Trumpism is not conservatism

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USA Today reports on how thirty black students were ejected from a Trump rally in Valdosta, Georgia the night before Super Tuesday. Without knowing all the details, it is safe to say that on its face, the optics are disgraceful. This feeds the narrative that Trump is a strongman for bigots.

In recent weeks, movement conservatives have intensified their opposition to Trump. Famously, National Review withdrew its sponsorship from a GOP debate in order to come out in print against the orange mogul.

Trump makes it very easy for conservatives to disown him. Fewer than 100 words from the USA Today article readily exemplify how Trump has nothing to do with American conservatism:

During his remarks in Valdosta, Trump said he’s leading a movement. “I’m just a messenger,” he said.

Later, Trump said his whole life has been about making money, but “now I’m going to be greedy for the United States,” as the audience roared. “I’m going to take, take, take and we’re going to become rich again.”

Karen Clendenin, 58, a victims advocate in the local district attorney’s office, said she was very impressed and that she’ll vote for Trump on Tuesday in Georgia’s primary. Clendenin said she wore her “Trump” T-shirt Monday even though she was “a little embarrassed.”

  1. Trump doesn’t own his positions. By saying “I’m just a messenger,” Trump refuses to take responsibility for his own words and actions. He is comfortable as a demagogue and opportunist, but a coward when it comes to committing to ideas and people in the real world. If nothing else, American conservatives are loyal to ideas and institutions that have a past track record of serving the common good. Failure to own, defend, and advance these ideas and institutions is not conservative.
  2. Trump is a redistributionist. “I’m going to be greedy for the United States” is essentially the same promise a Democrat makes to redistribute wealth by making college free, erasing student debt, or raising the minimum wage. This is not the free market under the rule of law that Reagan conservatives advocate.
  3. Trump is a one-man lawyer employment agency. Conservatives despise how overly litigious America has become. The conservative’s bible about this is Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense. One major conservative plank for reforming healthcare is tort reform. When I read that one Trump’s supporters is a legal “victim’s advocate,” I take this to mean ambulance chaser, like the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards. The way progressives bring lawsuits, political correctness re-education and other vindictive instruments to bear on fellow Americans is anathema to conservatism. Trump’s constant threats to sue are much more at home with progressive tactics to silence and punish political enemies than with conservatism.

Bringing it back to race, opposition to immigration is populist protectionism, not free market conservatism which embraces competition and invites the best and brightest to become part of the American fold. Whatever Trumpism is, it is not conservatism.

Photo credit: markahuna via Imgur.

Henry Ford wage hike: boon or bust?

A Rube Goldberg machine may be more efficient than a Henry Ford wage hike. | Profound Whatever / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

One hundred years ago, Henry Ford defied his fellow capitalists by doubling his workers’ wages.  It was a profitable boon, enabling his employees to finally afford the product they produced, the automobile.  Daniel Gross at the Daily Beast suggests that employees today should emulate Ford’s wage hike.  Is this a sound recommendation?

“All else being equal”–ceteris paribus–is an indispensable caveat to all economic theories.  A little scrutiny reveals that nothing is equal in comparing Henry Ford to employers today.

Gross literally describes Ford as a “dictator.”  He’s right.  Back then, Ford answered to a few private investors, but major employers today are accountable to open market shareholders.  Ford Motor Company eventually went public in 1956, and it was a good thing, too.  Market accountability makes the difference between CEO-approved assembly lines and Politburo-inflicted bread lines.

Differing labor market conditions also advise against a Ford-like wage increase.  Turnover and its associated costs were higher in 1914.  HR departments have learned a lot since then.  Significant overhead savings have already been captured, unlike in Ford’s pioneering days.  High turnover remains the norm for low-value added jobs like fast food service.  Still, crack open the Wall street Journal, which Gross dismisses as “revanchist,” and one will learn that employers are far from uninterested in improving work conditions.  Think of Google’s work site barbershop and sleep pods.

