Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers” — Kay S. Hymowitz, City Journal
The debate over whether cultural changes or economic inequality and deprivation are driving the bifurcation between America’s upper and lower classes is becoming a heated one between liberals and conservatives. Over at City Journal, Kay S. Hymowitz offered contribution to the cultural explanation this week, with a long dive into an under-the-radar population of Chinese immigrants that have spent the last few decades making the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park their home.
Hailing from China’s Fujian, these immigrants often arrive illegally, braving both American law enforcement and other dangers. They then endure brutal working hours and low wages for a shot at getting their children into college and thus into the American upper class:
Uneducated, poor, and absent parents: to most people, it sounds like a formula for troubled kids. Inequality and economic immobility are often traced to the resource gap between low-income and affluent children. Rich kids, the thinking goes, get trips to Europe, swimming classes, fancy schools, and valuable social connections, not to mention two doting parents; poor kids, at best, get unhealthy food on the table, a bed to share with siblings, and lousy public schools. For many, the future looks dim. [...]
But in general, the Sunset Park kids appear on track to achieve the upward mobility that some say is no longer possible in New York’s bifurcated economy. An analysis by New York public radio station WNYC showed that Sunset Park and Borough Park zip codes had among the largest number of acceptances at the city’s specialized, competitive high schools. “Most of the other admissions to the elite schools,” the report noted, “came from middle to upper class neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Fresh Meadows.” Some fortunate strivers — like Mandy Wong — get scholarships to a first- or second-tier college; others, like Stephanie Yu, go to one of the SUNY campuses or commute to CUNY campuses such as Brooklyn College or Baruch. Several CUNY professors I spoke with didn’t rave about the language skills of these students. But it’s a safe bet that, unlike their parents — not to mention their gender-studies-majoring peers — they won’t be waiting tables.
Hymowitz points to an obsessive commitment to education, a continued faith in the American Dream, highly dense and cooperative living arrangements with neighbors and extended family, and the relative insularity of the community — which both preserves the shared sense of identity and heads off more baleful cultural influences — to explain the success of the Fujian children. But Hymowtiz keeps things nuanced and thoughtful, dealing in enough detail and human specifics to sidestep the danger of the “model minority” stereotype Asian-Americans often labor under, and she doesn’t push her analysis further than her reporting and information can bear. More than anything else, the article is a detailed and fascinating anthropological look at a remarkable community of people in one corner of the American experiment.
2. “Yes, the Skills Gap Is Real” — J. D. Vance, National Review Online
J. D. Vance is one of the contributors to Reihan Salam’s blog at National Review Online, and this week he complicated the competing theories liberals and conservatives offer up for what ails the economy. The argument from the right often focuses on the “skills gap,” contending that employers aren’t hiring because they can’t find workers with the abilities and experience they need. Liberals like Paul Krugman counter that if this were the case, we would see rising wages for the high-skill workers businesses do have. High demand plus low supply equals higher price, after all.
Those higher wages aren’t showing up in the data, so Krugman and others point to a collapse in aggregate demand instead — people simply can’t buy as much as they used to, which forces cuts to jobs and incomes, which means even less purchases, and on and on. Vance doesn’t deny the aggregate demand fall-off, but points out that if customers simply can’t buy as much as they used to, that holds down revenue for businesses, which holds down the wages they can pay, even to someone who does have the full set of skills they need. In short, the collapse in aggregate demand could be exactly what’s masking the evidence for the skills gap:
This is, I suspect, a situation far too familiar to many Rust Belt manufacturers. In the Dakotas and other rapidly growing states, manufacturers and other companies can pay their people more money because their profit margins permit flexibility. In Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the margins are already razor thin, if not upside down. The skills-gap skeptics see the lack of hiring in the post-industrial Midwest as evidence that employers aren’t that interested in hiring at all, because demand is low. But it could also be evidence that those employers don’t have the cash to hire even if they wanted to — also because demand is low. Attracting talent from Texas gas rigs or training an unemployed machinist turns the bottom line from black to red, or from red to deeper red.
In other words, a weak economy manifests itself in a variety of ways, and one consequence is the inability of struggling employers to pay for premium labor. Fixing the economy sounds like a great idea, but that doesn’t mean reducing labor costs wouldn’t help, too. There are obvious ways to do this — from better preparing high-school graduates from the labor force to pushing more students into post-secondary options that might actually make them employable.
Vance acknowledges “the problem is hardly acute,” but also points out the trend is worsening. His argument doesn’t contradict — indeed, it reinforces — liberals’ emphasis on aggregate demand. Nor does it negate the point that employers, for reasons of self-interest and conceptual blindspots and all sorts of other reasons that boil down to “being human,” are not the most reliable interpreters of why they themselves are not hiring. But Vance does present an interesting account in which the liberal and conservative stories about the economy could actually both be happening at the same time.
3. “Putin: Ideological, Not Irrational” — Mark Movsesian, First Things
Last Friday, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to lament the behavior of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “He’s moving further away from the West,” Stengel said, at a time when “people want to be closer to the West,” and prompting his interviewer to agree Putin is being “irrational.” That did not sit well with First Things’ Mark Movsesian. Citing the acronym WEIRD — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — which is itself a wonderfully sardonic anthropological burn, Movsesian took Stengel to task for assuming that Putin shares and measures his successes by the values of America’s professional and elite classes:
Putin is many things, but he is not a WEIRD. He has been making clear for years that he does not aspire for Russia to become a WEIRD society. The values he promotes are nationalism, authority, loyalty, and religion. Especially religion. As a perceptive post by national security expert John Schindler explains, Putin’s worldview contains a large element of Holy Russia/Third Rome ideology, “a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.” Of course, Putin may be insincere. Like many dictators, he may simply be using religion to his advantage. But, even if his convictions are phony, the challenge he poses to the West is fundamentally a cultural and ideological one.
And many Russians support him. Putin has been extremely good at exploiting the suspicion that many Russians feel about the West and its values — especially America and its values. Notwithstanding Stengel’s assertion, Putin is not acting against the wishes of his own people. Indeed, his popularity at home has been growing since the start of the Ukraine crisis. And, as Schindler explains, it’s not only Russians who think the way Putin does. “There are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.”
Often, when a foreign leader or people are accused of not sharing Western values, liberals and many neoconservatives interpret that as an insult, probably driven by jingoism. Movsesian turns it into a defense of diversity in the amoral sense: there are many ways for understanding the human condition and how meaning and worth are constructed within it, and to many people around the world it’s not inherently obvious the West has hit on the obviously best option. Assuming it has is both narrow, and — given that Putin is a genuine autocrat with a horrendous human rights record — quite possibly dangerous.