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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Towards a pro-family economics.

Or, "what social conservatives need to learn from economic progressives."

Much food for thought in this essay.

Many at FPR will probably agree with me that the cultural politics of “family values,” dominated by an anti-liberal narrative built around opposition to abortion, gay rights, and extreme church-state separationism, has failed to protect families broadly in our polity despite significant electoral success in recent decades. Of course, our most vocal and influential religious leaders have long argued that the family is under attack by a liberal “culture of death.” I agree that there is, in fact, a culture of death, but I diagnose it differently. For one thing, I would point to America’s advanced-world leadership in state executions and imprisonment, gun violence, substance abuse, gambling, and violent entertainment in order to more fully illustrate the thesis.

No religious person can seriously deny that many aspects of American culture threaten family life and the common humanity that binds families together in communities and as a citizenry. I agree that some “social issues” and related policies have weakened family life and coarsened American culture imprudently if not unjustly, and I support recent progressive efforts to develop “common ground” on reducing abortion, strengthening marriage, and developing a new moral regime of bioethical regulation. These efforts reflect a significant evolution beyond the culture wars of the past. Yet even as we begin to establish more common ground on these important social issues, a much bigger threat, pressing deeper and deeper against the structure and very cohesion of family life, has gone unchecked for decades and threatens us on a massive scale.

That threat, of course, is the American brand of unregulated free-market capitalism—an economic power structure in which families grow more and more vulnerable and unstable even as the drive to commodify family functions and consumerize children and young adults erodes the moral and psychological well-being of our home lives, removing the last significant counterweight to raw acquisitive market forces and selfish greed.

What happened to America? The most basic trends are well-known among analysts and increasingly understood in public opinion: we’ve experienced a massive upward redistribution of assets, income, and security, leaving perhaps eighty percent of American households with little or no stake in the appreciating wealth of our society and none of the stability that comes with sufficient assets, good jobs, and a strong social safety net for when things go wrong. The average family is working more hours, for lower wages and fewer benefits, with less security and less public support in times of need. On average our children and our elders are the least well-supported such dependents in the advanced world.

The profound underlying weaknesses of too little earning power and too much consumer debt, already increasingly clear in the aftermath of 9/11, set the stage for the implosion of our economy as massive financial losses closed off the spigot of easy credit that had sustained the country for more than a decade. The slow unfolding catastrophe began in the mid-1990s, when both political parties agreed, essentially, to let good jobs disappear in America. Instead a developing a new jobs- and wage-policy to shore up working families against globalization, our political leaders took the easy way out by replacing real buying power with financial engineering and easy credit. As any middle-school math student could have predicted, they brought the whole system down by piling debt on top of falling wages. And yet, even as most of the day-to-day risk in our economy has been steadily shifted from government and employers to families and individuals, the government is now spending trillions of dollars in new public debt to cover Wall Street’s losses on mortgage debt and other consumer debt, compounding globalization’s downward wage pressures with fiscal burdens we’ve never seen before.

Hat tip to Rod Dreher for the find.

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