Monday, October 30, 2023

Family Vacations and the American Dream

The furthest I ever went on a family vacation growing up was one state over east--to Wisconsin. It lasted about 5 days or so. Most years, the routine would be 3 or 4 days and a 3-to-4 hour car trip to either Duluth, Minnesota at the western end of the Great Lakes or to Minneapolis, Minnesota where we'd take in a Twins baseball game. On no level is this a complaint. This was sufficient and I only had two real comparisons to it. 

My father had never stayed overnight with his parents anywhere. This was not necessarily an economic choice, but a product of my paternal grandfather's experiences in the Second World War and a desire to never leave home again for the night. The other comparison was to peers. Here I'd get a bit more of a sense that friends of my would go on trips to Europe or Florida or elsewhere. To this day I've never traveled on a plane with my parents and likely never will. Earlier this month my wife and I traveled with our son for the fifth time on a plane in his seventeen months of life so far. Partly a consequence of living far away from family, yes. But it reminds me of these markers of what was once considered a middle-class life, how unattainable it's becoming for the current generations trying to raise kids, and how lucky to buck these overall trends the family we're building is. 

Traditionally, a marker of a middle-class life, which used to not just be the standard in America, but the genuine preference, meant going on a family vacation to really anywhere else... whether by car or by plane. Owning your own home, two cars, and maybe if you live near a lake in a not-too-expensive area, maybe you had a boat too. 

In the three decades since the country started electing baby boomers to the Presidency and the majority of seats in Congress, American culture, society, and home economics has taken a drastic turn for the worse, especially for the American middle-class. 

The middle-class squeeze in an era of growing financialization, globalization, outsourcing, and wage stagnation relative to inflation has affected the ability of households to keep the home, the cars, maybe the boat, and yes -- the family vacation. Mostly, we're just treading water to keep the family intact in the wake of these forces at all. And rather than a picture of despair, the American middle-class has for years fought hard to keep these markers of the American Dream. 

First, an adjustment was made years ago and a bit more each year with one-income households becoming two-income households. While the political and cultural mainstream hailed this as a victory for one of the various waves of feminism, it really was a victory for corporate outsourcing, union busting, and shifting labor-management battles away from the private sector and into the public sector where the competition with the well-defended ownership class was replaced with pitting the interests of public employee unions against the mostly defenseless taxpayers. What happened was a lot of rhetoric, junk food, temporary good feelings, then a sugar crash on borrowed money, exploding debt, and now--overall inflation. But this first story took decades to hit the wall. Besides, many, many households stayed single income anyway because they were single parent households, married to the state rather than a person. 

The second middle-class course correction was charging these things at the edges on credit cards. The credit card economy exploded throughout the 1990s, although it is far exceeded (see 2nd chart below) by household debt and spending items on a myriad other a handful of other goods and services. 

The third and what is proving to be final course-correction was borrowing against the main asset of the middle-class lifestyle-the home. Reverse mortgages and home equity lines of credit helped maintain for a few years longer, the illusion that the American Dream and possibilities for the next generation to do better than their parents a little bit longer. Last decade, as this squeeze became more and more apparent to honest observers of our structural economy people theorized about what the fourth course-correction or adjustment would be. The period of adjustment came and went. What for three years was the best economy, especially for the bottom 3 quintiles in 2017, 2018, and 2019 gave way to COVID-19 era of moral panic, induced economic devastation, and a deliberate sabotage of the social fabric. The best economic conditions in at least twenty years, if not thirty years that resembled a Goldilocks economy has been wiped out in 2021, 2022, and 2023. Over the past many decades, America has gone from a family wage supporting, production-oriented, export-driven, manufacturing economy to a debtor, consumer-oriented, import-driven, "services" economy. And I put "services" in quotation marks because service might remind us of Home Depot or a small business later replaced by Amazon and the convenience economy. Nope. For the most part the "services" economy has been areas of heavy government spending that have induced and driven price increases along the way with each round of "reform" because that's what introduced a large guaranteed annual purchaser does to any sector or industry. 