Not only do market conditions make the Ford wage hike inadvisable, but its accomplishments are oversold with a rhetorical sleight of hand.  Gross credits Ford with achieving an economy of scale, enabling the first “democratic car.”  But prior to the wage hike, the company was already moving 250, 000 cars a year, hardly an elite clientele.

Missing from the heart of Gross’ s case are findings that Ford’s own employees significantly broadened the consumer base.  It may as well have been an exogenous factor; perhaps instead it was World War I that boosted demand and decisively convinced Americans of the automobile’s utility.

In debunking an earlier incarnation of the Ford myth, Forbes writer Tim Worstoll notes another major deficiency.  Take Boeing, another durable goods manufacturer.  Paying a worker more there will not enable her to buy her own 777 airliner to enjoy on the weekend.

The Ford hike is a shot in the dark, an indirect Rube Goldberg way to increase demand.  Not to mention a blunt instrument.  Employers have more precise methods for such ends, like commercial advertising.  Some loathe ads as vacuous and soul crushing, but they increase demand by raising the value of the product in the mind of the consumer.  And the ad industry employs many thousands.

Other ways of increasing consumption include the tried and true coupon, the sales discount, and the rebate.  These only induce voluntary transactions.  Even if government wanted to raise consumption on a macro level, these inducements are much more equitable than the job killing minimum wage increase, which 85% of economists opposed in one recent survey (h/t Wintery Knight).

So it seems there’s no substance to recommend Ford’s wage hike.  What is Gross accomplishing with this piece, then?  He paints a straw man of inexplicably stubborn industrialists, saying that “. . . bosses have been choosing not to raise wages even when they can.”  If Henry Ford saw what employers are doing now, he’d be “shocked and dismayed.”

The straw man ultimately issues from a pervasive, unnamed menace:

There’s something deep in our contemporary and political culture, in the public and private sectors, that supports the proposition that employers should pay as little as possible at all times, at every point in the economic cycle.

He doesn’t say it, but he may be alluding to the misleading Keynesian bogeyman known unflatteringly as “trickle down economics.”

Employers are diverse and face many different circumstances.  Rather than acting as some monolithic cabal, each pays what their market and their bottom line allows.  Second-guessing employers is bad policy, and shaming market competitors into “doing their part” is harmful politics.

Certainly, there are often times when workers should get raises.  And cost of living adjustments are a good way to make sure that a rising tide keeps lifting all boats.  But the Henry Ford wage hike is more like income redistribution agitprop than good business advice.

Pope pontificates unprofitably on free markets

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis’s recently released exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (pdf), has made the news and elicited commentary for its admonitions against the free market economy.  This is not a new stance for the Catholic Church.  Still, this latest iteration of qualified praise (hat tip First Thoughts blog) from commentators across the political spectrum led me to study the primary source itself.  After reviewing the text, I can only conclude that on free markets and the poor, Francis is tragically mistaken.  He gets it wrong.

In a section titled “Some challenges of today’s world,” Francis calls Christians to say “no to an economy of exclusion.”  Consider this passage:

… today we have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.  How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality.  Today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.  As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Herein we get a good sample of the main vehicle of discourse: platitudes.  Pope Francis doesn’t try to marshal any facts or hard evidence that the world is as he says; he takes it for granted that we share in a worldview where the powerful crush the weak and eat them for breakfast.  But is this really the world we live in?

Writing for the Daily Caller, conservative and Christian Matt K. Lewis affirms Francis’s warning against greed.  To me, his acknowledgment of the “tension” between conservatism and markets comes off as a little too contrite.  Lewis appeals to pure speculation by otherwise venerable Christian writer and apologist Francis Schaeffer.  He supposed that employers who sacrificed profits to pay their employees more would demonstrate Christ’s love better than by giving those profits to charity.  This obsession with profits is beyond misguided; it’s destructive to lend credence to the notion that not giving away profits is inherently bad.

