A year and a half ago I published a piece here describing why I’m a Democrat. It was a bit of a diatribe, really, and it railed against the California Republican Party’s platform. I titled it “Why I’m not a Republican.”
A friend recently challenged me to take a different spin on this topic. Even if merely as an exercise, could I find the silver lining in the Republican party today? Or could I at least seek out the bits of wisdom that originally formed the party of Lincoln and describe how they fit with my current values?
I took it as a challenge, figuring it was worthwhile given the overwhelming partisanship in America today. This is an exercise that anyone who has sworn at their Twitter feed or cable news show should try. I assigned myself the task
Here’s my submission.
Conservation is conservative
Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense.President Ronald Reagan, State of the Union address, 1984
Nothing says austerity like keeping your bank accounts full. The conservative approach to the environment looks at natural resources this way.
Traditional conservatives don’t feel cash burning a hole in their pocket. If there’s money in their wallet, they don’t peel off and run to the nearest mall. Instead, they stick it in a bank account or invest in stocks. And indeed, my paternal grandpa, the conservative thinker I knew best, was a saver rather than a spender. There was nothing extravagant about his lifestyle, which probably was how he was able to live comfortably in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the Bay Area on two teachers’ salaries.
Our natural resources, the great American environment, are just like a bank account. We spend ore when we build factories, we withdraw clean water when we irrigate our crops, and we draw against a stable climate when we warm our homes and drive our cars using fossil fuels. This is just the normal, everyday spending we do on our natural resources account.
Unfortunately, this essential spending is done on top of flagrant, unnecessary, over-the-top spending we also do on sloppy mining operations, dirty coal plants, and ozone-depleting chemical bi-products.
This extra spending is like buying $500 flip-flop sandals just to wear around the house. My grandpa would never do that. Having cash doesn’t mean spending cash.
These are our natural resources. Natural resources should be nurtured, enjoyed, and used when needed. They should be shared with our children. They should never be abused, and certainly never wasted.
Furthermore, a truly conservative approach to the balance in our natural resource bank account would consider a rate of return. Instead of spending the principal, we should be thinking, “How can we compound these assets over time?” When we consider spending, we should be asking, “What’s going to be the cost to replace these assets after they’re spent?” If we thought about forests and clean water and clean air this way, we would make different decisions.
Conservatism takes a long view. The conservative approach to spending is to reduce the amount we spend today in order to allow for greater spending tomorrow. Conservatives save their pennies, clip their coupons, don’t take more than they need. These values are very aligned with Native American culture and the philosophies of Thoreau and Muir, all of which resonate with me. The common thread is to move cautiously, thoughtfully, and to not need so much.
Indeed, true conservatives don’t like change. And guess what? Neither do forests.
Thus, climate change should make conservatives bristle in their britches. True conservatives don’t like change. This is why conservation is a conservative value.
Small is good
I’m not a big company entrepreneur. I like lean. I like small. I like efficient. I don’t like bureaucracy. The fewer people I have to work with and manage, the better.
Operationally, I like to break up and outsource products and services that aren’t core to my business. I think the best metric to run my businesses on is revenue per employee. The higher that number, the better. I’d rather own a $5 million business with five remote employees than a $10 million business with twenty staffers in a fancy downtown office. It’s just how I’m wired.
Translated to a government context, this would mean I like privatization. Government should get out of “businesses” that are not core to its mission and capabilities. This could mean privatized energy distribution, social services, health care, and even prisons. I’m a student of environmental economics, though, and understand that capitalism maximizes profits, not social welfare. Thus, in certain markets, the goal posts should be modified.
To make this point clear, let’s take the example of private prisons. They’re controversial, and rightly so. I don’t think prisons should be profit maximizing. Their goal should not be to fill every bed and collect money from the government on a per-capita basis. Instead, prisons should receive bonuses for keeping repeat offenders out. Put the other way, they should be penalized when prisoners leave and get sent back. This would indicate the prison system failed. I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity but the broader point is this: for critical social services, the profit motivation should be replaced or enhanced by goals that maximize social welfare. We should not make a blanket assumption that government should run everything.
Simply put, I believe that government should privatize as much as possible and should preserve the ability to influence the bottom line of its vendors. I call this Reaganism 2.0.
