Tucker Carlson Versus Conservatism

The Fox News host amplifies a debate the right needs to have.

The most interesting thing in conservative politics right now is not the government shutdown and Donald Trump’s flailing attempt to claim victory while being defeated on all fronts. Instead it’s an ideological battle over Tucker Carlson’s recent Fox News soliloquy, in which he accused his fellow Republicans of building an anti-family, finance-dominated economic system that might be “the enemy of a healthy society.”

Carlson’s monologue was an expansion of themes that have dominated his reinvention as a Trump-era populist — the general folly of elites, the unwisdom of the bipartisan consensus on immigration and foreign policy, the failure of Republican leaders to defend the national interest.

But in expanding on those themes he went somewhere that Fox hosts rarely go — from culture into economics, from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism.

Just about every conservative worth reading was provoked into responding.

If there is to be a healthy American right, after Donald Trump or ever, this is the argument that conservatives should be having. And it is especially an argument that Fox News should be highlighting, since Fox is frequently responsible for stoking populism but keeping it vacuous or racialized, evading the debates the right really needs.

Now let me attempt my own quick contribution. A key issue in the Carlson contretemps is distilled in this line from David French of National Review, one of the monologue’s critics: “There are wounds that public policy can’t heal.”

This is a crucial conservative insight, a caution for policymakers everywhere — but it can also become a trap, a cul-de-sac, an excuse for doing nothing. And that has happened too often for conservatives in recent decades: They’ve leaped to despair without even trying policy.

But in hindsight this was wrong, the feared inflation never came, and the economic recovery was slowed because of the Republican fixation on tight money. Of course, in the Trump era some Republicans have conveniently become dovish on inflation. But in the preceding eight years, wage-earning Americans suffered unnecessarily because of a wrongheaded right-wing counsel of despair.

A second example: While it’s true that family breakdown has deep and tangled roots, it’s also true that in the 1940s and 1950s, a mix of government policy, union strength and conservative gender norms established a “family wage” — an income level that enabled a single breadwinner to support a family.

Maybe it isn’t possible to recreate a family wage for a less unionized and more feminist age — but are we sure? Is there really nothing conservatives can do to address

  • the costs of child care,
  • the unfulfilled parental desire to shift to part-time work,
  • the problem that a slightly more reactionary iteration of Elizabeth Warren once dubbed “the two-income trap”?

If marriages and intact families and birthrates declined as the family wage crumbled, perhaps we should try rebuilding that economic foundation before we declare the crisis of the family a wound that policy can’t heal.

A final example: Historically conservatism has been proudly paternalist, favorable to forms of censorship and prohibition for the sake of protecting precisely the private virtues that Carlson’s critics think government can’t cultivate. But in recent decades, the right’s elites have despaired of

  • censoring pornography, acquiesced to the spread of
  • casino gambling, made peace with the
  • creeping commercialization of marijuana, and accepted the
  • internet’s conquest of childhood and adolescence.

Yet none of these trends actually seem entirely beyond the influence of regulation. It’s just that conservatism has given up — once again, in unwarranted despair — on earlier assumptions about how public paternalism can encourage private virtue.

The deeper point here is that public policy is rarely a cure-all, but it can often be a corrective. And the part of Carlson’s monologue his critics should especially ponder is the end, when he suggests that absent a corrective that “protects normal families,” even the normal will eventually turn to socialism — choosing a left-wing overcorrection over a right that just says, Well, you see, we already cut corporate taxes, so there’s nothing we can do.

The Breakdown of the Capital-Labor Accord and Okun’s Law

we talk a lot about the “post-war capital-labor accord” and the golden age of the 1940s-1970s. In these years, inequality went down, unions flourished, civil rights laws were passed along with LBJ’s Great Society programs like Medicare, etc. Corporations saw themselves as not just profit-seeking nexuses-of-contracts but also as institutions with duties to their stakeholders – employees, local community organizations, etc.

.. Then everything went to hell in the 1970s. Oil shocks, poor economic performance, large increases in foreign competition, an overheated economy created by the meeting of increased social spending and increased military spending, all combined to create massive inflation and other sorts of economic upheaval.

.. union contracts were blamed for causing inflation and big business began to push for

regulatory changes (to fight the hated EPA and OSHA, along with unions) and increased layoffs.

Institutional investors, growing rapidly in size in part *because* of the prosperity of the “golden age” (e.g. the massive pension funds like CALPERS and TIAA-CREF), began to demand discipline from corporations unused to having to listen to anyone

.. Changes in financial regulations and institutions made possible the junk bond market and, in turn, a more active market for corporate control – suddenly, large firms that were used to making acquisitions became targets.

