Food For Thought

Kevin Durant and Inequality

Conservatives do care about poverty. We have a whole color-coded portfolio of good ideas for how to tackle it. But if the public is disinclined to believe this, that may sometimes be our own fault. 

Conservatives love freedom, personal responsibility and spirited individualism. Those are wonderful (and very American) values that we are right to cherish. But we could perhaps be more discerning at times about choosing our talking points.

Yes. The right’s economic arguments, even if they’re 100% correct, are overly-technical and distant from the lives of many ordinary Americans. If we want to bring people to our side, we need to meet them where they are and present solutions to their problems that will strike them as both viable and compassionate. What’s more, we need to be more aggressive in assigning blame where it’s actually due. Why are so many inner city neighborhoods dysfunctional? That’s not the fault of the right; the right hasn’t had political control in the inner cities for decades. And if there’s any truth to the perception that people of color are not equally respected in the academy, might the animating assumptions behind affirmative action be the key contributing factor?

I do think we could do better when it comes to things like race and gender relations — even if I don’t agree with the left’s proposed fascistic “solutions.” What if we took concepts like “privilege” and “social justice” — and then cleverly turned them on their heads? What if we acknowledged the problems highlighted by the left — but then vigorously challenged the left’s explanations for their existence? Would we be more successful? I welcome your thoughts below!

The Two Americas

Some time ago – around when the protests in Wisconsin were the top news story – I got into an argument with a Facebook acquaintance regarding public sector unions and whether or not they should exist and/or be granted collective bargaining rights. Eventually, after I had pointed out the vast demographic differences between a southern state like Texas and a northern state like Wisconsin and thereby shot down his claim that “right to work” states are the poorest performers academically, my opponent – who happens to be a public employee – came back with the following:

“Well, I certainly deserve a taxpayer-funded retirement plan more than a corporate CEO deserves his private jet.”

At that point, I was sorely tempted to ask, “Why?” I didn’t, of course, because I didn’t want to touch off a screaming match, but I think my question is a valid one. Why is it better to reach into someone else’s pocket so that you may have a worry-free retirement than it is to reach into your own pocket to pay for a jet? Why are you more “deserving” than the aforementioned CEO? Can you give me an itemized list comparing your contributions to society to that of our jet-setting businessman?

You see, I hail from an entirely different milieu than does my Facebook acquaintance. My concept of what people “deserve” by “right” is pretty limited. As far as I’m concerned, if you have a roof over your head, food in your belly, clothes on your back, and access to healthcare (and I deliberately did not say “health insurance” for that last one, as access is the real issue), then you’ve already gotten what you “deserve”. Retirement plans and other benefits of that nature are, in my view, luxuries; that you work in the public sector doesn’t give you the right to demand a free ride on the backs of private sector workers who, oh by the way, may already be contributing 100% to their own 401K’s.

Facebook conversations like the one above highlight for me where the front really is in our culture war. There are two Americas, but we are not divided into the “rich” and the “poor,” the “haves” and “have-nots,” or the “99%” and the “1%”. No — I would draw the line between those who are illegitimately holding their hands out and those who aren’t.

The hand-out class cannot be delineated according to traditional socioeconomic categories. It includes the women Mom saw years ago at the Office of Housing and Community Development who came in with perfectly manicured nails and perfectly coiffed hair to beg for rental assistance. It includes upper-middle-class “hipster” college students who’ve applied for SNAP cards to pay for their high-end organic produce instead of getting part-time jobs. It includes middle-class families who freely signed up for bad mortgages and are now pleading for rescue. It includes school teachers who throw public tantrums in the lobbies of their state houses whenever anyone suggests, mildly, that perhaps they should tighten their belts like everyone else. It includes rich folks who’ve built vacation homes in hurricane-prone areas and have consequently received multiple disaster pay-outs from the federal government. It includes the corporate welfare queens who lobby the government for subsidies, tax breaks, and bailouts. It includes all those bureaucrats in Washington who get richer and richer the more government grows. In short, the hand-out class includes anyone who is able-bodied yet feels entitled to a share of Other People’s Money. (Note: It doesn’t include wounded vets, the mentally disabled, or the gravely ill, who are in fact genuinely needy.)

On the other side of the line, meanwhile, are those who worked their butts off and played by the rules to get what they want. They were prudent enough to wait until they had the down-payment and the credit score necessary to secure a thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage. When they were younger – or when times were tough – they took jobs they hated to keep food on the table. So far, they’ve never looked to the government for a hand to hold; so far, they’ve preferred to solve their own problems in their own way. But sadly, these people are beginning to feel like chumps. They’ve done everything right, and yet they get to watch the profligate get rescued by Uncle Sam time and time again. As Charles Sykes observes in his recently published book, A Nation of Moochers, we’re eventually going to reach the tipping point — the point at which many responsible folks will throw up their hands and say, “Screw it. Being good is getting us nothing.” And when that time comes, we’ll really be up crap creek without a paddle.

