The Better Letter: Politically Homeless

In a world where politics seems to be of ultimate value, I don't have a political home.

Augustine, a fourth-century African bishop who lived and wrote as the culture crumbled around him, used texts such as Hebrews 11 (“By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country”), Jeremiah 29 (a letter “to the surviving elders among the exiles”), and 1 Peter 2 (“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God”) to describe himself as a “resident alien” within the Roman Empire – a fully participating member of society whose ultimate home lies elsewhere. 

Today, I feel politically homeless, a “resident alien” in that context, too, in a culture that does not value what I value. 

I am unsettled in a culture where so many see everything hanging in the balance with each election. Rarely a day goes by without someone, perhaps several someones, expressing disappointment, incredulity, or anger for my not proclaiming support for one candidate or the other.  

I am frustrated to live in a culture that insists that I have a binary choice: I must vote either for a candidate I despise or one with whom I profoundly disagree because the other guy is so much worse. 

I am politically homeless. That is the subject of this week’s TBL.

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Politically Homeless

At the recent Republican Convention, the party issued no platform for the first time ever. Instead, it bashed the news media and offered wholehearted support for President Trump and what he might choose to do. Whatever it is.

Several times this summer, Mr. Trump was asked by fawning Fox News hosts to articulate his second-term priorities, but he has regularly failed to reveal his plans, choosing to focus on his litany of grievances instead.  

The key plank of the GOP’s first platform, in 1856, was the abolition of slavery. In 2020, the party’s official position is that it is for whatever Mr. Trump says it is for. That failure to articulate what the GOP is for is a perfect metaphor for a president and a party devoid of principle beyond the rote insistence that the other side is much, much worse.

Let’s have a look at one (minor) example. In June, the Labor Department proposed a new rule which would change the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to require those overseeing pension and 401(k) plans always to put economic interests ahead of so-called non-pecuniary goals. The agency specifically focused on so-called ESG investing, sometimes referred to as “impact” or “sustainable” investing.

The new rule came after the president issued an executive order in April of last year directing the Labor Department to inquire whether there are “discernible trends” in how retirement plans subject to ERISA invest in the energy sector. Money managers have been reducing their stakes in fossil-fuel companies in part because of growing concern about the climate crisis. That, plus a glut of supply and the resulting fall in prices, has sent the stocks of oil and gas exploration and production companies down more than 40 percent this year. Energy stocks now account for just 2.3 percent of the S&P 500, on a cap-weighted basis, down from 16 percent as recently as 12 years ago. The president’s action wasn’t surprising because the fossil fuel industry is a major supporter. He has repeatedly expressed skepticism toward climate change.

Republicans, historically insistent upon limited government and the separation of powers, have long been skeptical of executive orders as exceeding presidential constitutional authority – of the “Administrative Presidency.”

Candidate Trump took the historic GOP position. “The country wasn’t based on executive orders,” Mr. Trump said at a 2016 campaign stop.

“Right now, Obama goes around signing executive orders. He can’t even get along with the Democrats, and he goes around signing all these executive orders. It’s a basic disaster. You can’t do it.”

That was still the plan just prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration because he sees himself as the consummate negotiator.

"You know, it's supposed to be negotiated. You're supposed to cajole, get people in a room, you have Republicans, Democrats, you're supposed to get together and pass a law. [Obama] doesn't want to do that because it's too much work. So, he doesn't want to work too hard. He wants to go back and play golf."

President Trump – not so much. His negotiating skills weren’t good enough, even when his party also controlled both houses of Congress.

When the president backpedaled on executive orders, so did the usual suspects.

The usual cheerleaders led the cheers… 

…despite the obvious hypocrisy. Obama-era radio host Mark Levin: “When [Obama] gets up there and starts saying, if Congress doesn’t do this, I’m going to do this unilaterally, it violates separation of power[s].”

Levin is far from alone. It’s all rhetorical Calvinball.

According to Jon Hale, director of ESG research for the Americas at Morningstar, we shouldn’t be surprised. 

