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Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

Pro-Trump, or anti-Democrat?

August 28, 2023  |  762 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Economics

There are now four big legal cases pending against former President Donald Trump. He is facing dozens of criminal charges and will go on trial several times in the next 18 months, as he campaigns to become president again in the 2024 election.

None of these embarrassing entanglements has made a dent in Mr. Trump’s popularity among the Republican faithful, a fact that baffles many interested observers, including me.

What is the source of this man’s enduring appeal? Those who are experiencing hard times have looked past his days as a ruthless, publicity-hungry real estate speculator, and bought into his newly-minted man-of-the-people schtick. They are inexplicably filled with hope as he riffs off-handedly about reviving manufacturing, bringing back jobs, limiting immigration, etc. They are sympathetic when he rails against “media elites” who persecute him at every turn.

Others of a religious bent are captivated by his role in the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and consider him as nothing less than having been ordained by God to restore the moral fiber of the nation. They will readily quote Bible passages in support of their far-fetched assertion. All this love and devotion, despite a documented history of fleecing the people in his employ and taking license with women of his acquaintance.

But lately it has occurred to me the real reason Mr. Trump sits atop the polls is a silent majority of sensible, often quite successful voters who are not so much smitten with him, as they are virulently anti-Democrat. The people I have in mind are frequently put off by Trump’s antics. But they stick with him because they really aren’t that fussy about who heads the Republican ticket. They just don’t want another four years of Joe Biden – or any other Democrat – in the White House.

This contingent will back Trump despite everything, until another legitimate contender emerges from the Republican field. Since he has captured the disgruntled white working class, along with white evangelicals and other conservative Christians, that might be a tough nut for a challenger to crack.

This calculus may not bother Democrats, who relish having Donald Trump as a foil. But it’s very bad news for the country as a whole.

Reflexively voting for your party’s presidential nominee while being less than thrilled with the actual candidate is nothing new. But in Mr. Trump’s case we have now reached a new low. Republican loyalists are being confronted with a meritless, emotionally-driven carnival barker in the mold of Lonesome Rhoads, the fictional character from that wonderful 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd.

Trump’s egregious behavior makes him patently unfit for high office, let alone re-election to the highest office in the land. Given his dubious track record, such hardcore Republican partisanship by otherwise level-headed voters can only be attributed to an unmitigated belief in the American Experiment, as spelled out in our founding documents.

According to those documents, freedom of opportunity – an “absence of obstacles,” as James Madison put it – is the most important ingredient in the pursuit of happiness.

This fancy talk translates into a maniacal insistence on lower taxes and smaller government. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez may epitomize what many of us would like to see in an elected official: yesterday’s humble waitress is today’s confident U.S. representative. But when she touts the Democrat party line on free healthcare, free college tuition, etc., many Americans write her off as just another purveyor of unwieldy and un-workable policies.

If I were a high-priced political consultant I might see this as an open-and-shut case of the Democrats needing much better “messaging” around their core issues. But I’m not, so I find myself inclined instead to view this as a thorny problem for the other major party. It is Republicans who must admit their laissez-faire approach to economic life has left too many of their fellow citizens outside the “circle of exchange,” as a famous papal encyclical described the situation in 1991, after a decade of Reaganomics.

It is Republicans who need to show concern over our finding a political and economic system that organically breeds fairness. Since we already know how to deliver outsized prosperity to the clever and advantaged like clockwork.

These “freedom first” voters should really stop complaining about what they ominously describe as encroaching socialism, because such complaints are downright unseemly when issued by the well-off. Better they step back and take stock, and own up to the obvious excesses and blatant oversights of the political/economic system we have now. And maybe ask themselves: Can Donald Trump help me with that discernment?

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Patrick Deenen Strikes Again

Patrick Deenen Strikes Again

June 16, 2023 | 760 words | Philosophy, Politics

Patrick Deenen’s new book, Regime Change, was just reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and got panned good and hard.  Reading that review reminded me how his previous book, Why Liberalism Failed (2018), received the same chilly reception, most notably in The New York Times.

Since Mr. Deenen traffics in social commentary and cultural anthropology, his not finding a home in either of these two established organs of political opinion is something of an anomaly.  As a serious scholar weighing in on issues of the day, you would expect him to be embraced by one or the other of these prestige media outlets.  That both camps have instead chosen to keep him at arm’s length is a measure of how his analysis defies easy categorization and cannot be consigned to a liberal or conservative silo.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Deenen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  This new book apparently seeks to address the unanswered question at the heart of his previous book:  If not Liberalism, then what?  At first blush he may strike you as a conventional conservative, since he likes to reference tradition and the benefits of community life based on shared values.  

