Please weigh in, agree or disagree, thoughtfully and respectfully. Ferocity and passion are encouraged; disrespect is not. Thank you for reading, and seeing this as a conversation rather than a monologue.

May 31, 2011

7 Principles of Fiscal Conservatism

N.B. This blog will be migrating to wordpress. Please find me there.

Let’s begin with fiscal conservatism, then. It begins with integrity. You do excellent work. Not good work: excellent work. You know that your reputation, livelihood and security depend on the work you do. You take pride in the quality of your work: what you do and how you do it. You mind the details. You build good relationships, preferably with others who do excellent work. Where that is not possible – because you know the world is not Utopia and is made of all kinds of people with different priorities and abilities – you make sure those relationships do not imperil your work or reputation.

Your goal in doing good work is not early retirement. Why would you live to stop doing something that you love doing, are good at doing and that meets a need? Good work is a very good answer to the question of the meaning of life. It is part of what is meant by a good life. If your work is so onerous that you can’t wait to stop, why are you doing it? Good work is its own reward. You preserve capital: your energies are finite, too.

Conserving your capital means conserving your money, your employees, your supplies, your time and your reputation. You are a grown up: you know life will challenge you. Obviously, even with all precautions taken, you can still lose your capital, but you don’t risk it intentionally or capriciously. Victims of tsunamis and earthquakes and thieves may have been fiscal conservatives, but life just isn’t fair. Living is risky enough – which is exactly why you don’t risk your capital, why you don’t live on credit. You save for rainy days because, sometimes, it floods. You take care of your employees and your customers if the former are doing good work and the latter pay their bills because you have no business without them. You set priorities. You fix problems, you don’t deny them or cover them up. Because you mind the details, you know where you can afford to be flexible: you know the potential downside. Perfect storms happen, but you don’t sail into questionable weather with no bilge pump, a radio that’s shorting out and a rookie crew.

The concept of “Too Big to Fail” is as antithetical to this – or, I would say, any – understanding of conservatism as it can be. The very idea of pumping more money into a bad investment, or into a company or person who has proven to be untrustworthy, is ludicrous from a conservative point of view. Conservatives don’t put that many eggs into one basket to begin with. Conservatism assumes that we conserve those resources on which our lives and livelihoods depend; they are finite and the world makes us no guarantees. If you have children, they will need them, too; conservatives do not leave their families in the lurch. Fiscal conservatives know the value of a worthy struggle: they may not give their children a free pass, but they won’t handicap them by using, much less wasting, what their children will need to make a go in a difficult world.

The same principle makes monopolies as anathema to fiscal conservatives as a table with one leg. There may be arguments to be made for one company taking over another, but there are limits. There is stability in diversity. There are no synergies in monopolies; no serendipitous cross-fertilizations can occur in monocultures.

Gratuitous spending is no better. It’s waste, too. If there is anything more antithetical to conservatism than waste . . . I’ll get around to it. Waste, inefficiency and disposability are all predicated on the assumption that There Will Always Be Enough. Or, perhaps, on its corollary, that We Will Always Be On Top. If conservatism is, at its foundation, the principle Thou Shalt Not Squander, then waste, inefficiency and disposability are not conservative values. In fact, they aren’t values at all: they are sloppiness and short cuts in business suits.

Conservatives don’t buy cheap crap. They don’t make it or sell it because they have pride. They don’t buy it because it doesn’t work, it wears out too soon, it’s a bad use of our limited resources, and it supports those doing mediocre work at the expense of those who deserve our business – Any Questions? Every basic tool should be built to last the better part of a lifetime. Planned obsolescence is just Orwellian double speak for shoddy workmanship. It sure as hell isn’t conservative. It isn’t liberal, either. It’s bad business. Making something designed to fail lacks integrity.

Conservatism does not write blank checks, so it cannot be considered either pro-business or anti-business. It knows that business can be done well or poorly. It is pro-good business. It demands that respect and patronage be earned.

Fiscal conservatives invest first, and then spend. Investment is different from speculation. Speculation looks for a quick return on money in the next quarter, if not in the next hour. Investment stakes a part of our livelihood on our values. It provides support to a long-term venture that needs it to thrive. Short-term successes of others based on shady or shoddy practices do not distract conservatives. Investment for the long term is a stabilizing influence on an economy. Fiscal conservatives know to avoid anything that reeks of get-rich-quick schemes. They deride those who take risks to make themselves rich quickly, instead of making provision for their values – and their children – for the long haul.

