A conservative social-justice agenda.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
The 2008 election marked the return of progressive politics in America. For the first time in 16 years, Democrats won both houses of Congress and the White House. They wasted no time in articulating a progressive agenda they claimed would offset the Great Recession and turn America toward greater fairness and compassion. Lifting up the poor, decreasing inequality, and curbing runaway income gains among the wealthiest Americans ranked high among their stated priorities.
It has been five years. How has their project turned out?
Since January 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled. Last year brought the largest annual increase in the S&P 500 since the late 1990s. And the vast bulk of this sustained market surge has accrued to the extremely wealthy. According to New York University economist Edward Wolff, the top 10 percent of earners own 81 percent of stocks and mutual funds, 95 percent of financial securities, 92 percent of business equity, and 80 percent of non-home real estate. So it comes as little surprise that nearly all the real income growth that President Obama’s “recovery” has generated would flow to the wealthiest Americans. According to University of California, Berkeley, economist Emmanuel Saez, 95 percent of all recovery gains have accrued to the much-vilified “top 1 percent.”
At the same time, the poor have become even more desperate. The number of Americans receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps) has increased by almost 50 percent since January 2009, from 32.2 million to 47.7 million. One in six citizens in the richest country in the world now rely on food aid from their government.
Today, a lower percentage of Americans are in the workforce—63 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—than at any time since the infamous days of Jimmy Carter. This has the effect of reducing the official unemployment rate, which led Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times to quip: “We are basically ‘recovering from the recession’ by reducing the share of Americans who participate in the labor force. Hurrah!”
And what has happened to income inequality? A central theme in each of the president’s campaigns, this is one metric by which committed egalitarian liberals might judge this administration. Economists measure inequality with the Gini coefficient, a number from 0 to 1. Zero denotes complete equality, and 1 would be complete inequality, with all income possessed by one person. Since January 2009, the Gini coefficient has moved from 0.47 to 0.48.
In sum, the administration’s ostensibly pro-poor, tough-on-the-wealthy agenda has led us toward a new American Gilded Age. Our putatively progressive president has inadvertently executed a plutocratic tour de force.
But the administration’s failure to achieve the president’s stated goals is nothing for his opponents to celebrate. Few conservatives begrudge the wealthy their gains, and many are skeptical that income inequality is meaningful in and of itself. But the fact that many Americans continue to suffer years after the technical end of the Great Recession should offend any sense of plain justice. The administration’s pathetic performance demands not schadenfreude, but answers. Conservatives need a social-justice agenda of their own.
Conservatives and Poverty
When wealthy liberals attempt to demonstrate their own charitable bona fides by insisting that taxes should be raised, conservatives seethe. It is easy to be generous with other people’s money, and the idea that support for higher taxes is a mark of good character badly confuses intentions for effective action. This is a moral framework built not around altruism, but sanctimoniousness.
But simply frowning at such fatuousness is no substitute for action. The American conservative’s reluctance to articulate a social-justice agenda of his own only feeds the perception that the right simply doesn’t care about the less fortunate. The lack of a positive plan makes it feasible for a president whose own tenure has proven disastrous for the poor to assail his Republican opponents with these extraordinary words: “Their philosophy is simple: You’re on your own. You’re on your own if you’re out of work, can’t find a job. Tough luck, you’re on your own. You don’t have health care: That’s your problem. You’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.”
Obama’s 2012 opponent hardly made things better. Mitt Romney’s unfortunate claim that “47 percent” of Americans “believe that they are victims [whom] the government has a responsibility to care for” and that they could never be persuaded to support his campaign did little to combat misconceptions. And the caricature of Republican callousness has been repeated so often that conservatives can even fall into a kind of political Stockholm Syndrome. In a 1999 study, researchers at UCLA found that subjects viewed liberals as generous and conservatives as “somewhat heartless,” without regard to their own political views.
Conservative leaders owe it to their followers and the vulnerable to articulate a positive social-justice agenda for the right. It must be tangible, practical, and effective. And it must start with the following question: What do the most vulnerable members of society need? This means asking the poor themselves.
Most academic research on poverty is eerily divorced from contact with the actual people it references. One of my colleagues tells an instructive story. One afternoon, as he beavered away at his Ph.D. dissertation in a top university’s poverty-research center, an actual poor person walked in. He had seen the signs and was simply looking for help. The expert researchers had no idea what to do. Their instinct was to call security.
Interviews with poor and vulnerable citizens, especially those whose struggles to lift themselves up have yielded success, provide more insight in these conversations than any survey database could impart. From my experience conducting such interviews, many express an apolitical contempt for all politicians, liberal and conservative. They denounce with equal force the progressive politicians who believe that cash and redistribution alone can solve poverty and the conservatives who act as though every poor person should simply start a small business.
What, then, do poor people say they truly need to lead prosperous and satisfying lives? The real answer is both simple and profound. They need transformation, relief, and opportunity—in that order. On these three pillars, conservatives and advocates for free enterprise can build the basics of the social-justice agenda that America deserves.
The first pillar is personal moral transformation. By now, everyone acknowledges that poverty in America is often intertwined with social pathologies. In the late 1990s, scholars at the Urban Institute estimated that up to 37 percent of individuals enrolled in Aid to Families with Dependent Children abused drugs or alcohol. Similar findings connect poverty with criminality, domestic violence, and other problems.
Whether these problems are a product of poverty or mutually causal, common sense and the testimony of the poor themselves say that moral intervention must precede economic intervention for the latter to be truly effective.
