This both startles and thrills me.
It startles me because I wonder where it’s coming from. The best case scenario is that it’s not talked about at home. The worst case scenario is that is that they’re learning about it from authority figures, absent its inherent individual submissiveness and responsibility abdication no doubt.
Nonetheless, I’m thrilled as well. Having the opportunity to teach college students is one thing. Being able to convey to my own children the wisdom of the principles codified by our Founding Fathers is quite another. It’s a privilege.
My mind filled with these thoughts upon reading Peggy Noonan’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal. I’m not a regular reader of her weekend “Declarations,” but the highlighted “Less taxes and spending won’t resolve America’s crisis” caught my attention.
Initially I thought to myself “great; another ‘conservative’ throwing in the towel on fiscal matters.” Sure enough, she taps out: “the federal government will not become smaller or less expensive in our lifetimes.”
A couple years ago, a younger friend of mine expressed a similar sentiment when he asked “shouldn’t we just accept the government we have and work with it?” Even if I deemphasized my stance on one issue in favor of others, I can’t imagine so openly surrendering my principle in the process.
Alas, principles aren’t what they seem. When she says the “old conservatism of smaller government … was deeply pertinent to its era and philosophically right, but it is not fully in line with the crises of our time or its reigning facts,” it sounds more like political messaging than a set of deeply-held values.
That’s ironic given her reasoning for why the government should “revitalize small towns.” “We lose a lot when we lose those old shared ways and values,” she laments. Unclear is what politicians and bureaucrats thousands of miles away could do to rejuvenate thousands of towns with merely thousands of residents each.
Having grown up in one such town (Victoria, TX, population 67K), with most of my elder relatives a half hour away in Goliad, TX. (pop. 2K), I can say values there were sturdy. It was those same values that “(bound them) together” when an arsonist flattened a mosque a couple years ago.
People from around the world donated more than $1 million to rebuild. Local stores donated a cut of their sales to the same. Varied houses of worship opened their doors. “Victoria is not looked at as the city that burned a Muslim church, it's looked at as the city that came together,” said Abe Ajrami, board member of the Victoria Islamic Center.
One could be forgiven his/her skepticism that better values could be injected from a place where they appear more malleable. The government, regardless of jurisdiction, can no more do that than it can “help families form and grow.” In fact, excessive state involvement in our lives has arguably contributed to the deterioration of the family, under the guise of doing “whatever will help.”
Her essay essentially reads like a “Compassionate Conservatism” reboot: comfort with the government as is, and republicans should do “whatever it takes … to make it significantly more helpful.” The good intentions implied in “compassionate” do however, allow some room for a couple of worthy ideas.
I found myself nodding along to the idea of a return of “settlement houses” to teach prospective Americans “the meaning and history” of their new home. Immigrants go to great expense, be it monetary, time, personal risk, etc., to come here to make a better life for themselves. They seek the same opportunity with which my daughters were born.
The current anti-immigrant sentiment that permeates certain segments of our society is unfortunate, but much of the time it’s predicated on a valid concern; legality. Immigrating to the U.S. should be easy and permissive. You bring a disease, you stay in quarantine until deemed healthy. You come here a criminal, you get turned away a criminal. To everyone else, welcome, and here’s your path to citizenship.
Additionally, though the suggestion to “drag … lost … teenage boys … of the working and middle classes … out of” their house was likely made tongue-in-cheek, it sounds like one good way to populate the labor force required to fix up our ports, bridges, etc.
The irony is that spending on immigration and infrastructure is not what put the federal fisc in its current distended state, and the rest of her “Compassionate Conservative 2.0” brings back bad memories from 1.0.
For the first time in a half century, the GOP had control of congress as the 21st century began, and for a majority of it, a republican presidency. But far from being the “sober-minded … best stewards” of the government who look at spending “coolly,” as Ms. Noonan envisions, they became drunk with the power of the purse. Spending rose an average of 7% per year, 2-3 times the rate of inflation.
Perhaps the saddest part of this commentary is that she predicates her entreaty on the certainty of a “terrible day” in our future, an act of war against us using nuclear or biological weapons. This is eerily reminiscent of the justifications we hear to maintain military spending more than twice as high as China, and more than the next seven countries combined.
Only those who live under a rock are unaware of the presence of such weapons. To exploit fears of such nightmare scenarios so that taxpayer resources can be politically-directed toward “growing families” is unfortunate to say the least. Not only should such appeals be rejected, but so should said defense spending be subject to greater spending discipline, especially when the Pentagon seems prone to lose track of almost a billion dollars.
On one of the tests in my macroeconomics class, a question states “discretionary fiscal policy is limited by the fact that roughly __% of the federal budget is dedicated to defense or is on autopilot: 30, 50, 70 or 90.” The answer is 70.
Rooting out “waste and fraud” is always a noble sentiment, but over the years it’s been reduced to little more than a political bromide intended to placate those committed to a constitutionally-sized government. If republicans “naturally enjoy” this exercise, as Ms. Noonan alleges, they’ll work with President Trump in his effort to sell off the governments $1.45 trillion student loan debt to private investors, just to name one example. They could even go a step further and help him make the Department of Education leaner.
While abolishing the DoE altogether and returning that function to the states where it belongs is the ultimate goal, these practical baby-steps would at least prove her right. The primary target of spending reform however, should be that ~70%.
Some of what should be done is simply common sense.
Life expectancy for example, has increased by roughly a decade since the inception of both social security and Medicare. Logic dictates that the age of eligibility should follow suit. Also, we should have more choice about our participation in these programs, and the way disbursements are administered.
Furthermore, there’s a popular myth that these entitlements have dedicated revenue streams; the payroll tax. The fact is, barely a third of Medicare is funded that way, and if demographic trends don’t change, it’s currently projected that social security will also have to start dipping into general revenues to help pay out full benefits in fifteen years.
Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute has a wonderfully illuminative chart that shows the inflationary effects wrought by government involvement in some of these sectors. It eats into our ability to pursue other worthy personal ventures, not to mention the vicious cycle it perpetrates on the federal budget.
If we do not adequately address these problems, interest on the national debt will likely blow past 10% of the budget, and Ms. Noonan’s spending preferences will be further squeezed. This assumes of course that hers is not simply one of the initial ‘conservative’ endorsements of the fantasy known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
She is certainly correct in stating that republicans are bigger proponents of free-market capitalism than are democrats. One might quibble that her claim that progressives simply do “not love it” is too restrictive. Some on the left profess to and genuinely enjoy prosperity, but their obliviousness regarding which policies support or impede it is often staggering.
Regardless, even though republicans have proven they can spend, they can’t match the deceptively gleeful ignorance with which democrats assert they can give things away cost-free. If we’re stuck with a two-party system, they need to be the party that aggressively represents and promotes independence and personal responsibility, not to mention logic and basic math. If a parent cannot understand or accept his/her duty to his/her children, no amount of government largesse is going to change that.
It’s been proven before, as recently as 2006 and last year, that republicans can’t win elections maintaining or adding to the welfare state. They might as well stand and act on effective, decidedly American principles, to the extent they still exist within the party.