Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


Leave a comment

Our Neighbors’ Keepers

“We look at clouds. We dream of machines.” –Kevin Williamson

xkcd honest_1146

“How about we go back to that ‘madder than hell‘ line? That work?”

Back in college, I used to spend a few evenings a week with a set of philosophically or politically inclined peers in the constituent parties of the Yale Political Union. With wooden gavels, pedantic snark, and occasionally insightful wit, we would debate questions big and small about the nature of rights, duties, citizenship, morality, education, faith, reason, and an innumerable host of ideas about the world, its foundations, and our place in it all. While those bright college nights are long behind me, I had the recent pleasure of attending a facsimile of the old debates, when a number of my friends in the D.C. area opted to borrow from that format to explore our ongoing disagreements out in the “real world” for the edification of all involved.

The debate topic, “Every dollar spent on dog food is taken directly from the mouths of the poor,” allowed for vigorous dispute and concurrence on, among other things, the nature of ethics, duty, charity, and love, wherein even those on the same “side” of the resolution found many thoughtful occasions for profound disagreement on underlying principles. By the end, we even had some attendees rethinking their outlook on life and resources, as one should expect from a good conversation.

One particularly resounding strain of thought dealt with how profoundly difficult it is to sincerely help people. Many who fall upon hardship have not fully grasped how they stumbled into their peculiar circumstances, nor are they always aware how to identify or resolve the weight of their own affliction. Indeed, the best means to support those in need—whether the economically destitute or damaged souls in the bodies of the well-to-do—are often realized through an ongoing engagement built on persistent humility through trial and error.

Providing the love or innovation that rebuilds broken lives is, in short, an intensely personal and organic engagement, rather than a bureaucratic and mechanical one.

The value of such constructive familiarity is the ability to deliberately understand and influence the individuals and communities affected by your actions and be deliberately understood and influenced in turn. It is this dynamic rapport that allows for, as my friend (and debate attendee) Leah Libresco puts it, neighbors (in the metaphorical sense) who understand what to offer each other beyond whatever initial attempts at charity may awe or falter. Likewise, it is the inevitable lack of such rapport that consigns distant, centralized administration to its trademark unresponsiveness—i.e., the inability to adequately identify, learn from, and remedy mistakes before they become disastrous.

We can see the gangrenous limbs of this truth rotting throughout the impermeable labyrinth of ambitious public policy. The old liberal conception of the welfare state, a degraded simulacrum of communal investment in the most vulnerable of us, ravages communities unabated and still facilitates entrenched social dysfunction. The ongoing scandal with the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that, despite the best laid schemes of donkeys and elephants, the federal government of the United States cannot even, as Kevin Williamson notes in National Review, “ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees.” This dark realization about the VA’s grotesque inadequacy is all the more unsettling against the backdrop of state governments’ inability to manage even the presumably simpler task of operating Obamacare’s online exchanges.

And lest we forget, liberals once held up the VA as an exemplar of “actually socialized medicine” to be instructive for Obamacare In the words of Vox founder and progressive “wunderkind” Ezra Klein:

“If you crudely ordered America’s different health-care systems from least government control to most, it would look something like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration (Medicare is single-payer, but VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors).

If you ordered America’s different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.

That symmetry should get more attention in the health-care discussion than it does.”

Given the kinship of government control between “the healthcare discussion” that produced Obamacare and the “socialized medicine” of the VA, we should certainly have that discussion Klein wants. To start, let’s glance at the federal-run healthcare exchanges in my native Florida, where Obamacare-compliant plans are facing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services for discriminating against customers with HIV. In Klein’s triumphant ranking of “America’s different health systems [from] worst-functioning to best,” where do these results fall?

Not that along ago, the critics of Obamacare pithily expressed their Big-Government skepticism by asking, “Do you want to put the folks who run the DMV in charge of your health care?” Now, in Florida and elsewhere, the more sobering realization is that the folks at the DMV may be among the best of a system that, at its worst-functioning, enables fecklessly homicidal bureaucracy in a Cabinet-level department.

