The Commons

The Compass and the Territory Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Technology

No particular worldview or ideology is necessary to see the reality of our political situation today. Due to the reshaping of our psychological and social environment by digital technology–a process laid bare by the unfolding coronavirus pandemic–our “map” of America is now out of date. Deep-seated economic and cultural transformations that began decades ago have burst through the terrain we knew, throwing up strange and vast new features and breaking up or plowing under long-familiar ones.

This process has only just begun. Many Americans, including at the highest levels of leading pre-digital institutions like academia, media, entertainment, and the administrative state, struggle to make sense of the new topography rising all around (and, indeed, within) them. Some strongly refuse to recognize that anything fundamental has changed: perhaps the speed or the complexity of our problems has increased, they suggest, but so have our potential solutions.

This is a mistake. The task facing today’s and tomorrow’s practitioners of American statecraft is to quickly and fully come to a reconciled understanding of what has already happened–a point conveniently lost on those apt to hawk ostensibly cutting-edge forecasts or prognostications about the future. Plenty of roads lead to the Rome of recognizing the new America rising up into the foreground. Some are more readily apprehensible than others. Here are a few that leap into sharp relief.

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On National Growth and Community Well-Being Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Community

For my inaugural post here on The Commons, I want to offer a few thoughts on how one of the pillars of the American Compass mission, community, has too often been a blind spot in the prevailing view of the economy.

First, a confession: I’m probably the closest thing to a cheerleader for free markets you’ll find on this site. But those who believe, as I do, that market capitalism has been a profound force for good have generally not done enough to address the limits of aggregate economic growth in lifting vulnerable people and places throughout the country. This is clear when one considers regional and community-based divides in the United States, which have grown steadily over the course of the 21st century.

Yesterday, the Economic Innovation Group released a new project on neighborhood-level poverty going back to 1980, which examines how high-poverty metropolitan communities have evolved over time and investigates how often such areas experience an economic turnaround. The results are sobering, and underscore the need for a policy agenda designed to empower more of the country to participate in, and benefit from, a vibrant national economy. Read More

The Tipped Red Tricycle: Why Economic Growth Is Not Enough Share This

| May 06, 2020 | Family

The house next door sits empty again. The neighbor across the street leaves a boys jacket on my porch that she scavenged from the overflowing boxes and bags of stuff lining the lawn for the trash man. “It’s a nice jacket—could one of your boys use it? Some of the things in the boxes still have tags,” she tells me. “Brand new.”

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know these neighbors. They were a couple for years—I don’t think married—but with two school-aged boys. Sometimes our chickens would go in their front yard and once they lost their dog and asked us about it, and many times our kids would hit a baseball over the fence and knock on their door for permission to retrieve it, but that was the extent of our interactions, beyond polite waves and the passing of Halloween candy. The neighbor across the street tells me the reason for the sudden move. Apparently the woman decided to move to Florida to be with a former love. The man had no use for all the stuff she left behind. Read More

Government, Not Markets Can Best Pick Winners Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Industrial Policy

Finding a Manufacturer (Image Courtesy Wikimedia https://goo.gl/images/ozWa0Q)

China’s economic rise and the damage inflicted on U.S. industry has been a wakeup call to many U.S. policymakers. But most conventional economists continue to hold firm to their ideological notion that only the market can respond, and that any more proactive government action, particularly focused on key sectors or technologies, is doomed to fail. For many, the only choice is between China’s command-and-control playbook and the market, albeit one perhaps supported by a bit more spending on education and research. This is ideological framing of the first order, grounded in neither logic nor research. The reality is that government is best positioned to “pick winners.” Read More

The New Fusionism We Need Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Politics

Almost 60 years ago, Frank Meyer formulated “fusionism.” He explained why 1950s anti-communists, free-market proponents, and social conservatives could unite in a coherent coalition. By his reckoning, all three were concerned to defend freedom. The anti-communists battled against Soviet tyranny. The followers of Hayek and Friedman were opposed to the dirigiste impulses of Keynesian economic planners, and social conservatives wanted to restore the American tradition of civic virtue and self-government.

