Reihan Salam offers a new perspective on conservatism

“For a different perspective on where we go next and fleshing out the American story,” Andrew Zolli says, “I’m very excited to introduce our next speaker. Reihan Salam is a profound thinker about conservatism in the Umited States.”

Reihan Salam (read more about him here) begins by saying, “I am incoherent as a general rule so I like to break things into tiny pieces.” He tells a story about doing interpretive dance on stage as an undergrad, wearing a red fez and a dirty white singlet. “It’s likely that this experience will be at least slightly less embarrassing than that! For which I thank all of you.”

“Andrew was talking about how I’m a passionate obsessive about the future. Like a lot of you, I’m guessing, I read a lot of science fiction as a kid” — so since he’s so interested in the future, naturally he’s going to talk about the New Deal, a conservative project to transform a country which was going to hell in a handbasket. It’s useful to look back at that time, and see what we can and can’t learn from that time.

“Like a good conservative I’m going to draw on Hegel,” he quips, “the inspiration for Karl Marx!” His first assertion is that the New Deal invented what we know as America. In the 1950s, you had to put up half the money for a house as a down payment, which would mean getting a second mortgage with a high interest rate, so very few Americans owned their own homes. FDR was worrying, as do many Democrats today, that they were spending a lot of public money; he wanted to jack up economic growth without using government money per se. He came up with the idea of manufacturing a housing boom. “We all know how well that turned out — well, back then, it turned out very well indeed!” There was dramatic improvement in the kind of houses people were living in. The downside was that the economy came to be built on consumer debt.

“He drew on a great insight from business.” In charge of the FHA he placed two men from the automobile industry, who suggested that people could buy houses on the installment plan as they already bought cars. The housing boom has been the American answer to industrial policy ever since then. “You also saw something like this happen in the 1990s and the 2000s.” There was a period when a lot of people who only had a high school education or less, which was 3/4 of people in 1940, were having trouble finding good jobs. Where did those jobs materialize? In construction.

“So we saw the emergence of what Ben Bernanke has called a global savings glut.” People in Asia were producing cheap goods which Americans could buy on the installment plan. Even though wages were stagnant, people could feel that they were affluent. This maintained peace in a time of rising social inequality.

Recently that “consumer debt fizz” went away, and there was a lot of anger. People realized, wait a second, the house I bought isn’t worth what I thought; the economy isn’t what I believed it to be. “So much growth was fueled by consumption,” and it would be foolish of us to say that FDR’s idea was a terrble one, but it did turn out to be problematic. Where does it leave us now? As of 2007, the bottom 40% of American earners have a debt-to-disposible-income ratio of 133%. The richest ten percent account for 42% of all consumption. That’s why a lot of people call today’s America a plutonomy: economy ruled by the richest people. But what about the other half, the folks between the 40th and 90th percentiles? Their ratio of debt to disposable income is 205%. That means that a lot of people are underwater. For the next 10-20 years they’re going to be paying down that debt, and consuming radically less.

The incredible prosperity we’ve been talking about has fueled environmental devastation, but also moral progress. There’s only one time in the modern world when a major economic calamity hasn’t led to massive violence, and that was during the New Deal, because the consumer debt spiral led people to feel more prosperous than they really were. That has scary implications, Salam suggests — “without this chintzy prosperity we might be living in an angrier and more dangerous climate.”

The New Deal invented modern America, but now we’re in uncharted territory. The New Deal also arguably invented the modern family, “which is where its conservatism becomes clear.” A key component of the New Deal movement was women, social workers, highly educated, who saw a dramatic increase in divorce rates between 1900 and 1920. They also saw birth rates falling and crime rates rising. These women wanted to create family arrangements where women would not be in the workface; they wanted to actively discriminate against women. “It’s an idea that today conservatives and liberals would consider totally psychotic!… but it made sense at the time.” For a while it seemed to work; marriage rates increased, birth rates increased, crime rates plummeted. That led to the 1950s with its social solidarity. But the reason the social solidarity evolved was that there was an unusually low proportion of foreign-born Americans at that time. Americans weren’t being truly represented in our political institutions; women were being subordinated, and you didn’t have the principle of “one man, one vote.”

That principle, once it arose, led to the cultural and social changes we recognize. “The tragedy is that social solidarity and diversity are in tension with one another.” Racial diversity tends to lead to less redistribution and to less social trust, he says. These dramatic demographic changes lead to a world in which you see a higher level of “normative diversity.” By 2050, 1/5th of Americans will be foreign-born. The mix is going to be a different mix. “A single child replaces one of his/her parents but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population.” Nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers chose larger families. In many micro-populations, you see this happen: ultra-Orthodox Jews reproduce at far higher rates than liberal Jews, e.g.

“Everyone in this room thinks of themselves as global citizens, and I’m sympathetic to this view — but the America that has a population of450,000 or more will consist of a lot of people who don’t have that framework, who don’t share the values of people in this room.” They’re going to have radically different priorities. “The question is, for the US as a whole, how do you govern in this situation?” How do you govern for Hmongs and Hutterites as well as secular hipster liberals? “It’s going to be very, very difficult,” Salam says.

Elites in this country had much more power circa the 1940s. The conservative movement today seems less genteel than it was in the day of William F. Buckley, Jr. For Buckley to say, “I don’t like how you sound, John Birchers, so I’ll tell you to shut up” — in those days it worked! But today you can’t tell 30% of the country to shut up because they disagree with you. “That I think is where the future of conservatism is going to come from,” Salam says — “not necessarily the movement we see today, which is incoherent in a lot of ways, but rather a meta-conservatism, in which a city like New York or Portland Oregon will have free mass transit and free love, and other communities in the middle of the country will look very different, 30% Hmong and 30% Hutterite and 30% Mormon.”

The country’s going to be different from the one we know now. It will be full of creative tension, and also just full of tension, Salam says. Like Robert Guest, he’s broadly optimistic, but — “rest assured, it’s not going to be exactly what you imagine.”

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