Profitability is ideal
Traditionally, conservatism was fiscal. Conservatives promoted cuts in taxes and spending, yielding a smaller government that met its current obligations without increasing its deficit. Recently that brand of conservatism has faded away, as Trumpian economics have yielded tax cuts that served to increase our deficit despite an expanding economy.
However, there’s nothing inherently wrong with debt. Debt is merely an instrument for growth. But like any tool, overuse can wear it out. In good times, we should allow cash to pile up and spend it on the backlog of funding priorities: infrastructure, education, pensions, and health care. When times are bad, we should run in the red and borrow and pull from the rainy day fund, whichever has the lower cost of capital.
Although government is not a business, it can still be run like one, and take queues from the private sector that have shown over and over again that Ponzi schemes don’t last forever. Governments today are using a Madoff-like scheme, paying existing loans by borrowing evermore money. It’s not sustainable and old school Republicans would shake their heads in disgust with what happened under a Republican president and a Republican Congress in recent years.
Today’s Republicans do not represent the values this party once held, but this idea of profitability is still traditionally a more Republican value than a Democratic one. If the Republicans led with this platform, I’d be a more likely convert.
Freedom is fundamental
I like freedom. You do too. Freedom is fundamental to Americanism. Both parties wrap themselves in freedom’s banner.
It’s interesting how it cuts across the parties in different ways. Republicans hold up the second amendment, the right to carry arms and defend yourself, as the embodiment of freedom. Democrats apply the same principle to marriage, the freedom to marry a consenting adult regardless of gender pairing, and freedom to abort an unwanted pregnancy.
If you read headlines about these three examples: guns, gay marriage, and abortion, you’ll find that freedom is controversial. It shouldn’t be. A small government, concerned only about the health and safety of its people, the security of its borders, and the stability of its neighbors, would not care about who wants to marry who. It wouldn’t have an opinion on what a woman decides with the guidance of her doctor and in the best interest of herself and her family. It wouldn’t care whether or not people want to own guns for hunting, protection, or hobby.
The barometer for when a government should restrict freedom is when it materially impacts the health and safety of its citizens. I have the freedom to move my fist through the air until it comes in contact with your jaw. I have the freedom to say whatever I want until my yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater injures you in the stampede toward the exits. I have the freedom to bear arms until the prevalence of semi-automatic rifles makes it easy for criminals to acquire one and inflict mass casualties before police can respond. We have the freedom to abort a pregnancy until permanent mental and physical damage is done to mothers who decide too late.
Republicans and Democrats today talk a big game about freedom but do so selectively, applying it only to the freedoms they care about most. I believe freedom is universal, fundamental, and applies whether you like it or not, whether your Bible likes it or not, and whether it makes you uncomfortable or not. Unless that discomfort stems from a legitimate concern of social health and safety, the principal of small government and fundamental freedoms should supersede it.
Labor markets are efficient
The main issue that I would have running for office as a Democrat is that I am not inherently pro-Union. I’m very much pro-labor, pro-worker, pro-jobs and economy. But I’m probably closer to the Chambers of Commerce than the union halls when it comes to labor law. I should explain.
My experience dealing with union rules goes back to my first company, Scripped, which tried to make it easier for amateur screenwriters to sell scripts to Hollywood studios. There was one catch, though, and it was a big one. Studios had to buy scripts from the screenwriters’ guild (a powerful union in Hollywood). So if you wanted to make it as a screenwriter, you had to join the guild and pony up.
The union, in other words, had a monopoly on screenwriters’ access to studios. The history goes back to the early days of Hollywood when the large studios bullied writers around, agreeing in cartel-like fashion to minimize the costs of a script. To combat this, the writers formed a union to increase their bargaining power and fight back against the wage reduction. This skirmish in the 1920s and 30s caused a wave that is still rocking Hollywood a century later.
My concern about unions is that while they are no longer as relevant, they hold onto the power and influence they have simply because they’re so used to having it. We don’t have one-company towns anymore. Labor is mobile, educated, and able to make noise with the drop of a tweet. The days of companies being able to bully workers around are, in most cases, long-gone.
The one exception I can think of is agriculture. We have a problem where seasonal workers, in search of jobs and willing to do hard labor in hot temperatures, end up living for months at a time on huge farms in Central California. The farms have all the power. I wouldn’t be surprised if they took advantage of it, and those workers would benefit from union rights. Absolutely.