All the evidence on happiness and successful living shows that living with intentionality, meaning, and purpose boosts well-being in unique and unparalleled ways. In one typical study, Swedish researchers surveyed 900 Americans and found an especially successful group of “self-fulfilling individuals” who draw on wellsprings of meaning such as community, spirituality, and personal responsibility. These people had the least depression, the most positive affect, and the highest life satisfaction—all distinct measures of enduring well-being.
As one digs deeper into the data, four transformational values prove to be concentric to a well-ordered, successful, and happy life: faith, family, community, and work.
We can use data from the 2010 General Social Survey to construct two demographically identical individuals. Both men are of the same age and race, attained the same level of education, and earn equal incomes—but here the similarities end. One is religious, married with two children, and lands in the top 10 percent of Americans in both hours worked and community engagement. The other is single with no kids and no religion, and his hours worked and social involvement both rank in the bottom decile.
How satisfied with life will these men be? The data indicate that the first man has a 47 percent likelihood of saying that he is “very happy” with his life, all things considered. The odds that the second man would say the same are a meager 10 percent. Hold everything constant but faith, family, community, and work—and the gap in well-being is enormous.
And it is precisely these four institutions that are increasingly absent in poor America. In his important 2012 book Coming Apart, Charles Murray shows that population averages for these “institutions of meaning” conceal a stark bifurcation beneath. In high-income, high-education America, these institutions are abundant. At the bottom, they are rapidly vanishing.
To be sure, many of our poor neighbors lead happy, upright lives full of faith, family, community, and fulfilling work. But to deny that these are disproportionately missing in poor communities today is to shove aside the facts and ignore an undeniable if inconvenient truth. Transforming the character and values of individuals and communities is essential to genuinely helping those in need. To say otherwise is to contradict their own testimonials.
This, not puritanism or bourgeois condescension, is the reason that conservatives must promote and defend the time-tested stores of personal and social meaning. To presume that low-income Americans are somehow unworthy of the same cultural standards to which we hold ourselves and our own families is simple bigotry. Genuine moral aspiration, not patronizing political correctness, will be the tip of the spear in a true social-justice agenda.
After transformation comes material relief. To deny that some Americans are genuinely needy requires willful blindness. In addition to the one-sixth of Americans currently receiving food assistance, consider a few more findings. A 2010 analysis from the National Center on Family Homelessness found that child homelessness spiked by a staggering 38 percent during the Great Recession years. And a team of public-health researchers stunned readers of the journal Health Affairs in 2012 when they released new life-expectancy findings. Among disproportionately low-income white females with fewer than 12 years of education, the scholars found that average life expectancy had fallen sharply since 1990.
Conservatives eager to reverse these facts naturally reach for their checkbooks. As I found in my 2006 book Who Really Cares, the average conservative household contributes significantly more to charity than does the average liberal household despite earning less income. According to the 1996 General Social Survey, those who strongly agreed that “the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality” gave away $140 on average to charity. Among those who strongly disagreed, the average gift was $1,637.
Of the 10 most charitable states in 2012, as ranked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, nine went for Romney over Obama. Three times as many red states as blue states placed in the top 20 states in giving. And all but one of the 10 least charitable states swung President Obama’s way.
Why do conservatives give more? The research shows that the largest charity differences owe to religious participation. We see that religious liberals are approximately as generous as their conservative co-religionists. But there are far more religious conservatives today than religious liberals, so the political gap persists.
It would be wonderful if America could solve all problems of poverty and need through private charity. We can and should give even more, and conservatives must continue to lead by example. But even in this remarkably charitable country—where voluntary giving alone exceeds the total GDP of nations such as Israel and Chile—private donations cannot guarantee anywhere near the level of assistance that vast majorities of Americans across the political spectrum believe is our moral duty.
Consider the present total that Americans give annually to human-service organizations that assist the vulnerable. It comes to about $40 billion, according to Giving USA. Now suppose that we could spread that sum across the 48 million Americans receiving food assistance, with zero overhead and complete effectiveness. It would come to just $847 per person per year.
Or take the incredible donation levels that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2011. The outpouring of contributions exceeded $3 billion, a record-setting figure that topped even the response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But even this historic episode raised enough to offset only 3 percent of the costs the storm imposed on the devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Voluntary charity simply cannot get the job done on its own.
The Safety Net
That leaves the government safety net. Is a limited, targeted safety net consistent with conservatism? Or is it one more way station on the road to serfdom?
Before you answer, here is a pop quiz. Which unrepentant statist wrote the following words?
There is no reason why, in a society that has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.
Was it Franklin Roosevelt, John Rawls, Ralph Nader? Not by a longshot. It was Friedrich Hayek. That passage is featured in his seminal free-market text The Road to Serfdom.
Hayek, along with most Americans, easily distinguishes between “some minimum of food, shelter, and clothing”—a core safety net for the truly indigent—and the sprawling, rent-seeking tangle that is today’s welfare state. Hayek recognized that it is the right that champions a true, sustainable safety net; progressives prefer an ever-expanding system for redistributing income more broadly and establishing greater state control over the economy.
Take the Affordable Care Act. For all its economic disruption and tremendous expenses, does President Obama’s signature achievement at least offer coverage to all needy Americans? Not even close. According to the New York Times, roughly 8 million low-income Americans are “impoverished, uninsured, and ineligible for help.” What the law does do is extend generous subsidies to citizens earning up to four times the poverty line and pledge sub-market premiums to millions more. And it pays for all this by diverting tax revenues and jacking up premiums for other citizens. One of the law’s most enthusiastic supporters in Congress put the point all too clearly: “Some are going to pay more so that others can pay less.”