The chart below shows health and medical care, higher education, and childcare and nursery services as having risen far past wages and inflation. The same result largely occurs if you replace 2000 with 1990 or so as the starting point. This is not a new problem, but it is an escalating one. And from the end year, this chart undersells how bad our economy actually is for the American middle-class and what is left of the American Dream. With housing and food just behind wages and inflation, in the three years since both of those areas contributed greatly to bringing up overall inflation rates. Home mortgage interest rates are higher than they've been in decades and for the first time in the lifetime of anyone under 45, food inflation is being experienced at painful levels. 

Every single one of these areas has been heavily subsidized by the government, and every time it's been a mistake that has dented the American Dream and upward mobility just a bit more. There was no fourth course-correction or adjustment coming. What is instead happened though could be better in the long run for the country. A political realignment by social class. 

The past few decades every good and service that has risen past wages and inflation has been heavily subsidized by the federal government and takes up significant total government spending.

Since Obama's election, student loan debt and higher education spending have skyrocketed. Today, a college degree signifies one of the biggest political divides. 

The Democrats long goodbye to the middle and working classes can be seen strikingly below, and this has continued to expand in the years since. The chart below illustrates that the party of the future is far more likely to be the Republican Party, whether it be in the more populist-variety or the more Reagan-era variety. More likely, a mix of both impulses will govern on economic matters, with each economic "wing" winning out and leading the areas they care about most. 

It's not lost on my growing family that our ability to own a home in Manhattan, to fly five times with our oldest, and so fourth -- puts us in rarified air for millennials in this economy. We are achieving the American Dream adjusting for New York City living (minus the two cars and the boat, add access and opportunity). Never in my wildest dreams, or in my conception of the American dream, did I think this would happen ten, twenty years ago. 

And never in a million years would I have traded the upbringing I had in cars listening to my Dad's favorite band The Beatles, or watching the Twins in the Metrodome, or being together in general with a family that never will be in the same room again -- for anything in the world. But as proud as I am of the risks taken to buck this trend against and onslaught against middle-class families, I think often of how elusive it's becoming for the most of us, the structural inadequacy of this economy, and how we can reverse the tide before it is too late. 

We will never save America with a nation of renters. Sorry. We just won't. We will also not save civil society and civilization with a bunch of tech and finance elites who take in conferences in Aspen and Davos. 

But we can save both the American nation and people, and rediscover a communitarian civic tradition if we build an economy that is centered around the real needs and aspirations of intact and resilient households and families of the middle-class -- the place where citizenship either lives or dies. 

Troy M. Olson is an Army Veteran, a lawyer by training, and the co-author (with Gavin Wax) of the upcoming book ‘The Emerging Populist Majority.’ He lives in New York City with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter and Substack at @TroyMOlson

Thursday, October 26, 2023

David Brooks is Spot On

You have to listen to this.

I always thought of David Brooks as being a hopeless neoconservative ideologue with not much of substance to contribute to the American political dialectic, but now I realize that I was unfair in my assessment. He is, on the contrary, a thoughtful mind with valuable and noteworthy insights. 

A few days ago, Brooks shared his thoughts on our plague of cultural and social atomization. 

In a short audio snippet (just six and a half minutes in length) the New York Times columnist walks us through his personal evolution. "I grew up somewhat aloof", he explained, "I was not a guy who was necessarily intimately involved with others." He described himself as being a sort of "observer", who looked at life from the sidelines, but didn't really participate in it. 

This kind of disposition is, needless to say, anti-Communitarian. Brooks, though, possessing the - what seems like, nowadays - rare ability to self-reflect, knew that he had to change if he wanted to participate in civic life in a meaningful way. He could no longer be, as he worded it, "an emotionally numb person."

But Brooks' case was not at all unique.

As he notes:

So there’s all these terrible social statistics of rising depression rates, rising suicide rates. The number of people who say they have no close personal friends has quadrupled, declines in happiness. So we’re in the middle of some social and emotional breakdown. And it’s because we’re not good at the act of being a considerate person in the daily circumstances of life to each other. And so I found this, as a journalist, I just see this epidemic of invisibility, of rural people who feel that coastal people don’t see them, of Republicans and Democrats looking at each other in blind incomprehension.

