Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Elephant in the Room -- American Cultural Problems

The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. -- Senator Daniel Moynihan.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan 40 years ago warned of the adverse effect of declining American cultural values. He predicted a new type of poverty that would be one of the side effects of a welfare state and children born to single mothers. This is now fairly easy to document. He also described a “dumbing down of decency” in our culture. This has also occurred on the internet, TV, movies, music, and in our general use of language.

Several of the previous blogs have been very critical of Wall Street, the financial institutions, government regulatory agencies, and a dysfunctional Congress. A wide cultural failure at the top of our society that also extends even to major sports figures and even Catholic priests is fairly easy to document. The references below, however, address the rest of our culture and particularly those issues that affect education and poverty.

A 2009 study by the Brookings Institution, for example, found that Americans who finished high school, acquired a full-time job and waited until age 21 to get married before having children were much less likely to end up in poverty. In fact, "young adults who did all three had a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as earning roughly $50,000 or more). By contrast, young adults who violated all three norms had a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class. A high school education is still free, and as Woody Allen noted, “showing up is 80% of success.”

On the other side of the equation, kids who do not finish high school are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested as adults and approximately 82% of the adults in prison are high school dropouts.
Young people have always wanted more independence and to establish their own identity. One of the messages that our young people should hear, however, is this:
There are two ways that you can lose your freedom in this country. One way is to commit a crime and be put in jail. The other way is to become addicted to drugs as you have then given up many of your choices to the drug. There is nothing manly or mature about throwing away your freedom; it is just foolish.
One of the most effective way to address the issues of crime and drugs is simply with a change in public opinion. Consider, for example, the effect of a change in public opinion on the issue of smoking. The expenditure of large sums of government money on education and poverty will not be effective unless these cultural issues are also addressed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Intermediary Institutions and Civil Society

Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke is considered to be one of the founders of conservatism. One of his criticisms of the French Revolution was that, by destroying the intermediate institutions which help maintain order in society, the state would be left with only the tool of coercive power and this would lead to tyranny. The French Revolution eventually claimed that the state was the source of all all moral and political authority. The progeny of this type of tyranny turned out to be Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

The basic inclination of conservatives is thus to incorporate the basic values of the culture in the intermediary institutions so that there is less need for the coercive powers of government. For conservatives, in particular, there should thus be a concern about the recent problems in almost all of our intermediary institutions. It is hard to think, for example, of any national bank, Wall Street firm, insurance company, or health care company that has not been the subject of very large regulatory penalties. There has been a rather remarkable failure of the elites.

On the other hand, the more secular liberals have been reluctant to address the cultural issues concerning the intermediate institution of the family. The inclination of liberals has also been to raise the cost of government and entitlements even in the presence of an unsustainable national debt and to mortgage the future, thus breaking the contract with the next generation to which Edmund Burke also referred.