Investing contrasts with spending money on industries and companies that don’t need it, that are not competitive, and that are not investing in their own R&D. That is not conservative, it’s preservative: it maintains something in a state it was in while everything around it changes. Like putting something in formaldehyde: it’s no longer alive, but it looks pretty much like it did when we first put it in there. Think of the American auto and energy industries. Think of any company or industry that has a big lobbying presence in Washington. The ownership of Washington by big business has been bad for government, but arguably not as bad as it has been for business.

It occurs to me that there is another, unrelated school of thought that shares many of the principles of fiscal conservatism as I have described it. It is called Permaculture.

Permaculture is a design concept with broad applications that is best known and most widely applied to gardening and agricultural practices. In a nutshell, what brings it to mind is Permaculture’s insistence that, if you frontload your project with a lot of work in its early stages, and mind the inflow and outflow of resources all along the way, you can build a system that, barring disasters, will take care of you for the long term with a gradually declining need for long hours of work. In Permaculture, waste is defined as being a resource in the wrong place at the wrong time. It might also be described as a resource as viewed by someone without sufficient imagination to recognize its usefulness. Permaculture is also all about preserving the energy within a system for as long as possible, encouraging synergies, and not emptying the system of the resources that make it run in the first place. It saves seeds: very conservative.

Here are the principles of fiscal conservatism as I see them:

  1. The World is Risky: Don’t Make it Riskier.
  2. Thou Shalt Not Squander.
  3. Do Good Work.
  4. Reward Good Work.
  5. Invest First.
  6. Do Not Tolerate Waste.
  7. Save Your Seeds.

I contend that these principles derive from the meaning of the words Fiscal Conservatism. Insofar as policies do not reflect these principles, I don’t see how, absent Orwellian doublespeak, they can have any meaningful relationship with the term.

I further contend that policies derived from these principles are needed now, are timeless, and the lack of any support for them from either of America’s main political parties is what has landed us in the crisis we still have not acknowledged, much less addressed.

May 23, 2011

Captain America: Godless Liberal, or Birther?

Captain America
On Frum Forum, a conservative site run by David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, there is an homage to Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America. The author calls Captain America the greatest American superhero (this was written even before Superman renounced his American citizenship). Kirby fought in Patton’s army in WW2. He declared himself a New Dealer and liberal, but the author points out that some of Kirby’s motivations were clearly conservative in origin.

This reminds us that, when we say that someone is X, it is shorthand, a generalization. Such descriptors, in almost every case, obscure the complexity of people and their views. We use these labels on ourselves as readily as we do on others. We should ask what the labels mean, and see how divergent are the answers. Then we can see how comfortable we are in applying them to ourselves.

Every election cycle there is a questionnaire online. (For example, see here.)You answer maybe a couple dozen questions and it puts you on a graph, showing whether you are, socially or fiscally, a liberal or conservative. I have found, while doing such questionnaires, an impulse to answer in a way that will place me in a particular quadrant on the graph. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. It is like an impulse to be told that what I think about myself is, in fact, true. Like quantifying my own mind. I know it can be useful, to advertisers and pollsters and such. But is it true? It’s a lot more accurate than a label. And if you discuss, not results, but individual answers with friends who apply the same label to themselves as you do, a fascinating conversation may ensue.

We have all read (or written) that “Liberals/Conservatives are _____,” “Christians are ______,” “Muslims are _____,” “politicians are _____.” As the article about Kirby illustrates, such broad generalizations are as false as they are common. I want to talk about what conservative values mean, or could mean. I want to foster a conversation, not slap a label on you and pack and ship you out. Along the way, I want to challenge the idea that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different because their values are incompatible. I believe

The term “Conservative” is so attached these days to Trump, Bachmann, Palin, Tea Partiers and so on that conservatives who do not fit the stereotype must despair: like Christians who feel that their faith is a responsibility, and not the carnival sideshow that draws gawkers to its most bizarre manifestations (Rapture, anyone? Intelligent Design? Fred Phelps?). Why do the people who fit the caricatures get to take up all the time in the mass-distributed media, while people of more substance and breadth, who ask questions of themselves as well as others, must content themselves with talking to their choir, who know where to find them?

Many conservative principles – “fiscal conservatism” and “family values” among them – appeal to me. I just don’t like what is done under cover of the terms. I know that some conservatives feel the same way. (The exasperation of the title, “Can We Stop Questioning Obama’s Legitimacy Now?”, an article on Frum Forum, makes that point nicely.) We impoverish ourselves and our conversations by assuming that Christianity means creationism, bigotry, and next-worldliness, or that Conservatism begins and ends with birthers, or Liberalism with 9-11 truthers.