So, given all this, what did he do to turn things around for himself?

Well, he embarked on a 4-year journey to become "a more fuller human being." 

Brooks advocates (though, not explicitly) for what IR author and publisher of the Nonzero Newsletter, Robert Wright, often calls "cognitive empathy". Cognitive empathy is simply when you put yourself in someone's shoes (even an evil, Hitlerian figure), without endorsing their position. 

Brooks explains:

And so I’ve concluded that in these bitter and hard, and sometimes, cruel times, the right thing to do is to double down on being a defiant humanist. It’s to double down and say, I will not be calloused over. I’m going to double down on spending as much time as I can, as effectively I can, and seeing another person, in trying to understand their point of view, and trying to make them feel seen, heard, and understood.
Being a "defiant humanist" means that you are making every effort to see the humanity and merit in other people, though you may vehemently disagree with their worldview. Today, this seems like a radical idea. And, in the heat of the moment, it is easier said than done. Being a staunch conservative (I grew up reading Pat Buchanan), neoconservatives and leftists often make my blood boil. Like, I can actually feel my body temperature rising. But, this isn't healthy, nor is it humanist. Instead, we have to force ourselves to really see each other and engage in cognitive empathy. 

Watch this conversation between a conservative man with confederate ancestry and a black BLM advocate:

Pretty incredible, right?

On paying attention and being an active conversationalist:

I’ve learned that’s a moral posture. You’ve got to be able to say, I’m going to pay more attention to you than I am to myself. But it also requires skills. And one of them is, treat attention as an on/off switch, not a dimmer. If you’re in conversation, you should be paying 100 percent attention or 0 percent, but not 60 percent.

I'm guilty of sometimes having only one foot in a conversation. Sometimes I catch myself nodding my head while the other person is talking, but not listening to a word they say. This is a bad flaw in my character, but one I know I have to work on. 

What Brooks has to say about listening is particularly good: a loud listener. You should be listening so actively to people, you’re burning calories. Like, I have a buddy named Andy, and when I talk to him, he’s like one of those congregations of a Pentecostal church. He’s like, uh-huh, yeah. Uh-huh, uh-huh. Preach, preach, preach. Just love talking to that guy. He’s a loud listener.

Lastly, the "gem statement":

...keep the gem statement in the center. If my brother and I are fighting over our dad’s health care, we may be disagreeing about that, but we both want what’s best for our dad, and that’s the gem statement. If you’re in the middle of a disagreement and you can return to the gem statement, then you preserve the relationship amid your argument. And those are just very practical skills to make you and me better conversationalists.

Heed Brooks' advice. It is invaluable. 

We ought to always be in a place of self-reflection and, ultimately, self-improvement.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Let the People Drink!

These days, just about everything I write about is on the topic of Communitarianism and civic engagement. That is the whole point of this blog, after all. But often, when I tell my friends and contemporaries about our dearth in social capital, they ask the very logical question: so what are we to do about it?

To be sure, much of the writing on this topic is long in description, and short in prescription. There are, however, some inventive minds that are dedicating their lives to the cause of reviving our civic culture. Urban planners, most notably, have been at the forefront of this effort. They believe that, through the implementation of community-friendly infrastructure, they can facilitate environments conducive to social-connectedness. 

I've written in the past about Dover, Kohl, & Partners, a town planning firm founded in 1987, and their new effort to turn Lake Wales, Florida, a city of just around 16,000 people, into a Communitarian epicenter. 

This from the DK&P blog:

Residents were presented with an alternative vision for this special place; a vision that turned a very possible near future of endless cul-de-sacs, cars, garages, and asphalt into a loveable landscape of over 25,000 acres of newly proposed conservation lands, parks and open space, greenways, trails and community gardens interspersed with walkable neighborhoods connected to one another where residents have a chance to build relationships and live fulfilled lives. 

While thoughtful town planning like this can certainly improve atomized and soulless cities and suburbs throughout the country, surely there are other initiatives that local state and city governments can adopt. 

