Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arthur Brooks

In Dialogue: Religion, Politics, Wealth, Justice

The American Enterprise Institute’s Nick Schulz interviewed me about two of my recent publications, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (co-authored with Michael Gerson) and Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism (co-authored with Arthur Brooks).

Nick and I cover a lot of ground; the interview can be found here.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Nick Schulz interviewed me about two of my recent publications, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (co-authored with Michael Gerson) and Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism (co-authored with Arthur Brooks).

Nick and I cover a lot of ground; the interview can be found here.

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Afternoon Commentary

With the Democratic party’s major losses in the midterm elections, there were predictions that President Obama wouldn’t win re-election in 2012. But during the lame-duck session, the president has managed to attain practically all of his legislative goals and undergo a remarkable political recuperation. Charles Krauthammer discusses the administration’s “new start” today in the Washington Post.

Tea Partiers have developed a reputation as self-interested individuals who oppose taxes because they don’t want to spread their wealth around. But according to AEI president Arthur Brooks, Americans who oppose wealth redistribution actually tend to be more generous when it comes to giving to charity than citizens who are in favor of government income leveling: “When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct ‘charity gap’ opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.”

Amir Taheri writes that a battle is brewing in Iran, as thousands of workers continue to strike in protest of the government’s cuts in food and gas subsidies. “[F]or the first time, the message of independent trade unionists appears to be finding some resonance among Iran’s working people at large,” writes Taheri, noting growing public anger over rising energy prices and food shortages, increased political activism among young labor-rights leaders and the impact of international sanctions on private businesses.

During the height of the Park 51 controversy last summer, many New Yorkers were angered by Mayor Bloomberg’s vocal support for the mosque leaders. Newly released emails now reveal that Bloomberg aides actually provided political assistance to Park 51 coordinators Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan.

The rape allegations against Julian Assange have prompted some feminists in the U.S. to call for a broader definition of what constitutes rape. In Reason magazine, Cathy Young argues these revisions would be problematic: “Earlier generations of feminists argued that rape should be treated the same as any other violent crime: The victim should not be subjected to special standards of resistance or chastity. These days, the demand for special treatment is so blatant that some activists openly support abolishing the presumption of innocence for rape cases and requiring the accused to prove consent[.]”

With the Democratic party’s major losses in the midterm elections, there were predictions that President Obama wouldn’t win re-election in 2012. But during the lame-duck session, the president has managed to attain practically all of his legislative goals and undergo a remarkable political recuperation. Charles Krauthammer discusses the administration’s “new start” today in the Washington Post.

Tea Partiers have developed a reputation as self-interested individuals who oppose taxes because they don’t want to spread their wealth around. But according to AEI president Arthur Brooks, Americans who oppose wealth redistribution actually tend to be more generous when it comes to giving to charity than citizens who are in favor of government income leveling: “When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct ‘charity gap’ opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.”

Amir Taheri writes that a battle is brewing in Iran, as thousands of workers continue to strike in protest of the government’s cuts in food and gas subsidies. “[F]or the first time, the message of independent trade unionists appears to be finding some resonance among Iran’s working people at large,” writes Taheri, noting growing public anger over rising energy prices and food shortages, increased political activism among young labor-rights leaders and the impact of international sanctions on private businesses.

During the height of the Park 51 controversy last summer, many New Yorkers were angered by Mayor Bloomberg’s vocal support for the mosque leaders. Newly released emails now reveal that Bloomberg aides actually provided political assistance to Park 51 coordinators Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan.

The rape allegations against Julian Assange have prompted some feminists in the U.S. to call for a broader definition of what constitutes rape. In Reason magazine, Cathy Young argues these revisions would be problematic: “Earlier generations of feminists argued that rape should be treated the same as any other violent crime: The victim should not be subjected to special standards of resistance or chastity. These days, the demand for special treatment is so blatant that some activists openly support abolishing the presumption of innocence for rape cases and requiring the accused to prove consent[.]”

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The Wisdom of Michael Novak

Yesterday in my post on the moral case for conservative economics, I mentioned that a very wise political strategist I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president. In a follow-up note, he told me, “The way I’ve been putting it is, ‘whoever distills the essence of Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism’ will win.”