(Sadly and predictably enough, the homicidal healthcare bureaucracies of “actually socialized medicine” are not unique to the United States).

Whatever your opinion of President Obama—and it is hardly a secret that I’m not a fan—the problems plaguing the VA are less about his failings (which are legion) than the flaws inherent to so vast and impersonal a would-be “neighbor” as the federal government. It is inestimably difficult to help people, especially in ways that will meaningfully better the trajectory of their lives and ennoble the good neighbors in their interdependent networks. While the recent failings of government “beneficence” naturally call to mind one of President Reagan’s more famous lines, I will instead note another insightful observation from the aforementioned (and –quoted) Kevin Williamson (emphasis his):

“It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?

[…]

Not every regulation or government program is doomed to fail. But we might consider the slightly terrifying possibility that when government does get something right, it does so by accident, temporarily, and for reasons that it cannot understand or replicate. This may be why the sheer volume of law and regulation has been climbing so rapidly: Intuiting its own inefficacy, Washington is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks… We’d be far better off paying veterans’ medical bills out of the Treasury than trying to operate a network of hospitals and clinics. And no matter what Washington promises to do to solve this problem, it is a good bet that the policy enacted will not produce the result intended. Reform is a random walk.”

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the government cannot and will not respond to us as one with a stake in our well-being. Whatever the dreams and competence of its necessarily ephemeral leaders, the Leviathan is simply too distant, labyrinthine, and self-involved to evolve with the self-interested rapidity of a private business, or the soulful agape of a longsuffering neighbor.

Thus is the eternal life of government programs.

Advertisements


11 Comments

The Self-Made Legend

Update: This post was adapted by The Daily Caller. You can find that article here.

“Life’s great, life’s grand
Future, all planned
No more, clouds in the sky
…I’m ridin’ high” –Cole Porter

“I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps, ‘Oh look at that!’ Then—whoosh—and I’m gone… and they’ll never see anything like it ever again… and they won’t be able to forget me—ever.” –Barack Obama Jim Morrison

“A top official with the National Skeet Shooting Association said the photo suggests Obama is a novice shooter.”

I remember what it was like to get into Yale. At seventeen, that mildly sunny Friday afternoon in December opened into an oceanic river yawning into a skyline of vague but destined brilliance. All the sacrifices I’d made, compromises I’d swallowed, and hardships I’d weathered had suddenly yielded the finest dividends I could have hoped for. By the time May rolled around and I had conquered my International Baccalaureate exams, I was incorrigible. My star was rising, and the idea that anything this side of matriculation mattered was a nigh impossible sell.

And yet, the real world tumbled on. I needed money for college, so I had to get a job for the summer between high school and pre-orientation. For only the second time in my life—and first in the private industry—my time was suddenly a facet of other people’s bottom line, and they cared not one whit for my imaginations of grandeur. My Jeep sputtered and demanded service like a petulant millennial. I had to lose a Saturday changing out a flat tire and buying a new one. Gas prices were suddenly my concern, rather than just my parents’. Beyond all that, I finally got to New Haven only to find my star not quite as bright as I had let myself believe. I learned a lot about humility from age 18 to 22.

I don’t know what, exactly, President Obama learned over the four years of his first term. I notice that second-term Obama inherited quite a mess—underemployment is higher, more people are out of work, racial disparity is wider, and labor participation is lower than when first-term Obama moved into the White House. Not surprisingly, the economy, jobs, and the debt are the top issues for most Americans. More bafflingly, however, none of these issues appears on the short list of a second-term agenda that reads more like a progressive manifesto than a disciplined contract with America.