Earlier this month, Alan Ehrenhalt, a great author and Communitarian mind, wrote about so-called "social districts" for Governing Magazine. 

Social districts are, in short, stretches of city blocks where public drinking is permitted. Think Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Having an alcoholic drink in hand, it turns out, can facilitate conversation and social cohesion in a way that perhaps a lemonade could not. 

Fun fact: a co-worker of mine from Connecticut calls beer "dad-soda". 

So, could permitting some localities to implement "social districts" actually help bring about more community togetherness? Well, in North Carolina, a state that has taken a historically conservative stance on boozing, things are looking promising!


At the start of this year, there were 18 such districts in the state's communities, and now several more have joined them. They are mostly in small towns, but they are also turning up in larger cities, such as Raleigh and Greensboro. In Greensboro, one reporter observed, 'you can stroll the zone, drinks in hand, from noon to 9 o'clock at night.' In Hickory, the social district comprises more than 50 square city blocks. 

Sounds nice, doesn't it? And it doesn't appear that people are abusing these new privileges:

Most of the places that have gone this route seem to be enjoying it. As a civil official insisted in Kannapolis, the first North Carolina town that created a social district, it's all pretty harmless. 'It's not that people are showing up and drinking and drinking and drinking.' 

Other states are adopting similar measures. Both Michigan and Ohio are both experimenting with social districts of their own. Not only are they conducive to social capital, but they are also a huge boon to an economy that was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I mean, what more can you ask for? People are socializing AND pumping money into their local economies. That's a win-win if I've ever seen one!  

While alcohol can certainly bring out the worst in people, it also just might help in facilitating much-needed social interaction. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Cost of Having a Social Life

Dating in 2023 ain't cheap!

According to a new article in Business Insider, young people are forgoing dating because of the costs involved.

One New York City teacher told Insider that she spends upwards of $200 a month on dates. This might even seem moderately conservative to some who are particularly determined to find a partner. Dinner and drinks multiple times a month can easily run you hundreds of dollars. Unless your plan is to take your dates out for $1.00 pizza (which is now at least $1.50, thanks to inflation) and perhaps a quick stroll around the park, you ought to be prepared to dish over a pretty penny. 

What's more, some dating apps have begun to dramatically up their rates. Tinder, for instance, has launched a confoundedly expensive $500 a month VIP plan that offers users exclusive features, like the ability to direct message people who you didn't match with. In other words, you now will have the ability to creepily pester someone who most likely swiped left on you. 

Because of the steep price tag of dating in 2023, some are choosing to throw in the towel and focus their efforts elsewhere. Finding platonic friends, for instance, proves far more reliable. Respondents told Insider that they are "putting more effort into friendships and nonromantic social events to combat loneliness." Though, even that has hasn't proven to be a cake-walk for socially timid zoomers. It was comedian Owen Benjamin who very astutely compared Gen-Z to house cats, who are mortified of the outside world and the inevitable social interaction that goes along with it. That is why Bumble launched Bumble BFF, an app for making friends! What kind of world do we live in where phone apps are needed to facilitate platonic friendships? I miss the halcyon days of organic interaction! 

But, no matter the cost, people do in fact need each other. To live alone and friendless is but an early death. Prisoners who commit heinous crimes are subjected to solitary confinement, where they are deprived of all social interaction for 23 hours of the day. These people go mad. The worst thing you could do to someone is to strip them of their innate desire for socialization. 

I'm reminded of this British program I once stumbled upon, In Solitary: The Anti-Social Experiment, where participants are tasked with living in little cell-like cubby-holes for days on end. I bet you can guess what happened: they all went mad. 

Here's a snippet:

The woman in the comically big frames said something that I thought was rather profound. She explained that Lloyd, one of the show's four participants, was "hibernating". Eureka! That's it! We, as a nation, have entered into a state of social hibernation. Brilliant!

But how do we wake up?

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Americans Are Still Lonely

Loneliness in America has not, in any remarkable way, been ameliorated. Instead, our focus has been diverted elsewhere. 

