"Slarrow" refers to the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" from Hamlet's soliloquy. Here are the chronicles of such darts and whatever attempt there may be to take arms against such a sea of troubles.

Location: Ozarks, United States

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bandwagon Americans

Jay Nordlinger had an item in his Impromptus the other day that echoed a sentiment I've seen in a few other pieces. He writes:

So, I’m on an airplane, and there’s a New York magazine jammed into the pocket. The cover shows a picture of an infant with his fist up. He is wearing a shirt that says “Obama,” three times. What we read is, “The President for Us: The triumph of the Obama idea, and the peculiar feeling of being part of America again.”

Lots of people are now admitting, or semi-admitting, that they don’t feel part of America unless their preferred candidates win. Fine. But isn’t that sort of — not so admirable?
I wrote Jay with a name for this phenomenon. These people, I suggested, are Bandwagon Americans. If their team isn't winning, they don't show up at the games. Their team colors get hung in the back of the closet. They don't want to go back to visit the old alma mater; in fact, they think about moving away.

But oh, just let the team start winning. Then they're back at the game, loud and proud, wearing more new (and clearly unused) fan gear than anyone around them. (I call that "patriotism bling.") They call all the talk shows, desperate to show off their newfound enthusiasm and small amount of knowledge they've picked up. They shout down anyone who now dares to criticize their team.

They'll keep doing this as long as their team keeps winning. And if it starts losing? Crickets.

Yellow Dog Journalists

Conservatives have long decried the liberal bias of most media members, a bias which they refuse to admit or acknowledge. We've come up with several terms to describe that group of journalists and organizations, mostly notably the "mainstream media" or MSM. Of course, the charge against that is that they aren't actually mainstream; they're liberal. Rush Limbaugh calls them the "drive-by media" which is a fun little slap at them, and I liked Ed Morrisey's coining of the term "tanning bed media" (with an assist from Treacher) after the treatment that Gov. Palin received at their hands. But neither of those terms really gets the partisan aspect of their misbehavior.

I've got another suggestion. Call 'em Yellow Dog Journalists (YDJ, or "yidje", rhymes with "bridge", for short.) The mix of yellow journalism surely fits the "tanning bed media" aspect. As Wikipedia puts it, "Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that downplays legitimate news in favor of eye-catching headlines that sell more newspapers." Except, of course, that their efforts aren't selling more newspapers or drawing more viewer eyeballs. Instead, their efforts are toward electing more Democrats or making them succesful, hence the "yellow dog Democrat" tie-in. (Exhibit A: Chris Matthews.)

It's a fun way to think about these people (and we'd better have some fun over the next several years.) We can even have varying degrees. Chris Matthews, for instance, is a Yidje. Keith Olbermann, then, is a Yidjit. (That's a fun one: combines biased, unprofessional, and dumb in the same term. Just like Olbermann.)

Did President Bush burst the oil bubble?

I saw on the Yahoo headlines that oil is around $50 a barrel now. Nobody's really been pondering why, it seems--they just seem grateful that the price of gas is finally going down.

Couple of things, though: first, the price peaked on July 11, 2008. Since then, it's come down precipitiously. Certainly the weakening demand and worries about the economy have contributed to the downward movement once it got started. But it wasn't the case that everyone wanted oil until July 11 and then stopped wanting it the next day. What triggered the reversal?

Well, maybe it was this: Bush lifts executive ban on oil drilling. There are a couple of choice bits from that piece. First, the price of oil in that article (dateline: Monday, July 14, 2008) is $145. Second, there's a quote in there that states, "Experts say offshore oil drilling would not have an immediate impact on oil prices because oil exploration takes years.

'If we were to drill today, realistically speaking, we should not expect a barrel of oil coming out of this new resource for three years, maybe even five years, so let's not kid ourselves," said Fadel Gheit, oil and gas analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. Equity Capital Markets Division.'"


Once again, it seems this is prognistication by people who think economics is all about numbers. They think you take the equation, change a couple of variables, and do the math to get the new numbers. That's why President-elect Obama thinks that raising taxes on the rich will generate X dollars that he can give away to his voters. But economics is really all about people. Numbers measure their actions, but they aren't a substitute for the actions themselves. This is a basic lesson we have to learn time and time again.

Seems to me that the people who were bidding up the oil price in the expectation that supply would remain low suddenly had a new element to factor in: that the US would produce more oil. Once the pressure reversed, all those indicators that had hitherto been ignored because more relevant, and the price has kept going down, down, down. Makes no sense mathematically, but the math is only useful as a model for psychology, and the psychology makes lots of sense. (Who wants to be the last bull in a bear market?)

