Against Populism

Conservatives have watched as many of their own have warned of revolution and denounced public servants as little better than Nazi thugs. And political leaders have un-ironically taken up the same mantle and called for us to stand up to Washington and #makeDClisten. They’ve even danced along the edge of default as willing martyrs to conservative ends. Many in the conservative base have publicly dreamed of a grassroots government—that is, after dynamiting the old one and deposing its crony leaders. To be fair, much of America would rather forget about the mud-slinging bonobos of Capitol Hill.

The traditional establishment (an ever-shifting group, often described as donorist and corporatist) has now been deemed the enemy. Populist thinking has elevated the activists in their place. The result has been a celebration of “main street Americans” and of action over deliberation.

But as angry as we might be about the state our country is in, we cannot lose perspective of what’s true and good in being conservative.

Conservatives don’t trust government. But we also don’t trust the people or ourselves. We need institutional restraints on those in government as well as on the popular will. That’s why we have a government of laws, not of men. That’s why we have both democratic principles and constitutional principles elevated in our system of government. Leaders take into account the popular will, but also their own good judgment. They are in turn restrained by law and by election. Same for each of the institutions in which they reside.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s grassroots establishment is far too eager to think that freedom grows as the people grow in power, just as liberals see it in government’s burgeoning authority. Instead, we ought look to Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism. Much of Burke’s life was spent opposing the exact sentiment articulated by today’s conservatives, which in his time came out of the mouths of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. For Burke, authority stems from the weight of society and history, from institutions and laws—not from a belief in the masses. Burkean conservatives uphold both civic virtue and the place of leaders, with even greater responsibilities resting on the latter statesmen to maintain social order, elitist as that may sound.

Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of parliament, distilled from Burke seven core principles of conservative reform. Burke believed that statesmen should act:

  1. Early, forestalling problems before they are fully felt;
  2. Proportionately, in order to mitigate unintended consequences;
  3. Successively, building on the work and lessons of what’s come before;
  4. Steadily, allowing for those affected by change to adjust;
  5. Consensually, avoiding wasteful conflict that hinders a lasting impact;
  6. Coolly, aiming for a rapport with other leaders; and,
  7. Practically, making sure that each step is achievable.

Too many of today’s more populist conservatives bear little resemblance to this. Rather, they seem to fashion a conservatism that exists more in libertarian fantasies. They call for “pointless brinksmanship” and radical dispositions without the practical modesty that should inform conservative leaders. All the while inquisitors are drafted to purify the ranks.

Yet to deem one side “squishy” in order to elevate your own is a fool’s errand. There have always been various gradations of conservatism. There’s a value in going beyond name-calling and rabble-rousing and actually engaging in a proper debate (even an elitist debate) about what the conservative movement should get behind. We debate like this because a governing agenda within our movement will come from both the bottom-up and the top-down, and in between will ultimately reside a messy coalition marching to victory under the broad banner of conservatism.

This is not the time for radicals. This is the time for statesmen.

On Living Fast

Sometimes it seems like our minds race to keep up with the pace of technology, that the flood of information overwhelms us. The reality, argues Tom Vanderbilt, is the reverse: technology is actually racing to keep up with us.

Our senses are voracious, taking in and processing the world at a rapid clip. It takes only 25 milliseconds for a flash of recognition to light up our brains and a quarter-second to understand what we’ve seen. That is the pace at which we experience life. Recent studies show that we enjoy running at the speed of mind. When the information we receive through our senses and the tools that deliver them are keeping pace with our brain, we experience a certain degree of pleasure. We’re in a groove.

So when, say, movies speed up their delivery of visual stimuli, we seem to quite like it, which translates into greater demand. And our wish is Hollywood’s command. Movies have steadily and relentlessly offered up quicker scenes, moving from a ten-second average in film’s mid-century “golden era” to today’s five-second scene (or the 1.7 second bludgeoning of Quantum of Solace). That is why action films like The Bourne Ultimatum seem to have a more visceral quality; their frenetic pace is moving more in step with our minds.

Yet for this we pay a price. Our brains are less able to weave these strings of rapid-fire stimuli into sustained experiences that linger in our memory. We then beg for more technologies that allow us to enjoy experiences and our rapid paces. Or, Instagram. Here’s Vanderbilt:

The “technical” acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a “social” acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a “compression of episodes of action”—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning. What is the temporal experience of reading several hundred Tweets versus one article, and what is remembered afterwards?

Vanderbilt’s essay isn’t about answers, but instead offering the sort of clarity that begs further questions. It seems undeniably good that Google is able to offer search results at precisely the speed with which our brains demand it—less than 300 milliseconds. Or that our desire for communication and connection is no longer frustrated by the tools we’ve created. We can refresh our Twitter feed with a long drag and a “pop” of release. Like an itch being instantly scratched. It feels good. We want more. Now.

Perhaps this is also why we sense withdrawal when we’ve been away from technology’s instant gratification for too long, or feel frustrated when other devices (or people) in our lives don’t offer the same immediacy.

Do we need to carve out time to refresh and reboot ourselves? Do we go cold turkey or slap on a patch to satiate our desire for speed?

Today’s speed is useful, no doubt. Our brain enjoys it and longs for it. Yet we must remain mindful of what may be lost: the deep remembrance that our soul desires.

Millennial Insecurity Runs Washington D.C.

DC has become an Ellis Island for Middle America, drawing in young people who are looking to escape their struggling economies at home and have a shot at a future. As the Washington Post recently described:

Almost all of the District’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 was due to young adults age 20 to 34, whose numbers swelled 23 percent. Though the influx has slowed somewhat, the latest round of census figures showed that half of the District’s population growth between 2010 and 2012 was from Millennials.<

Why this “march of the Millennials”? As the Post explains, “Many of these young people were drawn here by the jobs our relatively protected economy provides, as well as by D.C.’s good and evil twins: ambition and idealism.”

