enron
Why Conservatives Should Get Involved—Part 4
Reading Time: 13 minutes

In part 1 of this series, we clarified some misconceptions and falsehoods about the Franklin Project.

In part 2, we examined the debate on the right from 1990 with William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman.

Part 3 was a critique of the Franklin Project’s Plan of Action.

Today, we will look at the consequences should conservatives turn their backs on the concept of developing a service ethos in America.

Generations: Saying “No” Won’t Work

  1. Do you remember when Roosevelt died?
  2. Do you remember, however vaguely, Kennedy’s assassination?

  3. How about the Challenger disaster?

  4. The fall of Lehman Brothers?

Scoring:

A. If you answered Yes to 1, you are a Silent or WWII generation, but not a Boomer.

B. If you answered No to 1 and Yes to 2, you are a Boomer.

C. No to 2 and Yes to 3, you are Generation X.

D. No 3 and Yes to 4, you are a Millennial.

Based on statistical analysis of readers of this blog, about 10 percent of my readers fall into A, about 50 percent B, about 30 percent C and about 10 percent D.

In terms of population, D is the largest group, B is second, C is third, and A is fifth. There are more people alive in the USA younger than Millennials than there are older than Boomers.

Now, think about this. Gen X is fairly conservative. Boomers are fairly conservative. The remaining Silents and WWIIers are mostly conservative. Millennials are not.

God and His nature are producing no new Silents, no new Boomers, no new Xers. But Millennials reach voting age every day, and will until 2020.

By the time the last cohort of Millennials turns 18, Silents (born before 1942) will be at least 78 years old–beyond the life expectancy of their generation. Most Boomers will be retired. Generation Xers will be planning their departure from the work force. And Millennials will be taking over the vital years of their careers.

Millennials are the largest generation in American history, outnumbering Boomers by several million.

If you find this news depressing, you should. Conservatives have done little to attract the next generation of voters and leaders. As our numbers dwindle, we panic at what follows.

Winter Has Come

We are somewhere in the Winter of a secular era that began with Victory in Japan day in 1945. From 1945 until Kennedy’s assassination was the High, an era marked by feelings of hope, community, and growth. The 1960s to about 1984 was the Awakening in which the culture grew contemptuous of conformity and sought spiritual independence and enlightenment. With Reagan’s re-election, we entered the Unraveling as institutions lost their power and individuals fragmented into parties of one. The Unraveling gave way to Winter, a crisis era, with the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Looking back on past Winters, generational historians Howe and Strauss explain the feeling that continues to emerge. From The Fourth Turning:

As the community instinct regenerates, people resolve to do more than just relieve the symptoms of pending traumas. Intent on addressing root causes, they rediscover the value of unity, teamwork, and social discipline. Far more than before, people comply with authority, accept the need for public sacrifice, and shed anything extraneous to the survival needs of their community. This is a critical threshold: People either coalesce as a nation and culture—or rip hopelessly and permanently apart.

Some people might take lightly this whole debate over national service. It seems to some like the least of our problems.

But it might be the most important, if not most urgent, problem we face today. Crisis eras resolve into a new High, like the 1940s and 1950s, but only if society remains in tact. Right now, American society could go either way. We have no reason to believe that the United States will remain one nation through the next climax.

I am the oldest of Generation X, the most individualistic, narcissistic, and nihilistic generation alive. The institutions built during and after the last Crisis, from 1929 to 1945, are crumbling because we let them. We attacked them. We dance on their graves, and we have since we were kids.

We have good reasons for letting institutions fail, because we have evidence that the institutions failed us. Social Security? Medicare? Expenses we can’t reasonably expect to withdraw.

We had to let them decay. Society needs to purge itself of waste from the last saeculum so it can grow into the new order. Again, from The Fourth Turning:

This Crisis morphology occurs over the span of one turning, which (except for the U.S. Civil War) means that around fifteen to twenty-five years elapse between the catalyst and the resolution. The regeneracy usually occurs one to five years after the era begins, the climax one to five years before it ends.

Once this new mood is fully catalyzed, a society begins a process of re-generacy, a drawing together into whatever definition of community is available at the time. Out of the debris of the Unraveling, a new civic ethos arises. One set of post-Awakening ideals prevails over the others. People stop tolerating the weakening of institutions, the splintering of the culture, and the individualizing of daily behavior. Spiritual curiosity abates, manners traditionalize, and the culture is harnessed as propaganda for the purpose of overtly reinforcing good conduct. History teaches that, roughly one to three years after the initial catalyst, people begin acknowledging this new synergy in community life and begin deputizing government to enforce it. Collective action is now seen as vital to solving the society’s most fundamental problems.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it to happen, regeneracy occurs all around us. Milliennials–the oldest now in their mid-30s–work in teams and have faith in institutions. They don’t hate prior generations. If anything, they pity us. They also hope to learn from us and want us to lead them. But they want us to lead them to a better future built on the best ideas from the past blended and strengthened with new ideas or dormant ideas that withered in the Awaken of the 60s and 70s and the Unraveling of the 80s and 90s.

