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. “The New Progressive Argument: For Kids, Marriage Per Se Doesn’t Matter” — W. Bradford Wilcox, Family Studies
Last week, a study came out of the Brookings Institution arguing that children in stable two-parent marriages have better life outcomes because marriage correlates with higher family incomes and better-quality parenting. This prompted several writers of a liberal bent to take up the study’s call to “promote parenting, not marriage” by transferring more cash to single parents and providing them with classes and training in how to raise children well.
This did not sit well with Brad Wilcox, a conservative of a reformist inclination over at Family Studies. So this week, Wilcox pushed back that marriage is, in essence, a structural or ecological force in itself. As a result, the material “outputs” of marriage — higher incomes and high-quality parenting — are difficult to replicate outside the context of marriage itself. Government policy can approach certain imitations, but all the effects of marriage are part of an interlocking organic whole:
When it comes to money, marriage enables two parents to pool income and assets and, specifically, to capture the income of a child’s (married) father; indeed, married fathers usually earn significantly more than single mothers or single fathers, even similarly credentialed ones. All this translates into a lot more money for the ordinary American families headed by married parents. One study found that the median decline in family income in the wake of a divorce for women who became single mothers was 45 percent. The bottom line is this: The “income effect” discovered by Howard and Reeves is partly a consequence of stable marriage, as well as a cause of stable marriage (more affluent Americans are more likely to get and stay married).
So it goes with the “parenting effect” discovered by Reeves and Howard, or with the idea that “it is the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family,” articulated by their Brookings colleague Isabel Sawhill. Compared to single parents, we know that “levels of parental involvement, supervision, monitoring, and closeness are higher, on average, in two-biological-married parent families than in single-parent families.” Undoubtedly, this is partly because the kinds of people who have good people skills are also more likely to be both good parents and good lovers. But it’s also the case that, in most cases, it is easier to parent with a partner: Two parents can invest more time in their children, they can support one another when the going gets tough, and they can encourage and monitor one another in ways that foster higher-quality parenting. And married partners in the United States are much more likely to stick together, compared to their cohabiting peers, when it comes to sharing the joys and challenges of parenting.
Wilcox rounded out his argument by pointing to Sweden, which has a much more comprehensive and generous social safety net than the United States, yet still sees children raised by married couples benefiting from better life outcomes than those raised by single parents.
Wilcox does not argue against the Swedish system, merely saying “we cannot count on the federal government to launch a Swedish-style public policy push to bridge the economic and parenting divides” — which is true enough. But it still leaves the window open that Swedish children from single-parent families are better off than their equivalents in the United States. And since two married parents are the critical ingredient here, same-sex marriage appears compatible with his argument as well. Those points aside, Wilcox presents a strong case that marriage is a holistic thing unto itself, and cannot simply be reduced to its constituent outputs.
2. “Nevada’s Subsidies For Tesla Factory Don’t Only Hurt Taxpayers” — Tim Carney, The Washington Examiner
The electric car manufacturer Tesla recently ended a long-running “who will they pick” drama when it chose to build its new “gigafactory” — which will be devoted to pumping out lithium-ion batteries on a massive scale — in the state of Nevada. It’s since come out that, to lure Tesla in, Nevada will spend the next two decades forking around $1.25 billion over to the company in the form of tax breaks and various tax credits.
Tim Carney, a libertarian- and populist-minded conservative at the Washington Examiner, did not think this was a good idea. This week, he used the example of Nevada’s Tesla subsidies to lay out the “efficient market” hypothesis, which states that free markets do the best job of moving scarce resources to the places and projects in society to which they’ll be put to the best use. He also hits on the idea of “opportunity loss” — that by privileging Tesla’s particular solutions to the problem set of renewable energy and transportation, Nevada may deny itself better solutions in the future:
Scarcity is a central fact of economics. People, money, materials and time are scarce. Resources that go to one company or technology can’t go to another. And increased demand means higher prices for everyone — when Company A starts buying more iron, Company B will end up having to pay more for iron… [S]carcity does exist in both battery materials and the attention of potential suppliers and partners. In these regards, Tesla’s growth drags resources away from other uses.