Budget cuts aside, not only does DC enjoy incredibly low unemployment (if you’re white), but within its metro are some of America’s richest counties. And the power is intoxicating. Washington now runs off the fuel of millennial insecurity.

Just take a walk through the halls of Congress to see how this reality plays out. Note the young people running back and forth, the back slaps and heavy-handed compliments. Capitol Hill feels a lot like high school, full of nerds and jocks, prom queens and student presidents who all have a confidence and overeagerness that seems to cover up a gnawing insecurity. Beneath the high school drama and bleary-eyed overachievement lies a realization that these fast-talkers and walkers are completely replaceable.

There are few stable jobs in DC, for one thing. When millennials get one, there’s a tremendous urge to move on to something bigger. After all, so many others seem to do the same. The average tenure seems to be somewhere in the 2 to 3 year range. There’s of course a line of other young ones bucking to take their job.

The only way to keep from sinking is for the millennial to swim harder or dive deeper. The former is easier, the latter is better. Yet if few actually mean to stick around in one place, why invest in anything permanent around them? Young people are considered old for living in DC longer than 5 years.

DC’s young aspire to more greatness than their experience deserves, and employers expect more from their hires than they’re willing to invest in. Move up or move out, they say—what was once a strategy for elevating talent has become more emblematic of a workforce disrupted. Millennials may still enjoy a heady proximity to power in DC, but they sense the deep chasm before them too, dug by circumstances and an ill-fitting education.

It’s as if the currency of millennial talent has been massively devalued and the only thing left to inflate is their ego. Insecurity becomes inseparable from aspiration. Millennials are told they’re special, but really what’s so exceptional about being underpaid and overworked?

Millennials labor in an economy that increasingly values highly-skilled, nonroutine work. For those who are lucky and talented (and the talented know how to make their luck), their prospects are limitless. For nearly every other millennial, their value in the marketplace seems perpetually set beneath the level that they want (or need) to be paid. They are pursuing prosperity that was once available to a wide swath of their parent’s generation, but now is enjoyed mostly by the best of the best.

In DC there’s a hardly a sense of out-and-out entitlement by millennials, just a sense of bewilderment at what happened to their American Dream.

Why ‘The Family’ Matters in Economics

Nick Schulz is frustrated. He’s frustrated that economists talk about the role of institutions in the American economy, yet ignore the most fundamental one of them all: the family. With a career built on writing about the roots of economic growth, Schulz has realized that you can’t understand today’s economy—from the need for human capital to rising inequality— without considering the platoons of moms, dads, and children that form the backbone of American society. And the situation is not pretty. The American family is in a state of crisis, which in turn is having a profound impact on the economy.

Yet too many experts remain silent for fear of becoming collateral damage in America’s culture wars. Nick Schulz wrote Home Economics bookHome Economics for these silent ones who have ignored the family’s role in the economy. He concludes as former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett did, finding that the “family is the original and best Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.”

Looking across 50 years of history, Schulz provides an introductory analysis of the forces buffeting the American family, but he doesn’t dwell on the root causes. They are far too complex, ranging from changes in technology, culture, habits, morality, religion, and economic forces, among others. The point is that America’s customs concerning the family and, more specifically, marriage, have shifted dramatically. Out-of-wedlock births are increasingly common, as are parents who never marry. For those who do walk down the aisle, they face long odds of remaining together “‘til death do us part.”

For those tempted to say, “So what?”, rising income inequality, wealth disparities, and disproportionate health outcomes are all impossible to understand without taking a hard look at families. As Jason DeParle wrote last year in The New York Times that “changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40% of the growth in certain measures of inequality.” David Leonhardt, also of the Times, noted a recent finding that “family structure was one of the four factors with a clear relationship to upward mobility.” As Schulz himself found, only 5% of married families were poor at any point this year, while 30% of single-parent households felt the blow of poverty. These data points paint a bleak portrait; those being raised without a mother and a father will face immense social and economic barriers. Continue reading

Man, Models and the Markets: Why Theology Has Something to Say About Economics

Ben Bernanke has gone soft.  The chairman of the Federal Reserve said this summer that economics should “understand and promote the enhancement of well-being.” His fellow economists have long worked with an ideal version of rationality to explain the “what” of how our economies function, he argued, while ignoring the irrational foibles of real people trying to grasp the “why” of the world.

I would argue that this is precisely the space in which theology should be speaking into economics. Yet for the most part, it doesn’t seem to be.

In recent years, economists have turned to psychology to better understand the realities of human behavior. While it’s been easy for economists to craft models based on their ideals of rationality, their understanding of humanity has been incomplete. As a result, behavioral economics has begun to influence economic assumptions about the rationality of man and markets in profound ways.

English: President Barack Obama confers with F...

English: President Barack Obama confers with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke following their meeting at the White House. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Economics traditionally places humanity at the center of its study. Homo economicus roams freely in this area of study in all of his rational, self-centered glory. Birthed by John Stuart Mill, raised in its infancy by David Ricardo, and seen off to college by later economists like Gary Becker, homo economicus formed, in Becker’s words, the “heart of the economic approach to human behavior.”

The rational actor model of human behavior is a rough caricature, but it’s been incredibly useful as a basic assumption. It presupposes that at the micro level, human behavior can be subjected to rigorous examination with consistent outcomes. The broader market can be organized along certain set rules. The results can be tested, modeled, and invested with.

Most of the time, we look and sound pretty rational (or at least I like to think so). Our markets seem to function as they should and efficiently absorb much of the available information. Yet when rationality fails us, it can do so quite spectacularly. Financial crises lurk where logic has long since departed.   Continue reading