Saturday, June 21, 2008

Going Dim

Not dark - dim (no jibes, please). With classes, grading and graduation behind me, I begin a year's sabbatical. I will try to complete a few writing projects, including a book that will attempt to put into some order and sense many of the thoughts and ideas I've explored and argued on this "blawg." While I've tried to regulate my time on this site, it has proven to be time-consuming and I am seeking to minimize all distractions during the coming year. So, I'll limit myself to the occasional post, in most instances a piece of writing I'll have written for some other occasion.

I am honored to have been visited by so many readers over the course of the past year and a half. Last month was, at least in my modest part of the "blawgosphere," an extraordinary one, for the first time drawing over 10,000 monthly readers (nothing like a spat with NRO to drive up those numbers) after a year and a half of steady ascent. I am honored alike by those who have come out of sympathy as those who come in disagreement.

I have written here often pessimistically because of fears and concerns I have over our present course. Some have accused me of wishing for those worst-case scenarios to come to pass, and have perceived in my posts in recent weeks a sense of celebration amid our current woes. This could not be further from the truth. I wish blessings and happiness for my fellow citizens, and hope we can thrive as a nation of communities in which we look more to each other than to any central power - public or private - for the goods of human life. I hope for the restoration of our neighborhoods and the reasonable expectation that our children will reap the rewards of good and hard work that will allow them to sustain their families and communities. I hope to see this great nation restored to better ways, ones that we have had - if sporadically and imperfectly - in our history, and which lie at the heart of at least part of our tradition. I will be writing more about that America and that tradition during the coming year, and hope to publish a book that may eventually be titled something like "A Better America." We'll see. In the meantime, I hope all will enjoy a wondrous and renewing summer. Check back occasionally, but not too often. All best wishes.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A New Frugality?

In yesterday's column, David Brooks calls attention to a new report calling for a national renewal of frugality and increased awareness of the scourge of debt among the citizenry. Entitled “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” released by the Institute for American Values, the report highlights the high levels of current American indebtedness. As Brooks rightly points out,

"Over the past 30 years, much of [our historic thriftiness] has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money."

I agree entirely with what I read here about the report, and with Brooks's overarching message that Americans need (and, by dint of current events, are increasingly forced) to adopt habits of thrift that have been undermined by a concerted effort to increase profligacy over the past 30 years.

However, there is something amiss in his analysis: namely, in the first place, a gauzy sentimentality about the historic thriftiness of Americans that has purportedly only been undermined over the past 30 years; and secondly, a complete absence of any context to explain those what has occurred over those past 30 years or so.

Brooks cites the builders of our nation as frugal people who encouraged thriftiness among the citizenry and their flocks: "The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence. Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality. Millions of parents, preachers, newspaper editors and teachers expounded the message. The result was quite remarkable." It's curious, to say the least, that Brooks cites as our Founders the Puritans and Ben Franklin, without mentioning the founders usually invoked - the Founding Fathers. I assume this is not by accident, given that a number of our Founding Fathers advanced an idea of government and commerce based centrally on the ability of the nation and individuals to accumulate debt. For Alexander Hamilton - the ascendant Founder particularly amongst current "conservatives" - debt and concomitant putting one's bills off to the future was a central part of the American way. Many of the great early battles of the Republic were fought over the banking system, with political figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson and later to William Jennings Bryan fighting against an array of dominant powers that sought to extend the credit regime into every corner of the nation. Painted with a broad brush stroke, it has historically been the "commoners" who have exemplified the basic virtues of frugality and living within means, while it has been our "financiers," "industrialists" and "East Coast" interests who have encouraged a national and increasingly international economy in which frugality would be anathema.

What happened over the past 30 years is not a wholesale transformation of our economic system - indeed, it could be said that we are reaping the fruits of its long-term logic - but rather, the triumph of the elites in persuading the commoners to throw off their longstanding steady habits. The introduction of credit cards and vast arrays of easy loans - including the first real use of home equity loans, and the behavior of using one's home as a piggy bank - saw its beginnings during this period.

But, let's think a bit deeper about what was happening 30 years ago. Brooks fails to mention that three decades ago happens to coincide with the beginning of the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, one of Brooks's great heroes. At the time of Reagan's death, Brooks rhapsodized over Reagan's transformation of American conservatism represented by figures such as Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver who stressed "order," "stability," and a host of values in the face of the vulgarity and barrenness of much of modern culture. Brooks implicitly celebrates Reagan's rejection of that conservatism, instead praising Reagan's optimism - even celebrating that conservatives have assumed the banner of "Progress" that was once the watchword of Left progressives like Woodrow Wilson. He lauds Reagan's economic views that went on to inspire free-market dogmatists like Julian Simon "who rhapsodized about entrepreneurialism and wealth creation." And, who additionally told us we will never run out of anything. (Would that Ehrlich have asked for a slightly longer time frame - he would have cleaned Simon's clock looking at the prices of commodities today.)