National service, and a service ethic, is coming fast whether conservatives like it or not.

Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

That smug motto of the 90s comes back to bite us. And it exposes a major flaw in modern conservative behavior.

When we on the right see something that looks “hippy” or “liberal” or “do-gooder,” we tend to roll our eyes and turn away. Admit it. I do it, and so do you.

We’ve turned our backs on journalism, literature, music, photography, art, education, show business, conservation, and law. We believed we had some “moral authority” to look back at those abandoned fields and yell “knock it off!”

But they don’t listen.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t have time to fight those battles because a new battlefield just opened up: national service.

You might not like the Aspen Institute. There’s good reason to suspect what all those elites do out there in Colorado.

But we don’t have the moral authority to tell them to stop. Just as we think what they do is crazy, they think what we do is pointless. And they are ahead of us on money, time, and position.

They’re not watching us stomp our feet, and they’re not hearing our shouts of “no!” They don’t think what they’re doing is wrong, and our telling them they’re wrong wins no converts.

The Jewish Lawyer

A Jewish lawyer in New York ran into a Catholic church to get out of terrible storm. The church was empty. He sat in the last pew and caught up on paperwork until the storm passed.

Appreciating the silent peacefulness of the church, he began spending afternoons in that pew. No one would bother him there. The smell of candles and incense lent an air of peace and solemnity that bolstered his focus. People came in silently and prayed, but no one disturbed him.

He would notice, from time to time, a priest enter the sanctuary and open a safe. The priest would remove something with great reverence, bow, and close the safe. He would say a prayer and depart. Hours later, the priest would return and repeat the process in reverse.

Over the course of years, the lawyer became increasingly amazed at the priest’s reverence and care. The priest never looked to see if anyone was watching. Most times, the priest could not have seen the lawyer hunched in the dark last pew. With or without an audience, the priest performed the ritual identically every time.

The lawyer eventually converted to Catholicism. Though he embraced the entire catechism, his inspiration was the simple, humble consistency of that priest who treated the sacristy and the host with such remarkable reverence and dignity when no one was watching. No one but God and a Jewish lawyer in the last pew.

A church’s nave is not a workspace for lawyers seeking refuge from the bustle of an office. It’s a place of prayer and worship. The priest, and the parishioners who came into pray, would have been well within their rights to confront the man who used the church as an office.

If the priest had confronted the lawyer and told him to get out, would he have converted?

No One Cares If We’re Right

Some of the people who influenced the terrible Plan of Action adopted at Franklin Project’s conclave two years ago may want to transform America into a socialist experiment. I would bet some do.

Some (I’m looking at Cisco and Bank of America) want to use national service as a tool to protect their incumbency and bludgeon their competitors.

Many want to renew a national ethos of service and respect (gratitude) for the great privileges we enjoy as Americans.

And a handful might even be conservatives recognizing a need and responding to William F. Buckley’s call.

None of them will pay heed to angry conservatives stomping their feet and yelling “stop.”

A Quarter of a Century Has Passed

I turned 25-years-old on October 5, 1988. My boat, the USS Woodrow Wilson, was in Charleston Naval Shipyard for a refueling overhaul. I remember thinking, “I’m a quarter century old.”

I’m older now. A quarter century ago, I read Gratitude for the first time. It was a difficult book to read. Like Milton Friedman, I asked myself, “what’s gotten into you, Bill?” Why is Bill Buckley advocating for a big federal program?

It took a long time for me to come to grips with the idea. I still haven’t completely accepted the concept of a new federal agency. Perhaps Buckley was hoping to overshoot the need so we’d settle for a more federalist system that achieved the same end.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Buckley was absolutely right in pointing out the need for a new national ethos of service.

As petty officer first class in the Navy, I’d been living service for four years. I’d matured a decade in that time. I’d learned to look around for jobs to be done, not for leisure to be enjoyed. I’d changed.

Buckley saw a generation change in World War II. Those who’ve taken time off from life to serve a higher calling never return to the world they left. They pass into a new world where the colors are brighter, the candy sweeter, and the air cleaner than the one they departed. They appreciate smaller things and lose patience with the trivial. They learn to make decisions and move on, dealing with the fallout of their actions. They learn the beauty and majesty of the shining city on a hill.

