years. In the 1980s, developers built an average of 60 malls a year — and more than 100 in some years. Now, cities from San Bernardino, Calif., to High Point, N.C., are dealing with the husks of these dead retail behemoths.

. . .

A dead mall is a problem. It’s a blight and an eyesore, for one thing. Heritage Park is boarded up, and sometimes the grass is allowed to get a little tall. There are financial problems as well: Heritage Park Mall used to produce more than $1 million a year in revenue for Midwest City; what little commerce still exists on the property (there’s a Pelican’s Wharf restaurant detached from the mall proper but on the lot) produces about $70,000 a year. That’s a big hit: Sixty-five percent of the ad valorem taxes generated by the property had been earmarked for the schools. And while the mall isn’t producing much revenue, the city still has to police it and protect it against fires. (Fire marshals tend to take an especial interest in boarded-up, abandoned buildings with large, open interior spaces.) Replacing those lost tax funds has not been easy: In a sprawling metro area such as Oklahoma City, there’s a new municipality every couple of miles in the exurban stretches, meaning that businesses that left the mall but set up shop elsewhere often did not do so within the boundaries of Midwest City, which is festooned with a lot of signs offering residents the advice (economically illiterate but popular) that they should “buy local.”

The more common sign says For Lease.

Because the thing is, it isn’t just the mall. Heritage Park is bounded on three sides by commercial properties with a lot of vacancies. The shopping center to the north is between a quarter and a third vacant, and the tenants in the occupied spaces — Ron’s Burgers and Chili, New York Nails, an animal hospital, People’s Church and its nearby PC Kids center, a physical therapist, Hearing Aid Center, Midway Clinic, Rupert Thomas OB/GYN, a tanning salon, and an Edward Jones — all have something in common: They are in businesses that require physical presence. (Yeah, you can trade stocks online, but that isn’t exactly what Edward Jones does.) Amazon is in all sorts of businesses, but it is not yet offering to watch your kids or minister to your labradoodle or your reproductive plumbing or your immortal soul. On the other side of the mall, there’s a blood-plasma donation center two doors down from an Arby’s — if you are in search of the Eliotic objective correlative for despair, there it is. The shops that are thriving are like the jobs that are thriving: They are difficult to outsource.

And shops and jobs go together: One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Retail salesman is the single most common job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while much has been made of the decline in old-line industrial jobs that carry a certain nostalgic charge, there are 17 times as many retail jobs as jobs in automobile manufacturing, 100 times as many retail jobs as steel jobs, and 210 times as many Americans working in retail as in coal mining — not just miners, but all coal-mining jobs, from CEO on down. Shop jobs mostly are not especially high-paying (though they sometimes are), and they tend to be held by workers who for various reasons — sometimes lack of skill and education, but also things such as the need for flexible scheduling or physical limitations — often do not have a great many desirable options. People sometimes scoff: “Yeah, creative destruction is great — we’ll just tell all those unemployed steelworkers to become software designers!” But the fact is that steel mills and mines and factories employ a great many highly educated and highly skilled people, from engineers to machinists, and they are a lot more likely to be able to find good new jobs than is the 48-year-old mother of three who works four days a week at the local Sears. That job may not provide enough to support a family of five, but it may very well pay enough to take care of the mortgage and the electricity bill — for two-income families, those modestly paid retail jobs aren’t about pin money.

Those jobs are going away.

. . .

And what about the people who used to work in all those stores?

The first job of Oklahoma City’s Heather Boulware was at a TG&Y, which middle-aged residents of the southern half of the United States may recall as “Toys, Guns, and Yo-Yos.” It was what our grandparents would have called a general store. “It was like a Super Walmart without the groceries,” she says. She started working there when she was 15 years old. Hers was a common experience: She was earning a little money — “a whopping $3.35 an hour” — which she invested in the things kids invest their money in: “I got paid every two weeks, and I’d buy books and go out with my friends. Some of it, I saved up for Christmas presents for my family.” TG&Y offered its employees a discount, and another benefit that made Boulware the heroine of Christmas morning: “I worked there the Christmas that Cabbage Patch dolls were huge. We got a shipment, and they let me hold one back for my little sister.” Now that she is an adult with children of her own, she understands that what she was actually investing in was learning how to have a job. “I had to be accountable,” she says. “I had hours, had to be there on time, had to be clean and dressed appropriately. And I had to interact with people in a way I hadn’t before: In a job like that, you have to answer questions, and if someone is kind of mean to you or critical, you can’t stomp off and cry. I wasn’t a kid at work — I was an employee.”

But there are fewer opportunities like that today, and there will be even fewer in the near future.

. . .

It often has been observed that the real value of a first job is not the money earned in that job: The real value of the first job is that it leads to the second job, and the third.

. . .

But the decline of retail will mean fewer stores and fewer starting jobs at those stores, constricting the path from unskilled hourly worker to richly remunerated manager. Fewer people will have the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate those basic elements of personal accountability — keeping a schedule, making peace with difficult customers — that Heather Boulware spoke about.