But then just when you think you have his number, he fools you by finding fault with the free market and the revered concept known as economic freedom.  Which just happen to be two pillars of the conservative movement for the last several hundred years.  He is not shy in pointing out what he sees as the havoc being wreaked on community life by the laissez-faire philosophy now uniformly employed throughout the First World.  Especially on the lives of those on the lower tiers of the economic ladder.

Patrick Deneen’s big-name reviewers on either side of the ideological aisle are not doing him justice, in my opinion.  As I read them, his critics tend to hone in on an isolated aspect of his message, then accuse him of such blatant faux pas as failing to appreciate the social mobility and freedom of expression universally understood as the crown jewels of Liberalism.  And just to be clear, Liberalism as Deneen defines the term is the sum of social and political conventions that arose in Western nations in the mid-17th century.  These same critics also routinely accuse him of “ignoring the advantages of prosperity” enjoyed since 1800, and denying the “moral virtues encouraged by markets.”  

But Mr. Deneen is doing none of those things, if you ask me.  I suppose I would characterize him as simply trying to help us see the forest, and not be blinded by the trees.  

His unique take does not lend itself to an easy thumbnail sketch or a bullet-point summary.  Deneen’s critics are stymied right out of the gate, it seems to me, by his opening assertion in Why Liberalism Failed that the American Left and the American Right both adhere to the same broad philosophy.  He sees a bipartisan consensus where others see partisan bickering.  In Deneen’s telling, it is this underlying consensus that is responsible for most of what ails us.

This quirky view may explain why neither The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal have claimed him as their own.  By expressing doubt about the continued efficacy of such bedrock principles as free markets, individual liberty, and religious neutrality, Mr. Deneen manages to raise everyone’s hackles, calling into question nothing less than modernity itself.

Recoiling in horror from this bold assessment is a natural reaction, I suppose, because it is so unlike anything we have heard before.  But Patrick Deneen is no anarchist.  He is a gentleman who is challenging our most cherished assumptions in a studious, respectful manner.  Instead of settling for reading his critics, and as a prelude to one day possibly reading the original work, why not start by checking out Mr. Deneen in conversation with others social commentators?

The February 2023 issue of Harper’s magazine features a Forum entitled “Is Liberalism Worth Saving?”  Deneen is joined by (in alphabetical order) Francis Fukuyama, Deidre McCloskey, and Cornel West.  It is a lively exchange and a fun read.  Having him respond to an oppositional point of view in real time is instructive.  I realize this back-and-forth was probably edited to some extent, but Mr. Deneen nonetheless comes across as being pretty good on his feet, and acquits himself quite well.  The coherence of his worldview is what impresses me the most.

The man is on to something, that’s all I’ll say.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Narrative is Problematic

The Narrative is Problematic

May 14, 2023  |  376 words  |  Philosophy, Politics

Which narrative is problematic, you may be asking… Every narrative, I would answer.
It is natural to assemble a story for ourselves that helps explain how and why things happen in this world. Along the way we encounter others who seem knowledgeable in these matters, and we add their understanding to our own. As we get older, our narrative emphasizes what has gone wrong out there, and what should be done to fix all the problems. This, too, is natural.
But there is a tendency to overcommit to a particular narrative, once we settle on a story that suits us. The very thing that starts out helping us discern the larger world can end up getting in the way of our understanding that world even better. Such as learning to appreciate all the component parts of a particular controversy. We get seduced, if you will, by the certainty a narrative can offer. Regardless of how reasonable/unreasonable a given narrative may seem to the casual observer, there is no denying it provides a degree of certitude for the person who embraces it.

This is reassuring, even when it leaves the bearer thoroughly annoyed or frustrated. My point is that instead of settling for this type of certainty, we should always be forging ahead on a quest for wisdom.