But let’s look at blue collar workers here in the Bay Area for a moment. Most of them are union members. They are pipe fitters, longshoremen, carpenters, and plumbers. These are highly-skilled people doing technical work that’s in very high demand right now. May can charge upwards of $100 per hour for their residential services. California currently is in a crazy housing deficit and construction costs are sky high.
What is the union doing to help? Not much, from what I can tell. I’m not expecting anyone to volunteer a lower salary, but I would expect wages in a competitive labor market to plateau. The stories I read in Contra Costa County, where I live, tell of unions forcing developers to guarantee a certain amount of work for unions. If a developer wants to use non-union labor, they’re publicly shunned.
The economist side of me calls this anti-competitive and wrong. If I’m a steelworker and I’m bidding for a contract, I’ll justify my higher cost by touting my history of meeting deadlines, staying on budget, and producing great results. I’d tell the developer not to go with the cheaper guys, not to source from other areas, not to take a lower bid at the risk of paying more due to delays. I’ll lose some deals, but I’ll get some too, especially in a booming construction market. Furthermore, if I really care about blue collar workers, I’d be happy so many people are getting work, union or not.
This is how a free market economy would work. I’m fully aware that markets aren’t perfect. There certainly are confounding factors, but I’d put unions in that bucket.
This puts me out of favor with my local Democratic party establishment. The central committee and regional club leadership would not endorse me unless I fully back the unions. As a Democrat hoping run for office some day, this juncture is something I have to come to grips with.
Faith is important
I’m not a traditional God-fearing kind of guy, but I believe in higher powers. Birth is magical. Nature is incredible. Look into a blooming camellia flower and tell me that’s not divinity staring back at you.
Since I wasn’t raised going to church or synagogue, I had the freedom to learn and explore and develop my own relationship with religion. Because I wasn’t told that I had to believe the Bible or the Torah or any particular Western god, I was able to go to church with one grandpa and synagogue with other and decide what I liked and didn’t like about each. In high school and college I learned about Buddhism and Taoism and studied geography of religion. I went to Unitarian Universalist services in Berkeley with my friends. I thought about god and talked about god. It was fun.
Through all four years of high school choir I sang Negro spirituals, Catholic hymns, Jewish choir songs, and loads and loads of Christmas carols. I sang Ave Marias in Latin in Notre Dame and beautiful, sorrowful Jewish prayers in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I was moved by it. The music and architecture that history’s most talented artists have produced in the name of religion is awe-inspiring. Secular art simply doesn’t pack the same punch.
Today my faith is closer to home. I believe in my family, that family is important and worthwhile and a source of inspiration. I want to be a good person not because of a commandment in a religious text, but because I want to raise good, happy kids. My church is my community, the neighborhood I live in, and the people I meet volunteering. I have faith that people want to feel safe, welcomed, and among those closest to them, loved. This faith forms the fabric of society, both the the macro and the micro. The same faith that binds the 10 homes nearest mine together also binds together the 100 million homes beyond it.
It’s faith, in a way, that makes me feel safe when I use a crosswalk in front of oncoming traffic or even when I’m just jogging along a residential street. I trust that the driver won’t run me or my kids over because they also want to live in a world where you can have that kind of trust in strangers. I put my life in the hands of other people several times a day. Most of the time I don’t even recognize it. But yes, that’s faith too.
So when I think of faith, I don’t think merely of biblical texts and trinities. I think of the desires of an entire nation, and I believe that what everyone wants is good.
Indeed, faith is important. Without it we are less than human.
To really describe why I could be a Republican, I’d have to also describe why I could not be a Democrat. The fact is, I could go either way. It’s almost like deciding what to wear on a given day.
If I wear a tuxedo on Tuesday and a tank top on Wednesday, does it change who I am beneath the fabric? No, it doesn’t. But I’m looked at differently. That’s what the (D) and (R) do to voters. It’s just a label, but unfortunately party affiliation is not just a t-shirt you can take off and throw in the laundry. Instead, it’s treated like a window to your soul, but it’s not that at all.
I’ve been around long enough to know that like the spectrum of visible light, people fill every shade of every color of the rainbow. It’s simply not possible to apply red or blue hue to every American. We’re not built like that. I’m not the only one.
So I leave open the possibility that I could one day switch parties. It won’t be because I’m suddenly all-in on Trump or Sanders. It will be because I’m not feeling this one shirt anymore and I want to try a different one. And if you interpret that one way or the other, well, that’s on you.
But I’ll try my best to explain.