The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Beyond Blue Around the Web

Our “Beyond Blue” essays, the culmination of one of Via Meadia‘s overarching storylines, have been sparking conversation. Over at the New York Times Campaign Stops blog, Columbia’s Thomas Edsall compares the essays to Charles Murray’s recent work:

Mead’s predictions may or may not prove prescient, but it is his thinking, more than Murray’s, that reflects the underlying optimism that has sustained the United States for more than two centuries — a refusal to believe that anything about human nature is essentially “intractable.” Mead’s way of looking at things is not only more inviting than Murray’s, it is also more on target.

Via Meadia will have more to say about Murray’s provocative new book in the weeks ahead. For now, Edsall’s analysis is well worth pondering.

Over at National Review, Jim Manzi has taken note:

Walter Russell Mead has done a remarkable series of long posts on the future of American political economy. The fourth installment argues that we are undergoing a transformation that will ultimately create lots of good jobs, but that we’ll have to get used to seeing service jobs very differently.

There is significant overlap between this very optimistic piece and my “Keeping America’s Edge” essay from a couple of years ago. But I tried to emphasize that while such a sunny future is possible, achieving it is likely to require serious social, political, and economic reform. America has led economic transformations before; we are not pre-ordained to lead the next one.

Manzi is a sharp analyst, and his National Affairs essay is recommended reading for anyone interested in the core themes of Via Meadia.

We are gratified and encouraged to see thinkers across the spectrum adding to this debate.

Published on February 14, 2012 4:04 pm
  • Jim.

    Edsall’s off on at least one point– you’ve stated the position that human nature *is* intractable, though little in our environment or economic situation is.

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    Have to say I’m with Jim. on this one. Really not sure where Edsall gets this Mead = infinitely malleable (or infinitely perfectible?) human nature stuff. Or whatever it is he’s trying to say. And I’d like to think I’m a pretty close reader of the longer Via Meadia essays.

  • WigWag

    David Frum absolutely evicerstes the thesis of Murray’s new book over at his blog at the Daily Beast. I have rarely seen such a spectacular job of exposing an attempt to have garbage masquerade as social science. Frum’s take down of Murray comes in five parts; it is well worth a look.

  • a nissen

    “Via Meadia will have more to say about Murray’s provocative new book in the weeks ahead.”

    ” Manzi is a sharp analyst, and his National Affairs essay is recommended reading for anyone interested in the core themes of Via Meadia. We are gratified and encouraged to see thinkers across the spectrum adding to this debate.”

    Sounds more like orchestrated group think to me. Although rather harmless compared to this:

    http://www.salon.com/2012/02/14/us_media_takes_the_lead_on_iran/singleton/

  • Anthony

    I concur with Wig Wag. David Frum presents a very objectiive critique of “Coming Apart” in The Daily Beast – five parts.

  • Anthony

    WRM is also correct: Manzi’s essay in National Affairs is worth the read – idea/theme clarity.

  • Jim.

    @WigWag:

    Frum is indeed well worth a look, but only as a sharpening stone to hone Murray’s argument on. It is far from a perfect indictment.

    In the first part, Frum criticizes Murray for what he leaves out — mostly, a comparison of 1960-2010 to the years 1910-1960. But Frum’s own picture of America 1910-1960 (when we became more united, more reverent, and more prosperous) has some glaring omissions of its own.

    1) Two World Wars. Could you imagine any event that elevates cooperation and conformity in the national consciousness more than the emotional and physical hardships of world-scale conscript-infantry warfare — topped off by the emotional payoff of *winning* those wars?

    Couple this with Eisenhower’s overt Christianity, and its resonance with his troops (and the people back home), and you’ve got a whole lot of the explanation of “why were people more conforming and devout in the postwar era”.

    Contrast that with the trauma of Vietnam, and the “let’s win, but let’s not kill anyone, or offend anyone with overt Christianity” attitude of the Iraq wars. This explanation holds together on both sides of 1960, unlike Frum’s claim that “Big Government was responsible for good in the early 20th century, so it couldn’t be responsible for evil in the second half despite all evidence.”

    2) Closed-door immigration policy and blatantly assimilationist social pressure. How can you even begin to discuss how uniform America became, pre-1960, without talking about the fact that we simply didn’t let a lot of people in — and the people who had been let in faced a planned program of assimilation via media such as Life magazine?

    Even when Frum touches on one of these issues — as he did in his “let’s make fun of Murray’s thesis and hope it goes away” passage, he doesn’t address them in a rational way. “Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill” — IF your grandfather was in the military at all, which *was not true for more than a handful in every hundred*. A whole lot of people wanted to emulate GIs, with the uniform and the joinerist spirit. Only a small fraction were actually eligible for the government benefits given to GIs. Frum simply made a gratuitous plug for Big Government here, completely out of proportion with any realistic estimation of the scope of its effect on society.

    But then there’s the most egregious omission Frum makes…. He completely misses the point of Murray’s thesis, “Insofar as men need to work to survive – an important proviso – falling hourly income does not discourage work.” If men do not need work to survive — if they can rely on Big Government benefits — those benefits directly discourage work.