Jesus warns us all to refrain from judging our neighbors.  He warns us to remove the log from our own eye before removing the speck from our neighbor’s.  Accordingly, who am I to say that my neighbor is greedy?  It is one thing if I know my neighbor intimately.  But it is uncharitable and an overreach to attribute greed to a general class of people whose trade circumstances I know little about.

As I see it, Francis’s social teaching remains too mired in a Eurocentric, Old World conception of human society.  The Pope himself hails from Argentina, a poster child for the economic development frustrations that are the norm in Latin America.  At one point, Francis sharply rebuts the efficacy of supply-side economic theory:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.  This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.  Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

But to say that supply-side stimulation has never been confirmed by the facts is untrue!  In America, Kennedy’s 1964 tax cuts, along with Reagan’s 1986 and Bush’s 2002 and 2003 tax cuts, helped everyday Americans greatly.  Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson details some more of Francis’s economic shortsightedness, particularly his trust of government to ameliorate inequality.

If Pope Francis really wants to lift up the “excluded,” he should look no further than to the tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently, China.  There, real people have been lifted out of poverty and brought into purpose, productivity, and prosperity, thanks to the free market.

Elswhere in his treatise, the Pope offers a thesis that violence will continue as long as inequality prevails.  What supports this idea, given that we’ve always had economic inequality, and there is no political mechanism to eliminate it on the horizon?  We could call upon Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to see how violence has declined precipetously over the history of civilization.  We can lay this against our background knowledge that inequality is increasing to say that violence has shown itself to be inversely proportional to inequality.  Truely, may the rich get richer!

The progressive may ask, how could anyone say that?  Well, if life is anything more than a zero sum game, where the only way forward is government enforced redistribution, then that’s something we need to know and lay hold of.  In a Wall Street Journal opinion from 2012, Rabbi Aryeh Spero makes the case:

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Further, seeking to unlock the hidden treasures of creation brings deep joy.  Spero remarks:

Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual.

Where the Pope sees dehumanization and a stripping of dignity, a capitalist who understands economic truth in light of the image of God–Imago Dei–sees joy.  To make room for the invisible hand, to allow suppliers to compete for the benefit of the consumer, and to practice capitalism–under the rule of law, not under the unbridled strawman Francis berates–brings very real material and spiritual benefit not just to the capitalist, but to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”

If we love God with all our mind, as we’re called to do in Matthew 25, then we can heed Francis’s call to serve as ones “bruised, hurting and dirty.”  But that will mean for someone like myself, refuting a simplistic vision of the world that vilifies entrepreneurship, uncritically trusts government to alleviate inequality, and endows dignity as a wealth transfer instead of a mutually beneficial transaction.  If there is joy in the Gospel, it has to be in knowing the world as it actually is.  As for the economic realm, it looks nothing like Pope Francis sees it.

CSM editors equivocate on corporate taxes

The Christian Science Monitor editorial board spun hard the discussion of corporate tax reform Wednesday, opining under the headline: World class tax evaders need a global response. 

Tax evasion is illegal.  Are the editors implying that the folks at Apple and other firms under recent Senate scrutiny are criminal?  At minimum, The Monitor executes an Orwellian equivocation.  For them, “tax avoidance” is interchangeable with “cheating” and “legal tax evasion.”

The editors opine with unconscious irony, likening the plight of national governments to that of their taxpayers.  They’d have us believe that it’s as frustrating for governments to capture revenue from corporations as it is for taxpayers to navigate convoluted tax codes.  The world’s tiniest violin plays in response.

Waldo Jaquith / Music Photos / CC BY-SA

The Monitor quotes British Prime Minister David Cameron to no effect : “Some forms of avoidance have become so aggressive that I think it is right to say these are ethical issues.” This does nothing to elucidate the actual ethical threshold that Mr. Cameron thinks avoiders have crossed.

Moving on, the editors warn of a pernicious race to the bottom, where, absent a level playing field, corporate tax rates around the world will just be too low.  Then, quoting another British official, they deftly imply a connection between those lower rates and lack of transparency.

