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Getting the Worst of Both Sides

Looking at the political and economic system of the United States, especially when it’s not doing so well, I wonder whether we don’t end up getting the worse attributes of our two competing political philosophies.  Something similar came to mind while reading a “Weekend Interview” that Tunku Varadarajan conducted with University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer:

Mr. Zimmer attributes this campus intolerance to “the national mood,” as well as a change in “the ambient environment” in which universities exist. He describes a sort of national attention-deficit disorder: “How much is the national environment amenable to long-term thinking and investment, versus just responding to particular issues, particular needs?” The importance of education and research, he says, “has certainly come under question” in recent years, in part because “the entire tone of the country has shifted toward people being more focused on the immediate and the short-term.”

Of course, the importance of education has also come under question because it has become more expensive at the same time that the news is increasingly filled with other worldly stories from America’s campuses and people observe much of the garbage that fills lists of degree offerings and curricula.

But to the point, it occurs to me that short-term thinking and short attention spans might be the combined effect of capitalism in a prosperous society, having become dislodged from a daily struggle to survive and a culture of modesty, and the practical advantages of campus activists.  The first trains us to focus on the now, and the other thrives when people demand change immediately, with limited consideration, and without a long-term perspective on whether a given course of action will produce the desired result.

Zimmer also believes that America is becoming a less attractive place for people to head when they want to thrive, and I tend to agree.


The Coming Tech Dystopia

Joel Kotkin describes our slide toward a tech-oligarch-driven dystopia:

It goes without saying, this is not a matter of merely wanting to do good. These companies are promoting these new cities as fitter, happier, more productive, and convenient places, even as they are envisioning cities with expanded means to monitor our lives, and better market our previously private information to advertisers.

My first thought is to wonder whether Kotkin was consciously quoting from the song “Fitter Happier” from Radiohead’s album OK Computer, which starts with the lines, “Fitter, happier/More productive,” and ends with:  “Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive/A pig in a cage on antibiotics.”

My second thought is that it ultimately sounds simply like the progressive vision for society:

This drive is the latest expansion of the Valley’s narcissistic notion of “changing the world” through disruption of its existing structures and governments and the limits those still place on the tech giants’ grandest ambitions. This new urban vision negates the notion of organic city-building and replaces it with an algorithmic regime that seeks to rationalize, and control, our way of life.

There may be the thin difference that progressives want power while the tech oligarchs ultimately want money, but those amount to the same thing when all is said and done.


A Word on Maintaining Calm (And Rights) in the Face of Tragedy

Horrible events like the school shooting in Florida yesterday are painful to contemplate, but contemplate them we must.  However, “contemplation” entails attention to details and balancing of considerations.  Unfortunately, emotions run high when it comes to safety on school grounds, so facts become easy to discard.  Also unfortunately, activists rev up the outrage before facts are even known.

From what we know — and it’s still not much — authorities had multiple signals that the shooter merited scrutiny.  The Daily Mail reports that, when a student, he wasn’t permitted to carry a backpack.  The New York Daily News reports that the shooter was flagged to the FBI months ago for a school-shooting comment on YouTube.  His Instagram account was a chilling, easy-to-find signal.

Of course, the warning about waiting for more information covers all directions in which this investigation may go, and it’s possibly understandable that a few reports to different agencies wouldn’t combine to bring real attention to a potential threat.  Even if there is no fault to assign on this count, though, it remains true that authorities did not protect the public from somebody whom others had identified as dangerous.  It is not obvious, therefore, that the appropriate response to the government’s inability to protect people is to further curtail Americans’ ability to protect themselves.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric and try to avoid making emotional decisions that remove other people’s rights and might have unintended consequences.  Consider, for example, that one of the supposed 18 school shootings that are being hyped actually involved a student’s pulling the trigger of a police officer’s gun while it was still in the holster, and others are also a stretch to put on the list.


The Lesson of Personal Experience with Child Labor

An apparently missed connection in Laufton Ascencao’s response to Mike Stenhouse’s call for some champions of Rhode Island business betrays what looks like a missed life lesson, and it’s one that goes directly to debates about minimum wages and other uses of government to limit the arrangements to which employers and employees can agree:

I was 12 years old when I started working full-time. I was illegally paid $2 an hour under the table. I didn’t take the job because I wanted to buy myself something nice or because I just loved working so much. I took the job because my family needed food and we needed to keep the lights on. If I didn’t work, there was a good chance we’d end up hungry or in the dark. My mother worked over 80 hours a week and still we struggled.

