Learning from a Life Under Communism

I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a new friend today.  He lived the first three decades or so of his life under Communism in Romania.  As a person who writes about politics, I took full opportunity of the chance to pick his brain.

When we began, he told me about how poor he thinks American public education is.  As a parent, he felt his daughter was receiving an education inferior to the one she would have gotten in Romania.  That interested me.  I asked him whether he would say that American society is otherwise superior to what he experienced in the Soviet satellite.  He was quick to affirm that it is.  We talked about shortages of goods, inferior goods, forced adherence to Communist ideology, and other things.

Okay, then, if that is all true, I asked him, then why do you think Romania and its superior educational system came up so short of the U.S. overall?  He responded indirectly by describing life in his former country.  It amounted to a society in which the ultimate goals are political goals.  In other words, politics sets the agenda for the society and for individuals in the society.

If political goals are the most important, I suggested, then it may be the case that some of the things that come with freedom, such as technological progress, would be stunted.  He thought about that.  He said that I was using the word politics, but he would rather speak of corruption.  For him, politics are the occasion for corruption.  If everything requires permission from the state and its functionaries, then the system creates seemingly endless replicas of little political tollbooths.  Each occupant of a tollbooth (and this could be a state official, a doctor, a nurse, a manager, a utilities worker, etc.) recognizes the opportunity to collect a little fee in order to allow you to pass through to the other side.

I said politics.  He said corruption.  There is an interesting relationship there.  Politics is not synonymous with corruption, but politics possesses incredible potential to create opportunities for corruption.  Don’t be too quick to ask politics to do the job that we can do otherwise lest you multiply those little tollbooths.

Let Me Get This Straight: The Current Modern Left Logic of Culture War

Okay, let me make sure I have this straight. I have tried to learn from more enlightened persons.

If you don’t approve of abortion, then don’t have an abortion.

If you don’t approve of smoking marijuana, then don’t smoke marijuana.

If you don’t approve of gay marriage, then don’t have a gay marriage.

BUT . . .

If you are a baker, florist, or photographer and you don’t want to participate in a gay wedding,

THEN . . .


I hope we all understand that.

Gay Marriage and Religious Liberty: Two Scenarios

karen mcarthur

Scenario #1

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  You are right.  I disagree, but I understand your point of view.  It is unlikely that I will do business with this shop again.  Many of our friends in the gay community will not want to purchase from your store.

Bakery owner:  Yes, I am sure that is true.  I don’t feel I can compromise on this point, but I would happily help you in any other way I can.  Thank you for coming by.  And thank you for respecting my feelings about the issue even if we don’t agree.

Scenario #2

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  Oh, you’ll regret it all right.  The civil rights laws of this state are applicable to commercial transactions such as buying wedding cakes.  By not making a cake for our wedding, you will be in violation of those laws.  I shall report you to the authorities.  You will likely have to pay a steep fine and may face further penalties if you repeat this behavior.  I may also initiate a lawsuit in which I will seek damages.

Which is the better culture?  You decide.

Glenn Beck, Meet Coleman Young: A Critique of a Type of Political Purity

coleman young

At the time of this writing, I am teaching a course on public administration and policy.  I had my students read a chapter in a book by Edward Glaeser about the decline of cities.  In that chapter, one discovers a malignant key to American politics.

While Glaeser sympathetically explains the details of Coleman Young’s biography (racism, second class status, repression), he is critical of Young’s leadership of Detroit as its mayor.  Young was a practitioner of racial politics.  Once he became mayor, the white population of Detroit declined dramatically over the years.  And that was fine with him.

Here is the critical point.  Though Young’s racial politics were bad for Detroit, they were good for Coleman Young.  His hold on the mayor’s office became stronger as Detroit lost more and more of its white population.  The racial politics harmed the city and cemented Young’s status.

What does any of this have to do with Glenn Beck?  I noticed a headline proclaiming that Glenn Beck is done with the Republican Party.  Statements of that type are protests against what he views as political weakness from John Boehner and/or Mitch McConnell.  I have certainly heard him say as much on the radio.

Glenn Beck is like Coleman Young in the following sense:  When Glenn Beck stakes out a hard position and bolsters it by declaring his political opponents (even within the party closest to his own views) to be anathema (worthless weaklings!), he simultaneously reduces the opportunity he has to exert a real influence and bolsters his reputation with the subset of Americans he sees as his natural audience.

In order to be a hit as a conservative media personality, you need a few million people.  But in order to actually govern, you have to have several million more.  Tens of millions more.  Glenn Beck has every incentive to take a really hard line, heap scorn on politicians who are not pure enough, and to insist on outcomes which are unlikely to happen.  In so doing, he will increase the affection of his audience, but will close himself off further and further from real influence.

When Rush Limbaugh states that he is “just an entertainer,” I think he is referring to this fundamental problem.  But one cannot be too overt in sketching out the dynamic or the audience will realize that they are actually becoming more isolated from real politics.

Some will read this and will think, I am arguing for a leftward turn.  Not at all.  I am objecting to the method of engagement more than I am the substance.  I am also dealing in certain realities.  I am arguing for domestic diplomacy.  Diplomatic and friendly are good ways to be when dealing with one’s fellow citizens who should be convinced more than they should be conquered.

