Government Against Bourgeois Values | City Journal

It seems inevitable that the long-building crusade to legalize the sale and use of marijuana will succeed, as evidenced most recently by New York State legislation to do so. A society of liberty depends mainly on voluntary compliance to maintain the rule of law. There aren’t enough police to monitor every traffic light, for instance. Many have come to believe that banning marijuana use is impractical.

However, state governments are doing more than just acquiescing in the sale of what was once quaintly called grass. In signing New York’s new law, Governor Andrew Cuomo touted its potential to bring in $350 million annually in new excise, licensing, and sales tax revenues. Implicitly, then, we are witnessing the state’s not just accepting drug use but relying on its revenues—and thus encouraging it. Government is now a co-conspirator in vice.

There should be a far more serious discussion about the health risks of legalization, as per Alex Berenson’s excellent work. I share his concerns and have a few of my own. Drug legalization is just the latest in a series of public policies that actively undermine the values forming the basis for a healthy economy and, even more important, for a fulfilling life—what economic historian Deirdre McCloskey unflinchingly terms “bourgeois virtues.”

The mystery of the origins of modern capitalism—and its capacity to lift whole societies out of poverty—has captivated economic theorists at least since Max Weber. To simplify his argument aggressively, Weber attributed capitalism to an attitude that saw the pursuit of financial gain not as the product of greed but of a religiously influenced positive attribute. As British economic historian R.H. Tawney wrote in describing Weber, “What is significant is not the strength of the motive of economic self-interest, which is the commonplace of the ages. . . . It is the change of moral standards.”

In her grand trilogy on capitalism, McCloskey cites such underlying attitudes as prudence and trust—part of the bourgeois project of thinking beyond transient pleasures of the moment (such as those provided by the rush of drug use) as fundamental to economic growth. The novelist Walker Percy also made this point about the connection of values and enterprise in his masterpiece, The Moviegoer. “It is not at all bad being a businessman. There is a spirit of trust and cooperation here. Everyone jokes about such things, but if businessmen were not trusting of each other and could not set their great project going on credit, the country would collapse tomorrow.” Put another way, capitalism both relies on bourgeois virtues and encourages them.

Pot smokers are certainly capable of launching and sustaining business enterprises; that’s not the point. Rather, it’s that bourgeois virtues like prudence and trust are fundamentally focused on the long-term horizon. Don’t spend; invest. Privilege forward-thinking over short-term thrills. As per McCloskey, this is not only the path to economic accumulation but also the best way to pursue happiness. She highlights Amartya Sen’s view of a “‘duality’ in ethics between ‘well-being,’ which is the utilitarian idea of people as pots into which pleasure is dumped, and ‘agency,’” which is “the ability to form goals, commitments, values.” In other words, agency is the route to a form of life satisfaction that transcends short-term thrills.

The idea that such values would eventually succumb to affluence—that capitalism’s bounty would lead to its demise—is not new. Indeed, as Tawney writes, “If capitalism begins as the practical idealism of the aspiring bourgeoisie, it ends, Weber suggests, in an orgy of materialism.”

Neither Weber nor Daniel Bell, however, envisioned the active undermining of bourgeois self-abnegation by government. Yet, more and more, government is actively undermining bourgeois values. As I wrote in Who Killed Civil Society: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms, social-service programs, which grew exponentially starting in the 1960s, implicitly sent the message that social interventions could compensate for poor life decisions, such as teen pregnancy, “juvenile delinquency,” or substance abuse. The emphasis that civil society organizations like the Boy Scouts or 4H placed on formative measures gave way to a government-reinforced emphasis on the reformative.

Government has now gone even further down this path, actively encouraging and relying on revenues from those who choose pleasure over self-improvement and achievement. Whether marijuana truly induces psychosis (and Berenson makes a persuasive case that it does), it’s not likely to sustain the virtues necessary to do one’s homework or, more broadly, to close the achievement gap in education. (I know, marijuana is for “adult use” only. As if.)

Encouraging drug use is only the latest in a string of anti-bourgeois virtue signals from government. In addition to state lotteries, with their manipulative get-rich-quick advertising, we also have state-sanctioned sports betting, which, like marijuana sales, provide revenue for state government. Indeed, in announcing support for permitting sports gambling in New York, Governor Cuomo made clear that the state would sanction whichever “gaming” enterprise pledged to provide the largest share of its revenue to Albany.

