The Best of Times…

A few weeks ago, the Beloved Spouse and I were guests at a dinner with five friends at a lovely, ocean-side club. Given the liveliness of the chatter at nearby tables, much of the mealtime conversation was necessarily with whoever was sitting to each person’s right or left. The gathering’s hostess, a retired executive who had been a pioneer in her field and is still on the boards of major corporations and philanthropies, was on my right.

During dinner, she offered me the casual and, she thought, uncontroversial observation that today’s world is in a terrible state. Uncertain as to whether she was commenting on the present divide in American politics or the world as a whole, I startled her by assuming the latter and responding that, actually, humanity’s plight is astonishingly better than it has ever been in almost every measurable way.

I tried (and failed, on the spot) to remember the name of Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness, which lays out incontrovertible statistics regarding the stunning recent improvements in mankind’s condition (as measured by wealth, education, nutrition, life expectancy, likelihood of not dying in battle, etc., etc.), but did my best to describe both the underlying facts laid out in the book and the author’s fascinating (and amply-tested) observation that elites like, if I may say so, the group at our table, consistently show astonishingly poor knowledge of the pertinent facts. Answers to Rosling’s questions about mankind’s well-being provided by gatherings of western elites have been consistently worse than would be those of a theoretical monkey pressing random keys on multiple choice tests. Which tells you quite a bit about our fancy educations and the take on the world presented by our major media.

My friend seemed bemused by – and skeptical about – my comments. I will have to remember to send her a copy of Rosling’s copiously-annotated and well-reviewed book (which was beloved by Barack Obama and Bill Gates, I gather). That should address the my comments on quantifiable facts, though it won’t address what I think are the real basises of my friend’s disquiet.

***

And the Worst of Times…

Thinking back on that conversation, I have been pondering why in these times of comparative peace and unprecedented plenty, so many Americans are feeling distinctly gloomy. One obvious, but radically incomplete, reason is the media’s attention-grabbing tendency to report on tragic or frightening news, ignoring the more general progress that readers might find boring. Another factor, particularly applicable to this moment, is our media’s tendency to play down good news and up bad news when doing so makes Republican administrations appear incompetent or worse. This latter habit has recently been openly admitted-to by the nation’s so-called paper of record, which is busily trading its former role as trusted reporter for one as an advocate for progressive governance.

There must be deeper currents at work, though, for so much of America to be convinced that the world is falling apart. What happened to our once-fabled can-do optimism? In the simplest terms, my hypothesis is: the same thing that systematically destroyed our historic thriftiness while weakening our once-fervent self-reliance and our belief in God-given individual rights – progressivism itself.

To the extent that government is accepted as the default refuge (or, ever more so, as the provider-of-first-resort) by those who believe that we are born with automatic rights to the fruits of others’ labor, e.g., sustenance, healthcare and shelter, we must necessarily hold a different perspective than Americans’ traditional hardy individualism. Self-reliance and individual rights must take a back seat to the common good, as defined by, well, somebody other than you and me. Outcomes are to be managed centrally rather than determined individually. The necessarily coercive redistribution of wealth is the progressive paradigm – and it goes a long way toward discouraging the creation of new wealth. From the perspective of the individual, hard work, thrift and risk-taking are neither as necessary nor as sensible – being taxed heavily and given that there are alternative sources of succor – as they once were.

What’s more, progressivism’s most recent viral mutation – identity politics – teaches that we are not fully individuals to be judged by the content of our characters rather than the color of our skins, so much as members of immutable tribes expected to hew to perspectives determined by our pigmentation and/or the religions we were born into. Some are to be officially and permanently advantaged over others in a world in which all men no longer are equal before the law. Once inalienable rights are, at best, negotiable.

In the (spectacular) book Coming Apart, Charles Murray, examining the increasing divergence in behaviors and cultural expectations between lower-class whites and upper-middle class ones, points out that the effect of the Great Society programs on poor people has been to make them permanently dependent on government aid, thereby changing their culture.

The changing behaviors of the poor are an all-too rational response to the new incentives and disincentives they face in their daily lives Marriage and work are greatly devalued, thrift much less necessary. Abysmal, union-dominated, inner city public education offers their children no way out. Out-of-wedlock births become the new norm; the hard work that might have provided their forbears with hope of advancement, something to be done off-the-books if at all. A whole segment of society is thus divorced from the world – and values – of our broader society.

And, as discussed at length in my most recent post, even the middle class – the hard-working, family-oriented taxpayers who form society’s bulwark – are increasingly trapped in a world in which having children looks like financial suicide, taxes are sure to rise, and foreign labor and technology threaten previously secure paths. Worse yet, as to promised entitlements…

There’s the eerie awareness that in my experience all of the elites and most of the young now have – but try as best they can to ignore – that the very entitlement programs that so many middle class Americans are counting on are financially unsustainable and sooner or later headed for an ugly reckoning. I have a suspicion, too, that the just-below-the-surface knowledge that Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes for which the bill will come due soon is a significant factor behind the virulence of our present political divides. If you thought abortion was – and is – a divisive issue, just wait until the fallacy of the entitlement “trust funds” explodes.

***

So, yes, I understand my friend’s gloom. Our society, wealthier-than-ever though it may be, looks like it’s coming apart at the seams. For many – though not yet those who are well-off enough so that the distortive incentives of government programs and the breakdowns in our education system have much effect on their day-to-day lives – the culture is changing, has already changed, to the point where it is almost unrecognizable. And we’re headed for trouble with our out-of-control national debt.

As the hopelessness and cultural divergence of our multi-generational underclass, and the frustrations of our over-burdened and frightened middle class become ever more apparent – in part manifesting themselves through “work that Americans won’t do”, drug addictions and fierce, seemingly intractable political divisions, progressives conclude that the solutions to the problems fostered by ill-conceived government programs is … more government programs. The guilty-feeling wealthy, the dependent poor and various groups of self-perceived victims expect to place ever-higher burdens on the taxpayers. This can’t go on, and it won’t.

***

I don’t pretend that there’s an easy solution to our problems. There isn’t. We could no more blow up our current entitlement programs than tell a heroin addict to just stop, and expect a happy result. Our public school system and the colleges that cost so much and deliver so little – but are treated as the sole gateway to most professional work – are problems so gigantic that it will probably take a generation to fix them.

That said, wishing these problems away isn’t the answer, either.

President Trump’s election was an earthquake upsetting the political consensus around the former status quo. Given our cultural and political divides and the inevitable approach of renegotiations of the post Great Society social compact, we can expect more such earthquakes before we find a new, more sustainable path.

One of democracy’s greatest strengths, though, is that it fosters orderly course corrections as voters come to new understandings about what does and doesn’t work. I am ever optimistic that with the best Constitution that man has yet devised, and a consequently empowered populace, we’ll iterate our ways to the a new and better consensus. As Winston Churchill once said:

“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”

M.H. Johnston

2 comments to The Best of Times…

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Thank you again Mark. Spot on.

  • DP  says:

    Spot on, as he says. But please don’t forget every time you discuss this to bring up that real labour wages haven’t risen much in over a generation. This must have a profound effect on people’s optimism and other views. And as I once noted in a comment here, this is a direct consequence of our having won the Cold War and China having developed peacefully in the following decades. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is not a permanent state of affairs.

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