They grow up.

A Service Ethos Is Coming

Whether you like it or not, a new ethos of service is coming. Conservatives can huddle in our affinity bubbles and crack wise about the hippies and their service ethic, or we can get involved to influence the way the programs evolve.

If we choose to get involved, we wont’ be completely satisfied with the result. We will lose some battles.

If we stand back and complain, we will lose them all.

The Fourth Turning: Climax

Private life also transforms beyond prior recognition. Now less important than the team, individuals are expected to comply with new Fourth Turning standards of virtue. Family order strengthens, and personal violence and substance abuse decline. Those who persist in free-wheeling self-oriented behavior now face implacable public stigma, even punishment. Winner-take-all arrangements give way to enforceable new mechanisms of social sharing. Questions about who does what are settled on grounds of survival, not fairness. This leads to a renewed social division of labor by age and sex. In the realm of public activity, elders are expected to step aside for the young, women for men. When danger looms, children are expected to be protected before parents, mothers before fathers. All social arrangements are evaluated anew; pre-Crisis promises and expectations count for little. Where the Unraveling had been an era of fast-paced personal lives against a background of public gridlock, in the Crisis the pace of daily life will seem to slow down just as political and social change accelerates.

Howe and Strauss might not get the details exactly right. They’re painting a likely scenario, not predicting a specific event. But the feeling of the era is dead on. We are in the eye of the storm. And we have the chance to influence its direction.

Normally occurring late in the Fourth Turning, the climax gathers energy from an accumulation of unmet needs, unpaid bills, and unresolved problems. It then spends that energy on an upheaval whose direction and dimension were beyond comprehension during the prior Unraveling era. The climax shakes a society to its roots, transforms its institutions, redirects its purposes, and marks its people (and its generations) for life. The climax can end in triumph, or tragedy, or some combination of both. Whatever the event and whatever the outcome, a society passes through a great gate of history, fundamentally altering the course of civilization.

If you think the Franklin Project’s Plan of Action is bad now, imagine if there’d been NO conservatives (or emerging conservatives) on its panel?

And if you say, “they shouldn’t have done it,” what have we done to fill the need?

In 1990, Buckley found that 72.8 percent of Americans favored “national service,” though that that number fell to 44 percent if it required an increase of five percent in taxes to fund it.

A survey in 2013 found that recognition of a need for national service has increased since 1990.

  • Eighty percent support voluntary national service, including 88 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Independents and 76 percent of Republicans
  • Seventy-one percent OPPOSE mandatory national service, including 52 percent who strongly oppose
  • Ninety-three support national service programs to assist veterans, the military, and their families
  • Ninety-one percent support tutoring programs for students
  • Ninety-one percent support volunteer disaster relief programs

The list goes on. Granted, people don’t want to pay taxes to fund the programs, but they might be willing to help fund private or charitable programs to fulfill these ends.

If conservatives don’t get involved, they won’t like what the programs become.

Buckley foresaw a tidal change in American attitudes toward service:

It is possible that the general public, apparently already on the way, will someday soon reach the point where they are resolutely behind the idea. If that were to happen, one might anticipate a day when, notwithstanding that national service continued to be voluntary, the sense of duty to volunteer would be felt by the typical citizen as keenly as, say, most young men felt a call to duty on December 7, 1941.

. . .

If we are engaged in promoting national service, we are engaged in the subtle business of trying to shape the national ethos. Somewhere along the line I have written that in my lifetime I have detected only two sea changes in national attitude, of them on a lesser scale, the second on a larger scale. The first has to do with the environment, the second with racial toleration.

Do you remember the episode of Mad Men when Don and Betty took the kids to a park for a picnic? After enjoying a meal and drinks, the family stood up and dumped their bottles, cans, plates, napkins, and chicken bones onto the ground and left.

The scene was shocking to today’s viewers. Being just younger than the Draper kids (almost exactly little Gene’s age), I remember those days well. I remember tossing trash out the windows of moving cars. It’s what everybody did.

Today, we’d consider such behavior boorish, if not evil.

When I was born in 1963, there were still segregated drinking fountains in America. And that’s just one symptom of racism that seems like fiction today.

I think Buckley’s recognition of national service as the third great sea change in America was dead on. And it’s happening now.

If conservatives refuse to get involved, they will hate the way it turns out.

I Could Be Wrong

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Millennials will decide to act more like us Gen Xers, mocking institutions and joking about their slackerness. If that’s the case, then there’s no need for conservatives to get involved in shaping a national service program.

If I’m right, if Americans are sick of the winner-take-all, don’t-get-caught attitude that’s grown since the early 90s, then conservatives better get involved or prepare to live with the consequences.

