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Gaseous Politics and Shame Why Should Freud Matter?

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Democrats Look for a Big Idea

by Christopher Chantrill
May 07, 2006 at 8:20 am

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E.J.DIONNE recently reported that Democrats are fed up with waiting for their politicians to come up with new ideas. Someone has to “end conservative dominance of the political debate” and Michael Tomasky in The American Prospect has made a start with A Party in Search of a Notion. He argues that Democrats must abandon their “small bore... million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics” and offer “compelling progressive response to the radical individualism of the Bush era.”

Progressives used to have an idea of the common good, a way to inspire people to contribute to a project larger than themselves, he claims. Some have said that this kind of civic republicanism died with the New Deal but for Tomasky, the son of a UMW shop steward, “it’s clear that the great period of liberal hegemony in this country was, in fact, a period when citizens were asked to contribute to a project larger than their own well-being.”

Of course, he goes on, modern Democrats do champion diversity and rights, and very important they are. “But diversity and rights cannot be the only goods that Democrats demand citizens accept.” What is needed is to build an idea of civic republicanism, a vision of the common good based on public sector initiatives that can sell “health-care coverage for those without it, the need to protect the planet and take global warming seriously, energy independence, asset-building for African Americans and other disproportionately poor groups, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and more.”

The problem is that, once you get beyond the rhetoric of the common good, this progressive agenda still comes down to allocating resources through the crude processes of political power, an approach that was tested to destruction in the twentieth century.

In practice then, Tomasky’s new progressive narrative will come down to something like the Center for American Progress’s 15 New Ideas, a progressive national agenda grouped into four headings.

Offering Opportunity for All: This heading includes tax proposals, increased education funding, reform of consumer lending, and universal 401(k) accounts with subsidies for the poor.

Promoting a Just and Secure World: This talks about hard power/soft power, military reform, energy programs and foreign aid.

Building Strong Communities: This is about universal health care, bailing out Detroit, and increasing “adjustment assistance” to laid-off workers.

Creating Open and Fair Government: We are talking here about bringing government decision-making into the information age and curbing abuse of congressional power.

But before we swing a whole bunch of new subsidies and programs at underprivileged Americans perhaps we should ponder a curious fact about these less affluent Americans, the kind that would be the beneficiaries of the 15 New Ideas.

In the twenty-first century, the rich work more hours than the poor.

If you go back a century of course, you would find that the poor worked more than the rich. But now things are different. As this backgrounder from The Heritage Foundation puts it: “On average, working-age adults in the bottom quintile worked about half as many hours during the year as did adults in the top quintile.” It seems that the working class is no longer working. At least, not very much. And we have known this for quite a while.

As far back as 1984 Charles Murray was documenting in Losing Ground that the work-force participation of single male blacks went down precisely in the years in which the 1960s War on Poverty spent billions in targeted job training programs aimed at single male blacks.

There are anecdotal accounts about what happened. In his autobiographical From Rage to Responsibility Jesse Lee Peterson wrote about how he responded to the jobs programs of the 1960s. Abandoned by his father and resented by his mother, he found as a young man that he could get from the government “$300 a month, plus rent money, food stamps, and vocational training.” It was enough to fuel ten years of partying, drugs, sex, and rage.

What is going on here? The answer comes to us in the 1999 bestseller The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. They found that a lot of the affluent, more that you would think, receive Economic Outpatient Care—regular gifts and infusions of cash—from their parents, sometimes right through their adult lives. There’s a curious thing about these EOC patients. With the extra money from Mom and Dad they work less, spend more, and save less than ordinary Americans.

The poor on the government’s EOC act just the same. They don’t get out to work very much either.

Perhaps the 15 New Ideas have the wrong idea. Why not try a Big Idea and reduce subsidies to less affluent Americans to see if they respond by increasing their hours of work?

Robert William Fogel describes another problem of the poor in The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitariansm. He calls it a “maldistribution of spiritual resources.”

Although the material condition of the poor has increased dramatically in the last century,

Such problems [in cities] as drug addiction, alcoholism, births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken families, violent teenage death, and crime are generally more severe today than they were a century ago... Oddly [sic], the sharpest increases in indicators of moral decay came after, not before, the ‘war on poverty’ of the 1960s and 1970s.

Fogel is frank about the reason for the problem. The social reformers thought that poverty was due to injustice, oppression and a flat out lack of material things. They refused to consider the question of culture and a “maldistribution of spiritual resources.”

The Center for American Progress’s 15 New Ideas are no different. “Offering Opportunity for All” does not deal with the fact that the poor aren’t working too much, and “Building Strong Communities” focuses on health care and worker training subsidies and not the social pathologies of the poor. For them it’s all about the benefits, stupid.

So what should we do?

Robert William Fogel calls for a program to provide the poor in spirit with spiritual values such as a “sense of purpose,” a “sense of benevolence,” a “capacity for self-education,” and “a sense of discipline.”

This is a Big Idea, for it flies in the face of a century of elite ideas and practice.

Fogel thinks that the educated elite are just the folk to direct this new war on spiritual poverty. But is he right? Is the educated elite qualified to direct a program of spiritual uplift? And can we legislate morality and spirituality?

There’s another way to provide the poor with “sense of purpose.” Hand the task over to mega-church pastor Rick Warren, author of A Purpose-Driven Life, and the national community of mega-churches. The power of his message was recently demonstrated by a young widow, Ashley Smith, in Atlanta who talked a murder suspect into giving himself up with nothing more than her Christian faith and Chapter 33 of A Purpose-Driven Life. For those of you without your own copy to refer to, Chapter 33 is titled “How Real Servants Act.” The epigraph reads: “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.”

The poor in spirit in New York City needing a sense of discipline and a sense of benevolence could apply to one of the 3,000 Pentecostal churches in that city (a new one opens every three weeks according to Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Carnes). Why would we hand the job over to the Pentecostals?

Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family.

In On Secularization sociologist David Martin is saying, in his scholarly way, that Pentecostalism works.

And for self-education we could turn to the fundamentalist churches of America. In Spirit and Flesh sociologist James M. Ault, Jr. describes a fundamentalist church in Worcester, Massachusetts, that brings barely-literate church members to full literacy through Bible study. The church’s pastor was a former auto mechanic.

The beauty of it is that all these spiritual uplift services come free, unlike the services of the helping professionals of the welfare state. There’s another Big Idea for you: social services without the expense of a huge government bureaucracy.

It is telling that while E.J. Dionne dreams of Big Ideas and Michael Tomasky dreams of movements the elites of India and China have been waking up to reality. After full and fair tests they have abandoned the Big Idea of Fabian socialism and the mass movement of Marxian Communism, and have launched upon an effort to align their nations with the rather un-progressive paradigm of global commerce and prosperity.

As Democrats search for the Big Idea “to end conservative dominance of the political debate” they might want to think about that.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures


German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Knowledge

Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital


presented by Christopher Chantrill

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