Wednesday, June 29, 2011

America's Moral Superiority

Yesterday Roger Cohen began his New York Times column on a promising note. He quoted late eminent British intellectual Isaiah Berlin saying that America was:  “aesthetically inferior but morally superior” to Europe.

Even though I would be hard pressed to apply the concept to all of Europe, it does contain more than a few germs of truth.

Cohen explains how aesthetic superiority crimps future success: “The aesthetics of European cities offer the consolation of the past’s grandeur but seldom the adrenalin of future possibility. It’s wonderful to be lost in Bruges or Amsterdam, Venice or Vienna. The palaces bear no relation to current obligations. They have become outsized repositories of beauty.”

One is reminded of Byron Wien’s much-quoted prophecy: “Well, I have this theory that if the European union doesn't work twenty years from now, Europe will be a vast open-air museum."

Cohen then defines American moral superiority: “Not for America the moral relativism of tired European powers that, ambition exhausted or crushed, settled for comfort and compromise.”

He adds that the greatness of America depends on the Puritan work ethic: “I was talking about puritanism the other day with an American friend who observed: ‘Don’t knock it — that’s what got us this country in the first place!’ There’s something to that: America has been inseparable from a city-on-the-hill idealism but also from a strong work ethic.”

Even with the syntactical muddle of that last sentence, Cohen sees clearly the difference between America and certain European countries.

Nevertheless, it’s worth the trouble to clarify his thinking.

As we see n the news, there are effectively two Europes. One is the hard-working North; the other is the decadent South. The latter countries are currently facing financial extinction while the former are faced with the dire necessity of propping up their profligate neighbors.

And then there is France. Seemingly astride the industrious North and the decadent South, France has typified aesthetic indulgence, but it has also been economically very industrious and successful.

When we think of European cultural decadence, we think of France.

The French excel at fashion and gastronomy, at what are supposed to be the finer things in life. And they have an extraordinary treasure trove of great art and architecture., to say nothing of some of the world’s greatest sensualists.

Aside from these qualifications, Berlin’s point is still well taken. Some European nations became too soft, too complacent, and too decadent in the years following World War II. They lost their ambition and their drive. It wasn’t so much their love for la dolce vita; it was more clearly their long love affair with socialism.

Too many Europeans got tired of competitive striving and decided that the only thing worth fighting for was more vacation time. Failing to understand that you have to pay for what you have they chose to believe that the government would provide a comfortable lifestyle.

While Cohen is correct to say that you cannot practice a work ethic without there being sufficient jobs, he fails to notice that the Puritan work ethic has been under serious attack by the cultural and intellectual elites for decades now.

He might have mentioned that the elites that have brought down the work ethic do not believe America to be superior in anything whatever.

Cohen is correct to blame Barack Obama for having failed to lead. But then, strangely, Cohen proposes that America regain its moral superiority by following the example of none other than: Bill Clinton.

Cohen chooses Clinton because a lot of jobs were created while he was president. In truth, a lot of jobs were created in the 1990s, but only Bill Clinton himself would take all the credit for himself. For most of the Clinton administration Republicans controlled Congress and were instrumental in setting the domestic political agenda.

Be that as it may, if any president qualifies as decadent it is Bill Clinton. Those European aesthetes, the ones that Cohen derided, love Bill Clinton. Those who look down their snouts at the Puritan work ethic considered Bill Clinton to be a great man... not despite Monica Lewinsky, but because of Monica Lewinsky.

National moral superiority must contain an element of emulation. You improve your behavior by emulating the example set by other human beings. To improve yourself morally you will need to emulate someone whose behavior is exemplary.

That man is not Bill Clinton.

Just read the Newsweek article that Cohen finds so illuminating. It is nothing if not an apologia for Bill Clinton. In it Clinton presents himself as a great job creator, as though he had never heard of triangulation.

Even if Clinton does not know what the term means, Roger Cohen should know that the first step toward moral superiority should involve humility.

But, what is Cohen’s Clintonian solution to our current descent into aesthetic superiority?

Nothing other than European-style energy policy and industrial policy. You begin to think that Cohen has started to channel Tom Friedman.

When left thinking people start talking about energy policy they mean government subsidized windmills and solar panels. If alternative energy was viable, it would not need endless subsidies. As it is, it produces less energy more expensively than coal and and nuclear.

Those who support green energy do not much care about the practicalities of using windmills to run an aluminum plant. Aside from the fact that they worship Nature like a bunch of born-again pagan idolaters, they also hold it as an article of faith that carbon-based energy, especially coal, is ugly and aesthetically disagreeable.

The world envisioned by green energy advocates has no real chance of becoming real. But if it did, and if America were to follow an aesthetically advanced country like Spain down the road to green energy, it would have to accept that green energy kills jobs. In Spain, green energy cost 2.2 jobs for every job it created.

To keep our fairness and balance, we should note that Clinton suggests that you cannot create jobs without cutting back on bureaucratic red tape.

But hasn’t the Democratic party spent the much-vaunted Obama stimulus to expand the bureaucracy? What did they expect that these bureaucrats would be doing with their time? And hasn’t the Democratic party been defending the job killing practices of labor unions and advocacy groups?

As I was thinking through these issues, I came across a New York Times article by University of Chicago professor, Casey Mulligan.

Reflecting on the fact that American teenagers are having a great deal of difficulty finding work this summer, Mulligan recommends that we factor in the influence of the new minimum wage law.

He explains: “Employment during recessions tends to drop disproportionately among low-skilled people like teenagers, so the latest recession has to be the biggest factor in explaining why teenage employment rates are so low today.

“But minimum-wage laws also disproportionately affect teenagers — reducing their employment rates — and the federal minimum wage was increased three times in and around this recession. (Next week I will present more evidence on the number of jobs lost because of the most recent federal minimum wage hike.)

If the government wants to help raise teenage employment rates significantly, a good way to start would be by reducing labor market regulation rather than spending tax dollars on youth employment programs.”

One wonders whether Bill Clinton and Roger Cohen will join the fight to reduce labor market regulation, beginning with the minimum wage. Otherwise, one might think that they are simply playing politics.

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