What’s most striking, however, is not the fact of the shameless liberalism—most of us expected that much—but meteoric boldness divorced from what should by now be intuitive political understanding. Assuming the Democrats believe their own mythology, Team Obama must posit that his aggressive interjection on any sensitive issue is likely to complicate, if not derail, consensus-building. So in light of a bipartisan Senate outline for immigration reform, what on Earth did President Republicans-All-Hate-Me expect to accomplish with his immigration speech? Does he honestly believe including immigration provisions for same-sex spouses will be more feasible because of his public grandstanding?  Is it all of a sudden the case that his front-and-center presence will grease over the wheels of political action? Did his perceived failings in his first term really come down to not enough sternly-worded speeches?

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The corollary, of course, is that it is amazing how much you can obstruct your own stated goals when your primary concern is husbanding your own legacy. (But if Obama is going to cultivate part of that legacy on the rocky, urban soil of gun control, at least he had the forethought to have a camera ready for that one time he went skeet shooting.)

So let’s not mince words. In the late push to enshrine the progressive revolt against the prosperity of Reagan’s free-markets and the Clinton-Gingrich balanced budgets, Obama has all but sidelined the once central push for jobs and a robust economy. In doubling down on the creeping expansion of the welfare state, he is expected to ignore the advice of his own jobs council in favor of an expansive regulatory regime. Never mind that free enterprise and some attendant inequality are vital to a climate of robust innovation. With a contracting economy and unemployment eking upward, the unemployment of the jobs council certainly clarifies priorities.

Notwithstanding the stagnant economic promise of Barack Obama’s America, the president’s left flank remains determined to see in him the same singular greatness he doubtlessly sees in himself. All flaws, failings, and ambitions unrealized are the fault of maleficent Republicans tilting bitterly at the windmills of Hope & Change™ because they hate minorities or something. The president’s approval ratings are impressively high on the afterglow of his reelection, and liberals have already carved his place in the 21st Century Pantheon of the “post-Rushmore Rushmore”. While the media remain complicit in the impression of progress on jobless “hot button” issues, this polling advantage might persist for a time. But eventually, the ultimate questions will crescendo—where is the progress? Where are the (good) jobs?

The flying unicorn mythology of Obama’s legend—a hodgepodge of truth, legerdemain, and outright fantasy—was a problem evident in that early rebuke of Eric Cantor: “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” It continued in a pattern of unanimous rejections at the Supreme Court through the recent judicial rebuke of the unprecedented expansion of executive authority to declare when the Senate is not in session—a step even George W. Bush did not take. Most recently it emerges in the fantastic notion that a skeet-shooting photo has any more relevance to a discussion on the right to self-defense than American Idol balloting has to the right to suffrage.

Obama’s cool hubris is a fascinating extension of the atmospheric self-infatuation that characterizes his young American bulwark of support. It’s small wonder that a generation raised on social promotion—as opposed to demonstrable merit—and feel-good pop moralism—as opposed to substantive ethics and results—would increasingly rate itself “above average” while clinging to a Commander-in-Chief who simultaneously embodies and enables the party of lip-service responsibility amid spiraling insolvency.

The sad irony is that Obama’s governance is in many ways the instantiation of the America of my generation. The staggering self-absorption prevents the kind of raw but earnest self-reflection that would reveal a rather inconvenient but obvious truth: we would rather convince ourselves and others that we love and represent humanity than undergo the hard, unflattering work of ensuring that anyone but ourselves is substantively better off. Thus the focus on “hot button” issues to the neglect of a broader, practicable vision of the world. As William Kremer put it, “Narcissists may say all the right things, but their actions eventually reveal them to be self-serving.”

To the degree that young America is the Obama demographic, we are The Posteverything Generation of internet activists, community organizers, and It Gets Better. Our leaders are terrified of civilian weaponry they don’t bother to understand and are yet comfortable deriding a prince in active military service. They borrow endlessly with no regard for our future or our children, and we dutifully enable them with paeans to “intersectionality” and “kyriarchy” (neither of which, according to Windows and Chrome, are even words). Our philosophy is post-reality, our metric post-results, and our outlook post-narcissism. We are a cesspool of vanities anathema to pride or consequence. We are the generation of the reified wind of Hope.