National service could save free markets. I don’t want the government capping executive compensation. But I also don’t want executives issuing bonds to buy back their own stock to boost their compensation at the expense of the firm’s future viability. A generation (or more) of MBAs believes hollowing out companies for immediate profit is good business.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Paul Lawrence of Harvard Business School. Professor Lawrence attended Harvard after World War II, using the GI Bill to earn a masters and doctorate. He remained at Harvard as a professor until he passed away on Thanksgiving a couple years ago.

Dr. Lawrence told me how Milton Friedman’s op-ed about the social purpose of business changed everything. I argued with him, politely, but he was there; I wasn’t.

At the time, Friedman’s doctrine–that the only purpose of a business is to maximize return to shareholders–seemed like a ray of sunlight into business. At the time (the early 1970s) companies were going with berserk with crazy ideas of social good. Friedman gave them permission to think about nothing but profits for shareholders. It made sense at the time.

Harvard Business School accepted the thinking and adopted “agency theory” of business. Executives were agents of shareholders and were responsible only to get as much profit out of the company as they could. As an incentive, executive compensation shifted from salary to stock incentives. The higher the stock goes, the more the executive makes.

“When did you change your mind about agency model?” I asked Dr. Lawrence.

“I’d been worried about excesses for a long time,” he told me. But the telling moment came just after he semi-retired in 2000. He was watching a news program on corporate scandals–Enron and the like–when the TV displayed a 3×3 grid of executives in jail, on trial, or under investigation for fraud.

“Six of the nine were my students,” he said. “I realized I’d been part of a corrupt system that created monsters.”

Dr. Lawrence believed strongly in free markets, and recognized that agency theory threatens to destroy capitalism, not grow it.

“I had to do something.”

Dr. Lawrence emerged from a short retirement and teamed up with Nitin Nohria, now Dean of Harvard Business School, to try to correct the wrongs of agency theory.

When GE uses its influence to ban 100-watt incandescent bulbs so you have no choice but to buy more expensive condensed fluorescent lamps, agency theory is winning over free market capitalism.

I believe–and I could be wrong–that a stronger national service ethos would upend agency theory. A service-oriented CEO would be ashamed to gut a great company for his own enrichment. A service-oriented CEO would quit before manipulating (bribing) Congress to protect his business from innovation and competition. A service-oriented manager would tell shareholders to be patient before laying off good, hardworking people just to meet a quarterly profit target.

Free markets and free nations rely on people with a strong moral compass. Either we govern ourselves, or others rule over us. The absence of a strong national service ethos, I believe, helped create the twisted, selfish, “take what you can get” attitude that defines much of modern life in America.

And the kids know it.

Millennials–the largest generation in American history–look at agency theory the way we look at the Drapers tossing garbage in a park. To them, it’s a sad reminder of history. Millennials have strong sense of service, even if without a national or state programs to answer the call.

Millennials will fill the void. The founders of Franklin Project are eager to help them, to guide them, and influence them.

Conservatives can jump into the parade and help lead it, or we can stand back and gripe about the consequences. But stomping our feet and yelling “no” won’t stop the sea change in national attitude Buckley warned of twenty-five years ago.

Rather than criticizing Eric Greitens for joining Franklin Project, I thank God at least one of us is in its ranks.

Tomorrow, I will propose a simple conservative alternative the Franklin Project here in Missouri.

Thanks for your time. I’ll leave with one last “prophecy” from The Fourth Turning:

With or without war, American society will be transformed into something different. The emergent society may be something better, a nation that sustains its Framers’ visions with a robust new pride. Or it may be something unspeakably worse. The Fourth Turning will be a time of glory or ruin.

Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2009-01-16). The Fourth Turning (Kindle Locations 5781-5783). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

  • Frieda Keough

    Excellent article Bill. I will need to ponder this for a while but I think you are pointing us in the right direction.

    • Thank you, Frieda. Yes, this topic does require a lot of thought and consideration and math. It also requires holding competing ideas in mind simultaneously and without automatically rejecting one. But I think the matter is IMPORTANT and is quickly becoming URGENT. It was always important, even back in 1974 and 1990 when Buckley brought it up. Conservatives decided to ignore the topic to focus on more urgent matters. Our window to get ahead of the pack on this is closed. Once again, the right is playing catch-up. Frankly, I am angry, especially at myself. I read Gratitude in 1990, and I pride myself on recognize and working the Important over the merely Urgent. But I, too, let this matter wallow.

      One of my political heroes is Jack Kemp. Service is an idea Kemp would have loved. He would have championed the caused. I should have thought about What Would Jack Do? long before now.

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