What should strike one about Brook's paean to Reagan and Reaganism is the praise of the willingness to live as if there were no consequences tomorrow for the actions of what one does today. And this is exactly the mindset that needed to be inculcated among the commoners beginning in the 1980s in order to keep the sputtering American economic machine going. In the 1970s the United States did in fact begin to confront material limits to its growth, in particular the inability any longer to be the swing producer in crude oil, the life-blood of the modern industrial economy. Only as a consequence of its willingness to encourage widespread indebtedness - including national debt, that greatest legacy of Reaganism, one that his disciple Bush II has learned well - was America able to keep its economic machine humming. All the while, we were, in fact, becoming poorer:

Brooks is absolutely right that traditional habits of thrift should be inculcated. However, he - and many other so-called conservatives - should be cognizant and more than slightly ashamed at his complicity in the three-decade old destruction of those values of thrift that were a central part of modern "conservatism." (Not that we should think for a moment that our "liberals" haven't been as complicit - their valorization of "lifestyle" freedom has contributed just as mightily as our "conservatives" to our contemporary hedonism and neglect of the consequences our actions upon future generations. I'm tougher on conservatives because you'd think they'd know better, since their political label consists of the word "conserve"). We are now in the midst of a great redefinition of what it means to conserve, and the people who seem still not to have gotten the message are most of our "conservatives" who are defending nothing other than the legacy of Woodrow Wilson (including a good deal of his international dream of world democracy) - the utopian vision of Progress that requires no costs and has no consequences.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fear of Not Flying

I've just finished listening to an NPR program, "On Point," the subject of which was the prospect of "the end of cheap airfare," or - to be more blunt - the end of air travel for most of us. Its host was incredulous that they could even be considering the possibility that Americans may have to start thinking about distances in making choices about where they live. He couldn't repeat enough that oil prices were forcing a reconsideration about everything we assume about life as we know it in America. The realization is dawning that we've based a civilization on a fleeting and temporary substance. It is yet to occur to many that what an oil civilization allowed us was the luxury of thoughtlessness. A national seminar is underway, but at the moment many of us are just starting to study, though the lesson started some time ago. And there is no curve.

End of Suburbia

It's the name of a bracing and prescient documentary made in 2004. Get a copy and watch it.

It's also happening, as this Bloomberg article details. It was all foreseeable, but still we built it, and continued to build it even as the warning signs gathered. David Brooks wrote a book in praise of "exurbia," a book that rightly - if he had any foresight - should have been an obituary, not a paean (Its opening line - "let's take a drive" - seems now to be a threat to our livelihood rather than an invitation). As a nation we engaged in a profligate waste of finite resources even as we paved over good, arable land - farmland we should have known we would need, if we had any sense. Yes, restricting the building of the exurbs would have constituted constraints on our liberty. And what do we call it now? We call it "the market," but only dogma could have blinded us to our inability to see that our liberty is always subject to the constraints of nature. We were willfully blind to limits, but they are being imposed nonetheless.

The consequence, according to one analyst: "we are going to see a large amount of wealth destroyed." True enough: but only if you can believe our profligacy actually constituted "wealth," and not waste, in the first place. After a period of painful adjustment - some of it severe - we may actually build communities where actual wealth - built upon human relationships and a revival of culture - will flourish. If we are lucky and don't screw it up.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Read My Lips

Charles Krauthammer writes his annual column urging Congress to put a permanent floor beneath the price of oil - wisely counseling us to "pay ourselves first." He's rightly skeptical that it will come to pass. It looks like Plato was right: democracy is likely to devolve into the form of government in which people are inclined not to govern themselves and its "rulers" fight for the opportunity to reinforce that tendency. Will Obama be willing to harness or even compromise his popularity to propose remedies that will be tough for the American citizenry to accept? The evidence seems not to inspire confidence. It's hardly worth asking the same of McCain - a personally decent man, but a creature of the Republican party line of national self-indulgence.

In the meantime Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman dispels notions that rising oil prices are due to market manipulation. He notes that production has been flat since 2005 - "stalled" at 85 m/b per day. I seem to recall Princeton geology professor emeritus Kenneth Deffeyes announcing that he believed worldwide peak oil had occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 2005. He may have been off by a day or two...