Opportunity, Society, and the Role of the State

A few thoughts on Freddie’s post below.

First, I think $10/hour is a pretty reasonable wage for a clerk at Wal*Mart.  It’s not exactly the sort of job we’d expect people to make very much doing.  It’s a great job for teenagers and college students.  It’s not a career choice, or at least shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately we’ve shipped out many of the blue-collar jobs that these clerks once occupied, along with their decent wages with benefits, overseas.  To enrich the financier class we’ve given up protecting the American worker and we’ve lost a huge, vital portion of our manufacturing capacity.  We still haven’t born the full brunt of that decision yet.

Add to that the fact that we don’t have in place any alternate form of education for people who aren’t interested in or cut out for a four year liberal arts college.  College simply isn’t for everyone.  We need public trade schools for high-school level students (I suggest starting in 11th grade at least half-time).  Teach them real skills like auto-work or carpentry.  A lot of kids go to college and hate it, or flunk out.  A lot coast through high school, don’t go to college, and then end up working at Wal*Mart.

Then, too, we’ve stripped our communities bare, built ugly 12-lane freeways and endless shopping centers with no human quality in them whatsoever.  The very human essence of aesthetics, of walkable spaces, of trees and things that make us feel more like people, more interconnected, has been eviscerated from our cities and towns.  Individualism and the pursuit of money have stripped us of some intangible aspect of our human quality–that essential component of others in our lives, strangers on the street, people not just driving everywhere…grandparents, neighborhoods, parks we feel safe in.  The more we wander down the path of individualism, the more we are defined by this capitalist bootstrap rhetoric and consumerism, the less we bother caring about our fellow man, our neighborhood, our children and their murky futures.

All this leads to a question I’ve been rolling around in my head, and which I plan to write further on later.  I consider myself to be something of a Burkean, and I think that an essential part of Burkean conservatism is its acceptance of change, even progress, in order to better preserve society.  I refer to this as Civilization Conservatism.

First, let me say, I’m not terribly enthusiastic about democracy or capitalism for their own sakes.  I think they are both fine in moderation, excellent  pieces of the larger society, but certainly not its goal.  Perhaps the fruit of a well-ordered civilization, with a history of law and freedom, but not the be-all-end-all.  I think in excess they lead to extraordinary inequity and class division that makes for a weakened middle class and a strengthened financier class.  And bereft of the rule of law, they become utterly meaningless, which is why the notion of “no regulations” on the market is ludicrous, but that’s a story for another time.

There are also the inherent problems in a society built almost entirely on the purchases we make.  Look at America today: rampant divorce, extremist rhetoric amongst the politically religious, ridiculous wealth cordoned off into a tiny sector of the economy, a rising sea of poverty, a galaxy of individuals all working with our eyes on the stars and not on one another, students dumber by the generation.  Trade is good, obviously, but the sort of capitalism preached today by liberals and conservatives alike goes beyond the exchange of goods and into the elaborate system of deceits necessary to enrich the few and stamp down the many.  Indeed, our general, per capita wealth has increased over the years, but it has done so, it would seem, more as an illusion than anything else.  This current collapse should be enough of a reckoning to prove that.  I’m not terribly concerned with poverty rhetoric, though.  I don’t believe seventeen year old clerks at Wal*Mart should make a living wage.  They should, however, be givent real opportunities to find a job that does when they’re older.   Give me a strong middle class and you’ll see an end to a great deal of the inherent poverty in society.

Conservatives ought to be thinking about how to promote a well-ordered society and a strong middle class, not about how to lower taxes at all costs, or push a specific social agenda.  Lower taxes can be a very good thing.  They can also lead to budget shortfalls or massive debt.  Good order, strong communities both in terms of how they are built, and how they function, can do more to preserve our families than all the family values rhetoric you can spew.  Conservatives should look to the Ages, not just to the history of this nation to find the secrets to societal success.  They lie in how a community supports its individuals, how we as humans interact not only with each other but also with the world around us, and in how the State functions as a part of society at large.  The Government is made up of people, after all.  And while increasingly rare, good governance should be the goal of any political effort, not merely the stripping down of the size of Government, or its unthinking expansion.  Government should be a means, not an ends.