But nothing is forever. One day soon, Obama’s colossal pride will stumble in the ever quaking rumble of reality, and my generation will discover its liberalism at odds with its entitlement. In the end, we all just want to do right by our convictions. As my eighteen-year-old self discovered the world wouldn’t change my ruined tire, no matter how much I valued and deserved my weekend, there will be a day of reckoning for the Big Government activism of the Obama coalition.

I’ll see you tomorrow.


1 Comment

The Golden Taxes

“Why would anybody in their right mind leave Dallas for Southern California? We’ve got the same weather without the liberals.” –Gigi Stopper, GCB

It’s hard out there for a baller.

As you may recall, California voters in the last election enacted a plan to raise taxes on their most successful neighbors. Top earners in the Golden State now owe more than half of their income to the government, effective retroactively, and more than half of all revenue in Sacramento will be supplied by less than 1% of residents who make 20% of income. Unsurprisingly, many of the wealthy are fleeing as swiftly and shamelessly as Nicholas Sarkozy from Socialist France.

Many in the “fair share” crowd who espouse Ted Strickland’s “economic patriotism” are predictably, scathingly maudlin over the fact that people have the temerity to pursue more economical happiness. Liberals even got a cautious quasi-apology from their latest high-profile tax-flight target, Phil Mickelson, for stating the obvious—people want to keep their money. But as many are noting, Mickelson has not recanted his intention to consider leaving California. He merely expressed regret for trying to encourage “change”. Funny, that.

As Ed Morrissey noted over at Hot Air:

“Well, I don’t think Mickelson was looking for sympathy. I think he was explaining that he doesn’t have to put up with Jerry Brown’s tax hikes to fund a massively dysfunctional state government, and that he’s not likely to do so.”

Meanwhile in my native Florida, California-expatriate Tiger Woods enjoys tax-free income. Elsewhere, in predictable blue-red splits, several states have considered “millionaire taxes”, while lawmakers elsewhere have announced plans to abolish income and corporate taxes. There are certainly many problems with our convoluted tax codes in America. But whatever your thoughts on the matter, one thing remains clear: the problem remains spending. Just as California has done little to prevent future budget woes, the federal chasm between revenue and spending endures primarily because of entitlements.

In wake of all this, President Obama’s inaugural address barely mentioned the top issues concerning most Americans: jobs (fewer of those than at Obama’s first inaugural), debt (a lot more of that), and economy. Instead, he triumphantly heralded a resurgent era of the welfare state in which none of the debt-driving programs—entitlements—would face any serious reforms to keep them solvent. Thus, the administration is doubling down on what Walter Russel Mead dubs the blue social model, which Presidents Reagan and Bill “Era of Big Government is Over” Clinton had previously rebuked en route to tax reform and balanced budgets. This comes even as well-to-do citizens get far more from entitlement programs than they paid in the first place.

So this is the bed we lie in, America. Until we’re willing to make tough decisions to rein in entitlement spending, our expenditures will rise and our revenue will stagnate. In response, liberal administrations will push tax hikes, as they have from California to Maryland to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and ever growing government will depend on an ever shrinking group of earners. Contrary to what many on the Left like to believe, those earners can always leave. Many already have. Other successful American job-creators, like Mark Zuckerberg and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, are voting Republican with their wallets, despite the chagrin of Democrats.

You can berate them for greed, callousness, and lack of “patriotism” all you want, but at the end of the day, they’ll still be taking their wealth and jobs to friendlier climes.

And we’ll still have our debts to fix.


9 Comments

Community Conservatism

“Power, Liberalism still has beyond doubt; but power has only tile next to the last word in the affairs of men-not the last word. Power is wielded by men, controlled by men, divided by men, limited by men, as they are guided and inspired by their intellectual and spiritual understanding.” –Frank S. Meyer

We’re all this excited to vote Republican in 2016!