Those dead malls are a visible testament to what the decline of retail means to American communities: blight, lost taxes, public nuisances. But there is an invisible testament, too: It is not so much a matter of jobs lost in the present but of jobs that never come into being in the future. What all those teenagers and low-skilled workers need isn’t a $15 minimum wage but a foothold, a way to enter what is after all the world’s most productive economy and begin the process of advancement. For the kids headed to Stanford and Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the way ahead is, for the moment, fairly clear. For the dead-average 17-year-old who intends to — maybe has to — move out of his parents’ house next year and into a life of self-sufficiency, who not long ago might have gone down to the local Sears or Circuit City or hardware store and started a new job 24 hours after asking for it? That way is less clear./blockquote>

American Retail’s Fast, Furious Decline

“Science” and Power

The Indiana Jones heuristic — the search for fact is science, the search for Truth is philosophy — can go only so far in finessing the inherent conflict between science, which is organized around assumptions of objectivity, and the poisonous identity politics holding as its fundamental principle that everything is subjective.

. . .

But if it were really about science, we’d be hearing more from scientists and less from people who have batty, superstitious attitudes about modern agriculture and evidence-based medicine. You will not hear Democrats complaining about the fact that the Affordable Care Act clears the way for subsidizing such hokum as acupuncture and homeopathy. Seventh-day Adventists may make some claims about the world that sound ridiculous from the scientific point of view, but so do practitioners of yoga and sweat-lodge enthusiasts. The public adoration of Science isn’t about science.

. . .

The postmodernists were correct in one thing: There is some politics built into the scientific method, in that the scientific method assumes an environment in which people are at liberty to speak, debate, and publish — a liberty with which the American Left, particularly on college campuses, is at war. They are not interested in debate or conversation. They are interested in silencing those who disagree with them, and they have high-profile allies: Democratic prosecutors around the country are working to criminalize the holding of nonconformist views about global warming (some prominent activists have openly called for jailing “climate deniers”), and Howard Dean has taken up the novel argument that the First Amendment does not actually protect political speech with which he disagrees. (It is, he insists, “hate speech,” a legally null term in the American context.) Dean has argued that the federal laws governing the conduct of political campaigns could and should be used to regulate all public speaking.

The partisans of Science believe themselves to be part of an eternal war between Galileo and the Inquisition, but they have in fact chosen the Inquisition’s side. They have chosen the side of the Censor and the Index — so long as they get to choose who serves as Censor and who manages the Index. That is how they have reconciled Science and its claims of objective fact with identity politics and its denial of the same: They are engaged in neither the pursuit of fact nor the pursuit of Truth — only the pursuit of Power.

The Inquisitor’s Heirs

Fathers Need Children

This is the great paradox of our time: In 2017, it has never been easier for us to satisfy our wants, but we seldom have been more dissatisfied. In the United States, in Europe, in Latin America, and even (more quietly) in parts of Asia and in Australia, there is a sense that things are not going quite right, that the old order — not only in politics but also in commercial and religious life — is dead on its feet. People have turned to leaders and movements of very different kinds — Hugo Chávez, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, black-mask anarchism — in search of alternatives. In a sense, they are all the same: Those who had felt themselves to be on the outside looking in are now on the outside looking out.

Once, the question the ambitious and dissatisfied asked themselves was: “How do I climb that ladder?” Current tastes run more toward smashing the ladder and the hierarchies for which it stands in the name of . . . whatever: feminism or anti-feminism, black liberation or white nationalism, global justice or national sovereignty.

We spend our days surrounded by great miracles and minor irritations.

. . .

We do not have a problem of privation in the United States. Not really. What we have is something related to what Arthur Brooks (“the most interesting man in Washington,” Tim Alberta calls him) describes as the need for earned success. We are not happy with mere material abundance. We — and not to go all Iron John on you, but I think “we” here applies especially to men — need to feel that we have earned our keep, that we have established a place for ourselves in the world by our labor or by other virtues, especially such masculine virtues as physical courage and endurance. I suspect that is a big part of the reason for the exaggeratedly reverential, practically sacramental attitude we current express toward soldiers, police officers, and firemen.

. . .

The newly unemployed man of 40 seeking to reinvent himself is not in the most promising position.

Two things are going on here related to American unhappiness: The first is that as our economy becomes less physical and more intellectual, success in life is less like war and more like chess, and extraordinary success in life — i.e., being part of the founding of a successful new company — is a lot like being a grandmaster: It is an avenue that simply is not open to everyone. It requires talents that are not distributed with any sense of fairness and that are not earnable: Hard work is not enough.

. . .

But the marriage and family that once was a source of security is today a source of insecurity, an unstable and uncertain thing scarcely defended by the law (it is far, far easier to walk away from a marriage than from a student loan) and held in low regard by much of society. Again, this works differently for men than for women: A single mother is still a mother, but a father who lives apart from his children and their mother is not a father in full. If he is not fixed in this world by being a father and a husband, and if he has only ordinary, unexceptional employment, what, exactly, is he? Self-sufficient, perhaps, and that isn’t nothing. But how does he stand in relation to other men, to his neighbors, and to those who came before him and will come after him? His status is vague, and it is precarious.

And there is the paradox within our paradox: The world is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, and many of us have trouble finding our place in it, in part, because it is wondrous and beautiful and exciting and rich, so much so that we have lost touch with certain older realities. One of those realities is that children need fathers. Another is that fathers need children.

But these are what my colleague David French calls the “wounds that public policy will not heal.” Our churches are full of people who would love to talk to you about healing, but many have lost interest in that sort of thing, too. And so they turn to Trump, to Le Pen, to Chavismo (which is what Bernie Sanders is peddling), and, perhaps, to opiate-induced oblivion. Where will they turn when they figure out — and they will figure it out — that there are no answers in these, either?

And what will we offer them?

On the Outside, Looking Out