In my home State we’ve seen our education budgets slashed by 40%.  This has lead to a great deal of pain, both economically as a multitude of educators and their affiliates lose their jobs (leading to high unemployment costs, more lost tax revenue, etc.) but also to even further degredation of our educational system.  This is not the direction conservatives should be leading us, into chaos, into the bankrupting of our children’s most fundamental right, their education!  And yet it is the Republican Party that is leading the charge.  Any notion that the Republicans were indeed conservative is fast evaporating.  They are indeed right-wing which is little more, these days, then a host of talking points on lower taxes at all costs, anti-gay, and two-dimensional anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the two-headed dragon of Strong Defense and Free Trade.

There are things more important than free trade, or a bloated national defense budget.  There are things conservatives should want their Government to achieve, like strong schools, safe, healthy communities, mass (and dare I say “community”?) transportation, and over all a well-ordered society with a strong middle class to bulwark the rich against revolt and chaos, and to protect the poor from slipping between the cracks.  The goal is to preserve and protect our Civilization.

This is not something a nation of individuals can achieve merely through going it alone, by the strength of their character, or through the dominion of their will.  I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the struggles of those less fortunate than myself, and it has forced me to evaluate how the social constructs of my own class–the education of my parents, the opportunities they provided for me, the safe and stable home I could come home to, where others could not–all these things make a difference.  No, it is not only the Government who is responsible to dole these things out to people.  But welfare is rarely as simple as all that.  It’s not just a matter of cutting checks.  Creating a society in which people are secure, stable, and safe goes a long way.  That our government pushes globalism without a thought to its consequences, that they shrug as millions of jobs leave our shores, and then panic when a few bankers are suddenly exposed to the dangers inherent in capitalism…it reveals the false nature of this social agreement, this current State of affairs.

Bad capitalism has one result–collapse, and a move toward socialism, or fascism, or some other governance that promises more certainty.  If we want to avoid totalitarianism in whichever form it takes, it’s high time we found a working partnership between the market and the government to create a wider middle class and a less pampered upper class.  It’s time we stopped elevating choice, freedom, the ghost in the market, and democracy to such pedestals, and started talking about how to best govern, to best compromise our own certainty in order to fashion a working society that is itself more certain.  It’s time we began to care about such things as the aesthetic quality of our towns.   It’s time for some creativity, and not just the same old same old jargon we hear reverberating endlessly from the Fox News echo chamber.  No, tax cuts will not solve all the world’s maladies.  Perhaps the best way to protect wealth is to spread it around a bit.  Societies that have clung to outrageous class divisions often lead to the parting of many a head from its neck.

Let go of the ancien regime and the revolution…there are better ways.  Better minds must find them.

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7 thoughts on “Opportunity, Society, and the Role of the State

  1. This is a lot to mull over, but here I think I should plug Grand New Party which, while I disagree with a lot of its content, is a really well thought out attempt by two guys with unimpeachable conservative credentials to craft a right-wing response to the failure of the middle class to make much headway in terms of real wages in the last several decades. It’s precisely the sort of thing, it seems to me, the right should be trying now, to create a tangible way forward for our country’s middle and working class under the banner of conservatism.

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  2. I agree, Freddie. Douthat and Salam are not always correct, I think, but their work on GNP and elsewhere is fantastic in that it is fresh, and new, and actually attempts to deal with the concept of governance and society rather than whatever it is the rest of the conservative movement is doing whilst twiddling its proverbial thumbs…and crying foul at any move by those “damned libruls!”