“Narrative” as I am using the term is inherently partisan. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, since every partisan narrative contains an element of truth. No matter how vehemently we disagree with an opponent’s initial premise, there is still some truth hidden in amongst what strikes us as his or her error.
Yes, some narratives do contain more truth than others, and therefore deserve more attention. But no narrative tells the whole story. No narrative is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Each of us has adopted a preferred narrative we are comfortable with, that we proudly march behind as our banner. And every single one of those narratives is problematic. Because they ultimately prevent us from a deeper understanding of the world and of our fellow citizens. Developing the deeper understanding I have in mind would result in our being much more forgiving than most of us are now, and far less confrontational.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

Capitalism Condones Bad Behavior

April 25, 2023 | 1,357 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

My thesis this morning is how easily our version of capitalism condones behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others.  And how this is not just a case of bad manners, but rises to the level of injustice.

We are all familiar with the many positive aspects of capitalism, how a free market unleashes creativity and innovation, generating an avalanche of economic activity that benefits everyone up and down the food chain.  It yields the proverbial rising tide that lifts all boats.  Older readers may recall “trickle down economics,” a pithy catch phrase from the 1980s that perfectly captured the “you have nothing to worry about” spirit of those boom years.
Given all the glowing press capitalism has received since then, many of us have trouble addressing the obvious negative aspects of capitalism with a clear eye.  Any such discussion is immediately derailed by ad hoc arguments about socialism being an intolerable alternative.
We have even more trouble seeing economics as being tied in an inextricable way to moral behavior.  Or with admitting that when economics is untethered from morality it becomes a free for all that leaves the social fabric in taters, while the rich get richer.

Things in this realm have devolved to the point where we no longer recognize the central role morality was designed to play in modern-day economics, and argue instead over how much government intervention is needed to balance the scales and create a safety net for those hurt most by predatory practices.  Or whether the market should be free to operate apart from such intervention, in the expectation all social ills and inequities will eventually be ameliorated. 

This belies a basic reality: social justice hinges on the moral behavior of individual economic actors.  On doing right by people you don’t know but who are nonetheless affected by your economic behavior.  The countless others who are not part of your inner circle, that cadre of trusted lieutenants who execute a business strategy and help maximize profitability.
Conservatives continue to insist their favorite form of economic exchange is “inherently moral,” despite all evidence to the contrary.  This dubious claim picked up steam in the early 1980s and provided much-needed cover for the greed is good era of junk bond, private equity take-overs that began in the late 1980s, and has been with us ever since.

Much has been written on how our style of capitalism has failed to provide a living wage for so many Americans.  But none of that commentary seems to make a dent in the conservatives’ leave-it-alone view of economic life.  Nor do the boom-and-bust cycles we can’t seem to avoid.  Or the pillaging of so many industries by private equity firms who buy up companies only to slash jobs and siphon off assets, raising prices and negatively impacting customer service in the process.
And why isn’t there more hue and cry heard from the general public about all this economic mayhem?  Maybe because it is being drowned out by or diverted to noisy debates over cultural issues. Like how many types of assigned public restrooms we should provide.  Or what pronouns we should employ when addressing our fellow citizens.

Not that adequate bathroom facilities and proper forms of address are not important.  But in the hierarchy of societal needs I do wonder why the fourth estate seems so lax in its evaluation of economically immoral behavior on the part of the most privileged Americans, while choosing instead to direct the majority of its ire at what all enlightened souls now take to be the anti-woke contingent of “deplorables” in our culture wars.

We have hit a few snags on the way to achieving the informed electorate said to be a pre-requisite for democracy.  Our liberal media prides itself on defending “individual freedom.”  While our conservative media is committed to protecting “economic freedom.”  What is lost in this liberal/conservative obsession with “freedom” is any consideration of the common good. 

Which brings me back to economic behavior that is fundamentally inconsiderate of others, and how capitalism too easily condones such behavior.
In addition to the big, splashy examples of injustice that do sometimes make the headlines, there are other, less prominent indignities that plague our economic life here in what we proudly assert is the greatest country on earth.  I would like to offer one small example from my own experience.


I own a contracting business that functions as part of the commercial construction industry.  By that I mean my company does work in office buildings and auditoriums and such.  Over the years the services we provide have morphed into a “sound proofing” specialty, primarily in the form of fabric-wrapped panels for walls and ceilings.  Though we’ve always been based in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, in the last decade much of our work has migrated to New York City, where our client list is a veritable who’s-who of Fortune 100 heavy-hitters.

When things started to take off for me back in the mid-1980s, I was working for developers who were creating some of the first suburban “office parks” outside of Philadelphia.  Those developers instructed us to invoice twice a month for work-in-place, and they would fund those invoices in 15 days, like clockwork.