ObamaCare is a case in point. Left unchecked, the left’s labyrinthine schemes will push America toward insolvency—and leave us unable to fund even the most fundamental parts of the safety net for those who truly need it.
Consider the European social democracies mired in economic crisis. What made, say, Greece so vulnerable to the economic meltdown? The Greek government spent well beyond its means, lavishing funds on public-sector salaries and middle-class “entitlements.” For more than a decade, heavy government borrowing facilitated all this spending. But the international financial crisis prompted foreigners to seek higher returns for purchasing Greek debt. At the most desperate hour for the most vulnerable Greeks, the nation had no choice but to cut spending dramatically.
Whom did austerity hit the hardest? From 2009 to 2010 alone, household disposable income in Greece dropped by more than 12 percent, and an Oxfam analysis found that most of that nosedive came from surging unemployment among those already on the margins. From 2010 to 2011, the homeless population climbed by 25 percent. Access to public health services fell sharply, crime rose, and suicide rates increased by a quarter.
In short, Greece’s poor bore the brunt of the bankruptcy that government profligacy invites. And so it will be here in America if we do not change course. Meteoric entitlement spending, the most holy of progressives’ sacred cows, will ultimately devolve into macroeconomic insolvency. Indiscriminate austerity cuts would be inevitable. And austerity always and everywhere hurts the poor the most, by weakening the economy and shredding the real safety net. Conservative fiscal policy does not cut against commitments to struggling American families. To the contrary, it is the only way to uphold them.
Looking to Welfare Reform
To recognize that a safety net for the needy is meritorious is one thing; to say exactly how to build it is another. Which programs should conservatives support? The beginning of an answer lies in the conservative social-policy success story of our time: the welfare reform movement of the 1990s.
American social policy expanded enormously after World War II, largely directing new support to fatherless families in poverty. Conservatives watched as generations of Americans were alienated from the workforce, whole classes defined themselves as claimants on the government, and millions were consigned to squalid public housing and became dependent on income support disconnected from incentives to work.
Two centuries earlier, Thomas Jefferson cautioned that “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” More recently, Franklin Roosevelt had warned in his 1935 State of the Union address that “continued dependence” on government support “induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
But Jefferson’s and Roosevelt’s words fell on deaf ears, and central planners charged ahead enthusiastically. The American welfare system grew and grew throughout the 1970s. The root of change was planted in Charles Murray’s 1984 book, Losing Ground, which argued forcefully that the system’s problem was not primarily economic, but ethical. Policies that inadvertently trapped people in miserable conditions only harmed those who sorely needed help. And by holding people in this condition, the system created dependency that stripped people of the dignity that inheres in earning one’s own way.
In the mid-80s, these arguments were radical. Ten years later, they were mainstream, and the idea of welfare reform was embraced by a Democratic president. Clinton-era legislation empowered people to punch through dependency by imposing time limits on how long they could receive support and by conditioning receipt of benefits on work. Welfare reform was signed into law in 1996, and it was a resounding success. According to the U.S. government, it helped 4.7 million Americans move from chronic helplessness to self-sufficiency within just three years of enactment; by 2004, the welfare caseload had declined by 54 percent.
This case study offers three lessons for us today. First, there is nothing inherently wrong with safety-net programs, be they SNAP, housing support, or Medicaid. Second, they must be designed and administered in ways that fight fiercely against dependency. And third, the safety net’s ultimate goal cannot be the perpetual subsistence of poor Americans in barely tolerable lives. We can aim at nothing less than real human flourishing.
These principles compel conservatives to focus on the main source of misery in America’s present stagnation: our dysfunctional labor market. Earlier in this essay, I relayed our historically poor rate of labor-force participation. Fewer than two-thirds of 10 working-age Americans are employed or seeking employment. And no national number, even one this depressing, fully captures the plight of the poor. It represents an illusory average of two radically different economic experiences, into which Americans are sorted based on their background and their wealth.
Research by Northeastern University economists shows that the wealthiest American workers have already recovered to full employment, and they did so relatively quickly after the recession’s official end. Not so for the working poor, whose persistent double-digit unemployment rate is reminiscent of the Great Depression’s.
And while entrepreneurship is often thought to offer unemployed Americans a path to productivity, the data here are equally bleak: The Kauffman Foundation’s latest report found that new firm formation remains well below pre-recession levels. All this explains why outright majorities told the Pew Research Center in September that their household incomes and job situations have recovered “hardly at all” since the recession. Roughly 70 percent felt that government extended either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of help to megabanks and massive corporations, but the same fraction said those policies have done “not much” or “nothing at all” to help the poor.
Faced with these terrible statistics, President Obama and his allies reach reflexively for an old favorite—increasing the minimum wage. California, New Jersey, and 11 other states just did so on January 1. Washington D.C.’s city council recently approved a massive increase from $8.25 to $11.50 that will be phased in by 2016. And in late December, the New York Times reported that the president and Democrats in Congress plan to make hiking the federal minimum wage a front-and-center concern in the 2014 midterms.
Properly considered, the minimum wage is not part of the safety net at all. Even functioning as intended, the policy makes it marginally more expensive to hire new low-skilled employees in exchange for ensuring a marginally higher standard of living for those with jobs already. A January 2013 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research surveys the recent literature and concludes that—consistent with the views of nearly all mainstream economists—“minimum wages pose a tradeoff of higher wages for some against job losses for others.”