That was, I thought, a very nice way of paying tribute to the man who, better than anyone I know, has articulated the moral case for democratic capitalism. Beyond that, Michael has been a significant influence on a whole generation of people (like me) who were well-disposed toward conservatism but wanted it placed in an ethical and moral context, and in a way that convinced us that it was not only consistent with human nature but also was the best way to ensure human flourishing. And in re-reading Michael’s many works in preparation for co-authoring (with AEI’s Arthur Brooks) Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, I was reminded of the power and elegance of his words, like these (from “A Closet Capitalist Confesses,” March 14, 1976):

Finally, I realized the socialism is not a political proposal, not an economic plan. Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion. It is a belief in community, the goodness of the human race and paradise on earth.

That’s when I discovered I was an incurable and inveterate, as well as secret, sinner. I believe in sin. I’m for capitalism, modified and made intelligent and public-spirited, because it makes the world free for sinners. It allows human beings to do pretty much what they will. Socialism is a system built on belief in human goodness, so it never works. Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing, scandalous success. …

There is an innate tendency in socialism toward authoritarianism. Left to themselves all human beings won’t be good; most must be converted. Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace. …

The saintliness of socialism will not feed the poor. The United States may be, as many of you say, the worthless and despicable prodigal son among the nations. Just wait and see who gets the fatted calf.

As the political strategist I was corresponding with understood, what the rest of us do on the subject of democratic capitalism consists of a series of footnotes to Novak.

Yesterday in my post on the moral case for conservative economics, I mentioned that a very wise political strategist I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president. In a follow-up note, he told me, “The way I’ve been putting it is, ‘whoever distills the essence of Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism’ will win.”

That was, I thought, a very nice way of paying tribute to the man who, better than anyone I know, has articulated the moral case for democratic capitalism. Beyond that, Michael has been a significant influence on a whole generation of people (like me) who were well-disposed toward conservatism but wanted it placed in an ethical and moral context, and in a way that convinced us that it was not only consistent with human nature but also was the best way to ensure human flourishing. And in re-reading Michael’s many works in preparation for co-authoring (with AEI’s Arthur Brooks) Wealth & Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, I was reminded of the power and elegance of his words, like these (from “A Closet Capitalist Confesses,” March 14, 1976):

Finally, I realized the socialism is not a political proposal, not an economic plan. Socialism is the residue of Judeo-Christian faith, without religion. It is a belief in community, the goodness of the human race and paradise on earth.

That’s when I discovered I was an incurable and inveterate, as well as secret, sinner. I believe in sin. I’m for capitalism, modified and made intelligent and public-spirited, because it makes the world free for sinners. It allows human beings to do pretty much what they will. Socialism is a system built on belief in human goodness, so it never works. Capitalism is a system built on belief in human selfishness; given checks and balances, it is nearly always a smashing, scandalous success. …

There is an innate tendency in socialism toward authoritarianism. Left to themselves all human beings won’t be good; most must be converted. Capitalism, accepting human sinfulness, rubs sinner against sinner, making even dry wood yield a spark of grace. …

The saintliness of socialism will not feed the poor. The United States may be, as many of you say, the worthless and despicable prodigal son among the nations. Just wait and see who gets the fatted calf.

As the political strategist I was corresponding with understood, what the rest of us do on the subject of democratic capitalism consists of a series of footnotes to Novak.

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The Moral Case for Conservative Economics

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

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On Human Nature and Capitalism

The American Enterprise Institute’s online magazine The American has posted an essay I co-wrote with Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, on “Human Nature and Capitalism.” We argue that the model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one prefers to the political system one supports.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature (to paraphrase 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann). The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create. They are the foundation stone.

You can read the whole thing here.

The American Enterprise Institute’s online magazine The American has posted an essay I co-wrote with Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, on “Human Nature and Capitalism.” We argue that the model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one prefers to the political system one supports.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature (to paraphrase 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann). The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create. They are the foundation stone.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Role and Purpose of Government

On the website e21, Representative Paul Ryan has responded to a column by David Brooks, who in turn was commenting on an op-ed by Ryan and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray added his thoughts as well.

The subject they are addressing is the role and purpose of the state in our lives. I would add only a few thoughts to what these razor-sharp minds have written.

The first is this: more than at any point in our lifetime, the sheer cost and size of government matters. We face an entitlement crisis. The level of our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Demographics are working against us rather than in our favor. And the Obama presidency has made our fiscal problems more, not less, acute. Unless we begin to reverse this trend fairly significantly, America will change in deep and lasting ways. We cannot continue on our present course and remain a strong, vibrant society. There is an urgent need, then, to re-limit government simply as a matter of dollars and cents, quite apart from philosophy and the effects the nanny state has on human character and self-reliance.