The hand-out class and the coastal elite – two groups that are certainly not mutually exclusive – make up Obama’s constituency — and that’s why his actions seem so contradictory. That’s why he can preach “jobs, jobs, jobs” and yet nix a job-creating pipeline for the benefit of his cronies. That’s why he castigates “millionaires and billionaires” — from whom he receives handsome campaign donations. He’s trying to play to a motley crew whose only shared trait is their willingness to cadge for government green — and that’s yet another reason why we need to vote him and his cadre out of office. The more we indulge the entitlement mentality, the worse off we’ll be.

More Adults Should Read Children’s Books

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided I have more to say regarding the quick link I posted last night. Why? I read a lot of history and my fair share of adult science fiction and fantasy. I also frequently visit the “Current Events” shelf, and I love Catholic writers such as Scott Hahn or the late Fulton J. Sheen. But let’s be honest: I am also an adult who reads children’s books — and I personally think other adults should do the same.

A while back, sci-fi author Brad Torgersen complained in an excellent blog post that science fiction has lost its sense of adventure in its eagerness to be ideologically correct. I would like to expand that insightful lament and state that adult literature in general has gone down that same path.

It’s all a part of a wider trend in the arts. Just as the power to shock and repel is prized in the visual arts, “serious” authors desperately seek to be outré and thereby win the praises of our supposed cultural elites. The result of this mad dash for accolades is paradoxical: these authors try so hard to cut a flash, but they end up turning out mere variations on the same dreary theme. I can’t recall off the top of my head who it was who first observed that sin is, in reality, terribly boring and uniform, but I can’t think of a better proof of such a statement than what currently passes for adult literature, in which irredeemable characters stumble their way through their irredeemable universes.

I’m generalizing, of course, but what I’ve found in a lot of adult literature, science fiction or no, are worlds that are not only devoid of adventure but also lacking in hope. This is not true of the children’s books I read. Even a very dark YA outing like The Hunger Games usually manages to end on at least a vaguely positive – though bittersweet – note.

In children’s literature, I have found the realistically flawed though redeemable characters, the sense of wonder, the hope that good will ultimately prevail in its battle against evil — everything that, for the past few decades, has been sadly missing in critically acclaimed adult literature. When I call to mind the works of fiction that have inspired me, children’s titles dominate the list. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Wingfeather Saga. The Tripods Trilogy. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. If you are looking for profound explorations of the human condition, you will find them in these works — and you will do so without having to wade through a sea of melancholic dreck.

Of course, it is not true that C.S. Lewis only wrote children’s books. But if Governor Palin or any other politician should one day admit that he or she gets enjoyment out of reading children’s literature, that will only make me want to vote for that polician all the more. To me, an unapologetic love of children’s works signals a glorious lack of self-consciousness and, more importantly, a personal questing after decency and virtue that can only bode well for our republic.

Old Essays: The Innocuous Generality of "Social Justice" and How Conservatives Should Reclaim It

Written in April, 2009:

An episode of Faith & Culture on EWTN last night finally crystallized for me why phrases like “human rights” and “social justice” make me wince: the people who usually fling these terms around define them in a manner completely at odds with my understanding of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. The left has hijacked the language of “social justice”; it’s time we take it back.

Human beings have dignity solely because they belong to the species homo sapiens sapiens. There is no other formulation that can be logically, consistently and, most importantly of all, morally defended. Human beings do not have dignity because they’re intelligent; there are animals that are intelligent in their way and human beings who are profoundly disabled, but most people would be (rightly) horrified if we were to openly prefer a dolphin to a severely autistic child. Human beings do not have dignity because of their autonomy; we come into this world utterly dependent upon other human beings for our most basic needs, but most people, unless they’re philosophers at Princeton, stop short of concluding that small children have no dignity. And human beings do not have dignity because they have been given capital or power; to claim, as many on the left do, that what people need to be dignified is an equal share of the world’s purely material wealth is to get it exactly backwards. Education, liberty, and charity must flow from a presumption that a human being has dignity; dignity cannot be state-bestowed by application of the former.