These are unfortunate circumstances, to be sure, and we should keep in mind that we don’t have important details about Ascencao’s childhood job.  If it was dangerous or arduous work that children shouldn’t be doing under any circumstances, then that would have been wrong on its own merits.

But if it was work suitable for a child — something safe and of mild strain and low pressure — then one could recast Ascencao’s lesson thus:  Being able to have her child work for $2 per hour allowed Ascencao’s mother to keep food on the table and power in the house.  When those are the stakes, desperate families will go outside of the law, as they did in this case, which is generally a more risky place to be.  Of course, not everybody who might be able to provide such a job is willing to go outside the law, limiting the supply, which means the restrictions can make a bad situation worse.

It would be an error (one that some readers are no doubt itching to make) to take this post as advocacy for child labor.  My preference, however, would be to reduce the circumstances that put families in the position of making these sorts of decisions, and that means developing a healthier economy, which means reducing the drag of taxes and regulations — that is, less government rather than the ever-more government that progressives seek.


Imaginary Discrimination Bill is “Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bill of the Week”

This week’s bad bill is a thorny issue, but one that highlights yet another danger of the progressive-left’s agenda to control our lives via a government driven by political correctness. In our American society, this means a direct threat to free speech and free thought.


Our Natural Beauty, From the Moment of Conception

After a trip to the March for Life as a chaperone for a high school trip, I felt inspired to indulge in some poetic prose for an op-ed in last week’s Rhode Island Catholic:

The iconography around the building is endlessly meaningful, and visitors could spend hours trying to take it all in and a lifetime contemplating it. The craftsmanship not only of the artists whose work is on display, but also of the artisans who constructed their setting is impressive. In its sheer beauty, though, the marble — with the polished stone swirling around itself in a broad palette of colors — is what took my breath away.

A process of chemistry and tremendous force over centuries fashioned the material, awaiting human hands to collect and polish it, fashioning it into columns, railings, or just tiles and slabs to finish the floors and walls. In some places, the natural designs are suggestive of images. Between a confessional and a mural of the calling of St. Matthew, a dark shape in one slab gives the impression of a robed figure in a cavern or a wooded area. The imagination of a viewer awaiting his or her turn behind the curtain must provide the details.

The real story of natural materials, in other words, is essentially the subject matter of religion.


Their Constitution Is Their Ideology

Pro-abortion extremists in the General Assembly are back with their push to cut all traces of Rhode Island law, most of which is currently superseded by federal law, that in any way limits access to abortions or affirms the biological fact that unborn children are, in fact, human beings.  One provision would eliminate the statute against the barbaric procedure of partial-birth abortion, wherein the abortionist brings the baby almost fully into the air and then kills him or her before final delivery.  (The method of killing can involve crushing the baby’s skull and sucking his or her brains out.)

But rather than inflame passions with accurate descriptions of abortion, I’ll focus, here, on a peculiar rhetorical trick of the activists:

“We have anti-choice leaders in both chambers of Congress, and a Supreme Court whose balance could help the other two branches destroy the protections provided by Roe v. Wade. Unless we erase these unconstitutional laws, it is feasible that the women of Rhode Island could be knocked back a half-century to the days of secret, dangerous back-room abortions,″ [Providence progressive Democrat Representative Edith] Ajello said last week after introducing the bill.

“Our state has lacked the political will to repeal these unconstitutional laws, and that inaction is now putting the health and rights of Rhode Island women at genuine risk,″ added the lead Senate sponsor, [Providence progressive Democrat Senator] Gayle Goldin, in a news release last week. “Women deserve better from the leaders of our state.”

Clearly “unconstitutional” is a very important talking point to these activists.  The peculiarity is that if the Supreme Court were to reverse the precedent of prior activist courts, these state laws would no longer be unconstitutional.  That is, in addition to their belief that one human being has the authority arbitrarily to declare whether another human being has any rights at all, they also hold that constitutionality is ultimately defined by conformance with their own ideology, rather than agreed-upon words and legal processes.


Trump and the Leading Edge of Conservative Policy

Readers who aren’t steeped in (or employed by) the conservative think tank world may not have picked up something very interesting about President Trump’s State of the Union address:  He mentioned a number of policies that have been catching on among conservative policy intellectuals who are, in some ways, reformulating the old-school, hard-line, bootstrap principle as well as the more-recent libertarianism that pressured social conservatives to keep their mouths shut in the name of broader appeal.