The solutions the editors look to are systemic, top down, and require dilligent international cooperation.  In other words, they’re impractical. More of the same nonsense that puts Libya on the UN Human Rights Council and binds Europe to a useless carbon curbing regime while the US and China continue on their merry way.

In an age of highly mobile capital and labor, competition is more a reality than ever before.  Forcing “fairness” by restricting mobility from the top down is patently illiberal.  Instead, policy makers should “reward” corporate winners as Rand Paul urged in a recent Senate hearing.  Whether countries or corporations, let competitors learn from and emulate the most successful, and global revenues–corporate and goverment– will be racing to the top.

Water bottles and other campaign debris

Ever since 2008, conspicuous fainting episodes have occurred with bizarre regularity at President Obama’s campaign rallies.  Some wider attention came earlier this week when Obama, who offers a consistent, canned response to these potentially serious collapses, inadvertently called for a “paralegal” instead of a paramedic. Michael Medved, who has documented this phenomenon since the beginning, has a good point regarding the displays: how does the Commander-in-Chief know it’s just a swoon and nothing more serious?

The fainting routine, with Mr. Obama’s predictable admonition to eat food, drink water, and remain calm,  is quite possibly meant to bolster his image as a confident, competent leader. He can have own mini Bush-with-a-bullhorn moment, giving gentle nanny state prescriptions that earn laughter from the adoring crowd. But one Medved caller this week had an alternate take: with the president habitually 20-60 minutes late to appointments, and belting out stump speeches nearing an hour, it would be no surprise if the fainting fans were genuine and not crowd plants.

Why do mainstream journalists, the “dinosaur media” if you will, turn a blind eye to Obama and his fellow Democrat’s campaign gimmicks?  Who knows what other minutia have gone undocumented while the media combs over Romney’s vacation photos, his financial arrangements, and his 1999-2002 status at Bain?

Of course it’s the substance and not the minutia that matters.  Yet, it was with some pain that I learned of new–if trivial –criticisms from two Hollywood geek icons.  Mark Hamill, the actor who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, recently knocked Mitt Romney as “not human.”  His critique hinged on how awkwardly the governor responded to a sip of lemonade.  Really?  Hamill’s observation rivals Matt Damon’s fearful, perhaps bigoted babble from 2008 that managed to mention Sarah Palin, dinosaurs, and nuclear codes in the same breath.

Giving good company to Hamill is Wil Wheaton, who played the star ship’s resident whiz kid on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He took the occasion of a recent George Bush interview to lament the loss of life and treasure the 43rd president instigated with a “war of choice.”  It’s regrettable the actor doesn’t understand that jihadis have free will or that all wars are embarked upon as a deliberate exercise.

The men who once played space teens on film and television can now–fittingly enough–join Cher, who apparently left Earth so she could avoid breathing the same air as Mitt Romney.  Celebrities’ reflexive gags make nice conservative water cooler talk, but they also indicate just how impervious some sections of the country are to reality.

Let’s return from our Hollywood excursus to Washington, where we get a different taste of the same liberal worldview.  The media, after four days of burying its head in the sand, has reluctantly picked up on President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” gaffe.  And while ABC moved quickly to paint it as out of context, The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto insists the gaffe was a genuine betrayal of a deeply liberal inner attitude.

If you read the wider quote from Obama, Taranto has solid reasoning: “that” refers to the singular and proximate “business.”  Obama would have said “those” if he were referring to the earlier bridges and roads.  Yet, I would entertain the possibility of a simple slip up, since “you didn’t build that” has more of a rhetorical impact than “you didn’t build those.”  It also reminds us of MC Hammer’s sweet refrain, “U can’t touch this.”

Is all this attention unfruitful nitpicking?  Not inasmuch as it draws focus to the real and gaping philosophical chasm that separates Democrats from Republicans.  Undeniably, economic policy is ultimately driven by a sense of who “owns” growth and success.