Social justice comes when we recognize the intrinsic worth of every human being – whether he be smart or dumb, rich or poor, healthy or ill, strong or vulnerable – and act, as individuals, according to that recognition. Social justice does not come from abdicating our personal responsibility and handing it over to the State; history has taught us this time and time again. How is it just, for example, that millions more impoverished American children are now living in fatherless homes, consigned to school systems that cost upwards of $10,000 per child to run and yet still consistently fail?

I have been in a welfare office before. In 2006, after a long illness that required repeated hospitalizations, I was without health insurance and facing a $30,000-plus medical debt that I would not have been able to pay even if I had cut out every single luxury from my budget. What I remember most about the experience was the austerity of the waiting room – the rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs – and the human isolation. We didn’t talk to each other; there was no sense of human solidarity in suffering. I understand that a welfare office must exist to handle certain contingencies, but I will never understand why some people consider such a place to be preferable to a private and/or religious charity. The latter presumes that you are a human being with dignity and treats you as such; charity workers ask you about your family, may share a meal with you, and are, on the whole, more willing to go the extra mile for you because they are there voluntarily. A government social worker, on the other hand, may be a caring and compassionate person in his or her everyday life, but he or she is also frequently overworked and laboring under a bureaucratic machinery that, by its very nature, doesn’t presume your dignity simply because the sheer size of the caseload prohibits such interaction. To put it another way, to the government, you are a series of numbers (income, debts, bills, etc.).

Conservatives need to work even harder to articulate the principle of subsidiarity as an avenue to greater social justice. I understand being leery of faith-based initiatives because with government aid comes the government’s ability to control (as we have learned throughout this bailout fiasco); on the other hand, we can certainly avoid penalizing charities, especially those that are religious in nature, and can even reward people for their willingness to assist and/or act to form voluntary charitable associations.

We also need to be even more vocal in our rejection of the left-wing belief that human dignity flows from material wealth and moral license. I feel this especially keenly when it comes to women’s issues. I know there are people out there who are fighting the good fight against mainstream feminism, but I think we have to be even more blunt about the alternatives. On the one hand, we have a popular culture that is training a generation of young women to chemically and/or surgically suppress their female-hood so that they may devote more time to impressing men – to be the ultimate consumers and, in the end, to be consumed; on the other, we have a religious counter-culture that dares to impose “patriarchal” notions of modesty and character – a counter-culture that believes there is a positive content to womanhood. Which women are happier?

What Was Promised, What Was Delivered

After the 2008 election The Investor’s Business Daily made a list of all that was promised by the Obama campaign. I leave it to you to note what was delivered:
• Give a tax break to 95% of Americans.
• Restore Clinton-era tax rates on top income earners.
• “If you make under $250,000, you will not see your taxes increase by a single dime. Not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes. Nothing.”
• Dramatically simplify tax filings so that millions of Americans will be able to do their taxes in less than five minutes.
• Give American businesses a $3,000 tax credit for every job they create in the U.S.
• Eliminate capital gains taxes for small business and startup companies.
• Eliminate income taxes for seniors making under $50,000.
• Expand the child and dependent care tax credit.
• Expand the earned income tax credit.
• Create a universal mortgage credit.
• Create a small business health tax credit.
• Provide a $500 “make work pay” tax credit to small businesses.
• Provide a $1,000 emergency energy rebate to families.
• Spend $15 billion a year on renewable sources of energy.
• Eliminate oil imports from the Middle East in 10 years.
• Increase fuel economy standards by 4% a year.
• Weatherize 1 million homes annually.
• Ensure that 10% of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012.
• Create 5 million green jobs.
• Implement a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
• Get 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015.
• Sign a fair pay restoration act, which would overturn the Supreme Court’s pay discrimination ruling.
• Sign into law an employee free choice act — aka card check — to make it easier for unions to organize.
• Make employers offer seven paid sick days per year.
• Increase the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2009.
National security
• Remove troops from Iraq by the summer of 2010.
• Cut spending on unproven missile defense systems.
• No more homeless veterans.
• Stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq.
• Finish the fight against Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorists.
Social Security
• Work in a “bipartisan way to preserve Social Security for future generations.”
• Impose a Social Security payroll tax on incomes above $250,000.
• Match 50% of retirement savings up to $1,000 for families earning less than $75,000.
• Demand higher standards and more accountability from our teachers.
• Go through the budget, line by line, ending programs we don’t need and making the ones we do need work better and cost less.
• Slash earmarks.
Health care
• Lower health care costs for the typical family by $2,500 a year.
• Let the uninsured get the same kind of health insurance that members of Congress get.
• Stop insurance companies from discriminating against those who are sick and need care the most.
• Spend $10 billion over five years on health care information technology.