Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: Rich Lowry's Lincoln Unbound

Rich Lowry’s new book on Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, offers itself as an argument via biography, using Lincoln’s life to explore the meaning of his ideas.  Lowry presents Lincoln as a model of what Republican governance could mean and an exemplar of what the free market can accomplish.

One of the key arguments of Lincoln Unbound is that Lincoln fought for an industrialized, market-oriented United States as a way of extending the project of liberation.  Lowry casts Lincoln as a descendent of Henry Clay, who sought to nurture nascent American industry and thereby increase US economic might.  For Lincoln and others, Lowry suggests, the seeds of political liberty within the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be complemented by the project of economic and industrial modernization.  Canals, roads, and railways knit the nation together, allowing individuals in formerly remote areas to participate in a broader market.  This participation helped break the cycle of subsistence farming, and in turn extended the reach of opportunity.

Lowry casts Lincoln as a paradigmatic figure for this transformation; the transition from the son of a poor farmer to prairie lawyer to US president recapitulates the broader hopes of Lincoln for American modernization.  Just as Lincoln was able to rise in the world through participating in the opportunities of the market, so too could any number of Americans.  And Lincoln sought to increase this number of Americans to make it as large as possible.  For Lincoln, opportunity was not meant to be limited to the lucky elect; rather, opportunity should be a feast for all.

Lowry argues that, for Lincoln and his allies, the plantation economy was both politically and economically backward-looking.  Along with its other grievous moral wrongs, the slave system denied both political and economic agency to slaves.  This lack of agency contaminated the whole of the plantation economy.  This plantation system avoided technological progress and instead celebrated an agrarian model with colossal and fixed differences between the super-elite and the masses of laboring poor.

The argument that Lowry advances in this book is one well worth making and one that comes at an opportune time.  The past decade or so has witnessed a tremendous slow-down in economic growth and the hollowing out of opportunity for the middle class.  Many have estimated that economic mobility has declined in the United States.  This economic decline has increased human misery and also opened the door for larger centralized government intervention, which can itself be used to benefit the powerful at the expense of the average worker (or aspiring worker).  Detroit’s bankruptcy provides a stark contemporary context for Lincoln Unbound: the city of industry and a formerly middle-class metropolis (a city that in many ways realized the aspirations of Lincoln) now---due to a variety of social, economic, and political factors---teeters on the brink.

The final chapter of Lincoln Unbound recounts some of the opportunity shortfalls of the present and offers some possible Lincolnian policy responses.  In addition to including economic suggestions (such as making better use of natural resources and investing in infrastructure), this list also focuses on questions of civic and social temperament (such as interest in the average worker, support for education, and an elevation of the culture).  Some of these suggestions are not simply matters of government policy but also demand broader social reform.  For example, enterprises that would elevate the culture would go far beyond focusing on specific pieces of legislation; instead, they would participate in a broader social conversation.

Lowry aims this book at everyone, but it particularly speaks to the electoral difficulties currently facing Republicans.  Lincoln  Unbound suggests some ways in which the Republican party and conservatism can reenergize themselves not by selling out principles but instead by turning to face some of the pressing issues of the moment with a renewed political imagination.

Lincoln Unbound helps recover an alterative way of talking about politics and the organization of political principles into a governing philosophy.  Lincoln offers a political approach that combines market capitalism with moral uplift and civic freedom with a defense of republican legitimacy.  For Lincoln and many of his fellow Republicans, personal virtue and moral probity were important components of self-governance; morality itself, they found, was a vehicle for achieving true liberty.  At a time when the nation-state is viewed with some skepticism by transnational progressives and various globalists, Lincoln’s vision offers a defense of a national republic as a way of extending the enjoyment of civil liberty and the recognition of human dignity.  Lincoln at his best does not defend a caricature of capitalism in which “maker” wars against “taker” but instead celebrates the aspiration and worth of all men and women.  This book makes a case for the notion that free markets and technological advancements can work for the good of humanity.  Those who defended the Union during the Civil War recognized that a balanced budget alone was not enough to ensure freedom: the maintenance of liberty required a republic vigorous in self-defense and strong in moral vision (but not drunk on self-righteousness), and also demanded the nurturing of a civic culture capable of sustaining a free republic.

