Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Open Letter to Glenn Beck

Dear Glenn Beck,

I recently read the free Kindle sample of Broke, your latest effort to contribute to the pubic dialogue regarding the direction of our nation. Your advice is timely and necessary, if somewhat obvious. You have successfully established, with historical examples, that debt is bad, that having money is preferable to not having money, and moreover, that it really sucks that our country no longer has any money. With these three points I stand behind you one hundred percent, even if I wasn't quite willing to buy the remaining ninety-five percent of your book.

As you advise your readers, staying out of personal debt is a surefire way to avoid being indebted. What's more, exercising thrift is still vitally important, as underspending significantly reduces one's likelihood of overspending. You've spent several pages proving that the Greek, Roman, and Spanish empires all fell as a result of overextension and debt. But what, if not this long-term financial insolvency, defines the collapse of an organization? A government falls, it turns out, when it falls. Do you think you could go further to explain how our government could be more thrifty; i.e., what can we stop spending money on? Should we stop sending food to our soldiers, or give up entirely on our flagging education system? Will spontaneous charity be able to fund these programs at an acceptable level, given that, historically speaking, it never has? I'd like to see more thoughts on this in your next book, or possibly in the remaining chapters of this book that I opted out of buying.

I would also like you to reconsider the basis of your rejection of social security. You opposed it on the grounds that it requires the young generation to pay for the old generation, rather than the old generation putting away for itself from an early age. But even if we begin to put money into private retirement funds when we're young, we're still no less reliant on the next generation, for in our dying throes it's not actually money we'll be hankering after so much as medicine, hair dye, and golf clubs. These things will be bought in the future and will be produced by the next generation no matter how the system is set up. If the next generation is smaller or less productive, then they money we've put away in our private savings account will be able to buy less of value, and the only way around this is to literally stockpile the golf clubs now. Most of us will choose not to do this on the assumption that the drivers of the future will compensate for our lack of skill more than the drivers of today, and this is what we concretely mean when we say that our monetary savings grow in value over time. The point is, Social Security is in trouble because it has made promises it can't keep; not because it's public. "Because it's public," you will likely reply, and you'll be partially right- but what will happen to those who forgot to take out a 401k or who outlived their savings? You can say it's their fault, but it's your driveway they'll be sleeping on. I hope we can reform the system too, but I think we should be clear from the outset that it has objectives beyond just raping bald eagles.

Also, Glenn, do you think there might ever be an appropriate time for debt? Sometimes entrepreneurs take on loans to expand their businesses, and sometimes people who can't afford to eat sell themselves into indentured servitude. You argue that being debt-free is the only way to be free-free, and with this point I agree entirely. However, are there not some circumstances in which one's freedom in the long run is increased by taking on the shackles of debt in the short term? (I think this is what Keynes meant by his "glorification" of debt that you so abhor. I think he was just being provocative to make his point, as we all are from time to time.) Granted, debt must be temporary in order for credit and freedom to be restored, but given that most of us are willing to accept short term debt in emergencies, I feel that the conversation ought to center on the question of what exactly constitutes such an emergency.

Glenn, your take-aways are really worth hearing: spend less, spend smarter, and …something about debt. However, I've had some trouble following the logic that has led you there, and to help clarify I have included a representative except with my questions in bullet point below.

"The recent denigration of profits and wealth is right out of the progressive playbook. They make wealth synonymous with greed and profits synonymous with corruption…"

  • Is this denigration "recent"? Is this the first time in human history that wage earners and serfs have resented those whose incomes are chiefly derived from collecting rent?
  • This sentiment exists today, but you'll notice that (as of 2010) one sees very little anger directed at artists, musicians, or figures such as Steve Jobs, who are clearly working hard to create things the public finds valuable. Instead, the public is enraged by the top management of GM, who has been selling essentially the same Suburban for twenty years regardless of a changes in taste and politics, or the fund managers of Wall Street, who either consciously or not (not sure which is better) sustained the great credit bubble and managed to hold onto their jobs in the fallout.
  • Glenn, I propose that what you're seeing has nothing to do with progressivism; it's a near-universal reaction against those who prove that unfairness exists even in America, a country which ought to have higher ideals; those who challenge America's identity.

"After a while, people start to think to themselves: Maybe I don't want to be rich after all. Wealth isn't something to be admired; it's something to be avoided…"

  • Is this really the biggest problem that our society faces today? That young people just don't want to be rich anymore; that they underachieve because they're afraid of making too much money? Frankly, Glenn, I just don't believe that insufficient love of money has been or ever will be a problem anywhere.

"So people borrow, they spend, they live the high life, and, sure enough, they are never wealthy. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

  • I don't follow. Are we meant to believe that wealth is denigrated so much that people just want to pretend that they have it but back away from being rich in private? That the citizenry only feel comfortable conforming to the social pressure to be poor when no one's watching?

"The reason this is so important is that fewer wealthy citizens means fewer jobs.

  • By what path of causation do "wealthy citizens" create jobs? Good jobs are created by a number of things, including innovative ideas which often originate in publicly funded universities or research institutes, and a large middle class which can afford to buy these innovate products in significant numbers. (Take a look at China, who has not only a prodigious number of people but also "wealthy citizens," but whose high-skilled job creation is stifled because there are simply not enough moderately wealthy people to buy high-tech products).

Fewer jobs means fewer people to take care of others, which in turn allows the government to make a case that is has to step in to fill the void.

  • Are we meant to believe that "progressivism" is a government propaganda campaign designed to defeat charity? Isn't it possible that some of the fine folks in Washington D.C. might want to raise taxes so they can take care of things like securing the country or educating your kids, and really have no intention of stopping you from dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army box?

After all, if individuals were still willing and able to engage in private, willful charity and philanthropy (as used to be the tradition), we wouldn't need government to do it."

  • Glenn, what evidence do we have that a substantial amount of 'willful charity and philanthropy" has ever been "the tradition" for more than a very small percentage of society? How much charity do you reckon the average Irish immigrant or Native American or slave was receiving in, say, 1830?

…But virtue requires morality, and morality requires adherence to a religion that embraces charity as a pillar of its theology and recognizes a higher power than the government.

  • Do you mean to imply that those who do not "adhere to a religion" cannot be virtuous or moral, or is "require" just a poorly chosen word?

In all seriousness, Glenn, I value your attempt to shake the average American out of his complacent stupor. As it happens, I have a few ideas of my own on the subject. Let's let some immigrants in. How better to instill competitive, entrepreneurial vigor into Backyard Bill than to move him next door to Salim, the computer genius from Calcutta who has never taken a weekend off, and inform the two that they're competing for the same job? How better to instill the guilt of consumption into Mary Jane than to move her next door to Rosa and the other ten members of the Hernandez clan living next door to wait for picking season? And then, to make sure that Bill has a leg to stand on and Mary Jane knows enough Spanish to invite her neighbors over for tea-- to make sure that they engage the world beyond rather than evading it and being defeated by it-- why not give both of them a first-class, government-funded education?

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