A father and small child were found floating face down in the Rio Grande last week. It was a failed attempt to cross into the United States without going through the legal immigration process. Many political types have been using the tragic deaths of poor people only looking for a better life to incite others in rage against the current presidential administration and the United States in general. Of course the ploy is to get U.S. citizens to believe the left political spectrum is the only side that cares about the welfare of people and probably to get us to feel guilty for being citizens in the first place. All sides of the debate have their own mud balls to sling. The more conservative claim the left is only interested in getting these people to vote for them. The cynical might say they are interested in overthrowing the U.S. constitution because it prevents them from gaining ultimate power. The more progressive claim the right is fascist in nature and wants to rule the world. Our current president, in their eyes, sexually immoral and demeaning of women, is leading us toward a dangerous American Exceptionalism that can only end in World War III.
These claims are mostly wrong with enough truth in them to make them seem plausible when framed a certain way. The left does in fact want to gain political power. And once they get power, they want to keep it. That’s what a political party is in existence for! And to get power under our constitution you need votes. The idea though that South and Central Americans seeking asylum in the U.S. will automatically and continually vote for leftist policies isn’t quite a sure thing. If the Vietnamese who came to us in the 1970s are any indication, those willing to take the risk of the long journey to the north are likely to be “go-getters” who will seek to establish businesses here. Once they get a taste of making a decent living, they may very well vote the other way. Indeed, there are some on the far left who might want to rewrite the constitution or at least amend it in such a way as to make their power unchallengeable, but the centrist opinions of the overwhelming majority of Americans would make that less likely.
Conversely, the idea that the current president is interested in overthrowing constitutional controls is about as realistic as the falling sky of chicken little. President Trump may be an unpleasant person (since I don’t really know that man, I can’t say), but he is no dictator. His willingness to turn over millions of documents in the Mueller investigation and his ultimate (through grudging) cooperation does not comport at all with a dictator. And, though the U.S. has entangled itself in foreign markets and governments all over the globe in ways that many of us think unhealthy and overreaching, this is hardly something Trump has done. It’s taken us over 60 years to get to this point, and we’re now so entangled, extricating ourselves would be no easy task and probably couldn’t be done in less than another 60 years. Never mind blaming him that he hasn’t got it done in two. As for his sexual morality, compare him to JFK or FDR or Bill Clinton or any of hundreds of other politicians in our history for that matter. The tradition of giving political power to cads and adulterers has a long established history. We elect presidents to defend the constitution, if they happen to be moral, all the better, but it isn’t our first or maybe even our second, third or fourth consideration.
As for American Exceptionalism, lets be honest. If we really thought that the U.S. was a terrible place to live, we wouldn’t be so inclined to stay and the rest of the world wouldn’t risk drowning in the Rio Grande to get here. It was American Exceptionalism that provided the inspiration to build the economic and intellectual opportunities that exist here. To be sure, the U.S. took advantage of whole people groups in addition to African Americans and Asians: Cherokee, Iroquois, Sioux, Nez Perce, Comanche, Apache, and hundreds of others (not to mention immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the Middle East. And if we are honest, discrimination has been the habit of every country in all history). Keeping the treaties we made with these peoples was not high on our list when it interfered with our interests.
But we shouldn’t fictionalize the American Tribes as some kind of noble savages either. They raided and killed each other often enough when it suited them. To some extent, they, like us, were products of their times. Exporting our current values back into the past is a waste of time and to suggest that because there was evil back then, we should discount every step taken toward a more widespread justice and inclusion is idiotic. To assume that we are now more evolved and able to condemn all others is to ignore the log in our own eye! There is as much evil today as at any other time in history, maybe even more considering the efficiency our technology allows.
We rightly condemn the KKK intimidation of blacks while at the same time support young people wearing black masks and clubbing, kicking and throwing quick drying cement on someone because they disagree politically or philosophically. I heard one liberal pundit decry of the recent beating of a gay, Asian reporter in Portland because his political views was centrist rather than far left but added the caveat that you can’t blame all the members of Antifa just because of a few bad apples. That’s a little like saying that not all KKK members lynched people, so they weren’t all bad. I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked that comparison, but wearing a mask to intimidate others seems wrong no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. (Although we now have Marxist University professors claiming that violence is an appropriate response to those with “incendiary views” [read: “they disagree with the far left”]).
