Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Until recently I didn’t think Conservaphobia was a real phenomenon. But, after reading a Friday Gazette op-ed, I’m flummoxed.  Now I don’t know whether to repent or go into hiding.

I’m a conservative. For the sake of political correctness and personal safety I should be saying that in hushed tones, but I just can’t help myself. I’ve been a conservative since the days of Jimmy Carter and I intend to be planted in the ground someday as a conservative.

Far be it from me to critique the work of experts. They apparently know more about a guy like me than I know about myself. If some academic expert, with impeccable credentials, says that I’m a mass of “fear, intolerance of ambiguity, need for certainty or structure in life, or overreaction to threats” who am I to criticize?

Some experts think that being conservative is dangerous. In one paragraph we’re just garden variety conservatives. In the next we’ve become “right wing authoritarians,” or RWA’s. They’ve even developed RWA scales so they can pigeon hole us.

I can hardly wait for the op-ed about RWA leaders. I’m guessing they’re going to exhume Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The psycho-babble will be fascinating.

It might be time to make Emporia a model for more sweeping solutions to its conservative problem. We could start with pilot programs. We could allocate space in one of our empty storefronts for a twelve step program to help desperate conservatives shake the oppressive shackles of their political philosophy. I might attend, more than likely under compulsion. I can see myself sheepishly breaking the ice: “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m a conservative.” I can almost hear the gasps from the other miscreants assembled as they respond in unison, “Hi, Phil.”

Twelve step programs might be a bit too gentle to solve the problem. If they fail, as many will (we conservatives are a highly resistant lot), escalation would be in order. We could have latter day Robspierres roaming the streets to ferret out offenders. All of Emporia would be a conservative free zone¸ protected by Committees for Public Safety. Anyone caught skulking around with a copy of “God and Man at Yale” or C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” would be dragged, kicking and screaming, to an interrogation room. There¸ skilled interrogators with names like Lakshmi, Sonari, or Kai, would ask the important questions in gentle, new age tones. “Have you had any conservative thoughts recently?” “What do you know about the work of Edmund Burke?”  “Have you ever subscribed to the political philosophy of Ronald Reagan?” “Are there any other conservatives lurking around in your neighborhood?”   The interrogations would always end with this reminder – “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.” (see “1984,” Book 1, Chapter 2)

The interrogations won’t be enough to cause the hard core conservatives to recant. In those cases, lobotomies would become the preferred option. The Committee for Public Safety could hire Nurse Ratched to oversee the operation.

When all is said and done I think that a lot of detractors possess some of the same personality traits they accuse conservatives of holding exclusively. I’ve met more than a few Progressives in my lifetime who “consider themselves more upstanding and moral than others.” I’ve even met some who “hold numerous hypocrisies and double standards.” But I’m not ready to declare that there’s a malady called Progressive Personality Disorder. If they want to be better than everyone else, I say let ém.

If the truth be known, most conservatives believe in a “transcendent order” and have an abiding “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.”  (“The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot” – page 8).

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I’ll close with a couple of gentle reminders, one from the poetry of Robert Burns and one paraphrasing Holy Writ.

In his “To a Louse,” Burns wrote about noticing a woman of high estate sitting in front of him in church. He saw that she had all the trappings of class and distinction. She was dressed to the nines. What she couldn’t see was what Burns could -  a louse crawling across her hat. The poem ends with the following observation:

“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his listeners they would do well to remove the logs in their own eyes before they tried to remove the specks in their brothers.’ It was good advice 2,000 years ago. It’s good advice today.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