It’s not a given that lithium-ion batteries are the best batteries for electric cars, or for electrical grid storage. Other types of batteries today show promise, most of which you’ve never heard of: vanadium redox flow, zinc-based, sodium-aqueous and liquid-metal.
Businesses looking to invest in batteries are deciding between these technologies and more. Market players will weigh the different technologies’ cost of manufacture, durability, usefulness.
Nevada, by boosting Tesla, has just tilted the scale. Greentech Media explains: “Tesla’s plans are already influencing expectations in the grid storage world. AES Energy Storage President Chris Shelton told me that the Giga factory has played an important role in the company’s decision to concentrate on lithium-ion as the battery chemistry of choice for the next seven to ten years.”
Maybe Nevada chose wisely. But maybe more promising technologies will see less investment because players like AES are chasing Tesla, which is powered by Nevada’s corporate welfare.
The point also extends beyond the batteries themselves. By “locking in” the choice of lihtium-ion-powered cars, and thus Tesla’s ability to buy up the limited material resources and minerals needed to build the batteries, the subsidies also bias future market developments against improved rail technologies, advancements in telecommuting, or alternative automobile designs.
That said, the efficient markets hypothesis also sits at the uneasy intersection of economic measurements and raw ideological faith: it’s also possible that markets can produce irrational outcomes, and there’s a substantial historical, theoretical, and data-based case to be made that free markets do not actually operate as advertised in this regard. It could be the case that investors in the private sector and politicians in Carson City are all involved in the same basic act of randomly throwing darts at a board — and that they’re both equally good (or, more precisely, equally bad) at it.
But the efficient markets hypothesis is also a core, long-standing plank in the conservative worldview. And if it’s true Carney presents a particularly punchy and lucid summation of what that means, using an immediate and concrete example.
3. “A Union Survives” — Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest
Last night, a historic referendum in Scotland to break away from the United Kingdom and become its own independent nation ended in a narrow defeat of 54 percent to 46 percent. But according to Walter Russell Mead over at The American Interest, this does not mean the modern idea of the large and sweeping nationstate is in the clear. Rather, Mead sees the vote as the first evidence of a sea-change brought on by changing global economic circumstances, advancing technology, and evolving social and institutional organizations, which will only make moves by different polities to break away into smaller political units more common in the future:
A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.
Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.
Beyond that, advances in communications and information management technology both enable and require new methods of working. The immense power of these technologies — whether related to the ability of the state to monitor more and more of what citizens do or to the potential that the collection and processing of vast volumes of data offers — means that government now has more power that can potentially be abused than ever before. (This is not what the naive prophets of the technological age forecast, back when technology was going to free us up into a new kind of benign libertarian anarchy, but life is complicated that way.)
This creates a strong public demand to rein in states, but it also leads people to want centralizing states to return as much power as possible to the local level where people can exercise more control over their governors. And it puts particular pressure on large and complex units of government, whether these are multinational entities like the EU, or complex multiethnic or multicultural federal governments like those in the U.S. and the UK. The Scots have more reason to fear a remote and unaccountable London than ever before, and if they must be governed at all they want more of that government closer to home where it can be watched more closely and where Scots can feel more secure that their politicians share their cultural values.
The one hole in Mead’s argument is what will happen to people without power in the smaller polities of the future. He focuses on how the desires of high-skill, economically privileged populations will build the pressure to break up states, but not on how the consequences could play out for their fellows at the oppostie end of the power spectrum, who have a far harder time getting governments of any size to care about them.
But what’s particular useful about Mead’s piece is the way he roots these changes in structural forces. A lesser argument would see the large centralized nationstate as a product of benighted progressive-liberal ideology, but Mead acknowledges that form of political organization was well-suited to tackling many of the problems specific to the 20th Century. He also admits that in the specific instance of the Scottish independence vote, prudence may have one out. It’s just that the problems facing the 21st Century will be different, and judging from how they seem to be shaping up “effective devolution is the great political task of our times.”