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  3. There is a lot of interesting stuff here, and I tend to not be a big picture thinker, but I want to point out one quote to animate where I come from:

    “Well, I am reminded of my teacher Shannon Stimson’s lectures on early Victorian political economy. She noted that to the Victorians private charity should be ample (because that was what Jesus taught, and to keep the poor from starving in masses the streets) but never comprehensive, so that there would always be a few of the poor visibly starving in the streets, so that the poor would know that charity was not something they could count on, so that the poor had the proper incentive to work, to save, to stay married, to have children and bring them up properly. She tries hard to recover this mode of thought, in which the purpose of the economy is to create morally prudent servants who live in the Fear of the Lord. And her students–hedonists living in the California sun early in the 21st century–find it very strange: the purpose of the economy is obviously to enable people to realize their human potential and to satisfy their needs, wants, and dreams.”
    Brad Delong

    I tend to discount the idea that conservatives (blanket USA term) want capitalism because it invokes security/stability/safety – it always struck me that that is more of a center-left line. The payoff for the right strikes me as a balance between individualism and the visible rewards/punishments for the quality of one’s life/decisions.

    The notion of capitalism acting as a self-goverence care-of-the-self mechanism is well-founded upon the early marriage of markets and conservativism. You can still hear it; people not rooting for its failure per se on the right, but nodding their heads at the unemployment numbers as if God’s judgement has finally come down upon us (I’m looking at crunchy con survivalist types).

    Now it seems like the bull has gotten out of the cage and is wrecking havoc among even those who were leading virtuous lives.

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  4. Like Freddie in his post and many of BB’s commenters, the fact the the guy who did this “experiment” was white and male and spoke clear fluent English, and had an education and possibly healthcare provided by his regular employer, means that he already has pretty much both legs up over mpost people at Wal-Mart. Sure $10/hr is absolutely reasonably for a clerk, but that’s the median, and a college education isn’t a guarantee of anything: my girlfriend’s father works at a Wal-Mart. He’s in his sixties and has a Master’s degree (earned just recently from the same state U as my Bachelor’s), and a second job, but the thing is, he’s Cuban, still doesn’t speak English fluently, badly overweight, and has a given name that gets him mistaken for Arab. And I’d say that he’s far more typical of a Wal-Mart employee. Of course, his daughter worked there as well as a college student ($7/hr) and likewise faced discrimination (including being denied ANY opportunities to advance, forced to work unpaid overtime, and treated as an unpaid babysitter for shoppers’ kids).

    As for whether “conservatives” should care about this, well there I think you’re just on another planet. Of course education is being slashed. The point is to get rid of us losers and peons, to make us disposable parts. If like Ismail, they are educated, they will resent it when they figure out that it’s too late to do anything else. And since he’s , you know, a “goddamn dirty spic”, well that’s just more reason to write him off.

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  5. I have an observation and a question:

    Noting that the Gini coefficient has gone up in the past x years does not mean that the poorest of society are worse off in absolute terms than they were x years ago. In fact, it’s pretty hard to argue that they are–even if I let you pick x. Psychologically, this may not matter if what you’re after is relative wealth. But if society’s or the economy’s goal–however organized–is to put food on the table (absolute “wealth”), then I’d say there’s been some success even if Evil Bill’s excesses seem, well, excessive.

    Suppose we actually do live in a meritocracy and it just turns out that the distributional tails are fat. That is, there are some extraordinary people with the foresight, industry (and perhaps, luck) to earn a whole lot more than than the average Joe. Likewise, there are some less able (or more unlucky in some sense) that aren’t going to be millionaires no matter how much they want it. If that were the case–and I’ve seen no one bother to argue that it is not–then how is what we observe bad? Even if it’s bad by some cosmic fairness metric (say, the luck bit is important), what do you suppose society can do about it–I mean, won’t any merit-based economic system–capitalism or otherwise (keep your eye on the hypothesis of the exercise)–keep on rewarding the more able no matter how hard you try to re-distribute?

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