“This proposed regulation isn’t about something that’s wrong with how ESG is used by fiduciaries. It’s about promoting investment in energy in ERISA plans and reflects the current administration’s position on fossil fuels and climate.”

In other words, it’s less about protecting consumers than about crony capitalism.

I think it’s fair to say that “G” is pretty well established from a research perspective as offering solid investment potential while “E” and “S” are more heavily problematic. Over the past 10 years (using backtested performance for ESG as the index was created in 2019), the S&P 500 ESG Index has outperformed the S&P 500 just slightly.

Still, the world’s largest asset managers (who, it should be recalled, have ESG products for sale) say the Labor Department proposal isn’t well-grounded or supported.

Most fundamentally, whether or not ESG outperforms, investors should have the right to invest their money as they see fit. Historically, Republicans have consistently claimed to be the party of free enterprise. According to the 2016 platform, re-upped for 2020, Republicans define the American Dream as the right to pursue prosperity without government interference. As President Ronald Reagan said during his first inaugural address, “Government isn't the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.”

Notwithstanding the GOP’s historical commitment to the power of markets, Donald Trump is far more populist protectionist than free marketeer and his voters have eagerly gone along. Shortly after the 2016 election, a pollster asked respondents if they agreed with the following statement: “The free market has been sorting [the economy] out and America’s been losing.” Fifty-seven percent of Republicans — including 55 percent of self-identified conservatives — said “yes.” By contrast, only 33 percent of Democrats — and 31 percent of liberals — said the same.

The president’s campaign agenda says he will “End Bureaucratic Government Bullying of U.S. Citizens and Small Businesses” and “Continue Deregulatory Agenda….”

That Is Bigly Remarkable.

However, the commitment to deregulation is qualified: “Continue Deregulatory Agenda for Energy Independence.” Because the president wants to prop up the fossil fuel industry, he’s happy to bully U.S. citizens (and “Citizens”) who want ESG investments by using regulation to keep them from buying what they want.

Principles (assuming they ever existed at all) are irrelevant when powerful political friends want help. That’s one more reason I cannot support the president. My conservatism is predicated upon a desire for moral leadership (honesty, decency, and fairness), global leadership, and fiscal responsibility. Although some individual candidates do, the president and the current GOP offer none of those things.

So where is a non-Trumpy, non-conspiracy crazy, non-nationalist conservative to go? The alternative isn’t a lot better because the policy differences are profound.

Moreover, each side seems increasingly defined by its worst elements. The Chicago Teachers Union said it was “completely in support” of demonstrators who built a guillotine outside of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s home. “Outside agitators” are bad, except when they’re good. Those who criticize the lack of masking and social distancing at a Republican event excuse it at resistance events. 

An activist and trust fund baby claims that “rioting and looting” should be understood “as essential tactics in fighting racial capitalism.” That’s because “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” 

Some very smart people think President Trump is an “extinction-level event” for American democracy. Most Republicans see this election, once again, as a Flight 93 election – rush the cockpit and vote for the president or die.

If I thought that were true, I might be persuaded to support the former vice president. But I remain unconvinced.

George Washington warned us, perhaps prophetically, that no constitution, however wisely designed, can protect a people against tyranny or conquest if it weakens itself by unchecked “corruption of morals, profligacy of manners, and listlessness for the preservation of the natural and unalienable rights of mankind.”

They may not be morally equivalent, but neither political party today seems interested in heeding the warning. 


Totally Worth It

A good marriage is the greatest blessing in life. This poem, by Dana Gioia, describes it beautifully.

The coolest thing I saw this week. The ickiest. The funniest, unless it’s this. The sweetest. The loveliest. The most embarrassing. The scariest. The most ironic. The most delightful. The most interesting. The most important. I can’t decide if this is the most disgusting, the silliest, or both. RIP, John Thompson. RIP, Tom Seaver. Bill Gates wished Warren Buffett a happy 90th birthday.


Benediction

Our world and our culture seem intent on tearing everything asunder such that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” If we are to overcome, it will only be Together, which is this week’s benediction.


Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Issue 28 (September 4, 2020)