.. by the mid-1980s, the golden age had ended along with the capital-labor accord and something new had begun – perhaps we can call it the “neoliberal era

.. This era’s hallmarks include the dramatic decline in unions, massive increases in the share of wealth going to the top 1% and .1% (cf. Piketty and Saez), massive increases in the share of profits going to finance (cf. Krippner 2005), and an overall change in the way that corporations perceived themselves.

.. No longer institutions with obligations beyond profit-seeking, corporations became (thought of as) legal fictions that served the sole purpose of maximizing shareholder value

.. The old dominant strategy of firms was to “retain and reinvest”, the new mantra was to “downsize and distribute

.. The old model of the firm was GM – a massive, vertically integrated institution that dominated a market and did everything in-house. The new model was the “Original Equipment Manufacturer” (OEM), a firm like Nike that designs a product and markets it but outsources and off-shores as much of the actual producing, distributing, etc. The firm is now a brand, an identity demarcating a certain set of contracts, whose value is more about intangibles than men and machines.

.. Okun’s Law is an economic relationship between the magnitude of an economic downturn (in terms of real GDP) and increases in unemployment

..  if GDP (production and incomes, that is) rises or falls two percent due to the business cycle, the unemployment rate will rise or fall by one percent. The magnitude of swings in unemployment will always be half or nearly half the magnitude of swings in GDP.

.. The last downturns – 1991ish, 2001ish and the current moment – have all been characterized by “jobless recoveries” or, more broadly, much larger decreases and much smaller increases in unemployment than would be predicted by Okun’s law.

.. “businesses will tend to “hoard labor” in recessions, keeping useful workers around and on the payroll even when there is temporarily nothing for them to do”.

.. Manufacturing firms used to think that their most important asset was skilled workers. Hence they hung onto them, “hoarding labor” in recessions. And they especially did not want to let go of their prime productive asset when the recovery began. Skilled workers were the franchise. Now, by contrast, it looks as though firms think that their workers are much more disposable—that it’s their brands or their machines or their procedures and organizations that are key assets.

.. The 1980s saw a reordering of the world – a transition from a period governed by one set of rules that privileged the relationship between businesses and their employees to one that privileged (relatively speaking, in ideology anyway) shareholders.

.. What variables should we care about, if GDP seems to be connected less to welfare than it used to be?

.. the neoliberal period is marked by dramatic, mind-boggling increases in executive compensation without, as far as I know, any signs of better performance or increased shareholder value.

The ’70s and Us

In certain ways sexual predation actually was the culture in the years when Weinstein came of age, in the entertainment industry and the wider society it influenced and mirrored.

.. There is a liberal tendency to regard sexual exploitation as a patriarchal constant that feminism has mitigated, and a conservative tendency to regard it as a problem that’s gotten steadily worse since the sexual revolution.

.. You can remember some of it with ’70s statistics: Never so many divorces, never so many abortions, a much higher rate of rape, an S.T.D. crisis that culminated in the AIDS epidemic.

..  something new happenedin Catholicism between 1960 and 1980: The prevalence of pedophilia stayed about the same, but suddenly the rate of priests groping and seducing and raping teenagers shot way, way up. As went Bowie and Zeppelin, so went the most putatively-conservative institution in the country.

.. The coarse worldview I’ve called “Hefnerism” endured, as the victims of Weinstein and Bill Clinton and Donald Trump can well attest.

.. They featured our civilization’s last great burst of creative energy. Those predatory directors and rape-y rock stars made great movies and memorable music.

.. peace feels like cultural exhaustion.

 

Will Liberals Give Weinstein the O’Reilly Treatment?

As Camille Paglia noted in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem didn’t waste any time discarding sexual harassment guidelines when it came to Bill Clinton’s sexual predations as president. Principle rapidly gave way to partisanship and political opportunism.

Mr. Weinstein clearly understands this calculus. In the wake of the Times report, he issued a cringe-inducing apology: “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then,” as if in the good olde days of the women’s liberation movement it was totally acceptable to ask a 20-something colleague to bathe you.

He promises “to do better” and “conquer my demons.” He misquotes Jay-Z. He says he has hired a team of therapists to “deal with the issue head on.”

But the real heart of his message was that he will be an even better progressive if given a second chance: “I’m going to need a place to channel that anger so I’ve decided I’m going to give the N.R.A. my full attention.” He’s also making a movie about Donald Trump.

And if the virtue-signaling isn’t enough, the man who has bankrolled Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand — the list goes on and on — is determined to pay out much more. “One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors” at the University of Southern California

.. And if the virtue-signaling isn’t enough, the man who has bankrolled Barbara Boxer, Charles Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand — the list goes on and on — is determined to pay out much more. “One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors” at the University of Southern California

.. what’s telling is that Ms. Bloom and his other advisers seem to believe their best chance of salvaging their damaged client is, like the Catholic Church of yore, to pay for his sins in the coin of liberal affirmation. The behavioral issues will take time.