It also may have helped lose the election for McCain, though. His selection of Gov. Palin was designed to exploit energy concerns stemming from high gas prices. However, while she was campaigning, the price of oil (and therefore gasoline) kept falling and falling, and the issue fell off the political radar. I wonder if the mortgage bailout would have had the resonance and attention if gas had still been $4 a gallon and climbing. That was the real October Surprise: that banking and not energy would be the hot-button economic issue of the final month of campaigning.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Givers and Takers

Well, I feel like waking this blog back up again. Let’s see how it goes.

Why now? Because my side just got thumped in the last election, and there’s a lot of soul-searching and postmortem analysis going on right now. Some are proposing new plans, saying we didn’t do a good enough job of providing solutions to problems. Others are urging us to focus on policies that will reset our governing philosophy and make it more coherent. Lots of people are urging a return to conservative principles, claiming we need to once again become the party of limited government and fiscal discipline. All of these approaches have merit, but I wonder if they’re still basically intramural discussions, using the same phrases and concepts that are familiar to everyone already in the tent.

So I want to go one more level down and talk about purpose. We conservatives—what are we for?

I’m not talking about a laundry list of being for this issue or that platform. I’m talking about our purpose, what we’re trying to do, why we even get together and share ideas and actions. Here’s my thesis statement:

Society requires a high ratio of Givers to Takers. If too many become Takers, society is in big trouble. Conservatives are focused on the Givers and encouraging as many people to join that side of the equation as possible.

Let me clarify my terms. “Giver” and “Taker”, first of all, are roles, not identities. People can and often do shift between the roles. Children, for instance, are Takers; they have to be because they don’t have much to give. They also aren’t absolutist terms; that is, Givers also take and Takers also give. (For example, a college student going to school on someone else’s dime is a Taker, but volunteering at the afterschool program and working the part-time job are Giving behaviors. It’s where a person is on balance at any given time.) These terms also are not purely economic. To my mind, coaching Little League is a Giving activity; trying to avoid legitimate punishment from the teacher for your lazy, lying kid is a Taking activity. Finally, this isn’t as simple as “good guys/bad guys”. Takers aren’t automatically the enemies of society, nor are Givers naturally the heroes. It’s not a crime to be a Taker; the shame is staying that way, and the real deadly part is wanting to stay that way. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So what do Givers actually do? Essentially, they build society. They do so by working, raising children, teaching Sunday school, leading a Boy Scout troop, serving on city councils, writing letters to the editor, paying their taxes on time, joining their local clubs, running companies, and volunteering their time and money to organizations and causes they support. When you tote up the balance sheet of their lives, there’s more income than expense, and the profit goes back into the business, as it were, and society benefits.

How about Takers? Essentially, they consume the profit from the Givers. They receive free and reduced lunches, bailout money, Social Security or pension money being paid from the weekly paychecks of Givers, food stamps, and WIC. They apply for “public” grants for “investments” in pursuits that people wouldn’t voluntarily support if it were their own money, from multicultural studies to ethanol to green energy research. They’re the kids from broken homes who act out in class for some attention, the elderly on fixed incomes taken from the public spigot, the single mom struggling to keep her head above water. Again, they aren’t villains, and they aren’t automatically blameworthy. They’re just Takers, and they couldn’t make it without the surplus generated by the Givers.

And here’s the beautiful thing about America: the Givers love to give to the Takers! That’s why there are so many churches and charities, why charitable giving in the US is so high, why news of a tragedy generates countless repetitions of the phrase, “How can I help?”

But I submit that the Givers want to accomplish two goals when they give. First, they want to help the Takers through the immediate crisis. More importantly, though, they want the Takers not to need help in the future. That’s not because they’re stingy. It’s because they know how much better it is to be a Giver. That’s their purpose: to change Takers into Givers. If they’re not getting that done, they consider the enterprise a failure. Helping a Katrina victim get settled in an emergency trailer in 2005 is worth it. Helping that same victim live in that same trailer in 2008 is unacceptable.

Givers also hold a special contempt toward those Takers who have no desire whatsoever to become Givers. Those Takers mock the actions of the Givers who give in order to transform other people. Those Takers keep other people from leaving their ranks. They defy shame, they evade blame, they play others for suckers, they prey on both Takers and Givers. These Takers really are the enemies of society.

All of this should be very familiar to politically aware conservatives. I’m certainly not the first or best to express this kind of sentiment. Indeed, this is so familiar we’ve come up with sophisticated theories and phrases about this state of affairs. We talk about a tragedy of the commons or the free rider problem or TANSTAAFL, Burke’s “little platoons”, etc. This is the background about why we prefer limited government and local control and fiscal responsibility. We politically aware conservatives are very comfortable with our ideas and language.