For the past couple of months city and county politics have reminded me of my high school days, especially getting caught smoking in the boys’ room.
I should’ve never started smoking, but I was young and I wanted to be one of the boys. I knew what the rules were. I knew there were bathroom monitors roaming around, but I was willing to take the chance. For me, the opportunity came between Latin II and Physical Education. As soon as Mr. Landrigan dismissed us with one last reminder we’d better bone up on our ablative absolutes I was gone, hoping I’d be able to find a stall to satisfy my nicotine fit in secrecy. I usually got away with my misdeeds¸ but the bathroom monitors occasionally caught me and about six or seven others in the act. The door would swing open and we’d hear, “Awright, who’s smokin’ in here?” I think they took great delight in what came next –lit cigarette butts hissing as they hit the water, followed by the sound of flushing.
I’m not sure how many bathroom monitors we have here in Emporia, but whatever the number is, I don’t think there are enough.
I don’t attend city, county, or school board meetings as often as I should, but when I do I get the nagging sense that our esteemed leaders have spent some of their time puffing away together somewhere back in the goodoleboy’s room. It’s not that I’ve ever been back in the goodoleboy’s room that makes me wonder; it’s just that there’s something in the air. There are times I want to whisper to folks around me, “Do you smell cigar smoke creeping out from under a back room door?”
Some of my friends think I’m a bit too eastern for these parts. This is especially true when I ask them whether or not they’re a bit curious about political doings here. They tell me that, unlike easterners, Midwesterners trust one another and that business in Emporia and Lyon County takes place on a handshake basis. Now there’s nothing wrong with handshakes. I like them. And, as far as trust goes, I’m actually a very trusting guy. I trust my wife, my kids, and my friends. I trust my neighbors and their kids.  I trust Jack and Ranger, my dogs. They’ve never tried to bite me. But I do admit to feeling queasy being around politicians who try to pick my pocket when my attention is focused elsewhere.
At some of the recent meetings I got that feeling. When I hear politicians saying something like “We can move money from this fund to that fund,” my antenna goes up. When the gang at the county tells us we need a sales tax to give us property tax relief and we still wind up with higher property taxes I want to scream, “If you’re gonna’ mug me, please slap me only once.” When I get a copy of a budget and it’s just a page or two shorter than “War and Peace” I begin to wonder what genius adorned with a green eyeshade authored this minefield. My suspicions get aroused and I begin to hope the Gazette’s ace reporter or Jeff O’Dell has a bit of the muckraker in their blood.
But, maybe my friends are right. I just need to be more trusting. Our local politics is probably as honest as a barracks poker game. And, besides, if there is political double-talk and patronage here it’s as American as apple pie.
Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of the “We’re going into executive session” and it’s got my wheels turning. What’s up with that? Are we dealing with bruised egos who are feeling compelled to let us know how important they are? Are they trying to tell us, “We’re dealing with stuff so sensitive we have to communicate with each other by way of Enigma machines” or that if any Emporian ever found out what was going on it would trigger Armageddon?
A couple of weeks ago the city commissioners went into executive session from 9:00 A.M. till 11:00. At 11:00 they sat down for a few minutes and promptly went into executive session again. Our commissioners spent about as much time in secret as Ike and his team did planning the Normandy invasion.
I’m a trusting soul. I really am. But I’m curious. What on earth are they hatching back there? Is someone smoking in the goodoleboys’ room? I’ve heard that where there’s smoke there’s usually a cigar.
Maybe it would be good if our leaders knew we’re watching them. Who knows? One of these days the door may open wide and they’ll hear, “Awright, who’s smokin’ in here?” If the next sounds we hear are hissing and flushing we’ll know our curiosity was justified.

Friday, October 07, 2011


Some historians have credited Herbert Hoover with the following political beatitude – “Blessed are the young¸ because they will inherit the national debt.” Hoover may or may not have said it, but I guess that’s not particularly relevant. Hoover has also been credited with doing nothing once the stock market crashed in 1929, but that may not be entirely true either. When the stock market crashed he blamed it on the Coolidge administration’s laissez faire, pro- business policy. By the time he left office the Hoover administration had passed the highest income tax increase in American history, doubled the estate tax, and secured passage of the Smoot-Harley tariff of 1930, which precipitated a worldwide trade war. In the aftermath of the speculative bubble that had caused the market to crash unemployment had gotten as high as 9%. By 1930 unemployment had been reduced to a little bit over 6%. By 1931, thanks to Smoot-Harley, unemployment reached 11%. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 23.6%!
Maybe I’m looking at it the wrong way, but I don’t think Herbert Hoover did “nothing.” He did a lot and not much of it was good. Coolidge, the “Old Stone Face,” may have gotten it right. He had on occasion referred to Hoover as “Wonder Boy.”  He was also reluctant to support Hoover’s presidential bid in 1928 and had once remarked, “For six years that man has given me unsolicited advice—all of it bad.”
I started this essay writing about debt so I guess I’d better get back to it.  It’s interesting. Just about everyone in the country seems to agree that we have a national debt problem. Economists are telling government officials we have a crisis on our hands. Strangely, though, the message of debt reduction doesn’t seem to have a lot of appeal in some circles.
In a recent essay published by Time Magazine, Brad Tuttle opined, “While it is prudent for the individual to save more and scale back on consumption, the consensus is that, collectively, we need to spend to get the economy humming along once more. If the masses were to exhibit boring, responsible, debt-averse consumer behavior for a sustained period of time, that would be a recipe for continued economic strife.”
I’m not sure who is responsible for this consensus. My guess it’s a brigade of Washington think tankers. The average American isn’t that dumb. You know eventually the politicians are going to get a hold of this and, when they do, they’re gonna’ have a field day.
It gets even worse. It’s one thing for the Obama administration to blame the Bush administration for our current predicament. That may or may not be true. But it’s another thing altogether to blame you and me, and that’s what’s happening.  The argument, so it goes, is that, since consumer spending represents 70% of our economic activity, consumers who are scaling back on big ticket purchases and reducing debt load are “seriously hampering the economy’s recovery.”
Well, there you have it. It’s all our fault.
Why is it that bad ideas seem to get such traction? I find it mystifying. It seems, for example, that every time we have a national disaster, a tornado, a hurricane like Katrina or Irene, a flood, or a blizzard, the airwaves begin buzzing with the idea that maybe the tragedy wasn’t so bad after all because it will stimulate economic activity and bring on recovery. I understand that there is some economic activity that comes on the heels of a disaster, but does that mean that the solution to our economic problems is to mount tragedy upon tragedy to create the desired economic outcome. Really? I guess that means we’d do well to start burning our cities down, inventing machines to shake all of our houses like James Bond’s dry martinis, or opening the national spigots and flooding everyone out. Man, talk about stimulus! It’s too bad Herbert Hoover didn’t think of that. Had he been clever enough he could have adopted the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, break it” to market all the destructive energy.  We just may have avoided the Great Depression. We might have had a lot of scorched and flooded earth, broken buildings, and stratospheric casualty reports, but the lucky ones left standing would have been employed rebuilding everything.
I wonder what our young people are thinking as they observe the madness disguised as compassionate genius in action. Are they dreading the future? Surely, they must be thinking that the ruling generation has taken leave of its senses. Lord, I hope they don’t start thinking like their elders and begin breaking things. Maybe, for the sake of self-perseveration, I’d better suggest they just eat, drink, and be merry now, for tomorrow they will probably be broke!

