Before I get to the heart of today’s letter let me welcome you to Vital Signs. I’ve put off starting this newsletter for about 6 months mostly due to a looming deadline for a book manuscript (which I missed, but which is now done), but also because of other commitments related to the election and it’s aftermath. And it’s aftermath’s aftermath.
But here we are.
The book I just finished is about restoring national vitality in an age of decay. A lot had been written about decay, a lot less about what we can do about it. That’s why I wanted to write the book. So I’ve been thinking about national and personal vitality a lot for the past year or so. Thus the name of this newsletters: Vital Signs.
Entropy In Action
Things stopped working in this country about 50 years ago. But it wasn’t really noticeable until a few decades later. I like to date the beginning of the decay to the summer of 1969, though it’s actually impossible to put a precise date on it. Still, the summer of 1969 was an inflection point that was probably much more important 1967’s Summer of Love.
Consider: On July 20th, 1969, Apollo XI landed on the moon and 39 minutes later, on July 21st, Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on it’s surface. A few weeks later, on the night of August 8th, the Manson family broke into Roman Polanski’s Hollywood Hills home and murdered his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, their unborn baby, and three friends who were at the house. The following Friday, August 15th, the Woodstock music festival began in upstate New York. A good argument can be made that Woodstock was the culmination of the Sixties, but in reality, the Sixties had ended a week earlier. Woodstock wasn’t the final flowering, it was an aftershock.
This isn’t the time for a full exploration of the summer of ‘69 (look out for that in the future), but it’s worth noting that a lot changed after that. Things had already peaked. For example, the two fastest ever commercial aircraft had both flown for the first time earlier in 1969; the 747 in February and the Concorde in March. In fact, the average speed of commercial air travel has been declining ever since. Then, in the early 1970s, the median real wages of American workers entered a period of extended stagnation characterized by exceptionally low growth which made it impossible for the average person to get ahead. It’s still true today, which is why so many families require two incomes if they want to stay in the middle class.
It’s a problem. And it either causes or exacerbates a lot of other problems in our country. People who are economically precarious change their behavior: they delay getting married or don’t marry at all, they have fewer or no children than they would like, they may become lonely, isolated, and depressed. Radical, performative, and ritualistic politics often sublimate economic precarity and social status anxiety. In all, it’s an accelerant and perhaps a cause of political and social decay.
Which brings me back to the headline: So, you want to win elections?
Of course you do. There’s a lot on the line. Americans (and probably more non-Americans than we’d care to admit) spent $14 billion on the 2020 election. A little less than half of that was spent on the presidential election alone with the balance being divided between all the other elections from dog catcher to senator. Given the stakes - or at least the perceived stakes - that’s actually a lot less than you might expect. After all, if your team, er party, wins, you get power. Right? Maybe. But the nature and distribution of political power is a topic for another day. (First newsletter and I’ve already laid down two markers for a future date. Stay tuned.) But consider: Americans spend nearly as much ($13 billion) on professional football and we do that every year, not every four years.
Still, if you win elections you at least get the opportunity - an opportunity which is rarely taken - to wield some measure of power. You can set policy you like, stop policy you don’t like, or at least delay or mitigate some of the things you find odious or harmful. That’s the idea, anyway. At a minimum you get bragging rights. Maybe that’s all you get, but it’s something.
So how do you do it? Let me suggest something simple: advocate an agenda to remake America that makes it possible for the average person to get married, buy a house, have a few kids, and send them to school on a single wage. That’s it. If you can do that, you win and your party will govern for a generation - and will deserve to.
It’s an easy formula to articulate, but no for some reason no one does. I have a few theories about why. One is that solutions are harder than complaints. At a minimum, they require action and not just words. And in this case the solutions are not unknowable and undoable, but they aren’t easy. I’ll turn to those in more detail another time. The other reason is a tendency to rely too heavily on ideology in politics. It’s a consistent element of liberalism that it turns politics into a secular religion that offers mortification of sin and absolution from it’s stain through public ritual. Everyone does it.
The Right’s version of this has focused on freedom. For example, the festishization of free trade. “Free Trade” with China is great (!) because it’s free! So free! It’s the freest of free. Can’t you just smell, taste, and touch all the freedom. Isn’t it amazing? Stop looking at the empty factories, the boarded up formerly locally-owned business, and the pill mills and focus on the sweet, sweet aroma of freedom. Ain’t it swell?
Liberty or Justice?
The Left-Liberal version tends to focus more on justice. Who doesn’t like justice? As Mortimer J Adler told a mostly Boomer audience in his 1981 book, “Six Great Ideas”, justice is the one thing you can’t have too much of. I supposed that’s true in a very abstract sense, but perfect justice also requires a perfect judge with perfect knowledge. In other words, God. So, yes, divine justice is, by definition, perfect and complete. But an excessive focus on justice tends to be accompanied, perhaps preceded, by a sense of divine mission that often manifests first in preening, then in hectoring, and eventually in self-righteous cruelty. In other words, people who are unusually obsessed with seeing justice done are really obsessed with seeing justice done to or upon others. And they see themselves as judge. The kulaks had to be liquidated because they were a reactionary impediment to the revolutionary forces that were just about to - really, they were right on the cusp of - ushering in an age of true justice for all. Sorry kulaks.
Both the Right-Liberty and the Left-Justice positions obscure something important: American living standards by many measures have been declining for a long time. The official measures favored by economists are not especially useful. Is a brand new laptop meaningfully better than one you bought ten years ago? Did your productivity rise by using the 2020 MacBook versus the 2010 MacBook? Are the kids who have no parents at home after school better off or worse off than their counterparts 40 years ago who had their mom home waiting for them? Do cheaper toasters at Wal-Mart and dopamine rat-mazes on their iPhone compensate for the fact that both of their parents have to do wage-work out of the house in order to make ends meet? That wasn’t the case as late as 1985. But it is now. Is this an improvement?
Fixing that would be hard - necessary for a sustainable country, but hard. Talking about liberty and justice are cheap, easy, and feels good. Plus, liberty and justice are objectively good things. Building a country that values families and improves living standards is a slog and it takes a long time. We had it once. Everyone says they value families but talk is cheap and the numbers don’t lie. These days, family formation occurs later in life, there’s less of it, women have fewer children than they say they want, the total fertility rate has been declining for decades and is now, at 1.71 children per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.
On top of that, Americans are less healthy. Chronic inflammatory disease has been rising for years (here’s another subject I’ll explore at more length another day), adult obesity is at epidemic levels, childhood obesity is off the charts, educational attainment for American students lags peers nations despite per capita spending that is consistently higher than almost every other OECD nation, and so on.
Wouldn’t improving those things be just? Would improving those things provide Americans with more tangible freedom? Of course. But how to do it?
Like I said, that’s hard. Not impossible, but hard.
More people need to focus on the possible and on the tangible. If politics is going to be about anything worthwhile, it must be about things that are concrete, that sustain the people in the polity and the polity itself.
That’s part of what made me start this newsletter. By any objective measure our vital signs are weak. But we’re alive. And that means we can do better. Exploring how we can regain our vitality is central to this project. Because we can. That’s the mission. If you’re up for it, stick around.
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And since I started by using the example of jet travel, here’s a good example of something going right. Boom Aero is working on bringing supersonic travel back.