That said, conservatives also need to engage in a thoroughgoing examination of the core purposes of programs and policies. And in considering how to reform government programs, we need to think in terms of what we want them to do rather than simply how large and costly they are.

Consider four successes by government in the past 20 years: welfare reform; crime reduction (including the transformation of New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani); the campaign against illegal drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led by William J. Bennett; and the surge in Iraq. In each of these instances, the key to success wasn’t limiting the size of government; in each case, after all, government spending went up, not down. What transformed failure into success was acting smarter, creating the right incentives and disincentives, attacking the problems in a comprehensive way, and thinking in terms of what works.

What we need, then, are policymakers who believe in accountability; who judge results based not on inputs (expenditures, number of caseload workers, police officers, or troops) but outputs (cutting the number of people on welfare, decreasing drug use, reducing crime rates, lowering the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist safe havens); who are passionately empirical; and who understand that we need to craft programs so as to take into account human nature and human behavior.

When it comes to entitlement programs, our task is different from, say, an anti-crime strategy. On entitlements, our first priority needs to be cutting costs in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. That will require us to alter the way we think about the basic aims of these programs. And here, I think, is where we eventually need to go: gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

All these matters need to be examined in more depth. My hope is that Messrs. Brooks, Ryan, Brooks, and Murray continue to deepen this discussion and, in the process, pull other thoughtful voices into it. They could hardly perform a more useful intellectual and civic role.

On the website e21, Representative Paul Ryan has responded to a column by David Brooks, who in turn was commenting on an op-ed by Ryan and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. Charles Murray added his thoughts as well.

The subject they are addressing is the role and purpose of the state in our lives. I would add only a few thoughts to what these razor-sharp minds have written.

The first is this: more than at any point in our lifetime, the sheer cost and size of government matters. We face an entitlement crisis. The level of our deficit and debt are unsustainable. Demographics are working against us rather than in our favor. And the Obama presidency has made our fiscal problems more, not less, acute. Unless we begin to reverse this trend fairly significantly, America will change in deep and lasting ways. We cannot continue on our present course and remain a strong, vibrant society. There is an urgent need, then, to re-limit government simply as a matter of dollars and cents, quite apart from philosophy and the effects the nanny state has on human character and self-reliance.

That said, conservatives also need to engage in a thoroughgoing examination of the core purposes of programs and policies. And in considering how to reform government programs, we need to think in terms of what we want them to do rather than simply how large and costly they are.

Consider four successes by government in the past 20 years: welfare reform; crime reduction (including the transformation of New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani); the campaign against illegal drugs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led by William J. Bennett; and the surge in Iraq. In each of these instances, the key to success wasn’t limiting the size of government; in each case, after all, government spending went up, not down. What transformed failure into success was acting smarter, creating the right incentives and disincentives, attacking the problems in a comprehensive way, and thinking in terms of what works.

What we need, then, are policymakers who believe in accountability; who judge results based not on inputs (expenditures, number of caseload workers, police officers, or troops) but outputs (cutting the number of people on welfare, decreasing drug use, reducing crime rates, lowering the number of ethno-sectarian deaths, car bombings, suicide attacks, and terrorist safe havens); who are passionately empirical; and who understand that we need to craft programs so as to take into account human nature and human behavior.

When it comes to entitlement programs, our task is different from, say, an anti-crime strategy. On entitlements, our first priority needs to be cutting costs in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. That will require us to alter the way we think about the basic aims of these programs. And here, I think, is where we eventually need to go: gradually and thoughtfully transitioning toward a means-tested system of benefits in place of the current Social Security and Medicare systems.

All these matters need to be examined in more depth. My hope is that Messrs. Brooks, Ryan, Brooks, and Murray continue to deepen this discussion and, in the process, pull other thoughtful voices into it. They could hardly perform a more useful intellectual and civic role.

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American Equality

Arthur Brooks, the outstanding president of the American Enterprise Institute (and co-author, with me, of a forthcoming monograph on capitalism and morality), published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on fairness that ends this way:

There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

That is true fairness, American-style.

One of the reasons Brooks’ piece is important is because he places economic issues in a moral frame and, rather than running away from the charge of “fairness” – which has been used as a battering ram against conservatives for decades – Brooks takes it head on and turns it to the advantage of conservatives. Brooks’ article helps explain why, in the words of Tocqueville, “equality in liberty” is vastly preferable, both economically and morally, to “equality in restraint and servitude.”