Many of us have been making the case that knocking out government supports in an era of eroded social foundations isn’t politically feasible or humane and that a full political philosophy requires some sort of plan for disadvantaged people.  In the Washington Examiner, Jared Meyer highlights one example:

In his 2018 State of the Union address, President Trump said that “we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

This sentiment directly follows what Trump promised during his inaugural address, that “we will get our people off of welfare and back to work.” People coming out of incarceration face two distinct paths—they can either find a job, or they will fall into government dependency. Beyond being the main predictor of whether someone is living in poverty, not having a job is the clearest indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend.

This particular issue is certainly in line with libertarian views on shrinking government, but it illustrates the changed perspective.  The first spotlight doesn’t go on the principle of freedom, but on the obstacles that actual people are facing.

Very often, helping people is a matter of reining in the excesses of government, and sometimes that requires rethinking old biases, like that which was “tough on crime.”  It makes for an interesting balancing act, and that goes to show that the really interesting policy discussions are all on the right, as is the future of the country unless progressives derail our actual progress.


Civil War and the Pubescence

By all means, read the widely circulated post to which he links, but also give some thought to how John Hinderaker of PowerLine frames the discussion:

Are the Democrats Fighting a Civil War?

That is the provocative hypothesis put forward by Danial Greenfield at Sultan Knish. On its face it sounds hyperbolic, but Greenfield makes a rather sober case. You should read it all, but this will give you some of the flavor:

How do civil wars happen?

Two or more sides disagree on who runs the country. And they can’t settle the question through elections because they don’t even agree that elections are how you decide who’s in charge.

The key sentiment is precisely that behind the self-proclaimed Resistance (or the me-proclaimed Pubescence):  When the other side wins, it is illegitimate and its exercises of power must be resisted By Any Means Necessary.  Normalizing the other side, even to the extent of acknowledging its legitimate electoral victories, is complicity in evil.  When people who believe what the other side believes, it is “hate speech,” not free speech.

This is very, very dangerous territory.  If the people who elected Donald Trump as their means of disrupting what they see as a corruption of democracy designed to lock them out and eliminate their rights find even that successful use of the democratic process blocked, they aren’t going to go away; they’re going to shift their focus away from the means of deciding differences that can make democracies stable.


Fake Claims From The Progressive Land Of Make-Believe

The legislative onslaught from the left has begun. As the poster child of their desire for government-control over the lives of residents and businesses, Rhode Island’s progressive-Democrats announced they will introduce legislation this week to establish an estimated $13.2 billion single-payer health insurance system.


Are We Trying to End a Positive Trend?

The story of vaping in schools has appeared in a number of places in the past few days. Here’s Jessica Picard reporting in the Valley Breeze:

“Our concern is that we are seeing an increasing trend in vaping. We thought it was important that we share with parents what we are seeing,” said Supt. Robert Mitchell.

Increased use of e-cigarettes is not just in the high school, but in the middle schools as well, said school officials.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, current use of electronic cigarettes increased among middle and high school students from 2011 to 2016. The CDC reported that in 2016, about four out of every 100 middle school students and 11 out of every 100 high school students said they had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

In isolation, this may indeed be a bad thing, but that’s not how we should look at it.  According to the federal Department of Health & Human Services, “from 2011 to 2015, the percentage of 12th-grade students who had ever used an e-cigarette increased from 4.7 to 16 percent.”  But over that same period of time, the percentage of seniors who said the same about actual cigarettes decreased from 10.3% to 5.5%.  Smokeless tobacco (like snuff and chewing tobacco) is down from 8.3% to 6.1%.  (These groups aren’t exclusive, meaning that there’s some overlap between them.)

As of 2014, more students had used an e-cigarette than an actual cigarette.  The question that the advocates and (in turn) the journalists miss is this:  If the alternative to e-cigarettes is not nothing, but smoking or chewing tobacco, isn’t this outcome positive?

Looking at the trend for teenage smoking, the line is down, down, down since the mid-90s.  That’s what one would expect as the rules and social pressure have changed.  When I was a high school smoker back then, we were still able to go out to the smoking area behind the library.  No doubt as that convenience decreased, fewer kids bothered.

It could be that some percentage of teenagers will simply do something “adult” and addictive like smoking.  It’s probably better to allow that to be something like smoking, rather than smoking itself.