So minimum-wage laws create both winners and losers. The winners tend to be secondary earners in middle-class households, and the losers tend to be the least-educated workers with the most tenuous grip on jobs to begin with. For short, imagine a public policy that reduces opportunity among urban minority youth in order to provide pay raises for my teenage children. That policy exists. It is called an increase in the minimum wage. It is the left’s top priority. Never mind that the Employment Policies Institute finds “no statistically significant evidence that a higher minimum wage has helped reduce financial, housing, health, or food insecurity” among the poor households it claims to assist.
Policymakers who put actual people ahead of dated dogma would sooner cut the minimum wage than raise it. In a recent National Affairs essay, my colleague Michael Strain explains how dramatically lowering the minimum wage for the long-term unemployed would make the least fortunate Americans uniquely cheap to hire. At present, America’s million-plus long-term unemployed are caught in a vicious cycle. Their increasingly lengthy jobless spells make them increasingly unattractive applicants.
In a job market brimming with safer bets, high minimum wages price these marginalized people right out of the labor market. Making them initially employable at sub-minimum wages would give them a fighting chance.
But wouldn’t this policy leave workers with too little to get by? Not in the forms that any serious conservative has proposed. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit or, better yet, crafting more straightforward wage subsidies for the working poor would support poor families’ budgets without making them costlier to employ. Either approach would strengthen work incentives rather than undermine them.
Strain makes another intriguing proposal involving relocation vouchers. Using a mixture of direct payments and low-interest loans, the government could help cover costs for chronically unemployed Americans to move to areas with more plentiful opportunities. Obviously, not everyone will pick up and move, however generous the voucher. But at a time when economic conditions vary wildly between regions, the opportunity is a powerful one.
Thousands of low-income families would probably prefer to pursue hope and prosperity in booming states such as North Dakota (where unemployment sits at 2.6 percent) than continue cashing government checks and despairing in, say, Michigan (8.7 percent) or Rhode Island (9.0 percent). Relocation might well offer the spark they need to begin rebuilding their résumés—and their lives. And a simple, public two-page document that compared local labor markets across the United States would go a long way toward informing interested workers about available positions.
Enlightened labor policy complimented by an appropriate safety net is a key component of material relief. But it also meshes with the sine qua non of American conservatism, the third plank in the social-justice agenda: opportunity.
Nothing inspires conservatives more than a Horatio Alger story, the tale of a man or woman who started with nothing and climbed to the top. Therefore, I submit, nothing should trouble the political right more than the fact that the ladder of socioeconomic opportunity seems to be losing its lowest rungs.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston has shown that in 1980, 21 percent of Americans in the bottom income quintile rose to the middle quintile or higher by 1990. But those who started off in the bottom quintile in 1995 had only a 15 percent chance of becoming middle class in 2005. That is a one-third decline in mobility in under a generation. Other analyses tell a similar tale. One 2007 Pew study measured relative mobility in Canada and Scandinavia at more than twice America’s level.
How can a conservative social-justice agenda reverse these trends and expand opportunity for all? An opportunity society has two basic building blocks: Universal education to create a base of human capital and an economic system that rewards hard work, merit, innovation, and personal responsibility. So opportunity conservatism must passionately advance education reform and relentlessly defend the morality of free enterprise.
Education reform has been discussed ad nauseam in these pages and elsewhere. We know that meaningful progress cannot be made in sclerotic systems that put adults’ job security before children’s civil rights and that resist the innovations that upgrade the rest of the economy.
Per-pupil federal education spending has skyrocketed to nearly four times its 1970 level, according to data compiled by Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute. What has this massive inflow of new resources bought us? A sizeable increase in our school systems’ employment rolls—but no detectable increase in our children’s test scores in reading, science, or math.
And this fecklessness is not evenly spread across America. Our broken bureaucracies systematically ship the very worst product to their most vulnerable consumers. Public schools in Washington D.C. spend more per pupil than all but one U.S. state (New York), yet only about 56 percent of children graduate from high school. In our nation’s capital, a city flanked by six suburban counties that rank among America’s 10 richest, only 15 percent of eighth-graders read at grade level.
Similar stories characterize cities with poor populations all around the country. And anyone who believes that a barely literate high school dropout is running a fair race in America is deluding himself. Equally delusional still is many politicians’ blind faith that the existing statist apparatus can or will do anything more than heave more money down the well while we fail more generations of poor American children. This is the civil-rights struggle of our time.
What to do? It’s not as if we have no idea how to improve the situation. Decades of research and experimentation in real communities have shown how charter schooling, vouchers, and other innovations can benefit needy children. In one rigorous 2007 study, scholars from Harvard and the Brookings Institution found that school vouchers in New York City significantly increased the proportion of African-American students who went on to attend college. Research from Stanford shows that access to charter schools reduced New York City’s black-white achievement gap by 66 percent in reading and a stunning 86 percent in math; a Harvard economist has found that Boston’s charters produce similarly massive improvements.
AEI education expert Frederick M. Hess has spent decades reviewing these results, and his conclusion is unambiguous: “For poor parents trapped in dangerous and underperforming urban school systems, it is pretty clear that school choice works.”
Similarly, we have a wealth of information on the best ways to teach disadvantaged children and recruit, retain, and reward the best teachers. In one recent study, prominent economists from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and University of California, San Diego, found that linking teacher pay to student performance pushed up test scores among working-class students near Chicago. Interestingly, their research suggests that paying every teacher a bonus up-front and then taking the money back from subpar performers can be even more effective than conventional after-the-fact rewards.