I’m prejudiced. Anything that denies me the chance for a good conversation must be wrong. Acting as if labels and caricatures adequately represent anyone’s views accurately would deliver me to the conversational equivalent of Flatland. I.e., Hell. I like the hard questions. They generally lead to better, longer conversations.

In my next installment I will talk about one of the archetypal conservative values, e.g., fiscal conservatism, family values, pro-life. I haven’t decided which one yet.

May 18, 2011

Conservatism, and Original Sin

I want to begin a discussion of Conservative Principles with a discussion of Original Sin. I will demonstrate the method I use by employing first an example that does not immediately push political, ideological buttons. Liberals and conservatives both have staked out positions on the issues of the day in such a way that merely mentioning an issue – immigration, energy, or abortion, for example – brings immediately to mind the positions that we find acceptable and unacceptable, the ones representing our side (the Good Guys) and the other side (the Evil or Stupid People).  This makes it difficult to see any points of commonality, or to see principles objectively if they are held by people whom we hold in derision.

Original Sin is my favorite Christian doctrine.  G.K. Chesterton said that it was the doctrine for which there was the most evidence. As the doctrine goes, our roots and origins preclude the possibility of human perfection. We are flawed. Sinful, even.

This is good news.

The implication is that we cannot expect ourselves to be perfect. Someone once said we are perfect as we are, and we could use some improvement. That is exactly what Original Sin means to me, including the playful tone. We still want to be the best we can be – most of us have, I think, an innate desire to engage in a struggle to improve ourselves and our world – but there is no valid ideal against which we can each be measured and found sorely lacking in any sense that has meaning.

I know this is not the conventional, traditional application of this doctrine. I don’t care. My use of this principle honors its core as much as the traditional interpretation, which undergirds the idea that we need redemption, does. My reading is unorthodox, but it is not illogical or inconsistent with the premise.

My take on conservative principles is also unorthodox. That only means that it is not conventional, which I don’t see as a fatal flaw. If my interpretation is illogical, that is a problem. Then I would need to find other principles from which to derive my policies, or change my policies to harmonize with my principles: it depends on what is more important to me – the principles or the policies. A professor once said that to believe something is to act as if it’s true. In other words, if you want to know what someone’s principles are, look at their policies, or their behaviors.

My contention is that conservative principles have inherent value to a liberal like me, and that those principles don’t have to result in the form of conservatism in ascendancy today. Some of the things we associate with conservatism have absolutely no relation to conservative principles, and can be – I would plead, should be – disavowed: not only would doing so do no damage to conservatism, it would help to restore to the movement a dignity that has been undermined by the bigots, birthers and Bible-thumpers who are its loudest, most garish representatives.

I look forward to our discussion. I will be posting more in the next week or two, between class sessions here in Freiburg.

May 16, 2011

Glenn Beck's Messiah Complex

Glenn Beck is going to Jerusalem.

He is delusional. Usually people have to go to Jerusalem before suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Oh, wait: he was there recently. Maybe that's where he picked up his Messiah complex.

Oh, how heroic: "I believe I've been asked to stand in Jerusalem. Many in the history of man have had the opportunity to stand with the Jewish people...and they have failed."

he called the rally a "life altering event" and warned that the "very gates of hell" would fight his attempts to hold the rally.
Wow. The imaginary enemy of his imaginary friend is really pissed, it seems. That makes him a World Historical Person, at least in his own mind.

Sorry, but this is all I have at the moment. Final exam tomorrow. Final class on Thursday, and then about 10 days of downtime, during which I hope to get a couple of more substantial posts out to you. Be well. Talk with you again soon.

May 1, 2011

Lost E-Mails

This is a courtesy notice to my friends and others who may have written and wondered why no reply has been forthcoming.

Twice – once around April 10, and again just a few minutes ago – all of the e-mails in my inbox have disappeared. There has been no warning, and they have not been moved to Trash or Junk folders or anywhere else. They have disappeared from my computer as well as from online. One time I open Mail and they are there; the next time the Inbox is empty as a bottle at an Irish wake. I am considering having all my Apple mail forwarded to my Gmail account for safekeeping – not the kind of thing a Mac devotee wants to hear himself saying.

So if you were expecting an answer to an e-mail, please re-send your original e-mail. For obvious reasons I am not posting my address here. Thanks!
Because I Need to Know If McAndrew Is Full Of It