What does lack substance is the liberal canard that the rich need to “pay back” for all they’ve been given.  Not that Republicans deny a need for some government in the first place!  High income earners already pay much more than the rest of us under our already progressive tax regime.  And all the while, we can’t deny the abounding opportunity that many of those earners’ businesses provide.

There is no need for top income earners to pay “us” back or forward, for that matter.  But we could use comprehensive tax reform, a closing of loopholes and lowering of rates that Romney and a Republican Congress will deliver if elected.  If only our electorate can navigate the field of campaign season debris first.

Market reform: nothing too sacred

Recent days have seen major policy movements with respect to higher education and health care, two segments of the economy sorely in need of reform.  You probably did not miss last week’s NFIB v. Sebelius decision, better known as the Obamacare ruling.  Its headlines eclipsed the expected and relatively uncontroversial extension of Stafford student loan interest rates.

Unfortunately neither of these recent actions will do much to mitigate the twin crises in higher education and health care.  A reverential aura surrounding these fields blocks what could really help: serious market-based reforms.  While much of the problem is budgetary in nature, respective stakeholders are wary of commoditizing the near-sacred work they do.

Market advocates must deal with some serious objections: How can a price be put on teaching students how to think?  Is it moral to triage life-saving services on ability to pay?  Core values like critical thinking, equality, and compassion are at stake.  To address these challenges, let’s review what it is that makes the free market so great.

The Reality of Scarcity

First, markets operate on the assumption of scarcity, the idea that resources are finite.  This should be fairly uncontroversial, but there’s a powerful tendency in human nature to discount this reality.  Think of how the Federal government is so unpopular on the Right.  This is because it has tools at its disposal to deny fiscal truth.  It can print money or engage in deficit spending–things that state governments cannot do.  Perhaps nothing is more important to determining societal norms than fidelity to reality.  This must include a practical acknowledgement of scarcity.

Delivering Accountability

Second, markets are the best means of achieving accountability.  A market consists of rational agents entering into voluntary transactions under a fixed set of rules.  When it is relatively free of interventions, both consumers and suppliers naturally look to maximize their own self-interest.

It’s a necessary aside to admit that such an idea makes many uneasy.  We recall the simple and sure moral learned in childhood: don’t be selfish, don’t be greedy.  People presume illegality when they think of the market imperative to maximize utility or profit. Crooks like Bernie Madoff and Gordon Gekko commonly come to mind.  But the concern is utterly irrelevant.  Any society worth it’s salt is founded on the effective rule of law.  The free market assumes this, and any alternative system must deal with the same consideration.

Free markets breed accountability because rational actors must seek the most bang for their buck.  But say that a consumer comes to anticipate occasional interventions, like a benefactor dropping a huge cash subsidy in his lap.  He will rationally adjust his expectations, no longer accountable to material reality, but to the sociopolitical reality he reads from a market distortion.

Prices communicate truth, reveal what we value

This takes us to the third virtue of markets, which is the informational role of price.  There are countless examples of governments attempting to control prices in the modern era, just about all of them disastrous.  This is because prices, like language, transmit information about reality.  They inform us whether a good or service is relatively abundant or scarce, easy to produce or exacted only with great effort.  To adjust a price away from its market value is either to lie or to posit that some competing value trumps truth.  Typically, this is something like charity, equality, or decency.  Yes these are worthy ideals, but it’s immoral to superimpose a brute desire for better social conditions over an accurate grasp of economic reality.


Even our most cherished ideals come at a price.  That’s why we call them “values.”  Market prices, subsidies, and taxes all contribute to a picture, a mirror if you will, by which societies can see what they really value.  Diamonds are pricey because of the social significance we assign them.  We see the Federal government values green energy–correctly or not–because of the subsides it gives in its name.  From national security to food stamps to Baby Einstein videos, we can grasp what a society values by how much is produced, consumed, paid, subsidized and taxed toward the respective ends.