But most conservatives aren’t politically aware. They’re too busy building society to learn the jargon. More importantly, while they’re daily choosing to be Givers, the temptation to be a Taker is ever growing. Why not spend all you want and then just get a bailout when you get in trouble? Why not withdraw from society by going John Galt? Just this week there was a Pearls Before Swine cartoon that demonstrated the problem:

As a joke, that’s pretty funny. As an actual decision, that’s very scary.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that the Givers/Takers ratio is going the wrong way. The problem is that the standard explanations that we use to point this out have lost some of their efficacy. The problem is that we’ve lost the social stigma of remaining a Taker. Finally, the problem is that we’re too often trying to figure out how to win elections instead of keep society upright.

The episode with Joe the Plumber was highly illuminative of the possibilities and the obstacles we have before us. In response to Joe’s question about punishing success, Candidate Obama mentioned how he wanted to “spread the wealth” to give the people behind Joe a “fair” shot at success. We conservatives jumped on that, instantly declaiming it as “socialism” and warning of its consequences. But while it certainly got us fired up, it didn’t turn the tide, and Candidate Obama is now President-elect Obama.

Why not? I submit that part of the problem is that the term “socialism” just didn’t have the impact it once did. There’s an entire generation of post-Cold War voters coming online to whom “socialism” has no resonance in living memory. Even for those who do remember, the memories are twenty years old and more of facing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In addition, given the recent behavior of Republicans, people had to be reminded why socialism was supposed to be so bad. The heat of a campaign was an especially bad time to try. It’s hard enough to change the terms of the debate at that time, let alone define them.

But the election's over now, and we've got to figure out how to explain ourselves to people again. Over lunch, I heard a caller into Rush Limbaugh's show (with a guest host today) ask why he should be a conservative. He got an earful of boilerplate about freedom and limited government and entitlements. But judging from his reaction, I don't know that he got his question answered. I wonder how effective it would have been to ask him if he tried to pull his own weight and help his neighbor out. Then ask him if he knew anyone who was stuck because she thought she needed assistance from someone else before she could act. Finally, tell him that conservatives not only want more people like him and less like her, they want to help her become MORE like him.

If he thinks that's a good idea, then come on in, and we'll teach him the rest of it. But we can't use the jargon as an entrance exam if we want to grow, nor should we do so because conservatism isn't a club, it's a collection. It's kind of like some people who think they have to use theology to witness when all they need is a story.

The other side knows how to tell their story, too. They talk a lot about fairness and justice and the little guy. But their story is entirely in the context of Takers. Universal health care is about turning the uninsured into Takers. Social Security turns someone who may have been a Giver all her life into a Taker. Most importantly, the method does nothing to teach Takers to become Givers.

When Givers help Takers in real life, it's quite direct. Givers show their faces to the Takers, telling them, "Be like us and give." When the government "helps" Takers, politicians show their faces to the Takers, telling them, "We did this for you." (Just think what part is pointed at the Givers in this transaction.) The real Givers are faceless, and this smiling politician is happy to just keep giving you "gifts" as long as you stay just the way you are. (The technical term for this, I believe, is "sugar daddy.")

The built-in advantage, though, is that most people don't want to be Takers, and they really don't want to think of themselves as Takers. The challenge is to quietly, consistently, and gently point out to them that the other side is determined to make them Takers or keep them Takers. I think it's thus counterproductive to ask, "Why should I pay for your XYZ?" That pits Givers versus Takers when that isn't the real conflict. The conflict is between those who would make more Givers and those who would make more Takers. So the question really is, "Why is this politician taking from me to pay for your XYZ? What's in it for him?"

So, in 2009, we've got to be the loyal opposition to a glamorous President while rebuilding our fortunes. How do we do it? What’s our core purpose? Here is my submission:

President Obama and congressional Democrats want to take from the Givers and give to the Takers. This will create more Takers and fewer Givers, and that is dangerous for our society. On the other hand, conservatives want to create more Givers and fewer Takers in order to sustain society, using government only when necessary.

I think that many of our principles, policies, and plans can be discussed in this context. In the coming weeks, I’d like to examine several topics in this light: education, defense, Social Security, abortion, marriage, taxes, and spending. I’ll also conduct some cleanup work on questions like: can liberals be Givers? (Quick answer: of course they can, personally; it’s their ideas which are not Giver-oriented. They’re Taker-oriented.) How ought we to treat Takers? Where do libertarians fit in? (Whether anyone will read these is another question, of course.)

But the bottom line is that we don’t encourage Givers over Takers in order to win political power. As we must, we win political power to help that encouragement as means, not end. More significantly, we do this outside the context of politics: in churches, community organizations, and families. We do it there because that’s where the need is. The Giver/Taker ratio is not a political problem; it is a civilizational problem. Losing the ratio doesn’t mean we don’t get to play with the major league levers of power; it means that we suffer the fate of earlier empires who also thought, “nothing like us ever was.”

(Hat tip: the notion that Democrats have a vested interest in more Takers—or, as he put it, “keeping the poor poor”—comes from Zo of machosauceproductions. He’s just awesome.)