Q&A: ‘The Conservative Heart’

One of the best political reads of the summer is “The Conservative Heart” by Arthur Brooks. I caught up with author on his book tour:

Dana Perino: I underlined many passages of the book, including the three components of the pursuit of happiness. Could that be flipped around to be the happiness of pursuit, as I recently heard a psychologist describe?

Arthur Brooks: I like that. In the book I talk about the research into whether or not money really buys happiness. Here’s what one study found: once you get a little beyond the middle-class threshold and your household is earning about $75,000 in total, more money hardly moves the happiness needle at all. How different would the world be if everyone whose household earned more than that amount stopped living as though more money would bring them more happiness?

Happiness isn’t found in some finite checklist of goals that we can diligently complete and then coast. It’s how we live our lives in the process. That’s why the four pillars of happiness are faith, family, community and meaningful work. Those are priorities we have to keep investing in.

DP: When you wrote about how conservatives feel about how Obama feels contempt for them, and then suggest what it must be like to put the shoe on the other foot and to think about how conservatives must sound to others . . . that struck me as a useful exercise. When I was the press secretary, I used to imagine President Bush watching the press briefing, and if I thought he wasn’t going to be proud of something I was about to say, then I didn’t say it. I don’t see this exercise as being filtered or restrained; rather, I see it as necessary to be more persuasive to a broader audience. Agree?

AB: That is a great point. I wish that every staffer and operative in Washington would take your advice. And I think the problem goes even further, because many of our leaders and elected officials themselves are arguing on the basis of negativity and division. So many of them feel their short-term interests are best served by impugning the other side’s motives and trying to elevate policy differences to the level of a holy war.

After everyone in Washington adopts your test, they might go a step further and ask themselves: “Would my opponents honestly think what I’m about to say is accurate and fair?” If the answer is no, then the statement might not ring true to voters, either.

DP: You write a lot about the meaningfulness of work, the dignity of work. What do you, as an economist, think we need to do to prepare ourselves for the additional use of robots in the workplace? Because that’s coming, sooner than we may like.

AB: Where technology and the economy are going is tough to say. History shows that human beings are a dynamic, vibrant resource, and innovations rarely create permanent unemployment in a free enterprise marketplace.

With that said, automation should raise real concerns for policymakers. If we believe that meaningful work is an inherent good and a vital source of human dignity — a proposition that underlies all of “The Conservative Heart” — then we need to be more careful than ever that our safety net policies do not decrease access to work for Americans with little experience or formal education.

For example, let’s say we’re trying to help an entry-level factory worker or grocery store clerk support his or her family. If right now the worker is competing directly with a machine for their position, a minimum wage hike is more likely than ever to price him or her right out of the labor market. Better to use a policy like the Earned Income Tax Credit that supplements workers’ wages without destroying jobs. There are a lot of policy solutions like that in the book.

DP: On the issue of demographic and employment challenges in Europe, does it give you pause that those countries are relatively stable? There’s little to no frustration, no unrest, and seemingly no demands. Is something going to change that, or will they just evolve their families to include 40-year-old single men who still live at home and are cared for by their mothers? And should this worry us in the United States?

AB: I lived in Spain for years before “re-immigrating” to the U.S. There’s a phenomenon in Spain today that I discuss in the book now called the “nini generation.” It stands for “ni estudia, ni trabaja” – not studying, not working. As a rule, they are also not religious and not married. These are people who are kind of waiting for something to happen in their lives, but seem to have no options. And this describes a huge proportion, something like a quarter, of all Spaniards aged 18 to 29.

As you note, when opportunity declines, but a society has enough seed corn compiled to meet everyone’s material needs, you generally don’t see widespread unrest on the surface. We don’t see riots, but it does lead to a kind of quiet desperation. That’s what’s under the calm surface in much of Europe today.

In more and more corners of America, a similar dissatisfaction is brewing among those who feel they’re working hard but have no real shot to get ahead. We have to combat this with an agenda that makes hope and aspiration manifest in good public policy. That’s basically why I wrote “The Conservative Heart.”

DP: Your chapter on the two cities, Marienthal and Dharavi, was very interesting; you say that America is somewhere in-between the ghost town and thriving innovation. You write that America is going to have to choose. Do you think the presidential candidates in this election understand us?

AB: I hope so. Getting this wrong has big consequences and will make the difference in the country we leave to the next generation. We all have a stake in keeping our country oriented toward opportunity, and this is especially true for the poor in America.

This actually presents a problem: conservatives are better talking about opportunity and growth in the abstract, while liberals talk more about poor people. