Limits on federal spending

Michael J. New offers common sense on federal spending:

The recent budget deal that was agreed to by President Trump and Congressional leaders has fiscal conservatives livid. This deal raises discretionary spending caps by over $300 billion over two years and effectively repeals the budget caps that were established as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011. The frustration of budget hawks is certainly understandable. While the rest of the budget has grown in recent years, non-defense discretionary spending has actually fallen in constant dollars since 2011. However, seasoned observers of fiscal policy knew it was unlikely to last. After all, there is plenty of evidence that legislatures, including Congress, have been unable to place effective long term limits on the growth of spending.

Indeed, after triple digit budget deficits became commonplace in the 1980s, Congress adopted the Gramm Rudman Hollings Act in 1985. This piece of legislation established declining deficit targets every year and triggered automatic spending cuts if those targets were not met. Half the cuts were to come from defense spending, and half the cuts were to come from domestic programs. While Gramm Rudman Hollings did result in some short term spending cuts, its main outcome was creative accounting. Congress often pushed spending into future fiscal years to create phantom spending cuts to stay within the deficit targets. When the economy slowed down, the deficit targets became too difficult to reach, and the legislation was scrapped in 1990. …

Fiscal conservatives should revisit pursuing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of the results of elections, Congress has shown no ability to place effective long term limits on spending. A balanced budget amendment or another constitutional fiscal limit might be the only effective long-term strategy to limit the growth of government. America’s long term fiscal outlook looks especially bleak due to rapidly growing entitlement programs. Indeed, a balanced budget amendment might as well be the only strategy to get Congress to seriously discuss reforming rapidly expanding programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and shore up America’s fiscal future.

We are acting as if there will be no consequence for our bipartisan monetary policies. Kicking the can down the road…

Civil public discourse

I’m flying back from San Francisco, on a nonstop flight to Washington Reagan. Thanks to United’s WiFi I’m working throughout the flight. And I’m also reading Emmett McGroarty, who asks whether civil public discourse is presently possible:

Over the last 20 years, public discourse has tended toward the shrill and irrational, punctuated with occasional violence. No sharing of opinions. Don’t ask questions.  No discussion of points of view. Empathy is dead. Socialization—an essential human activity—is regulated by the mob, and its walls are shrinking.

Does the form or practice of our government have anything to do with this dystopia?

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made a few observations worth mulling.

The structure of our government, he noted, preserved the power of the townships, most notably in New England but everywhere resting on the “same idea.” It preserved the natural order. Man, Tocqueville declared, “makes kingdoms and creates republics; the township appears to issue directly from the hands of God.”

“It is in the township, at the center of ordinary relations in life, that desires for esteem, the need of real interests, the taste for power and for attention, come to be concentrated; these passions, which so often trouble society, change character when they can be expressed so near the domestic hearth and in a way in the bosom of the family.” It is through local governance that the individual “gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.”

“Local freedoms, which make many citizens put value on the affection of their neighbors and those close to them, therefore constantly bring men closer to one another, despite the instincts that separate them, and force them to aid each other.”

As the Catechism observes, participation in civic life “develops the qualities of the person . . . and helps guarantee his rights” (par. 1882).  This subsidiarity—embracing socialization—leads to solidarity.

Given a century of increased centralization—taking more and more power away from local communities, should discord and rancor in the public square and on college campuses be such a surprise?

Critiquing libertarianism

J.D. Vance critiques libertarianism’s obsession with free choice, divorced from outcomes:

I grew up in a pretty rough environment, and what the American dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn’t the American dream of the striver. It wasn’t the American dream, frankly, that I think animates much of this town. I didn’t care if I went to an Ivy League law school, I didn’t care if I wrote a best-selling book, I didn’t care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things that I hadn’t had as a kid: That was the sense in which the American dream mattered most to me.

That American dream is undoubtedly in decline. I want to talk a little bit about why I think that’s happening and what a conservative politics has to do in response, but I think a first step is to distinguish between a conservative politics and a libertarian politics. I don’t mean to criticize libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I’ve ever read about conservative thought. But in an important way I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.

Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don’t consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize: What I’m going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. For example, in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple and Facebook—where they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains—than neuroscientists who are trying to cure Alzheimer’s.

I know a lot of libertarians will say, “that is the consequence of free choices,” or “that is the consequence of people buying and selling labor on an open market and so long as there isn’t any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn’t be so concerned about it.” But what I’m arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.

Americans who share faith

Matthew Schmitz writes on the recent National Conservatism conference and immigration:

Culture is centered around cult. To the extent that it binds us together, it is a form of religio. America was at the time of its founding an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It would seem, then, that a Chinese Christian dissident, or a Nigerian fleeing Boko Haram, has much less cultural distance from America and its founding than do most present-day Canadians or Swedes.

… It is doubtful that its affirmation of equal dignity can be sustained without belief in the God who made man in his image.

If this Christian vision is simply reactionary, it will fail. If it manages to be aspirational and forward-looking, it has a chance to succeed. In the 1960s, America belatedly chose its Christian identity – what Martin Luther King called “the sacred heritage of our nation” – over white supremacy. In the same period, America’s self-consciously Protestant and unashamedly anti-Catholic identity collapsed with the election of JFK. A truly Christian vision of America would build on these achievements, rather than seeking to revive a white Protestant past.

Such a vision leads to radically different conclusions on immigration than those reached by [Amy] Wax. Catholic migrants from Central America now have more in common with our Puritan forebears than do most Europeans. Their Church still proclaims the bodily resurrection of Christ, still believes in original sin and predestination, still opposes the evil of contraception. These are things the Puritans professed but many Protestant bodies, and many residents of formerly Protestant states – including Wax’s favoured “First World” countries – no longer believe. Central Americans should be favoured over Europeans under any immigration policy based on cultural distance.

That said, discussing immigration risks distracting us from our country’s most important divide. The greatest cultural distance is not between natives and migrants but between a religious, patriotic, multi-racial working class and a secular, progressive, and largely white elite. Our country’s opinion-makers hate faith, revile patriotism and contemn family. People loyal to what is most noble in the American heritage have less in common with them than with almost any migrant.

Knowledge and political taboos

Carla Marinucci writes on what I consider to be surprising debate in California over a decision to spend an enormous amount of money on literal whitewashing:

A San Francisco school board decision to spend $600,000 to paint over a New Deal-era mural of George Washington as a slave owner is fueling a family feud among Democrats…

“I think of myself as liberal, progressive, and have been all my life — but I’m just sort of stunned by this,’’ veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Sunday. “We have a little more important things to do — like defeating Donald Trump — than to whitewash a mural.” …

The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously last month to paint over all 13 panels of the 1600 sq. ft. mural “Life of Washington,’’ a historic work commissioned during the New Deal that depicts George Washington as a slave owner. The move came after several vocal protesters demanded the move at a public meeting, saying their children were “traumatized” by depictions of the nation’s first president standing over the images of dead Native Americans. …

Democratic strategist Mike Semler — who has advised Senator Dianne Feinstein and who has taught public policy at Cal State University Sacramento — this weekend sent out an emergency email alert seeking support for an effort to back a ballot measure to save the mural. He said the effort, dubbed the Coalition to Protect Public Art, aims to solicit funds to initiate a ballot measure designed to protect this art, “and perhaps other New Deal art in San Francisco’’ which may also be targeted. …

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, likened the school board supporters’ and tactics to the worst of Trump‘s backers. He noted the vocal group seeking to destroy the painting did so by bullying the recent school board meeting with a claim to be “traumatized by the mural.”

“They’re clearly traumatized by something,’’ he wrote. “They’d be horrified by the comparison, but they’re really no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.”

Brown said that his own daughter, Sydney, a Washington High graduate “was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting — as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred. It was a learning experience for her, and for me.” …

“Was Washington a slave owner? Yes. Did he command troops that killed Native Americans? Yes,’’ says Shrum. “But George Washington — it seems stupid to have to say it — performed an incredible service for this country. We wouldn’t be here without him.’’

This brings me back to Michael Brenden Dougherty’s prediction that, even before the last of the Confederate monuments are removed, the next step in the logic of civic whitewashing will be the removal of the founders. An unacknowledged aspect of this attempt to reshape the public landscape is that it works against a “knowledge of self” for future Americans, who will simply be ignorant of certain key aspects (both good and bad) of our country’s past.

Political taboos, to the extent that they set parts of American history as “off limits,” have the effect not simply of destroying awareness of those off-limits aspect, but also of destroying knowledge broadly, in the sense that fluency with one’s past is impossible if there are gaps in one’s memory.

Aloneness and loneliness

Kay S. Hymowitz writes on the decline of family and its role in American loneliness:

Americans are suffering from a bad case of loneliness. The number of people in the United States living alone has gone through the studio-apartment roof. A study released by the insurance company Cigna last spring made headlines with its announcement: “Only around half of Americans say they have meaningful, daily face-to-face social interactions.” Loneliness, public-health experts tell us, is killing as many people as obesity and smoking. It’s not much comfort that Americans are not, well, alone in this. Germans are lonely, the bon vivant French are lonely, and even the Scandinavians—the happiest people in the world, according to the UN’s World Happiness Report—are lonely, too. British prime minister Theresa May recently appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.” …

Still, the loneliness thesis taps into a widespread intuition of something true and real and grave. Foundering social trust, collapsing heartland communities, an opioid epidemic, and rising numbers of “deaths of despair” suggest a profound, collective discontent. It’s worth mapping out one major cause that is simultaneously so obvious and so uncomfortable that loneliness observers tend to mention it only in passing. I’m talking, of course, about family breakdown. At this point, the consequences of family volatility are an evergreen topic when it comes to children; this remains the subject of countless papers and conferences. …

The [20th century social/demographic] transition helped shape a social ecology that would worsen some of our most vexing social problems, including growing inequality. Throughout the Western world, wealthier, more educated parents tend more often to be married before they have children, and to stay married, than do their less advantaged fellow citizens. Their children benefit not just from their parents’ financial advantages, with all the computer camps and dance lessons that a flush checking account can buy, but from the familiar routines and predictable households that seem to help the young figure out the complex world they’ll be entering. The children of lower-income, less educated parents, by contrast, are more likely to see their married parents divorce or their cohabiting parents separate, and then to have to readjust to the strangers—stepparents, boyfriends or girlfriends, step- or half-siblings—who come into their lives. Some children will be introduced to a succession of newcomers as their parents divorce or separate a second or even third time.

Why, after the transition, did the rich continue to have reasonably stable and predictable domestic lives while the working class and poor stumbled onto what family scholar Andrew Cherlin calls the “marriage-go-round”? Observers typically point to deindustrialization and the loss of stable, decent-paying low-skilled jobs for men. True enough. A jobless man, especially one without a high school diploma, is no one’s idea of a good catch. But there’s more to the marriage gap than that. While the loosening of traditional rules gave women freedom to leave violent or cruel husbands, it also changed the cultural environment for couples trying to weather less dangerous stresses and disappointments, including a pink slip. Lower-income men and women are bound to have more financial anxieties, more work accidents, and more broken-down cars and evictions, and they lack the funds for Disneyland vacations, massages, and psychotherapists that might take some of the edge off a struggling marriage. And they see few, if any, long-term married couples who could offer a successful model. With single parenthood and cohabitation both on the lifestyle menu, what they see instead is an easy out.

When so many marriages melt into thin air, lower-income kin networks, a source of job connections, child care, and family meals, attenuate as well. Your mother’s sister’s husband—your uncle by marriage—might give you a tip about a job opening at a local machine shop; an uncle separated from your aunt and living with a girlfriend with her own kids in the next town over, maybe not. Communities flush with fatherless households tend to be troubled. In his landmark study of county-level social mobility, economist Raj Chetty discovered that places thick with married-couple families created more opportunity for kids, regardless of whether they were living in a married or single-parent household; places with large numbers of single-parent homes, on the other hand, pulled kids down—including those living with married parents. It’s hard to imagine more concrete evidence of the truth of the old cliché that family is the building block of society.

A politics more oriented toward the common good

W. James Antle writes on Rep. Justin Amash’s leaving the Republicans:

What came after in the form of the Tea Party brought together fiscal and social conservatives in defense of the Constitution… At its peak, this new movement helped elect two important skeptics of military interventionism, Rand Paul and Justin Amash. With fellow traveler Mike Lee and such later additions as Thomas Massie, they outnumbered more hawkish newcomers like Marco Rubio, even if they remained a minority among congressional Republicans overall.

It looked like a free market populism could take hold of the GOP. Instead populism without the modifier took over via Donald Trump and Amash is now out of the party, declaring his own independence on the Fourth of July. While Amash’s frustration with partisan politics had been growing for years, it was his break with Trump that made this move seem inevitable.

To some extent, we’re witnessing a fight between those who want conservative leaders to be good and those who want conservatism itself to be less individualistic and more oriented toward the common good. …

The federal government keeps getting bigger no matter which party holds the pursestrings. There’s a case to be made that fusionism as practiced by the GOP and mainstream conservative movement shortchanged both libertarians and social conservatives.

But tax cuts and deregulation happen more frequently than any real progress on social issues, even though evangelicals and conservative Catholics supply most of the votes for Republican candidates. The most electorally viable economic conservatism is really a form of social conservatism, a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic. Yet even making tax cuts more family-friendly, whether through child tax credits or incentives for parental leave, inspires considerable pushback.

Moreover, atomistic individualism, if not real libertarianism, has played a role in social conservative setbacks on abortion and marriage, among other issues, without producing similar gains for religious liberty. This has led many traditionalists to question at a more fundamental level the concepts of personal autonomy at least partially fueling trends they dislike.

All this has occurred amid shrinking libertarian influence over Republican voters in general. A The Hill/Harris poll conducted in June found Republicans resistant to cutting federal spending in all 19 categories tested. This includes not just traditional GOP priorities like law enforcement or defense, but also education, infrastructure, health care, and unemployment insurance.

Many libertarians have doubled down in the face of this resistance. It would be better to abolish the welfare state than to regulate immigration, they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.

This phrase could describe an incredible number of advocacy groups and lobbyists in Washington: “…they say, without identifying a political constituency for such plans.

American independence’s roots

Happy Independence Day! I was in Washington last July 4th, when I shared the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore. This year we’re at the National Mall for President Trump’s “Salute to America” address.

I’ll share Charles G. Mills’s reflection on the Declaration of Independence:

The main draftsman of the document was Thomas Jefferson, probably a Deist, but it blended the thinking of Deists, Puritans, Anglicans, and a Catholic, all of whom shared a belief in natural law and of traditional English liberty.

This day, however, did not come in a vacuum or suddenly.

Englishmen, after a few unsuccessful attempts, founded a permanent colony in Virginia in 1607, and in Massachusetts in 1620. For about a hundred years the inhabitants of the English colonies thought of themselves as Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, and Irish. In the early 1700s, they all began to think of themselves also as Britons. Indeed Georgia, the last of the colonies, was created as a British, not an English colony.

Americans began to think of themselves as American, not British. In 1753, the French in Canada invaded what is now Ohio. This led to the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. This left the Americans with a bad taste in their mouths from the British Army. Americans played a major role in our victory. George Washington won one of the major battles. The colonies sent large militias to war. Massachusetts alone sent eight regiments and two generals. The British Army, however, did not recognize the ranks of American generals, colonels and majors, treating them as mere captains. The conduct of the British soldiers was a scandal to the pious American militiamen.

The British government wanted to keep its troops in America after the war but wanted the colonies to pay for them. In 1765 it passed the Stamp Act, which repudiated the long-established practice of having American taxes determined by colonial legislative bodies and replaced it by taxation by the British Parliament. The Stamp Act was so unenforceable in enough of America that it was repealed and replaced by laws giving a monopoly of the tea trade in America to the East India Company and taxing the importation of tea into America.

This led to a number of hostile acts on both sides. Some Bostonians threw a shipload of tea into the harbor and burned a ship. The British cancelled the Charter of Massachusetts, blockaded Massachusetts, and fired on and killed several people on the streets of Boston. The Americans convened a Continental Congress to provide some America-wide policy. At that time, it decided not to declare independence or to elect an American Parliament.

Open war broke out in 1775. By the summer of 1776 it was clear that America and Great Britain should go their separate ways. A Continental Congress was reconvened. Most of it favored independence, but America’s leaders wanted unanimity. With some difficulty it was achieved. There were a number of Americans who would remain loyal to Britain for the rest of their lives. Some went to Canada, some found a way to get along with an independent America.

There was probably a pro-British majority in Georgia, but Georgia decided to send the only Georgian who was familiar with the question of independence to the Continental Congress, thereby achieving unanimity of the states. In the end three Georgians signed the Declaration.

On July 4, the Declaration of Independence, mostly the draftsmanship of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was signed. Virginia, New York, and New England provided most of the main spokesmen for independence. Charles Carroll of Maryland, the most prominent Catholic layman in America, signed, probably one of the reasons that religious liberty would grow so quickly after independence.

The war would continue until 1783, when Great Britain finally decided that the cost of continuing it was too great. It would take more than another five years for us to get a Constitution and Bill of Rights. It would take another war (1812-1815) with Britain before Great Britain decided to leave us alone.