    More on the next few shots of Frum’s feeble salvo later.

    WigWag, seriously… are you just a troll? A foil for Socratic debate? An alter-ego of WRM, or one of the interns maybe, whose posts are designed to elicit criticism more incisive than any agreement could be? Your recent comments are at best paper tiger, at worst straw man.

  • Jim.

    Responding to part 2 of Frum’s fizzle:

    Murray’s point: higher-up cultural assets are not being transmitted lower down on the economic ladder.

    What practices do CEOs believe they have that distinguish them from the rest of their workers? “you’ve worked hard [harder than others] to get where you are; you think that your contribution is valuable to the company [more valuable than that of others]”

    From what I’ve seen in private industry, *this picture of the management class is largely true*. Imagine replacing a manager with someone taken at random from the factory floor. (Note: higher-up managers think in these terms all the time.) In general, the person already in the managerial / supervisory position is in fact harder working, has more familiarity with important aspects of the business, and their contribution *is* more valuable than the average worker’s.

    (Thousands of times more valuable? Of course not. Pay is absolutely out of proportion. THAT is the real problem we need to be addressing, although that might not be possible until lower-end wage pressure eases because other countries’ wages have to some degree caught up with the US’s.)

    A real problem, I suggest, is *exactly what Murray proposes* — one, that companies pay little or no attention to training lower-level workers in managerial skills (reserving that sort of mentorship to a handful of promising candidates), and two, workers in general don’t get trained by community institutions with the sort of discipline and dedication to a job (Protestant Work Ethic) that gets people ahead in the workforce.

    The fact that our dominant (Hollywood) culture is dead set against the Protestant Work Ethic and stigmatizes / caricatures everyone who practices (they’re so judgmental! But try not having a work ethic in Hollywood…) it is in fact a big part of the problem.

    Another incoherent comment by Frum:

    “When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.

    This is Palinism with a bar chart.”

    So compare this to Frum’s earlier criticism of people who refuse to change their minds in the face of evidence (like, say, bar charts.) As far as I can tell, instead of engaging with the idea that Palinism may have something to back it up, the reference to is simply an excuse to dismiss Murray.

    Frum’s criticism isn’t just incoherent with respect to reality; he isn’t even coherent *with respect to his own criteria*.

    Fisk of part 3+ later.

  • Jim.

    Part 3…

    Here’s irony, if you’re kind; or hypocrisy, if you’re not: Frum criticizes Murray for being better at “artistic” drawing pictures than backing his argument up with figures… then Frum proceeds to draw pictures of his own rather than quote figures.

    And it seems rather odd that Frum expects that hyperlinking a book’s Amazon page, *twice*, is a good substitute for including any sort of quote whatsoever from that book. Either he’s trying to drum up sales, the book’s author threatened Frum somehow if he ever quoted the book directly, or Frum’s trying to avoid the possibility that the book doesn’t support him (or its own thesis) as well as he’d like us to think. In any case… not buying it, Frum. If you want to “prove” who the top 5% are, you’re going to have to do better than just an appeal to authority.

    A good many of Frum’s pictures revolve around the top 5% and how much better off they are now than they were in 1962. Well, how about a similar picture of people at the poverty line these days? Grapes in wintertime aren’t all that unusual, even for people on food stamps, these days.

    As for rich people having influence in politics… Rupert Murdoch is hardly the first rich person to go that direction. Are you counting on people forgetting the 90′s, when the Clinton News Network (CNN) was run by Jane Fonda’s husband Ted Turner?

    I’ll see Montesquieu’s “seemliness” and raise you de Tocqueville’s thoughts on American egalitarianism… de Tocqueville pointed out that when he was in America, he observed the well-to-do rubbing shoulders with everyone and scorning no one. In fact, it was socially unthinkable for them to treat those less wealthy than they with anything other than respect and a sense of equality.

    As far as I can tell, Murray’s argument is that we have lost that sense…. and, bluntly, it is Lefties who have a chip on their shoulders about not being recognized as godlike intelligences that are the most guilty of that.

    You know the ones I mean — the ones who nodded sagely when Obama made his crack about clinging to guns and religion.

    Did you know, Obama’s not letting any of the local San Fransisco press in on his recent visit? They make it SO hard for him to keep a tight rein on his “message”…

  • Jim.

    (Part the fourth, in which Frum misses Murray’s point entirely.)

    “If America is to survive as America, the trends Murray deplores must somehow be arrested or reversed. What does he recommend? Strangely, the answer to that question is … virtually nothing.”

    You’ve got to be kidding me. Is Frum really so dense as not to listen to any argument that he happens to disagree with? Must be “Palinism”…

    So what is it that richer people do nowadays that poorer people do not?

    - Get married, and stay married, to the other parent of their children.
    - Go to church. Think about what you hear there and internalize it.
    - Be careful with money
    - Work hard, in school and in the workforce
    - Get a good education, getting useful and marketable skills for yourself instead of just “chasing your dream”
    - Take whatever job you can (I’ve had some weird ones, so have most people) and keep applying for the ones you want.