A narrative is steadily ossifying that holds the GOP as the atrophic Party of bitterly contemptuous and self-absorbed plutocrats whose increasingly fringe rhetoric alienates the majority of American voters who care about other people. That unsavory image is not exactly ameliorated by curmudgeonly talk of “moochers” and “gifts” for Obama-voting blue-collar and professional workers who do, in fact, pay all their taxes. Yet for all their alleged hatred for—or, more charitably, indifference to—the poor, elderly, and otherwise disadvantaged, Republicans still give more to charity and community than the gentry voters of the Blue States.

Why does it seem that liberals care so much less about providing for others when it comes to committing their own resources?

You could say I’m kidding on the square with that quip, but it introduces a key element about the core dynamics of the right side of our two-party coalitions. Conservatism, at its core, is as much about free enterprise, private industry, and individual liberty as it is about community and the transcendent power of relationships to ground atomized persons into coherent tapestries of purpose and vision. We are citizens before we are businessmen, patriots before we are laborers or collared professionals. In defending the well-being of every citizen qua citizen, conservatives are properly skeptical of organized power and its insidious tendency to foment entrenched narcissism and lethargic mediocrity. Thus, a conservative is no more properly a partisan of Big Business (not that business is monolithic) as of Big Government.

Yet this message has been somewhat lost in the weeds of the 47%. Of the panoply of major players in the Republican primary, it was primarily Rick Santorum who acknowledged, however imperfectly, the all too human question of how to care for the least among us without sacrificing the long-term prosperity that allows us to do so—and makes the task worthwhile. In truth, many people drown in a rising tide, and the invisible hand will not save everybody. The liberal answer to this frostbiting reality has been to outsource the worry of such things to the gangrenous pity of alienating bureaucracy and pretend all costs can be met with more taxes.

We know this does not work. The expansive welfare state exacerbates the costs of poverty while weakening the overall social and economic health of the nation. But when the Left can successfully caricature the Right, for all the community activism of conservative families, as a privileged world of people devoid of empathy or understanding—and the electorate votes more on whether a candidate “cares” than whether he or she “has vision”, is a “strong leader” or “shares  my values”—necessary reforms become that much harder.

But even as the Democratic Party clings with reactionary zeal to the progressivism of yesteryear, some liberals have grown innovative in seeking independence from Big Institutions. When the famously trusted Red Cross and infamously inept FEMA could not satisfy the escalating needs faced in wake of Superstorm Sandy, the scions of Occupy Wall Street—now styled, Occupy Sandy—stepped in to do what smaller, more nimble communities do best when unshackled from overhead and invasive regulation. They helped people:

“Maligned for months for its purported ineffectiveness, Occupy Wall Street has managed through its storm-related efforts not only to renew the impromptu passions of Zuccotti, but also to tap into an unfulfilled desire among the residents of the city to assist in the recovery. This altruistic urge was initially unmet by larger, more established charity groups, which seemed slow to deliver aid and turned away potential volunteers in droves during the early days of the disaster.

In the past two weeks, Occupy Sandy has set up distribution sites at a pair of Brooklyn churches where hundreds of New Yorkers muster daily to cook hot meals for the afflicted and to sort through a medieval marketplace of donated blankets, clothes and food. There is an Occupy motor pool of borrowed cars and pickup trucks that ferries volunteers to ravaged areas. An Occupy weatherman sits at his computer and issues regular forecasts. Occupy construction teams and medical committees have been formed.” (Emphasis added)

If a movement borne of self-aggrandized loiterers, bargain-basement philosophizers, and scatological revolutionaries can instantiate such a robustly human argument for the conservative will to limited, community-oriented governance—to the benefit of people over institutions—imagine how much stronger this message could resound through the broad and deep resources of political movement committed to such a project. After all, Americans still believe government does too much, and the Occupy movement is hardly any kind of model for the future.

