Month: October 2015

Will America lose the upcoming Cold War?

World War III is coming.

If you think I kid, just read Max Fisher’s write-up about the approaching U.S. confrontation with Russia. It’s enough to make you soil yourself.

Here’s the rationale: Not yet deterred from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin is actively restoring Russia’s sphere of influence. He has made a point of invading Ukraine to access his country’s port in Sevastopol. Now he’s openly defying the U.S. by aiding the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Now, I’m no wide-eyed Bill Kristol disciple. I don’t think America needs to keep its empire status. But at the same time, I see a need for order in an uncertain world. There will always be a domineering force on our planet. And, like it or not, that global bully is America. So it’s better to err on the side of caution and to, in the words of Michael Oakeshott, “prefer the familiar to the unknown,” and root for the home team.

The question is: with Barack Obama soon to leave the White House, what presidential candidate is best fit to stand up to aspiring leaders like Vladimir Putin? Who will put the ex-KGB spy and Russian leader in his place?



Canadian conservatism, present and past

Canada’s general election is less than a week away, although if you live south of the 49th parallel you could be forgiven for not knowing this. When politicos here tear their gaze away from the spectacle of 2016, they prefer something a little more exotic, especially given Canada’s (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being the political equivalent of vanilla pudding.

This election is more interesting than most, however, for a number of reasons. Canada’s three major parties are running more or less neck and neck, so it’s still anyone’s game five days out. In keeping with the outsider insurgency apparently sweeping the English-speaking political world, one of those parties – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – is a social-democratic outfit that has never governed the country before. Most intriguing to me, though, is the status quo under contention – this center-left country has been governed for the past nine years by the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Harper is the last of the neocon-types that ran the Anglosphere in the aughts. You remember these guys: we had Bush, of course; the British had Blair; and the man down under was John Howard. There was some flexibility among the cabal, but the ideological glue that bound them was free marketeering at home and aggressive interventionism abroad. Harper was the most junior member of this class and is the only one still around (within two years of his election, Bush, Blair, and Howard would all be out of office). In a larger sense, he represents a kind of globalization of conservatism within the English-speaking world, the supplanting of national political traditions by a fundamentally internationalist ideology.

For, to the conservatives of Canada’s past, Harper would be an almost unrecognizable figure. From John A. Macdonald, the first Conservative PM, to John Diefenbaker, the last before the neoconservative ascendancy, Canadian conservatism was consistently opposed to Harper’s twin idols of interventionism and the free market. Economically, protectionism, robust government investment in society, and welfare spending underpinned conservative policies. Inasmuch as foreign military adventures were considered, it was reluctantly (though not necessarily intelligently) in the service of Britain and the empire for which the conservatives felt so passionately. And in what will always be Canada’s dominant foreign policy issue – relations with the United States – the old Canadian Right took an entirely different tack.

In 1911, for instance, the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden won largely on the basis of his opposition to lower trade barriers between Canada and the United States. Fifty-two years later, in a sign of the changing times, John Diefenbaker fell from the premiership largely for resisting American pressure to deploy nuclear missiles within Canada. Though the Conservatives maintained friendly relations with their neighbor to the south, they feared that America’s liberal culture, supported by its vast economic and military strength, could swamp their country and unmoor it from its traditional foundations. To conservatives like George Grant, “to be Canadian was to build a more ordered and stable society than the liberal experiment in the United States.” Such an endeavor would always be jeopardized by threats from without; challenged from within, its failure was inevitable.

For better or worse, the pessimists on the Right were not proved wrong. After the fall of Diefenbaker, the Conservative Party was banished to the political wilderness for over two decades (excepting a 9-month stint in power between 1979 and 1980). It was during this period that Canada shook off almost all of its remaining British trappings, changing the flag, the constitution, and the culture (this process, by which the old Anglo-Canadian identity was swapped for a culturally neutral, civic nationalism is well-documented in the excellent The Other Quiet Revolution). When the Conservatives retook Ottawa in 1984, they were a changed party governing a changed country. They had become more or less what they are today: champions of free markets and free trade at home  (NAFTA was a Conservative priority), and reliably deferential to American foreign policy abroad.

But in the age of Trump, Sanders, and Corbyn, it’s clear that the game is changing, and the political arrangements of the recent past are under threat. In such a systemic crisis, the idea that formerly obscure or moldering ideologies – like Canada’s traditional conservatism – might make a comeback is increasingly plausible. At the very least, I suspect this will be the last race the Harper-types run for some time.

The limits of private governance

I was invited to respond to Ed Stringham’s new book and lead essay on Cato Unbound. Here is a snippet.

The success of private governance depends on whether the previous actions of participants are easily identifiable. If so, cheaters will be avoided and cooperators will be interacted with again. However, there are a class of people for whom their previous actions are not easily identifiable.

Imagine you are an entrepreneur in the third world. You have started a business, but cannot grow it because you are capital constrained. Banks are unwilling to lend you money because the government cannot be trusted to recover capital if you are late during repayment. Because you are a new entrepreneur there is not enough information about your ability and willingness to repay loans for the bank to simply trust you.