Clearly written and often subtly argued, Lincoln Unbound performs one of the important roles of historical narratives: it sifts through past traditions in order to cast light on the present and to suggest the value of some enduring principles.

(Disclosure: I occasionally contribute to National Review Online, which Lowry edits.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Fall of Detroit

Zero Hedge lists 25 details associated with the bankruptcy of Detroit (including the decline of manufacturing employment, the breakdown of public safety infrastructure, and population shrinkage).

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Polling Says

National Journal has a poll out showing that only 29% of Americans want the Senate bill passed as is.  The rest want increased border security, the pathway to citizenship stripped, or no bill to be passed at all.  And this poll, in describing the Senate bill, does not mention its increase in guest-worker programs or effects on legal immigration.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Some Immigration-Related Links

Andrew Stiles wonders at the political price some Democrats may pay for following the White House line on immigration.

Boehner adds his voice to those in the GOP supporting some kind of legalization for those brought here illegally as children.  Cantor is another big supporter of this measure.

Meanwhile, a House bipartisan group continues its immigration discussions.

Ramesh Ponnuru says that GOP should forget about the Senate's version of "comprehensive" immigration legislation---and forge its own path.

Michael Warren argues that the GOP can expand its coalition without sacrificing principle.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Disappointing Recovery

A new report suggests that wages fell in most professions during the 2009-2012 period, especially for lower-paid jobs.

Glass-Steagal Returns?

It seems Elizabeth Warren is leading a bipartisan group of senators who want to restore Glass-Steagall:
A bipartisan group of senators led by Massachusetts freshman Democrat Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill Thursday to reinstate the Great Depression-era Glass-Steagall law that would separate commercial from investment banks.
Speaking at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Warren said that the point of her bill was “keeping the gamblers out of our banks.” Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Angus King, I-Maine, are co-sponsoring the measure.
The new Glass-Steagall provision, intended to counter the threat of too-big-to-fail banks, would separate banks that offer savings and checking accounts to consumers from firms that engage in other, riskier financial services, such as investment banking and hedge fund management. The non-commercial banks would not be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
There have been some other attempts to try to ward off the dangers of Too Big to Fail (led by David Vitter and Sherrod Brown), but many of these efforts have not gained much legislative support.

I've written before about the possible benefit of taking on Too Big to Fail.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Against the Bill

In a joint editorial, The Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and National Review editor Rich Lowry attack the Senate immigration bill---and call upon the House to kill it:
There is no case for the bill, and certainly no urgency to pass it. During the debate over immigration in 2006–07, Republican rhetoric at times had a flavor that communicated a hostility to immigrants as such. That was a mistake, and it did political damage. This time has been different. The case against the bill has been as responsible as it has been damning.
It’s become clear that you can be pro-immigrant and pro-immigration, and even favor legalization of the 11 million illegal immigrants who are here and increases in some categories of legal immigration – and vigorously oppose this bill.
The bill’s first fatal deficiency is that it doesn’t solve the illegal-immigration problem. The enforcement provisions are riddled with exceptions, loopholes, and waivers. Every indication is that they are for show and will be disregarded, just as prior notional requirements to build a fence or an entry/exit visa system have been – and just as President Obama has recently announced he’s ignoring aspects of Obamacare that are inconvenient to enforce on schedule. Why won’t he waive a requirement for the use of E-Verify just as he’s unilaterally delayed the employer mandate? The fact that the legalization of illegal immigrants comes first makes it all the more likely that enforcement provisions will be ignored the same way they were after passage of the 1986 amnesty.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Wednesday Thoughts