Why do these and countless other lessons go unheeded on a national scale? If we know what solutions work, why aren’t they scaling up? Simple: They upset the status quo. In California, more than 283,000 teachers and roughly 23,000 administrators work in an education sector that consumes nearly 40 percent of the state’s entire general fund. Fundamental, disruptive innovation might mean a significant inconvenience for a huge number of well-organized grown-ups. And by definition, the families and communities who would stand to benefit the most have little time and money to spare on costly political battles.
This is a classic public-choice problem, and only a crusade for social justice will stand a chance at winning this fight.
But education reform is just the first battlefield. Equipped with adequate human capital to earn their success, Americans then deserve a system that makes that earned success possible on the widest imaginable scale. Only the free-enterprise system fits the bill.
Simply look at worldwide prosperity over the past four decades. When I was a child in 1970, third-world poverty was a picture in National Geographic of a needy child. Charity might help, but we all knew that there was effectively nothing to be done. Our efforts were just thimblefuls in a vast ocean of tragic need.
The world has changed profoundly since then. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional measure of starvation-level poverty that he adjusts for inflation—has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. Yet it is not the result of philanthropy, para-statist organizations, or government foreign aid. This miracle occurred when billions of souls pulled themselves out of poverty thanks to globalization, free trade, property rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship.
In short, it was the worldwide spread of American-style free enterprise that saved billions from poverty by giving them their first opportunity to rise in history. Truly, this is America’s gift to the world. Conservatives can and must champion this truth without apology or compromise. For the sake of all people, our end goal must be to make free enterprise as universally accepted and nonpartisan as civil rights are today.
Conservative Social Justice
Our nation has a great deal of need that goes unmet, and it is only exacerbated by years of misguided statist policies and a materialistic culture. The social-justice agenda outlined above can reorient us toward our best selves and toward our obligation to help the vulnerable.
It is an agenda that seeks transformation, relief, and opportunity. It means defending a culture of faith, family, community, and work; increasing our charity and protecting the safety net for the truly needy; and fighting for education reform and free enterprise as profound moral imperatives.
This agenda will do the most good for the most people—and revive the conservative movement. For too long, conservatives have identified themselves as fighting against things, perpetually making war on the left’s mistaken priorities. They fight against punitive taxes, creeping overregulation, wasteful spending, licentious culture, and ruinous national debt.
There is no reason to repudiate the ideology behind these fights. But these second-order policy fights are not intrinsic to a better nation; they are merely instrumental. The central, motivating purpose of conservative philosophy is not fighting against things. It is fighting for people.
Fighting for people doesn’t mean a catalog of massive government programs. It means thinking carefully about who is in need and how their need can best be met. In some cases, such as caring for the truly poor and defending our allies around the world, the right solution may well involve the government. In others—such as a crumbling culture, needy children caught in ineffective schools, entrepreneurs struggling to start businesses, or people permanently dependent on the state—the proper conservative answer is for the government to stop creating harm and get out of the way. In both cases, conservatives can and should be equally bold warriors for vulnerable people.
The conservative creed should be fighting for people, especially vulnerable people, whether or not they vote as we do. Such an experiment cannot guarantee success. But its spark will relight the fires of hope in a wearied country that 64 percent of Americans feel is “off on the wrong track.” In ethical, emotional, and potentially even electoral terms, no opportunity could be more promising than this opening to champion those who need our help.
This is our fight, and it is a happy one. After all, as Proverbs 14:21 reminds us, “He that despiseth his neighbor, sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.”
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‘Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers’
Must-Reads from Magazine
Good intentions, tragic consequences.
Chicago, Illinois — Andy has little time to chitchat. There are hundreds of hot towels to sort and fold, and when that’s done, there are yet more to wash and dry. The 41-year-old is one of half a dozen laundry-room workers at Misericordia, a community for people with disabilities in the Windy City. He and his colleagues, all of whom are intellectually disabled and reside on the Misericordia “campus,” know that their work has purpose, and they delight in each task and every busy hour.
In addition to his job at the laundry room, Andy holds two others. “For two days I work at Sacred Heart”—a nearby Catholic school—“and at Target. Target is a store, a big super-store. At Sacred Heart, I sweep floors and tables.”
“Ah, so you’re the janitor there?” I follow up.
“No, no! I just clean. I love working there.”
Andy’s packed schedule is typical for the higher-functioning residents at Misericordia, many of whom juggle multiple jobs. Their work at Misericordia helps meet real community needs—laundry, recycling, gardening, cooking, baking, and so on—while preparing residents for the private labor market. Andy has already found competitive employment (at Target), but many others rely on Misericordia’s own programs to stay active and employed.
Yet if progressive lawmakers and minimum-wage crusaders have their way, many of these opportunities would disappear, along with the Depression-era law which makes them possible.
The law, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, permits employers to pay people with disabilities a specialized wage based on their ability to perform various jobs. It thus encourages the hiring of the disabled while ensuring that they are paid a wage commensurate with their productivity. The law safeguards against abuse by, among other things, requiring employers to regularly review and adjust wages as disabled employees make productivity gains. Many of these employers are nonprofit entities that exist solely to provide meaningful work for the disabled.
Only 20 percent of Americans with disabilities participate in the labor force. The share is even smaller among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. For this group, work isn’t mainly about money—most of the Misericordia residents are oblivious to how much they get paid—so much as it is about purpose and community. What the disabled seek from work is “the feeling of safety, the opportunity to work alongside friends, and an atmosphere of kindness and understanding,” says Scott Mendel, chairman of Together for Choice, which campaigns for freedom of choice for the disabled and their families. (Mendel’s daughter, who has cerebral palsy, lives and works at Misericordia.)