If we ignore the government failure of enforcing the banking contract, it is also apparent that a private governance mechanism cannot solve this need. And a recent paper by David McKenzie suggests it is stronger than usually recognized.

McKenzie examines the results of a business competition in Nigeria where a randomized selection of 729 firms were given an average of $50,000. After three years he found, “Surveys tracking applicants over three years show that winning the business plan competition leads to greater firm entry, higher survival of existing businesses, higher profits and sales, and higher employment, including increases of over 20 percentage points in the likelihood of a firm having 10 or more workers. These effects appear to occur largely through the grants enabling firms to purchase more capital and hire more labor.”

The conversation will continue and I will likely add additional commentary here. After the conversation has ended I plan to summarize it here.

Social class in America: the inequality we ignore

When Paul Fussell wrote Class in 1983, social class in America was “notably embarrassing”; sociologist Paul Blumberg, three years earlier, had called it “America’s forbidden thought”. Today, with the focus of media, academic, and political rhetoric on matters of race and sex, class consciousness—to use an admittedly dangerous term—seems absent from the public mind. Rather than being forbidden, the matter of social class as something which can transcend race has been all but forgotten.

But certain questions are only answerable in terms of socioeconomic class. When one asks, as the Washington Post did recently, why the country’s “most progressive cities” are losing their Black residents; or, as the Atlantic has asked, why “blue” cities are often unaffordable for middle-class families; or why the poorest county in the country—Owsley County, Kentucky—is about 98% non-Hispanic White; the progressive cries of racial injustice fall flat.

When I was growing up in suburban areas of the peripheral South, there was no “social class” per se—there were merely different kinds of people. Some lived in houses, others lived in trailers; some moved a lot, others didn’t; some always had money in their pocket, others didn’t. But more importantly to me as a kid, some people looked and acted very differently from others; some read books and others didn’t; some listened to the music I liked and others didn’t. These latter differences, especially the petty disagreements between subcultures which are so important to post-WWII Western youth, did much to cloud my vision of the socioeconomic divisions which were at the root of so many of them.

Such divisions are, ultimately, a matter of differences in shared experience–vocational experience in particular. Differences in shared experience are related to nearness and similarity; people are especially likely to form group identities with those to whom they perceive themselves to be geographically close and similar in culture or likeness. If someone lives far away and has no relation to you, you probably don’t perceive any deep commonality with them–unless you simulate nearness with the help of, say, the Internet.

To draw a useful map of class in the United States, then, means knowing what are the most socially divisive differences in vocational experience–in other words, the differences which are most likely to determine: 1) what kinds of people you live near and 2) what your (sub)cultural norms are, not to mention 3) your material conditions. Some of these might be: whether you have gone to college, whether you own a business, what your credentials are, etc. We can develop such a map in greater detail in the future, but for now we can distinguish an educated class–those living in what Charles Murray calls superZIPs–and an uneducated one. The two are easy to tell apart:

Several teenage church members spent a weekend helping to repair an elderly woman’s small house on a winding country road. For some, the experience was an eye-opener.

“I don’t usually encounter people who aren’t like us,” Zach Hannan, a River Hill High School senior who hopes to become a doctor, said as he joined adults replacing a damaged kitchen floor. He added, “I’m not used to seeing small houses.”

Hannan said that he has accompanied his parents, both psychologists, on cruises to Europe and Alaska and that most of his friends have been to Europe, too. Working nearby, Brandon Pelletier, who headed to Ohio State University this fall to study business, said his friends all have smartphones and shop for high-end clothes at the local mall.

So why, with all this in mind, are “America’s most progressive cities” in the process of “losing African Americans”? For the same reason that Chicanos in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago want “White hipsters” to stop moving in: the educated class is culturally unlike the urban minorities in places like Chicago and Austin, and, more to the point, it makes use of material conditions–gainful employment, home ownership, stable location, etc.–that the uneducated, of any race, urban or rural, do not enjoy in the same proportion. It wields greater social capital as well as economic capital, and both are dependent on social networks which members of the uneducated classes tend not to belong to. This means that, as happily egalitarian as the gentry might be, gentrification doesn’t somehow induct poor Blacks into their ranks. Eric Tang at the Washington Post answers his own question, and does so in terms of class:

It’s not that these cities are no longer liberal, per se, but that the brand of (neo)liberalism they now celebrate is unaccountable to the concerns championed by lower-waged workers[.]
It’s a liberalism that has, quite literally, left no room for the low-waged worker, particularly African Americans.

Not to mention poor and rural Whites, who not only do not benefit from affirmative action, but are discriminated against by universities. Whatever “White privilege” the educated class has, poor Whites are missing out.

Progressivism, then, is a signal of class; perhaps the greatest impediment to its acceptance by more Americans is economic insecurity. After all, if you went to a good school and make more money than most of the country, bloating the bureaucracy a little more doesn’t sound so bad. But if your livelihood is threatened by possible layoffs, high rent, and debt–in other words, if you’re one of an increasing number among the uneducated middle classes–voting Democrat may be simply unaffordable.