At NRO, I offer some thoughts about the House GOP's strategy for immigration reform.  The caucus is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss this issue.  Here are a couple of the points I make:
The Senate legislation won’t “fix” the nation’s immigration system. Like Reagan’s 1986 amnesty, it provides legalization before enforcement. It is larded with loopholes for executive discretion and abuse. It creates huge new government programs (such as the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research) to oversee the economy. Its guest-worker programs undermine market principles and will put new pressures on the middle class. It will not end illegal immigration.
A House “compromise” bill that keeps most of these features would be a very small improvement over the Senate bill. Any plan offering legalization first would basically be saying “In Barack Obama We Trust,” at a time when Americans, in the recent string of scandals, are otherwise running up against new reasons not to.
The Senate bill fixates on “border security,” but border security is not the only point at issue for illegal immigration. Enforcement within the U.S. is crucial; currently, about 40 percent of illegal immigrants are visa-overstayers, a percentage that could grow under the Senate bill because of its increase in the number of temporary visas offered each year. Despite the promises of its supporters, the bill will not end illegal immigration, and it might not even make much of a dent or reduce it at all. The Congressional Budget Office’s most optimistic estimate is that the bill, after all the extra billions that the Corker-Hoeven amendment would send to the border, would cut illegal immigration by a third to a half. That reduced flow could still lead, the CBO implies, to over 7.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States by 2023. That fails the standards professed by Senator Rubio and Senator Schumer. And that number assumes that the promises of enforcement will actually be somewhat realized. There is a very good chance that various provisions — from the fence to the Border Patrol “surge” to E-Verify — could also be put off (witness the Obama administration’s recent decisions to postpone key parts of the health-care law).
Money isn’t everything. Some very large donors may be pushing “comprehensive” immigration reform, but all the money in the world won’t necessarily carry to victory a party without a solid governing philosophy. For a political party, victory at the polls is far more important than vacuuming up donor dollars. Recent electoral history is littered with candidates — from Meg Whitman to Linda McMahon to Rudy Giuliani — who spent big bucks for minimal electoral success. While President Obama significantly outraised Senator John McCain in 2008, this time around Mitt Romney — when individual candidate totals, party funds, and super-PAC spending are accounted for — probably spent about as much as President Obama did. Yet with all those extra hundreds of millions in spending, Governor Romney barely won more votes than Senator McCain and improved on McCain’s share of the popular vote by less than two points and won back two states. And this modest improvement was in an environment much less favorable to Obama than in 2008, which was one of the worst electoral scenarios for the GOP within recent memory.
Lacking a message that addressed some of the central concerns of the economic middle, Republicans struggled with the working and middle classes in 2012. That contributed to the defeat of their presidential nominee and many of their congressional contenders. A Republican candidate can raise a billion dollars in 2016, but without a forward-looking economic policy, conservatives should look forward to more disappointment on November 8, 2016. With its likely downward pressure on wages and economic opportunity for those at the economic middle and margins, the Senate bill could prove a stumbling block for a message of popular economic uplift.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Regarding Gettysburg

Lincoln said it the best:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Let's keep that hope of a new birth of freedom in mind on this nation's birthday.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Breaking Down a Pattern of Failure

James Pethokoukis notes the pattern of bank failures in the economy and argues that excessively concentrated financialization has harmed US economic growth:
Over the past three decades, the U.S. financial system has suffered a nasty financial shock every half dozen years or so, on average. And each incarnation has been different — from the 1987 stock-market crash to the savings-and-loan crisis to the demise of Long-Term Capital Management to the Great Global Financial Crisis, which arguably began six years ago this summer with the collapse of two Bear Stearns hedge funds.
If life were like the movies, it would be time for some world-weary-but-knowing character to drop the now-hackneyed line, “There’s a storm coming.” And whatever form that storm might take, would Wall Street be ready to weather it? Or more important for Main Street, would the U.S. economy be able to withstand another financial blowup without resorting to yet another taxpayer bailout?