Abstract principles of economic justice, divorced from economic realities and the lived experience of people with disabilities, are a recipe for disaster in this area. Yet that’s the approach taken by too many progressives these days.
Last month, for example, seven Senate progressives led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wrote a letter to Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta denouncing Section 14(c) for setting “low expectations for workers with disabilities” and relegating them to “second-class” status. The senators also took issue with so-called sheltered workshops, like those at Misericordia, which are specifically designed to help the disabled find pathways to market employment. Activists at the state level, meanwhile, continue to press for the abolition of such programs, and they have already succeeded in restricting or limiting them in a number of jurisdictions, most notably in Pennsylvania, where such settings have been all but eliminated.
While there have been a few, notorious cases of 14(c) and sheltered-workshop abuse over the years, existing law provides mechanisms for punishing firms for misconduct. Getting rid of 14(c) and sheltered workshops, however, could potentially leave hundreds of thousands of disabled people unemployed. Activists have yet to explain what it is they expect these newly jobless to do with their time.
Competitive employment simply isn’t an option for many of the most disabled. And even those like Andy, who are employed in the private economy, tend to work at most 20 hours a week at their competitive jobs. What would they do with the rest of their time, if sheltered workshops didn’t exist? Most likely, they would “veg out” in front of a television. Squeezing 14(c) program and forcing private employers to pay minimum wage to workers whose productivity falls far short of the norm wouldn’t improve the lot of the disabled; it would leave them jobless.
Economic reality is reality no less for the disabled.
Nor have progressives accounted for the effects on the lives of the disabled in jurisdictions that have restricted sheltered workshops. “None of these states have done an adequate job of ascertaining whether these actions actually enhanced the quality of life for the individuals affected,” a study in the Social Improvement Journal concluded last year. Less time in sheltered workshops, the study found, “was not replaced with a corollary increase in the use of more integrated forms of employment.” Rather, “these individuals were essentially unemployed, engaging in made-up day activities.”
Make-work is not what Andy and his colleagues are up to today at Misericordia. They complete real tasks, which benefit their fellow residents in concrete ways. “This work is training, but it also gives them meaning,” one Misericordia director told me. “It’s not just doing meaningless work, but it’s going toward something. We’re not setting them up to do something that someone else takes apart. This is something that’s needed.” Yet, in the name of economic justice, progressives are on the verge of depriving men and women like Andy of the dignity of work and the freedom of choice that non-disabled Americans take for granted.
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Reminding voters what Democratic governance means.
To paraphrase New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (with apologies), the less Republicans do in office, the more popular they generally become. That is, when the GOP exists solely in voters’ minds as a bulwark against cultural and political liberalism, it can cobble together a winning coalition. Likewise, Democrats regain the national trust when they serve only as an obstacle to Republican objectives. It’s when both parties begin to talk about what they want to do with their power that they get into trouble.
That is an over-simplification, but the core thesis is an astute one. In an age of negative partisanship and without an acute foreign or domestic crisis to focus the national mind, it’s not unreasonable to presume that both parties’ chief value is defined in negative terms by the public. Considering how little of the national dialogue has to do with policy these days, general principles and heuristics are probably how most marginal voters navigate the political environment.
Somewhere along the way, though, Democrats managed to convince themselves that they cannot just be the anti-Donald Trump party. Their most influential members have become convinced that the party needs to articulate a positive agenda beyond a set of vague principles. For the moment, Democrats who merely want to present themselves as unobjectionable alternatives to Trumpism without going into much broader detail appear to be losing the argument.
According to a study of campaign-season advertisements released on Friday by the USA Today Network and conducted by Kantar Media’s Campaign Marketing Analysis Group, Democrats are not leaning into their opposition to Trump. While over 44,000 pro-Trump advertisements from Republican candidates have aired on local broadcast networks, only about 20,000 Democratic ads have highlighted a candidate’s anti-Trump bona fides. “Trump has been mentioned in 27 [percent] of Democratic ads for Congress, overwhelmingly in a negative light,” the study revealed. In the same period during the 2014 midterm election cycle, by contrast, 60 percent of Republican advertisements featured President Barack Obama in a negative light.
There are plenty of caveats that should prevent observers from drawing too many broad conclusions about what this means. First, comparing the political environment in 2018 to 2014 is apples and oranges. Recall that 2014 was Barack Obama’s second midterm election, so naturally enthusiasm among the incumbent party’s base to rally to the president’s defense wanes while the “out-party’s” anxiety over the incumbent president grows. If Donald Trump’s job-approval rating is still anemic in September, it is reasonable to expect that Republican candidates will soft-peddle their support for the president just as Democrats did in 2010. Second, Democrats running against Democrats in a Democratic primary race may not feel the need to emphasize their opposition to the president, since that doesn’t create a stark enough contrast with their opponent.
And yet, the net effect of the primary season is the same. Democrats aren’t just informing voters of their opposition to how Trump and the Republican Party have managed the nation’s affairs; they’re describing what they would do differently. By and large, the Democratic Party’s agenda consists of “doubling” spending on social-welfare programs, education, and infrastructure, and promising a series of five-year-plan prestige projects. But Democratic candidates are also leaning heavily into divisive social issues.