Next up is legalized prostitution—a.k.a. “sex work.” New York state senator Julia Salazar has introduced legislation to decriminalize the exchange of sex for money. If that bill were to pass, one could presumably expect prostitutes to be licensed for a fee (for health reasons, no doubt), and perhaps also taxed. Government’s message: that we should accept a society where pleasure-seeking replaces the hard work of building intimacy through knowing and loving another person; and that sex work is just another career option. Perhaps sex workers will save money and pay off college loans to help support later STEM careers—but at what cost, psychologically, to themselves and their “customers”?

The list of public policies undermining bourgeois virtues goes on—and arguably includes stimulus checks (a.k.a. “stimmies”), based on the belief that income matters above all in ensuring comfort and joy. As McCloskey writes in The Bourgeois Virtues, “Whatever happiness of identity a painter earns may be measured by the income he gives up. But that does not make the happiness the same thing as income. The happiness is comparable to the happiness of identity a skillful truck driver earns or a skillful tennis player, whether poorly or well paid.” Any work, in other words, can offer the fulfillment either of a job well done or of something leading to a job one would prefer. A check in the mail can pay for groceries, but it cannot substitute for such fulfillment.

One fears that simple income transfers in the name of reducing inequality will instead increase it. Middle-class parents will continue to steer their children away from what we once called vice, even as others are lured into it. (Notably, the New York State bill, like a similar one in Massachusetts, allows for localities to opt out of permitting the retail sale of pot and pot products; look to higher-income zip codes to do so.) This is no happy libertarian outcome. Parents and responsible adults who succeed in guiding their children toward positive choices will do so only at the cost of also teaching them to discount messages and policies promulgated by government.

None of this, of course, is to say that drug use, gambling, and prostitution would disappear if they were not permitted by law. Rather, it is to question the wisdom of government both encouraging them and relying on the tax revenue they generate. It was not so long ago that government urged us to “just say no” to drugs. It may not have been an effective effort, but that doesn’t mean that government should encourage us to just say yes.

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Expanding Charity Via Universal Giving Pandemic Response Act

Bipartisanship is scarce today on Capitol Hill, as the party-line vote on the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill underscored. This makes the bipartisan sponsorship of the Universal Giving Pandemic Response Act all the more notable, reflecting an emerging understanding that the vast majority of taxpayers are excluded from the tax incentives for charitable giving.

The proposed legislation would expand provisions passed in last year’s CARES Act that added a charitable tax deduction of up to $300 ($600 for couples filing jointly) for those who don’t itemize their deductions. Though we don’t yet know how much charitable giving that provision encouraged, it’s likely that it had at least some positive effect. The new bill goes much further, lifting the top deduction to $3,000 for single filers and $6,000 for joint filers. That may seem too generous, but it’s a necessary antidote to an unfortunate side effect of the Trump administration’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: the sharp drop in the number of taxpayers eligible for charitable deductions.

According to the Tax Foundation, prior to 2017, some 31 percent of taxpayers itemized, allowing them to use the charitable deduction. After passage of the Act, the number of itemizers fell to just 13.7 percent. There was much to applaud in the Trump tax reform: expanding the standard deduction vastly simplified income tax returns and reduced or eliminated tax incentives that deserved to be cut back, including the home-mortgage deduction and the deduction for state and local taxes, both of which accrued mainly to the affluent in blue states.

But by reducing incentives for charitable giving, the tax reform posed a threat to the ongoing revenue streams of front-line service providers, such as food banks, which have been hit hard by the pandemic. (By one estimate, a third of nonprofits are currently running short of funds.) Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, one of the new bill’s co-sponsors, has emphasized the need for near-term assistance: “Nonprofits are on the front lines of this crisis, but as demand for their services soars, many of these organizations are struggling to keep their doors open,” she said.

That’s true enough, but it doesn’t capture the larger significance of the bill. Limiting incentives for charitable giving to the wealthy runs counter to American traditions of broad-based philanthropy. The proposed bill would make a start toward re-democratizing charity—not only by providing financial incentives for it, but also by sending a normative message about its importance to society. Expanding the charitable deduction is an acknowledgment, by government, of the limits of government.