We could talk about illegitimacy and gangs and murder in the inner cities, sexual harassment in the film industry and politics, corruption in business and government bureaucracy, the rich bribing their kids into prestigious colleges, powerful financiers making fortunes off economic cataclysms they themselves caused, and the almost constant bearing false testimony against our neighbors when it suits our political interests. The point is we live in a glass house. We shouldn’t be throwing stones at the past because they did things that were wrong. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. There are those who want to expunge his contributions to our nation as evil because of it. When we do this we ignore that he grew up in a slave culture. It was the norm and as a child all he would know. As an adult, he would have to consider which battles to fight and which battles he would have to leave to another generation, just like we all do. Jefferson considered slavery a “blot” on the American experiment but could not do anything about it. Even on his own estate, the only slaves he freed were the five children he had with Sally Hemings, his domestic servant. Part of the problem may have been that at his death he was over $100,000 in debt (an astronomical amount in 1826) and may have felt he would have a hard time explaining it to his creditors or maybe they had a hold on his estate that wouldn’t allow it. Whatever the reason, cultures don’t change overnight and bucking the tides of culture is always a monumental task. The founding fathers were bucking the tides of history in ways people before them couldn’t even conceive. To condemn them for not also bucking the history of slavery that had existed from the beginning of civilization until even this very day is cowardice in the extreme. We weren’t there and we have no idea what they faced. How many of us would have signed a document guaranteeing we would be hanged if captured (of the 56 who signed the Declaration, 5 were tortured and executed by the British, 12 had their homes burned to the ground, 9 died in the conflict, several died bankrupt because of it).
But still, what do we do about all the political in-fighting whether about the poor suffering at the border or income inequality or health care for those who have trouble affording it or the pro-choice pro-life fracas or educating our young people without massive student debt? Doesn’t Leftist politics have a point? First of all, I’m reminded of one of the characters in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov named Father Zossima. In a kind of sermon to the Karamazov family, Zossima talks about people who love humanity but hate people. They always talk about the plight of the poor and want to encourage society to do something about it while at the same time can’t stand to be in the presence of their neighbor. Zossima points out the danger of such a thing. These lovers of humanity have no real interest in the plight of the poor but are more like Pharisees who simply want to show off their concern without risking any of their own resources. They like to make others (who actually are involved with helping others and really are aware of the complexities involved) feel guilty for thinking that some of the Left’s ideas may not be wise.
An investigation into problems encountered when financial aid was sent to other countries by the U.S. government or U.S. citizens was complied in a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert called When Helping Hurts. In it they chronicle one disaster after another that took place in various countries that have been “helped” by us. One company sent a pair of shoes to South America for poor children for every pair of shoes sold in the U.S. Seems like a helpful idea, right? But it destroyed the shoe industry in that country because the manufactures couldn’t compete with “free.” Lots of people lost their jobs not only in the manufacturing plants but in businesses that serviced those plants. And when the American company ended the free shoe program? Not only did the people now not have shoes, they didn’t have jobs to get them either. This happened in many countries. We would send free rice and the rice farmers would go out of business. We’d send free packaged chicken to a starving country and the chicken (or pork, or beef) farmers would lose their farms.
Economics is a complicated thing. That is why a good chunk of philosophy throughout the ages is devoted to it and why we award university degrees in it. There are plenty of unintended consequences (and most of the time not beneficial) when well intentioned shortcuts are taken. Giving free stuff is a delicate thing. Adam Smith pointed out in his famous Wealth of Nations that all economic value is related to labor. When money is given out in proportion to labor, there is benefit all around. When money is given out disproportionately to labor, there is a rapid decrease in benefit for everyone. When companies exploit workers with disproportionately low pay, not only will the workers struggle but the company itself will place themselves in jeopardy. However, when companies pay well (especially above the norm for that market), they can increase their own profit. In 1914 Ford Motor Company more than doubled wages from $2.25 per day to $5 per day. The result? Over $6 million more profit. In 1919, they raised wages to $6 per day and lowered the work day to 8 hours and made even more profit. Efficiency in economics are not always what you think. Before the wage increases, Ford had to hire around 50,000 people per year to keep a work force of 14,000. The turnover was tremendous and constant training was expensive. After the wage increases, turnover dropped to next to nothing, efficiency rose, production increased, profits soared. Now you might think, “Ah, this is why we should raise minimum wage!” But then again, economics are more intricate than that. It was that Ford was paying $5 while everyone else was paying $2.25 that made the difference. If everyone was paying $5 the effect would not have been the same. Again, economics is complicated.
On the other hand, if you give resources to people who are not providing any labor or disproportionately low labor, you tilt the scales the other way. We’re all acquainted with story of the rich kid who doesn’t have to work and ends up wasting his potential in profligate living. If you give incentives for not working, you will tend to destroy productivity and innovation in people. They will only reach down within themselves to pull out the best selves when their best selves are needed for the occasion. If I have nothing to rise for, chances are I won’t. On top of that, since economy is just a measure of labor, if you are paying money for no labor, you are devaluing the money. Eventually you will collapse the economy.