Shielded from reality

Medicine and education are very high callings, their integrity guarded at times with something approaching religious zeal.  Last winter, in inveighing against the presence of U.S. Bank, a California Aggie editorial declared the campus a “sacred place” in need of protection from bank profiteering.  By contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal editorial is right to criticize the circled wagons of higher education as a “Green zone” where reality does not apply.

The academic pursuit of truth, and the transmission of the discipline to the next generation, are indispensable to society.  Yet, inasmuch as the academy serves society–and not vice versa–all its constituent enterprises must submit themselves to fiscal accountability.  The self-selecting institution of tenure especially needs to justify to the outside world, in some formal way, its oft-wildly ranging research pursuits.  Let’s allow the market to deliver accountability.

The healthcare industry also needs this help.  Policy has been tied up for so long in questions of access and affordability that the field is virtually disconnected from the salubrious effects of the market.  Things will only improve when consumers, loosed from subsidies, internalize the value of the myriad services they pursue.  I’ve been a fan of high-deductible insurance plans.  And the earthshaking decoupling of insurance from employment benefits is essential.  To have a multitude of companies actually competing for customers will do more to eliminate waste and drive down prices than the amalgam of regulatory magical thinking known as the “Affordable” Care Act ever could.

At what cost?
Is the price of submitting the highly-esteemed callings of medicine and education to market forces too steep?  We can learn a lesson from Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.  As he writes in Can Man Live Without God, even faith itself is about making a choice and paying a cost:

Oscar Wilde once said that we do not appreciate sunsets because we do not have to pay for them.  Oscar Wilde was wrong.  We can “pay” for sunsets by living in accordance with the purpose of our Creator and of His grand design.

No ideal is too sacred to be untouched by the fact that life is about measuring costs and making choices.  There is nothing profane and everything noble about squaring our actions and aligning our values with reality.  Markets are the best way we can collectively make choices based on knowledge of value, and as such ought to be embraced.

Spirit guide

Humor is a subjective thing, so I’ll fill you in on the gaps.  Our pig of course shares a lack of certain scruples with Elizabeth Warren.  The totem gig comes from two sources.

First, I heard interviewed last year on The Michael Medved Show a remarkable performance artist.  She was commissioned via Kickstarter to circumprostrate herself around Mount Rainer.  It’s not as dirty as it sounds.  From all the bowing down, I guess there’s a spiritual dimension to it, but I can only scratch my head in wonder as to who paid for this and why.  Nonetheless, as a free marketeer I say more power to this woman if she can get people to pay her for her art.  It’s something I’m working on myself.

The second part of the totem reference also originates in the Pacific Northwest, which is a sort of epicenter of ecological writing.  There’s a whole lifestyle and philosophy that’s captured by folks like now-retired English professor and poet Gary Snyder.  Early in life, he saw the world as a merchant mariner, caught Zen Buddhism, and subsequently married it to Native American spirituality among other things.

From time to time in my day job, I encounter some works in this tradition.  I find the children’s literature to be especially striking.  One story book features a privileged white kid who is empowered by the spirit of Raven to oppose some mean guys in hard hats who cut down trees for a living.  Another encourages children to connect to “place” and maybe discover for themselves a special inspiring animal, or totem.  As the child of one Asian immigrant (and a native-born American) I can’t help but be tickled by how my fellow, privileged Americans turn from their rich heritage in search of more resonant truths.  By accident or providence, I’m on the opposite end of the divide from those Beatniks and baby boomers disaffected with Western modernity.  Once I came upon the scene, I was taken with the strange idea that America is a singular land of opportunity, that democracy and free market enterprise were vindicated by the end of history, and that we all have God to thank for it.  I still hold to this, by the way.

There’s one more piece to the punchline, if like me you don’t recall much of ancient literature.  It’s that Gilgamesh is 2/3 god, and 1/3 mortal.  But how does one get such a proportion of pedigree?

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