It also builds on another important trend that has helped democratize charitable giving: the sharp growth of donor-advised funds. The average value of these accounts, which offer a tax deduction for setting aside funds for future giving, is just $162,000. They resemble small foundations for the upper-middle class, managed by major financial firms. The number of such accounts have grown sharply, from 241,000 in 2014 to 873,000 in 2019. An enhanced charitable tax deduction will complement the growth of these individual charitable accounts.

The Universal Giving Act is far better-targeted than the idea proposed in the so-called Accelerate Charitable Giving plan, proposed by billionaire John Arnold, that would provide for a charitable tax credit—a stronger incentive than a deduction—but would set a high bar (2.5 percent of adjusted growth income) for taking advantage of it. Roger Colinvaux of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law has offered a similarly misguided proposal. Both ideas risk discriminating against smaller donors.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized that America’s ubiquitous grassroots “associations” ameliorated local problems and bound neighbors to one another. Volunteers are part of the lifeblood of these associations—but so are donations. The Universal Giving Act recognizes that reality.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Chinese Communist Party’s Covid-19 Secrecy Threatens Public Health

New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s inexplicable decision to transfer elderly Covid-19 victims from hospitals back to nursing homes—even over the objections of some facilities, such as Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Health Center, themselves—and then to conceal the facts about how many of these people died, qualifies as government malpractice. It’s almost as if Cuomo, in doing so, imported an approach to governance practiced in China. The one obvious difference, though: there’s a chance that the governor will be held accountable, while the one-party Chinese approach continues, having already fostered two near-pandemics, one full-blown global crisis, and who knows how many future ones. Absent independent and accountable local and regional government, China will continue to pose a threat to public health.

Cuomo’s hiding of the true nursing home death figures is strongly reminiscent of the standard operating model of Chinese local and regional officials, whom I once taught for the Harvard Kennedy School in “executive education” programs. In notable contrast to their U.S. peers, whom I also taught, Chinese officials always had in mind the need to impress their central government and Communist Party superiors, rather than a local population. Indeed, a Party elder was always in the room from the feared Organization Department, the central apparatus for deciding on appointments and promotions. (He was, indeed, said to be a veteran of the Long March.)

Chinese state and regional officials took it as a given that they should always try to report to higher-ups that a potential crisis was under control. A chilling account of the 2003 SARS crisis that began in Guangdong, close to Hong Kong, captures the incentive structure of local Chinese officials. Writes Yanzhong Huang of John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations of Seton Hall University:

The government’s ability to formulate a sound policy against SARS was hampered as lower-level government officials intercepted and distorted the upward information flow. For fear that any mishap reported in their jurisdiction might be used as an excuse to pass them over for promotion, government officials at all levels tended to distort the information they pass up to their political masters in order to place themselves in a good light.

This is the same dynamic that played out in the 1997 bird flu near-pandemic, when that respiratory illness jumped to humans in China. The spread was halted only when a then far-freer Hong Kong not only announced the problem to the world but also successfully set about killing every chicken in its territory, eliminating the illness at its source. It’s hard to doubt that the same sort of localized early outbreak occurred in the case of Covid-19. Even the World Health Organization has reported that local cases may have occurred in China as early as October of last year, before the illness surfaced in Wuhan in early December—and long before its presence was made clear to the world.

The Seton Hall account of the 2003 SARS crisis, indeed, proved prescient, noting that the Communist Party did not reward local officials for controlling such outbreaks. “The central government still equates development with economic growth and uses that as a yardstick in measuring local government performance.” The analysis continues in what one cannot help but suspect has been just as true of Covid: “A deeply ingrained authoritarian impulse to maintain secrecy, in conjunction with a performance-based legitimacy and an obsession with development and stability during political succession, contributed to China’s initial failure to publicize the outbreak. Meantime, an upwardly directed system of accountability, a fragmented bureaucracy, and an oligarchic political structure hampered any effective government response to the outbreak.”

Andrew Cuomo made New York less safe from Covid-19 than it could have been, and he is facing his gravest political crisis as a result of his own decisions. But it is clear that his lack of “transparency”—hiding the impact of his policy directive—is itself considered a grave departure from the norms of American government. Such secrecy is the norm in China, however. It’s far from clear that the world can ever be protected from a future pandemic so long as the Chinese Communist Party rules that country. Only decentralized authority offers protection.

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