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Nancy and I love listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” on Saturday evening, especially the news of Lake Wobegon(e), a fictional Minnesota town where, “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” If you haven’t heard Keillor weave his tales I recommend you do. Tune in to NPR at 5:00 PM on Saturdays.
This morning I caught the tail end of a CNBC interview with author Thomas Friedman. He was pitching his latest book, “That Used to Be Us – How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How It Can Come Back.” I haven’t read the book, but after hearing the interview I have it on order.
I’ve just finished reading a Christian Science Monitor review of the book, which has really whetted my appetite for more. The review describes the authors, Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, as “frustrated optimists.” What’s got them frustrated? “America is in denial, unwilling to accept that it’s been living beyond its means and getting, well, a little lazy.”
I wonder if Friedman and Mandelbaum paid a visit to Emporia when they were doing their research. It sure looks like it. If there were a gold standard award for denial in economic development and clever, meaningless jingles I think we’d win hands down.
I’m often taken to task by this town’s important people because I don’t tow the “everything’s fine” party line that dominates our leadership. That’s alright. I realize there’s a price to pay when you rub the powerful the wrong way. But, in their rush to criticize they’ve missed the really important point. I’m right and they’re wrong. We’ve got problems that demand serious reflection and answers. Denial won’t make the problems go away and, worse yet, it keeps us from answering the difficult questions and finding our way out of the mess we’re in.
Time is of the essence. With each passing day Emporia, and America, are falling further and further behind in a world that is increasingly competitive and skills driven.
I’ve seen the competitive international environment first hand. I’ve seen just how good our competitors are. I’ve seen them in Singapore, Israel, and South Korea. I’ve read about the emerging markets and the rise of trade partnerships like the “BRICS,” who are pooling resources to supplant the United States as the world’s dominant economic power. And, here at home, I’ve seen it in my living room and dining room as I sat with international students and discussed their aims and dreams in life.
My wife and I have hosted four international students since 2003, one from the Republic of Moldova, one from South Korea, one from Vietnam, and one from China. While each student came with ethnic and cultural distinctives, they held two important things in common. They understood how fiercely competitive the world economic environment is and they came to compete and win. They understood that “average” is no longer good enough and that the world is now demanding excellence. One of our international students, Corina Nour, was interviewed by the Gazette when she attended Emporia High several years ago. She was asked what she thought of homecoming. She said, “Not much. We don’t have homecoming in Moldova. Students there understand the global marketplace and they gear themselves toward success in that arena.” In a couple of months she’ll graduate with a Masters’ and launch out into the deep. She’ll succeed. As much as we’d like to keep her, we know that won’t happen. She hasn’t spent her time preparing to be mired in a low wage, high poverty environment.
One of the recommendations Friedman and Mandelbaum make is for America to adopt the Lake Wobegon(e) standard. What’s that? It’s the standard that says “average” is no longer acceptable. It’s not acceptable for our students or our teachers. More importantly, it’s no longer acceptable for our leaders. They need to see that the path of disaster is strewn with the casualties of “average is good enough.” We need to be about the business of excellence. The new world of economic opportunity demands it
I hear all the time that I’m too negative. I say that I’m like Friedman and Mandelbaum. I’m a “frustrated optimist.” I know we can do better. In fact, I think we should be. We should be gearing our young people in Emporia toward excellence in achievement. I think they’re capable of it. The same holds true for our workforce. They can rise to the challenge. Our leaders need to rethink the old, costly notion that low wage manufacturing is Emporia’s future in the same way it’s been our past. All it’s done is get us into a low wage, high poverty rut. It’s time to put some 21st century wheels on the wagon.