It was a fitting and honorable configuration. But its day has past. Since 1989, the growing peril has been disintegration, not the postwar over-consolidation that made conservatives (justly) fearful for the future of liberty. Whether we’re speaking of economic globalization, mass migration, or transgenderism, boundaries are blurred. As Marx put is, “all that is solid melts into air.” Read More

From Protecting Essential Workers to Upgrading Essential Industries Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Economic Development

The COVID-19 panic has drawn long-overdue attention to the economic and health and financial challenges facing many “essential workers” including nurses and health aides, nursing home aides, slaughterhouse workers, truckers, grocery store clerks and other retail workers, warehouse workers, and others upon whom the daily functioning of our continental society depends.  Unfortunately the response of too many on the conventional right and left has been to fall back into ideological comfort zones—calling respectively for fewer regulations on business or higher wages and benefits for workers in general—rather than focusing on another reality that the pandemic has revealed: the appalling technological backwardness of many of these “essential” sectors. Read More

Thinking Big to Act Small Share This

| May 05, 2020 | Community

American Compass proposes that conservatives revisit the question of whether a nation can afford an economic order without a “compass,” a guide that can provide a sense of direction national policy and shared intention.  The question is essential, and the answers on offer on this site portend a new course for the American political order.

Libertarians have long argued that markets are wiser than government, that the accumulated choices of many people acting without plan or intention results in more efficient economic outcomes that reflect their true preferences. In a truly free market society, people’s initiative and inventiveness are unleashed, allowing for massive prospects of innovation, transformation, and disruption.  It was for this reason that Friedrich von Hayek declared that he was not a conservative, since conservatives resist transformative change, instead preferring a society marked by stability, generational continuity, and slow change that accretes rather than transforms. Read More

A Note of Introduction Share This

| May 04, 2020 | Announcement

Welcome to American Compass. Our mission is to restore an economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity.

Many of the most insightful and creative policymakers, researchers, and pundits on the American right-of-center, and some on the left-of-center as well, are dedicating tremendous intellectual energy toward moving the nation’s policy in this direction. Look within almost any Republican Senate office, federal agency, or mainstream conservative institution—the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, National Review or the Wall Street Journal—and you will find people who are tired of the stale pieties that have come to characterize “conservatism” and eager to reassert genuine conservative principles.

Still, the efforts have been diffuse. Step back, and most of the institutions themselves appear steadfast in their outmoded orthodoxy. Perhaps this is how it should be, or at least has to be. An organization built around support for a specific set of ideas—from the donors who fund it to the leaders who guide it, the rank-and-file who generate its output, and the media and politicians who listen attentively—has no way to reconstitute itself around a different set. The dynamic parallels that of creative destruction in the private sector, which is rarely managed well within a firm and instead requires the incumbent to be swept aside by some new entrant uncommitted to the old technology. The cause of all those working toward reform from within thus requires support from new institutions that can sharpen and amplify the push for change.

Our goal is to play that role, operating as a flagship—one entity in a broad coalition advancing toward a common objective. We are a membership organization, creating and nurturing connections between people, facilitating communication among them, and shaping a common identity understandable to the outside world. We are a forum, allowing recognized leaders to put forward their own ideas and deliberate in a variety of formats including long-form essays and on our blog, The Commons. And we are a participant in the battles of the day, starting and engaging in the debates that we believe most important, unconstrained by affiliation with institutions that may prefer not to have them.

To be clear, unlike in a private-sector competition for market share and profit, our intention here is not to sweep away the incumbents and build our own, larger building in Washington. We respect many of the right-of-center’s institutions and believe they are vital to conservatism’s future. Our concern is that their ideas have ossified, that they have shown they will not undertake a rethinking of their own accord, and that the alternative to reform is not the status quo but a more calamitous descent toward their irrelevance. We hope that we can do our part to set a better course.

Launching in the Time of Coronavirus

Of course, this is a strange moment to be launching a new public-policy organization dedicated to the big questions of political economy and the long-term trajectory of politics and policymaking. America is facing an unprecedented public-health and economic crisis that is properly the focus of all attention. Some days it feels silly to be working on anything else. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, we try to assist the policymakers devising responses.

The larger questions have not gone away, though, and in many respects the crisis has only accentuated them. Not because it “proves” much of anything—just as the old adage says that “hard cases make bad law,” emergencies offer few useful standards for governing in normal times. Someone generally opposed to large public programs or market interventions can very reasonably support them in once-in-a-lifetime circumstances. But the nation is awakening to a set of problems that existed long before coronavirus and will persist long after. For example:

  • The market is not simply a set of discrete transactions between consenting adults, able to shapeshift constantly in pursuit of ever-more-efficient outcomes. An economy cannot be shutdown for a couple of months and then revived like Frankenstein’s monster. Employment relationships lost do not spontaneously reconstitute. A disruption to in-person service industries can mean catastrophe for energy markets a few weeks later. The market includes a set of institutional arrangements within which all transactions take place, and without which even the most brilliant businessman will find himself bankrupt.

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