One doesn’t get the sense that middle- and working-class people are as conscious of this as they were, say, a century ago. Americans seem no longer to be as suspicious of the very wealthy as they once were. With the neoliberal GOP moving leftward on social issues and the Democrats losing their economic populism, we are left with two brands of big-government quasi-libertarianism: one for the dwindling middle class, and one for the gentry and their expanding class of dependents. Huey Long and William Jennings Bryan would find both parties hostile to what they stood for; more to the point, so would most of the American political establishment prior to the late 20th century.

To think that the implementation of egalitarian ideas would cause such an ever-growing class divide–an increasingly racial one at that!

Help me start a History of Virginia podcast

Recently I’ve become addicted to podcasts. I listen to them when I walk to and from work, when I’m cooking dinner, on the way to the bar, on the way to church — everywhere. The podcasts of Mike Duncan and Robin Pearson in particular –“History of Rome” and “History of Byzantium” — have been really enjoyable.

Now I want to try my own hand at it, with a podcast about the history of Virginia. Having gotten more confident doing radio over the past year, thanks to guest hosting gigs on the Mike Church Show, I think I can pull something like this off.

I still have much of the reading material from undergraduate history courses at W&M and Colonial Williamsburg saved as PDFs that I can dust off, and already have 30 or so books on various parts of Virginia history that I’ve begun collecting. However, this is quickly becoming expensive, and before I can begin I need to fill in the gaps, and especially gather more material pertaining to the Seventeenth Century.

So, I’d like to ask for your help. I’ve put together an Amazon wish list of books I’d like to have, all covering the colonial period (if all goes well, we’ll continue from there). If you sort the list by priority you will see that I’ve put those on Jamestown and the Seventeenth Century first, for obvious reasons. There’s also the Hornbook of Virginia History, a reference book that contains population figures, lists of who holds what office, and other information that will help guide my research and writing.

In terms of how the show will work, I will try to maintain a coherent narrative as much as possible, but I am committed to a couple of things: One, to have more interviews than is typical for this kind of podcast — having worked at Colonial Williamsburg’s public affairs office and corresponded with several colonial historians, it would be criminal of me not to highlight their work in their own words. And second, to not be afraid to focus on personal stories and other digressions that may or may not make good one-off episodes (think, for you podcast listeners, more Dan Carlin and less Mike Duncan).

There are several reasons why I think a more digressive approach is called for. First of all, Virginia is not an empire. In Augustus’ day, the Roman Empire contained more than 50 million people. Virginia wouldn’t pass a half-million until around the time the Declaration of Independence was signed. It’s a more human-scale story, in time and space, and less suited to grand narratives.

Second, Virginia is blessed with a long line of chroniclers with close connections to it, and they often approach their subject with palpable affection, first among them Samuel Kercheval, a correspondent of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about the early settlement of the Shenendoah. I say “chroniclers,” because many were not academic historians. Many were newspapermen, like the legendary Virginius Dabney, who edited the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 33 years, or his one-time assistant Parke Rouse, Jr, who went on to run the publishing division of Colonial Williamsburg in 1953, or Virginian Pilot columnist Guy Friddell, author of the amusing ’60s tourist-baiting tract, What is it about Virginia? While this is probably not unique to Virginia, as an editor I’m fascinated by the way the state’s mythology and self-conception have so often been shaped by stately journalists with an unusual curiosity about history.

Other writers had different careers entirely, like the Jacobite nostalgist Edgar Erskine Hume, a highly-decorated Army officer and Chief Surgeon during the Korean War. While not neglecting current scholarship — there’s plenty on the list — I think all these people are worth getting into, along with homegrown mid-century academic historians like Philip Alexander Bruce and Raymond Dingledine.

These folks are all on the Amazon wish list, their works are largely out of print but not too expensive. With your help, I’ll be able to post the first episode in a couple of months.

Chromosomal damage

Women: You can’t live with them; you can’t work with them either.

That’s the topic of my Taki’s Mag piece today. An excerpt:

These complaints might all seem trivial (and insane), but they add up. Nagging protests have the ability to snowball until they become a coherent message. By constantly hammering away at the idea that men are incorrigible Neanderthals with their brains set on “rape,” feminists have altered corporate culture so that guys must be on guard every second of the day. If they slip up, it’s a one-way trip to the unemployment line.

It’s an unhealthy mix that affects productivity and basic workplace camaraderie. Yes, there are definite cases where men take advantage of naive office girls (this is especially true in D.C., where the office manager is often having an affair with the cute twentysomething coffee fetcher). But feminists trying to equalize the workplace are engaging in a Sisyphean task. Men and women just aren’t made to work together as a unified team. The sexes are different. They excel at doing different things.

Just consider the examples of accepted sexual differentiation in our society. Professional sports are demarcated along gender lines. You rarely see a female construction worker on the site of a new skyscraper. Hooters isn’t about to hire men as waitresses.

Win one for the patriarchy and give the piece a manly read here.