So how do you balance it all? First of all, this takes wisdom. Just giving everyone free health care or a guaranteed income (whether they work or not, I’ve heard) or free college education will quickly become detrimental (despite what people say about other countries that have all this free stuff and what Michael Moore claims!). Free college will be unlikely to produce a more educated populace. Lots of kids enrolled in college don’t show up for classes because mommy and daddy pay for it and many who do, go because they in some way or another they are feeling the cost. What people get for nothing, they value pretty much the same way. And what about free health care? It has been shown to cause costs to rise simply because its easier to go to the ER (at $1000 a pop) than to wait till tomorrow and go to the clinic (at $100 a pop). If I don’t pay for it what does it matter to me? Now laws can be enacted to force people to go to the clinic but that then places us into the “one size fits all” category. In the long run, disastrous. But even if that is the course we take, in the end costs will still rise, and the only way to lower them is to lower service. That is what they did in Canada and its what they really did in Russia (and any where else they have this system). In some places in India, people don’t even go to the hospitals any more because doctors and nurses rarely show up for work!.
And guaranteeing an income whether you work or not isn’t even worth discussing. The only reason someone would ever think this is a good idea is if they thought they would be on the receiving end and not the paying end. Imagine a person demanding you pay him out of your earnings $10,000 per year. When you asked what they were going to do for that, they said, “Oh, nothing. I’m a person and I deserve to be taken care of. I shouldn’t have to do anything.” What would be your response? We probably shouldn’t write that down in this blog.
Balance in economics requires wisdom and lots of it. How do you make sure there is a level paying field for everyone to innovate, use their knowledge, skills and courage to create economic prosperity? For one thing, you wouldn’t allow large companies to dominate the market place so they could prevent new ideas from threatening their old ones. You would take strong steps to make sure that there really was as little discrimination in the market place as possible (you would never get rid of it all, because people will hire their family members and close friends over outsiders). That would mean you have to be careful of things like affirmative action. That is a pattern that attempts to right the wrongs of the past by a kind of legal discrimination in the present. This is another very complicated issue. It’s not that making sure all races get a chance is bad, but once again, when someone realizes they don’t have to be their best selves to get a job, why should they be? Better to focus attention on helping discriminated people groups actually become more competitive. Not an easy task, to be sure, but likely the only one that will genuinely solve the problem long term.
There are many other things that would have to be considered. Making sure that our credit markets were both wise and equitable would seem reasonable. If a person can’t get financing for his ideas, he can’t make dreams or innovations happen. But demanding money be lent to all people regardless of their credit risk nearly collapsed the world economy in 2008. This is where one topic needs to be considered, that our politically correct world hates, and that is character. No matter what any of the media or the politically correct wardens say, immoral character is a detriment to a successful life and therefore a successful economy. Thomas Hobbes points out in Leviathan that unless contracts can be assured to be kept, no real security or prosperity can take place. The central government is supposed to be charged with enforcing this, but ultimately, if that is all we have, the system will be hampered.
John Wooden, the coach of the UCLA Bruins Basketball team in the 1950s and 60s is considered by many to be the greatest coach of all time. He developed players like nobody else. He wanted skilled players on his teams but he emphasized character. He created a pyramid of success using character qualities that would turn a team of good players into a great team. On the bottom of the pyramid, he put Industriousness, Friendship, Loyalty, Cooperation and Enthusiasm. These were the first and foremost things a player needed to learn to be great. The next level was Self Control, Alertness, Initiative, and Tenacity. The third level had three: Conditioning (both mental and physical), Skill and Team Spirit. Once all this was achieved thoroughly, the player would almost automatically start developing Confidence and Poise. The top slot was what it all would achieve: Competitive Greatness.
Our economy, to be both great and fair, will need much more than a Bernie Sanders yelling about the rich paying their fair share (after all, he’s one of the rich; why doesn’t he send some of his money? Or at least read up on Father Zossima!). Political slogans bring little more than hoopla. It is true that for any country to be great, it must also be good. If it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great. But being good cannot be about providing aid that hurts more than it helps. It will take true knowledge of economics and wisdom to apply it on the part of those making policy. Something we sorely lack at the present moment. But for those of us who are not in the halls of power, let’s remember that we will only become what we dream for ourselves when we reach deep inside ourselves and pull out our best selves. And for that there is no free lunch.