Now, some 40 years later, we are forced to chase the large Construction Management firms we bill our work “through,” and navigate a labyrinth of paperwork to shake loose our payments.  The soonest we can expect to see any money is after our invoices have aged 90 days.  Though having to wait 120 or 150 days is also not uncommon.  The reply we frequently get when inquiring about payment is, “The client has not funded the invoice for that work yet.”

Which is to say, the Fortune 100 heavy-hitters who lease lavish space in some of the most exclusive office towers in North American have chosen not to pay their bills in a timely manner.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  Somewhere along the line the movers and shakers realized they could drag out payment indefinitely and get away with it.  If you complain, they simply move on and hire a competitor, and force that company to wait for payment.

This is one of the sins of omission conservative academics and think-tank scholars never get around to talking about, when penning their hosannas to the free market.  The economic engine they celebrate is indeed a wonderful thing to behold.  But what is missing from the current formula is any sense of fair play.  Any sense of treating those who lack leverage as you would want to be treated, were you to find yourself without leverage.  Instead, the prevailing ethos has reverted back to “he who has the gold makes the rules.”

Private equity acquisitions siphon money from the bottom of the food chain.  The holding back of payment by the top of the food chain prevents that money from ever reaching the bottom to begin with.  It puts a crimp in the cash flow of the many different entities involved in the elaborate, multi-layered construction process.

This forces companies like mine to borrow money to cover payroll and pay suppliers.  It prevents us from adding staff to execute the work we have under contract more efficiently, or adding staff to possibly expand operations.  It also makes it difficult for us to increase the salaries of the over-worked people already in our employ. 

Competition, supply and demand, and self-interest can only bring an economic system so far, if the ultimate goal is social justice, rather just registering an uptick in the standard of living.  If you happen to be a big real estate developer erecting a skyscraper, or a major corporation building out a sleek office space in such a gleaming structure, you hold all the cards.  You can decide to pay the variety of contractors who bring your space to life as slowly as you want.

Because we in the construction industry are all scrambling for this elite work, we all want this prestige business.  Even though the terms we are forced to operate under have deteriorated dramatically over the course of the last 40 years.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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The Economics of Beauty

The Economics of Beauty

March 14, 2023 | 435 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy

Now here is an angle Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels probably did not cover in their famous 1848 treatise on economics, “The Communist Manifesto”…  Namely, the impact beauty has on an economic system.  But it turns out a gentleman by the name of Daniel S. Hamermesh has given it a lot of thought.

To be clear, we are not referring to Beauty in the transcendental sense, the virtue seen as complimenting Truth, and thought by philosophers and poets to be an expression of the Good.  No, what we are talking about here is good, old-fashioned physical attractiveness.  The kind of thing randomly bestowed on certain men and women through a favorable combination of parental genes, making them easy on the eyes.

Driving to work the other day I caught part of an entertaining radio interview Hamermesh was doing for the BBC, describing how better-looking people experience undeniable benefits like having an easier time finding employment, earning more than their average-looking counterparts, receiving promotions sooner, etc.

It was fascinating stuff, and instead of coming off like a stuffy academic he sounded like a wry, good-natured observer of human nature.  I looked him up the first chance I got, and learned Daniel S. Hamermesh (b. 1943) is a tenured professor of economics at the University of Texas, who since the mid-nineties has done a series of studies on the role appearance plays in the workplace.  

The thread that run through his work is simple enough:  Attractive workers make more money.  These amounts vary by gender, and looks are valued differently based on profession.  In a bold assertion that will surprise absolutely no one, Professor Hamermesh’s data clearly shows that “pulchritude” is valuable in nearly all professions, not just where good looks would seem to be an obvious asset.

In one of his recent books, “Beauty Pays” (Princeton University Press, 2013), Hamermesh considers whether  extra pay for good-looking people represents discrimination, and whether government programs should aid the ugly.  

Oh, my.  In the quest for economic justice, I do believe government has a role to play in trying to balance the scales our free market often inadvertently leaves dangling precariously over a cliff.  But no, government aid for the less-than-good-looking is not an initiative we should be storming the castle over.  

To all the other obstacles we face in creating a world that provides fair treatment and equitable compensation in the work place, obstacles Marx and Engels and many others of varying political persuasions and religious convictions have tried to address over the years, Daniel Hamermesh’s work has added an unexpected twist: one’s relative lack of physical beauty.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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