The themes that Democratic ads have embraced so far range from support for new gun-control measures (“f*** the NRA,” was one New Mexico candidate’s message), to protecting public funding for Planned Parenthood, to promoting support for same-sex marriage rights, to attacking Sinclair Broadcasting (which happened to own the network on which that particular ad ran). A number of Democratic candidates are running on their support for a single-payer health-care system, including the progressive candidate in Nebraska’s GOP-leaning 2nd Congressional District who narrowly defeated an establishment-backed former House member this week, putting that seat farther out of the reach of Democrats in November.
In the end, messages like these animate the Democratic Party’s progressive base, but they have the potential to alienate swing voters. That may not be enough to overcome the electorate’s tendency to reward the “out-party” in a president’s first midterm election. And yet, the risk Democrats run by being specific about what they actually want to do with renewed political power cannot be dismissed. Democrats in the activist base are convinced that embracing conflict-ridden identity politics is a moral imperative, and the party’s establishmentarian leaders appear to believe that being anti-Trump is not enough to ensure the party’s success in November. All the while, the Democratic Party’s position in the polls continues to deteriorate.
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Meritocracy is in the eye of the beholder.
A running theme in Jonah Goldberg’s fantastic new book, Suicide of the West, is the extent to which those who were bequeathed the blessings associated with classically liberal capitalist models of governance are cursed with crippling insecurity. Western economic and political advancement has followed a consistently upward trajectory, albeit in fits and starts. Yet, the chief beneficiaries of this unprecedented prosperity seem unaware of that fact. In boom or bust, the verdict of many in the prosperous West remains the same: the capitalist model is flawed and failing.
Capitalism’s detractors are as likely to denounce the exploitative nature of free markets during a downturn as they are to lament the displacement and disorientation that follows when the economy roars. The bottom line is static; only the emphasis changes. Though this tendency is a bipartisan one, capitalism’s skeptics are still more at home on the left. With the lingering effects of the Great Recession all but behind us, the liberal argument against capitalism’s excesses has shifted from mitigating the effects on low-skilled workers to warnings about the pernicious effects of prosperity.
Matthew Stewart’s expansive piece in The Atlantic this month is a valuable addition to the genre. In it, Stewart attacks the rise of a permanent aristocracy resulting from the plague of “income inequality,” but his argument is not a recitation of the Democratic Party’s 2012 election themes. It isn’t just the mythic “1 percent,” (or, in the author’s estimation, the “top 0.1 percent”) but the top 9.9 percent that has not only accrued unearned benefits from capitalist society but has fixed the system to ensure that those benefits are hereditary.
Stewart laments the rise of a new Gilded Age in America, which is anecdotally exemplified by his own comfort and prosperity—a spoil he appears to view as plunder stolen from the blue-collar service providers he regularly patronizes. You see, he is a member of a new aristocracy, which leverages its economic and social capital to wall itself off from the rest of the world and preserves its influence. He and those like him have “mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” This corruption and Stewart’s insecurity is, he contends, a product of consumerism. “The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more,” Stewart wrote. “The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.”
Though he diverges from the kind of scientistic Marxism reanimated by Thomas Piketty, Stewart nevertheless appeals to some familiar Soviet-style dialectical materialism. “Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power,” he wrote. “We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself.” In this way, Stewart can have it all. The privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy is a symptom of Western capitalism’s sickness, but so, too, are the advantages bestowed on the underprivileged. Affirmative action programs in schools, for example, function in part to “indulge rich people in the belief that their college is open to all on the basis of merit.”
It goes on like this for another 13,000 words and, thus, has the strategic advantage of being impervious to a comprehensive rebuttal outside of a book. Stewart does make some valuable observations about entrenched interests, noxious rent-seekers, and the perils of empowering the state to pick economic winners and losers. Where his argument runs aground is his claim that meritocracy in America is an illusion. Capitalism is, he says, a brutal zero-sum game in which true advancement is rendered unattainable by unseen forces is a foundational plank of the liberal American ethos. This is not new. Not new at all.
Much of Stewart’s thesis can be found in a 2004 report in The Economist, which alleges that the American upper-middle-class has created a set of “sticky” conditions that preserve their status and result in what Teddy Roosevelt warned could become an American version of a “hereditary aristocracy.” In 2013, the American economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that the American dream is dead, and the notion that the United States is a place of opportunity is a myth. “Since capitalism required losers, the myth of the melting pot was necessary to promote the belief in individual mobility through hard work and competition,” read a line from a 1973 edition of a National Council for the Social Studies-issued handbook for teachers. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which for some reason produces a curriculum for teachers, has long recommended that educators advise students poverty is a result of systemic factors and not individual choices. Even today, a cottage industry has arisen around the notion that Western largess is decadence, that meritocracy is a myth, and that arguments to the contrary are acts of subversion.
The belief that American meritocracy is a myth persists despite wildly dynamic conditions on the ground. As the Brookings Institution noted, 60 percent of employed black women in 1940 worked as household servants, compared with just 2.2 percent today. In between 1940 and 1970, “black men cut the income gap by about a third,” wrote Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in 1998. The black professional class, ranging from doctors to university lecturers, exploded in the latter half of the 20th Century, as did African-American home ownership and life expectancy rates. The African-American story is not unique. The average American income in 1990 was just $23,730 annually. Today, it’s $58,700—a figure that well outpaces inflation and that outstrips most of the developed world. The American middle-class is doing just fine, but that experience has not come at the expense of Americans at or near the poverty line. As the economic recovery began to take hold in 2014, poverty rates declined precipitously across the board, though that effect was more keenly felt by minority groups which recovered at faster rates than their white counterparts.