    Instead, what does Hollywood say?
    - “Follow your heart”, no matter how often it changes, or how much that hurts others.
    - “Question all beliefs (especially religion)” but don’t you dare question whether buggery is as valid as reproductive family, you filthy little troll
    - “Spend money on all the wonderful shiny things you see in our movies, whether you have that money or not”
    - “Working hard in school is for squares” unless it’s an utterly useless spectacle of a skill (like dancing) that only a handful of people can ever support a family on
    - “Corporate jobs are soul-destroying, quit any job you find dull!”, no matter how critical they are to our economy, or how well they support a family.

    There is a difference between thinking (and saying) NASCAR is stupid and exhorting people to get and stay married. Apparently Frum can’t see that.

    Oh, and Temperance? Read Abraham Lincoln’s letters regarding the Temperance movement sometime. The movement worked a whole lot better when it was a PRIVATE organization emphasizing face-to-face contact and individual testimonies, like AA, than when they tried a faceless, feckless Big Government solution. It was very popular, in fact; how else do you think it cleared the hardest hurdle in American democracy, the crafting of a Constitutional amendment? If you’re a historian, you can’t escape that fact — unless you think the years between 1910 and 1960 are the only ones that matter.

    It boils down to this: Peer pressure, and pressure from respected public figures, all needs to push in the direction of (Lo and behold!) traditional morality. If this fails, the nation fails.

    (More on 3 shortly)

  • Jim.

    More about 4 I mean, sorry.

    A quote from Murray that Frum includes in Part 4:
    “A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing a theoretical outcome, but American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t. Taking the trouble out of life strips people of major ways in which human beings look back on their lives and say, ‘I made a difference.’”

    I repeat, there is no doubt this quote from Murray IS IN FRUM’S CRITIQUE. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing staggering can come of the comment I am about to relate.

    Now a quote from Frum:
    “Yet at the end of the book, without ever suggesting any reason to believe that government is the problem, he insists that the reduction of government is the solution.”

    Talking to Frum is like talking to a wall. He absorbs nothing of what he reads.

    Why is Man irrelevant? Because the BIG GOVERNMENT WELFARE STATE makes him so! Then, what is the root cause of his sickness of spirit? BIG GOVERNMENT!

    More from Frum:
    “I found myself flipping from beginning to end of the book, punching searches into my Kindle, questioning whether I’d perhaps carelessly missed some crucial piece of evidence. But no. There is no evidence, not even an argument, just an after-the-fact assertion, pulled out of the hat. It’s puzzling, truly.”

    Truly, there are none so blind as those that will not see.

    Again, Frum repeats himself — echoing in his own head…
    “The conclusions of Coming Apart are pure dogma, not only unsupported but even unrelated to anything that went before.”

    You have the answer staring you in the face, Frum. Quoted in your own essay, no less.

    Frum…. You. Are. Hopeless.

  • Jim.

    Part the fifth, in which Frum descends from stupidity into madness.

    “American labor relations in the period from 1880 through 1920 were the most violent on earth.”

    Frum really wrote that. I’m not kidding. Only the plea that he is probably an idiot saves him from accusations of being an actual, bona fide, history-erasing Soviet propagandist.

    “In 1901, an anarchist murdered President McKinley”

    I’ll see your head-of-state and raise you his entire family (the Romanovs).

    “in 1919-20, a bloody wave of bombings culminated in an explosion on Wall Street that killed that killed 38 people and wounded 400 more.”

    In addition to the Russian revolution of that era, post-WWI street fighting in Berlin claimed at least as many lives (though another VM reader alleges no grass blades were harmed.)

    “There was however at least one hugely important difference between those days and our own. Back then, the lower class, rather than sink meekly into its immiseration, periodically erupted in violent strikes and riots.”

    This is a good thing, in Frum’s twisted little mind. Because he fantasizes that…

    “Many elite Americans decided something had to be done….they also worked to find ways to ameliorate conditions for working Americans. Violent strike-breaking went of style, to be replaced by gentler managerial practices. State governments enacted wage and hour laws.”

    The tragedy here is, until wage pressure from formerly 3rd world countries eases, **there are few concessions on wages and hours that managers can give**. Is there progress that can be made in terms of balance between executive pay and line worker pay? Sure. But if rabble-rousers start to drum up violence amongst line workers with promises of a better life, and management goes back to a 30-to-1 wage disparity, **the rosiest promises of those rabble-rousers will not be fulfilled**. The payroll numbers just don’t add up. More progress could be made if companies relied less on outside financing (thus saving themselves interest payments from their operating margins), but it still wouldn’t make the $80k/yr unskilled job come back.

    To give you some hint where Frum’s coming from:

    “Even the federal government acted to enforce national food safety standards in 1906.”

    That’s from “The Jungle”. But Frum, unlike most of us, doesn’t seem to be skipping over the Socialist parts.

    Clue, Frum — if you’re going to read a Socialist, read Orwell instead.

    More in a bit.