The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea, but it was also a carefully written justification of American independence under both natural law and English Common Law. It is over 250 years old, but it has aged well and deserves careful study by not only students but all Americans.

 

‘It’s probably not replicable’

I remember heading to the polls in Philadelphia on Election Day in November 2016 and being surprised by the fact that there was simply no line at the Center City polling station. I had been there in 2012 when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney, and there was a line out of the door. If there wasn’t high turnout for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, I thought, she might not have a certain victory in Pennsylvania.

What I witnessed that Election Day was a case of a depressed and unmotivated Democratic voter base handing the vote to its opponent in a critical state. And that happened in every state it needed to happen in for Donald Trump to win the presidency. And so it’s always been doubtful that he could be keep office, in the fact of a highly energized opposition:

A university election model that predicted the blue wave in the House in 2018 almost to the seat is predicting a big loss by President Trump next year due to an explosion of bitter partisanship and Trump hate.

An election forecast model designed by Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, predicted that Trump will lose the Electoral College 297-197, with 270 of 538 needed to win.

Three key states that helped push Trump over Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, despite her winning the popular vote, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, will turn back to the Democrats, she said.

“Trump’s 2016 path to the White House was the political equivalent of getting dealt a Royal Flush in poker,” said Bitecofer. “It’s probably not replicable in 2020 with an agitated Democratic electorate.”

That partisanship, added to the spark in anti-Trump protests by liberals and even left-leaning independents, is likely to overwhelm the increase in GOP voters, she said.

“The country’s hyperpartisan and polarized environment has largely set the conditions of the 2020 election in stone,” Bitecofer said in a release. “The complacent electorate of 2016, who were convinced Trump would never be president, has been replaced with the terrified electorate of 2020. Under my model, that distinction is not only important, it is everything,” she added.

Her model in 2018 predicted a 42 seat House Democratic pickup, and the Democrats won 40. Most models did not predict such a big victory.

Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing, what remains true is that your own life, your own family, and your own community all matter a thousand times more. It’s worth staying focused on what matters most over the 18 months to come, and as much as possible mentally bracketing the noise of the campaigns.

American Pelagianism

Sen. Josh Hawley writes that American culture has become dominated by a false philosophy of liberty:

For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom. It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.

It is a philosophy that has defined our age, though it is far from new. In fact, its most influential proponent lived 1,700 years ago: a British monk who eventually settled in Rome named Pelagius. So thoroughly have his teachings informed our recent past and precipitated our present crisis that we might refer to this era as the Age of Pelagius.

But here is the irony. Though the Pelagian vision celebrates the individual, it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible. …

Pelagius was born sometime between A.D. 350 and 360 in Britain, possibly Wales. Highly educated, unusually gifted, a scholar of both Latin and Greek, he made his way to Italy and then to Rome. There he became famous for his teaching on Paul’s letters.

Pelagius held that the individual possessed a powerful capacity for achievement. In fact, Pelagius believed individuals could achieve their own salvation. It was just a matter of them living up to the perfection of which they were inherently capable. As Pelagius himself put it, “Since perfection is possible for man, it is obligatory.” The key was will and effort. If individuals worked hard enough and deployed their talents wisely enough, they could indeed be perfect.

This idea famously drew the ire of Augustine of Hippo, better known as Saint Augustine, who responded that we humans are not achievement machines. We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.

But Pelagius was not satisfied. He took his stand on an idea of human freedom. He responded that God gave individuals free choice. And he insisted that this free choice was more powerful than any limitation Augustine identified.

Augustine said that human nature was a permanent thing, but Pelagius didn’t think so. Pelagius said that individuals could use their free choice to adopt their own purposes, to fix their own destinies—to create themselves, if you like.

That’s why a disciple of Pelagius named Julian of Eclanum said freedom of choice is that by which man is “emancipated from God.”

Now as you might expect with followers who say things like that, Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

But his philosophy lived on in late-20th-century America. And if you listen closely today, you can hear it almost everywhere—in our fiction and our film, in our school curricula and self-help books. …

Perhaps the most eloquent contemporary statement of Pelagian freedom appears in an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, in a passage written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy. In 1992, in a case called Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he wrote this: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

It’s the Pelagian vision. Liberty is the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self. Indeed, this notion of freedom says you can emancipate yourself not just from God but from society, family, and tradition.

The Pelagian view says the individual is most free when he is most alone…

Hawley concludes by connecting the problem of American Pelagianism with the opportunity to recover not only an American sense of grace, but also one of solidarity, too.