As National Review’s Max Bloom pointed out last year, 13 of the world’s top 25 universities and 21 of the world’s 50 largest universities are located in America. The United States attracts substantial foreign investment, inflating America’s much-misunderstood trade deficit. The influx of foreign immigrants and legal permanent residents streaming into America looking to take advantage of its meritocratic system rivals or exceeds immigration rates at the turn of the 20th Century. You could be forgiven for concluding that American meritocracy is self-evident to all who have not been informed of the general liberal consensus. Indeed, according to an October 2016 essay in The Atlantic by Victor Tan Chen, the United States so “fetishizes” meritocracy that it has become “exhausting” and ultimately “harmful” to its “egalitarian ideals.”
Stewart is not wrong that there has been a notable decline in economic mobility in this decade. That condition is attributable to many factors, ranging from the collapse of the mortgage market to the erosion of the nuclear family among lower-to middle-class Americans (a charge supported by none-too-conservative venues like the New York Times and the Brookings Institution). But Mr. Stewart will surely rejoice in the discovery that downward economic mobility is alive and well among the upper class. National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed in March of this year that the Forbes billionaires list includes remarkably few heirs to old money. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inherited wealth accounts for about 15 percent of the assets of the wealthiest Americans,” he wrote. Moreover, that list is not static; it churns, and that churn is reflective of America’s economic dynamism. In 2017, for example, “hedge fund managers have been displaced over the last two years not only by technology billionaires but by a fish stick king, meat processor, vodka distiller, ice tea brewer and hair care products peddler.”
There is plenty to be said in favor of America’s efforts to achieve meritocracy, imperfect as those efforts may be. But so few seem to be touting them, preferring instead to peddle the idea that the ideal of success in America is a hollow simulacrum designed to fool its citizens into toiling toward no discernable end. Stewart’s piece is a fine addition to a saturated marketplace in which consumers are desperate to reward purveyors of bad news. Here’s to his success.
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Podcast: Donald Trump Jr. moves the ball forward.
We try, we really do try, to sort through the increasingly problematic “Russian collusion” narrative and establish a timeline of sorts—and figure out what’s real and what’s nonsense. Do we succeed? Give a listen.
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An immigrant from Italy, Morais had taught himself English utilizing the King James Bible. Few Americans spoke in this manner, including Abraham Lincoln. Three days later, the president himself reflected before an audience: “How long ago is it?—eighty-odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’” Only several months later, at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, would Lincoln refer to the birth of our nation in Morais’s manner, making “four score and seven years ago” one of the most famous phrases in the English language and thereby endowing his address with a prophetic tenor and scriptural quality.
This has led historians, including Jonathan Sarna and Marc Saperstein, to suggest that Lincoln may have read Morais’s sermon, which had been widely circulated. Whether or not this was so, the Gettysburg address parallels Morais’s remarks in that it, too, joins mourning for the fallen with a recognition of American independence, allowing those who had died to define our appreciation for the day that our “forefathers brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty.” Lincoln’s words stressed that a nation must always link civic celebration of its independence with the lives given on its behalf. Visiting the cemetery at Gettysburg, he argued, requires us to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work that “they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” He went on: “From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” thereby ensuring that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”
The literary link between Morais’s recalling of Jerusalem and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address makes it all the more striking that it is the Jews of today’s Judea who make manifest the lessons of Lincoln’s words. Just as the battle of Gettysburg concluded on July 3, Israelis hold their Memorial Day commemorations on the day before their Independence Day celebrations. On the morning of the Fourth of Iyar, a siren sounds throughout the land, with all pausing their everyday activities in reverent memory of those who had died. There are few more stunning images of Israel today than those of highways on which thousands of cars grind to a halt, all travelers standing at the roadside, and all heads bowing in commemoration. Throughout the day, cemeteries are visited by the family members of those lost. Only in the evening does the somber Yom Hazikaron give way to the joy of the Fifth of Iyar’s Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day. For anyone who has experienced it, the two days define each other. Those assembled in Israel’s cemeteries facing the unbearable loss of loved ones do so in the knowledge that it is the sacrifice of their beloved family members that make the next day’s celebration of independence possible. And the celebration of independence is begun with the acknowledgement by millions of citizens that those who lie in those cemeteries, who gave “their last full measure of devotion,” obligate the living to ensure that the dead did not die in vain.
The American version of Memorial Day, like the Gettysburg Address itself, began as a means of decorating and honoring the graves of Civil War dead. It is unconnected to the Fourth of July, which takes place five weeks later. Both holidays are observed by many (though not all) Americans as escapes from work, and too few ponder the link between the sacrifice of American dead and the freedom that we the living enjoy. There is thus no denying that the Israelis’ insistence on linking their Independence Day celebration with their Memorial Day is not only more appropriate; it is more American, a truer fulfillment of Lincoln’s message at Gettysburg.
In studying the Hebrew calendar of 1776, I was struck by the fact that the original Fourth of July, like that of 1863, fell on the 17th of Tammuz. It is, perhaps, another reminder that Gettysburg and America’s birth must always be joined in our minds, and linked in our civic observance. It is, of course, beyond unlikely that Memorial Day will be moved to adjoin the fourth of July. Yet that should not prevent us from learning from the Israeli example. Imagine if the third of July were dedicated to remembering the battle that concluded on that date. Imagine if “Gettysburg Day” involved a brief moment of commemoration by “us, the living” for those who gave the last full measure of devotion. Imagine if tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of Americans paused in unison from their leisure activities for a minute or two to reflect on the sacrifice of generations past. Surely our observance of the Independence Day that followed could not fail to be affected; surely the Fourth of July would be marked in a manner more worthy of a great nation.