Call it true equality, American-style.

Arthur Brooks, the outstanding president of the American Enterprise Institute (and co-author, with me, of a forthcoming monograph on capitalism and morality), published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on fairness that ends this way:

There is nothing inherently fair about equalizing incomes. If the government penalizes you for working harder than somebody else, that is unfair. If you save your money but retire with the same pension as a free-spending neighbor, that is also unfair.

Real fairness, as most of us see it, does not mean bringing the top down. Yes, free markets tend to produce unequal incomes. We should not be ashamed of that. On the contrary, our system is the envy of the world and should be a source of pride. Generation after generation, it has rewarded hard work and good values, education and street smarts. It has offered the world’s most disadvantaged not government redistribution but a chance to earn their success.

That is true fairness, American-style.

One of the reasons Brooks’ piece is important is because he places economic issues in a moral frame and, rather than running away from the charge of “fairness” – which has been used as a battering ram against conservatives for decades – Brooks takes it head on and turns it to the advantage of conservatives. Brooks’ article helps explain why, in the words of Tocqueville, “equality in liberty” is vastly preferable, both economically and morally, to “equality in restraint and servitude.”

Call it true equality, American-style.

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Sound and Fury on the Economy

For all the hubbub about the innovative format of last night’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, what was striking was how little effect the new format actually had. The debate was still, essentially, a group press conference in which—a few brief exchanges aside—the candidates displayed their placards. Take their rhetoric on the economy. As in earlier gatherings, the candidates handed out the same semi-populist doom and gloom about a country losing economic hope while only the very wealthy improve their lives. To listen to the candidates, you’d think the poor were sinking deeper into poverty due to predatory lending practices, while a cabal of insurance, pharmaceutical, and oil companies were conspiring to turn the U.S. into a giant New Orleans.

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For all the hubbub about the innovative format of last night’s debate among Democratic presidential candidates, what was striking was how little effect the new format actually had. The debate was still, essentially, a group press conference in which—a few brief exchanges aside—the candidates displayed their placards. Take their rhetoric on the economy. As in earlier gatherings, the candidates handed out the same semi-populist doom and gloom about a country losing economic hope while only the very wealthy improve their lives. To listen to the candidates, you’d think the poor were sinking deeper into poverty due to predatory lending practices, while a cabal of insurance, pharmaceutical, and oil companies were conspiring to turn the U.S. into a giant New Orleans.

But, as David Brooks notes in his column today, “after a lag, average wages are rising sharply. Real average wages rose by 2 percent in 2006, the second fastest rise in 30 years.” Similarly, he observes, “according to the Congressional Budget Office, earnings for the poorest fifth of Americans are also on the increase.” Nor, says Arthur Brooks, writing in the Wall Street Journal, are Americans sinking into a slough of economic despond. They continue to be optimistic about their chances for a better life. The National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey shows that in 1972, 30 percent of the population said that they were “very happy” with their lives; in 1982, 31 percent; in 1993, 32 percent; and in 2004, 31 percent. “In other words, no significant change in reported happiness occurred—even as income inequality has increased significantly.” “The data,” Arthur Brooks concludes, “do tell us that economic mobility—not equality—is associated with happiness.”

The Democrats definitely have some things right. They are leading the effort to expand the Trade Adjustment Assistance program—which aids workers who have lost their manufacturing jobs to foreign competition—to include service workers as well. But the Deomcrats are also looking to sink well-wrought trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia.

The Republicans definitely miss the mark at times, too, particularly on the genuine (and justified) anxieties of the public about the effects of globalization. Talk of the beauty, efficiency, and long-term benefits of markets is not enough; the public expects government to help balance large-scale risk and rewards in the here-and-now. The GOP would make a profound mistake, for both the future of free trade and for their own political future, if, as the White House seems inclined, they were to block the expansion of the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to include service workers.

“Feeding off pessimism about the war and anger at Washington, the candidates,” says David Brooks, “now compete to tell dark, angry, and conspiratorial stories about the economy.” This is not just a matter of rhetoric; these overheated arguments present a real danger. They might conflate the legitimate need to help cushion Americans from the increased risks of the global economy with an attempt to roll back the growth of free trade that has underwritten precisely the economic mobility so important to economic happiness. And that really would be bad news.

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