Politics is fundamentally about addition, at least to the point of developing governing majorities.  Part of how we develop those majorities is through casting a positive vision.  Another part comes through brokering compromise.  (With regard to a great many issues, you can compromise in politics without enduring the stain to your integrity that compromise in theology would entail.)  Still another part comes from being winsome in dealing with partners who don’t fully agree with you and in the way one deals with opponents.  This last part acknowledges the reality that many people in the middle of the political spectrum respond to personality and demeanor more than they do to substance.  That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon.  Though his politics was identifiably to the right, his class and good nature spoke volumes to many Americans.

The goal here is not really to criticize Glenn Beck or Mark Levin or any other political entertainer.  Rather, I would encourage their listeners to remember that what they are hearing on programs of that sort is as much a drug as anything else.  You get ramped up on rhetoric.  You get a charge out of identifying enemies and hearing them argumentatively slain.  Adrenaline is pumping.  Brain waves are bouncing.  But what you don’t get is the attitude that leads to either real progress or victory.

On the Progress of Capitalism

men built america

I have just watched a History channel documentary series on Netflix on The Men Who Built America.  It is interesting to observe that the fortunes made by men like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie dwarfed those of the wealthiest men today such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

And yet, despite that massive accumulation of wealth, it is fascinating to see the old Hayekian insights about free markets at work.  The goal of capitalism is not to enable factory girls to make stockings for the queen, but rather to make stockings available to factory girls.  Just that sort of thing happened over time.

So, as we consider the enormous wealth stockpiled (and much of it ultimately given away) by these figures, I cannot help but see how the progress of the free economy benefits all of us.  No matter how great the fortune of a Carnegie, he could not have anything like the transportation options I have had.  He never saw or dreamed of anything like an iPhone.  J.P. Morgan with more wealth than Croesus could not choose from thousands of movies and television shows.  Rockefeller could not within seconds possess almost any text in the world on demand at an affordable price downloaded to a Kindle.  Certainly, none of them could communicate as easily as I can.

My people were just farming the land when these men were financial giants.  But look how the impact of the free economy has built the world we live in and created such amazing possibilities for me and you.

Judging capitalism is not as simple as it looks.  Are there large gaps in wealth which result from a free and competitive system?  Absolutely.  But don’t discount the performance of the system over time.  It does, indeed, tend to lift the mass and not merely the captains of industry.

America, not ‘Murica

freedom of speech

I watched an old video of Hollywood stars (Liz Taylor and Gene Kelly) leading the singing of America the Beautiful back in 1976. My son, Andrew, walked up behind me, observed what I was watching and said, “‘Murica” in what sounded to me to be something of a mocking voice.

I asked him why he said that. He said, “I don’t know, but lots of kids at school say it.” I responded, “Don’t say that. Pronounce the name of your country correctly. Tell your friends I said that. Tell them your dad said that America may be the greatest nation that has ever existed.”

I have many friends who will disagree with what I told Andrew.  They view our country as hopelessly racist, materialistic, jingoistic, and oppressive.  I acknowledge the flaws, though I would offer a defense against the more extreme charges and narratives.  Nevertheless, I am grateful every day that I was born in this country.  Of all the blessings I possess, I never underrate that one.

Update:  There’s something I feel the need to add.  Whatever you might think about the United States of America, I think it is hard to get around the high probability that the U.S. was the key factor in preserving free government in a 20th century where communism and other forms of totalitarianism were aggressive and rising.  We can all be grateful for that, too.

Yes, Everyone Should Learn about Evolution. Even If You Doubt It.

Folks on the political left seem to be less interested in arguing about actual public policies and more concerned with establishing some kind of unworthy mind on the part of their adversaries.  We’ve had the faux contraception wars and now we’ll re-litigate the Darwin controversy for the umpteenth time.  Thus, we have a smirky British journalist asking Scott Walker about evolution (with which his office has virtually nothing to do) while the governor conducts a trade mission.

But let us take the issue seriously.  To the extent that evolution has been some kind of real controversy, it has been so primarily over its treatment in the schools.  William Jennings Bryan, the former Democrat senator, secretary of state, and failed presidential candidate, pushed to keep Darwin out of the classroom.  His reasoning was laudable.  He thought that the ideas of natural selection and the survival of the fittest would have negative consequences for human society.

Should evolution be taught in schools?  I think the answer is that it really should be simply because it is by far the dominant theory.  What is the point of protecting your child from the dominant theory when they will come face to face with it in college or later on via any variety of possible encounters?  Avoiding evolution just creates a stronger front of attack somewhere further down the line.

What would be better?  Stop fighting and let science take its course.  Maybe the theory will undergo a substantial shift and maybe it won’t.  Know what you believe and why you believe it.  Teach the theory and do so fairly.  If you are concerned about communicating social, philosophical, and religious implications that don’t necessarily follow, then go ahead and mark out that territory.  As you educate children in science, educate them also in the limitations of science.  That is simply responsible.

But the way things are right now, we are too often just giving the enemies of the faith the felt pen they use for drawing gross caricatures.  Don’t avoid evolution.  Walk right past it, taking time to give it plenty of eye contact and respect.