In light of the news of the still unfolding Israel-Hamas war,  American media has all but completely forgotten America's deadly loneliness epidemic. 

The Hill, a news outlet I frequent for it's concise articles on all things politics, has dedicated nearly all of it's recent coverage to two topics: The Israel-Hamas war and the headache-inducing circus sideshow that is the House Speakership battle. Of the last 16 articles written in The Hill (there are 16 articles per page), 6 cover Mid-East affairs; 4, the speakership race; and the remaining 6 reporting on the 2024 presidential race, and COVID-19. 

In fact, the last article written for The Hill on the topic of social atomization was on September 28, Loneliness: The Silent Epidemic Hiding in Plain Sight. Since then: crickets. 

While other outlets have continued to report on the problem head-on (Front Porch Republic, Governing, and Business Insider, to name a few), most have ceased coverage. 

Business Insider, to their credit, has been all over the issue. I recently wrote a short article for National Review, referencing a great piece about declining friendship among young Americans that I read in Insider. You can read that here

All in all, though, coverage has diminished ever since U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy's, eye-opening 85-page report, Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, released in May of this year. This report sparked a huge flurry of articles on the matter, as well as media attention and some chirping from the legislature. Who can forget when Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced legislation that would establish an "Office of Social Connection Policy" back in July? While that was certainly a futile effort, at least the issue was at the forefront of our political discourse!

For now, the epidemic has faded, but not because it has been remedied in any way at all. 

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Returning to Kirkean Principles

We need, as a nation, to return to Kirkean principles. 

I recently read a book that is, shamefully, obscure, even in conservative intellectual circles: Russell Kirk's The American Cause. Published in 1957, this short read (only 137 pages) provides readers with a powerful and pithy defense of American culture. Kirk very astutely observed that many of our fellow countrymen -  though well-meaning and, undoubtedly, patriotic - lacked the ability to properly articulate what it was exactly that they loved about the American way of life. Short of platitudes and hollow shibboleths (i.e. freedom, liberty, natural rights, etc...), many of us fall short in defining the distinct nature of this great country. 

In comes Kirk...

The America that Kirk describes is not simply an "experiment" or a collective of people with abstract rights, but a uniquely awesome inheritance. The conservatism of Kirk puts enormous emphasis on our shared history (Yoram Hazony calls this "historical empiricism"). When we look back at history - late 18th and early 20th century European history, in particular - what we find are a series of imprudent, Godless revolutions that, ultimately, failed in remarkable fashion. The Jacobin revolution in late 18th century France is, by far and away, the most cited by conservative intellectuals like Kirk. Edmund Burke's magnum opus, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is the most important book to read on this subject matter. Burke, better than anyone else, explained why the Jacobins were as profoundly and unmistakably wrong as they were in their reckless tactics and fundamentally short-sighted goals: freedom from everything, including their past inheritances. 

This leads me to an important point: Freedom is a word that is far too liberally flung around without any consideration for its greater meaning. What is it exactly that we ought to be free from or of? Should we be free of societal obligations? No. How about free from social etiquette? Absolutely not. Or perhaps free from our inherited Western traditions? Hell no. While Kirk of course thought that freedom from a totalist state and economic freedom were noble goals, he did not argue that freedom, in  and of itself, was a good that ought to be achieved.  Freedom, in its most absolute sense, connotes a kind of dystopian, anarchistic libertarianism. And Kirk did not think fondly of libertarianism, nor with its compatibility with conservatism. 

Kirk noted that our Founders thought "Unrestrained dangerous as unrestrained power." 

This from Kirk's must-read 1981 essay, Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries:

What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? The answer to that question is simple: nothing. Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.

Kirk, in that same essay, stated that "a libertarian conservative is as rare a bird as a Jewish Nazi." I wrote about this in much greater detail in the Russell Kirk Center's University Bookman. You can find that here.  

In sum, Kirk is defending an inherited Christian country whose Founders emphasized Communitarianism, subsidiarity, and ordered liberty. It is a little, easy-to-read book that you can revisit again and again. It should probably be regarded as a fundamental text in American civics courses. We still teach that, right?