Skepticism of the welfare state, like Occupy Sandy’s skepticism of FEMA and the Red Cross, is not tantamount to apathy for the least of us. But we have work to do to demonstrate why and how a new approach will mitigate the failures of current policy for ordinary people. An improved approach might include copyright reform to aid young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, more efficient local-federal disaster relief partnership that cuts down on bureaucratic red tape, revisions to ObamaCare that minimize the damage to small businesses, revisions to NCLB (put bluntly: neither this nor ObamaCare are getting repealed) that encourage more local innovation and less federal invasion, immigration policy that rewards capital investment and job creation in the U.S, means-testing and other reforms for Medicare so relatively wealthy retirees don’t strangle their poorer descendants, etc.

None of these proposals are particularly easy to caricature as “for the rich” (although I trust Alan Grayson will manage something) but are markedly accessible, in various ways, to an increasingly diverse American electorate. Further, these conservative solutions all have the benefit of encourage a community-focused message that speaks across such boundaries as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, and national origin. There is no guarantee that Democrats will cooperate, but while he control the House, we need to use that leverage to promote much-needed political growth for the nation. Nobody is interested in our whining. They want our solutions.

There are certainly conservatives who disdain the poor, just as there are progressives who disdain the economically successful. But whatever the prior and remaining flaws of the GOP, Republicans are by no means the Party of the Rich; we are and should be the Party of the People, and we have the principles to back that up.

The 2012 election was in many ways a major setback, but it’s also an opportunity, however costly, for growth. It’s up to us to show all Americans our thoughtful and enduring solutions, with conviction and longsuffering, that they may yet see and believe.


2 Comments

Right Where We Belong

“We do believe you can use government in a good way. Government is the only thing we all belong to.” –Overheard at DNC 2012

What’s so bad about anarchy, again?

President Kennedy once challeneged us to reconsider our relationship with America: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It was an inspiring inaugural call to patriotism, duty, and common purpose. I imagine the Democratic Convention aimed to channel some of that former transcendence to make up for what they lost over the last four years. But instead they only succeeded, once again, in leaving us to wonder whether the Party of F.D.R. has finally derailed.

In context—always the first sleight of damage control—the narrator of that DNC video talks about our many different “churches” and “clubs” and how the government, from the local to the federal, unites us into a people. In other words, we presumably have a government of, by, and for communal unity. In this vision, the state is the embodiment of the general will, a la Rousseau, and the government is the expression of communal desires. And to this, we all purportedly belong.

It is a grand idea, save for everything wrong with it.

Since it apparently must be said, the arms of Washington are much too far away to grasp my neighborhood. And I would rather they not come any closer, thank you very much. I don’t even know the names of my local officials, let alone their political affiliations. But I’d bet $10,000—plus Stephanie Cutter’s audacity—that they don’t know most of my neighbors from Adam. Whatever the service of our elected servants, we do not vote on their bills, and they do not sit at our tables. Government is not community. It is a complex machine designed for certain limited ends, and like any machine, government has the potential to be disastrous if handled poorly.

That liberals seem incapable of understanding this reality underlies their obstinate expansion of the state into everything from dictating our beverage containers to micromanaging the terms of our healthcare policies, complete with ever growing debt to finance all this. By contrast, the “churches” and “clubs” so idly dismissed as divisive are full of people who actually know us well enough to touch our lives effectively. It is from such personal, spiritual bonds that we develop purpose and identity. Through our fidelity to our communities, we all belong to the American ideals of freedom, opportunity, and honor.

The president is not our friend and our officials are not our brothers. They are employees each elected or appointed to do a job. If any of them is unable or unwilling to meet our expectations, then our duty is to fire that one and hire another. As much as that callous, impersonal approach is abhorrent to the idea of family, government will never be a community to which anyone can properly belong.

The state can neither save nor love us. But it can get out of the way of our prosperity.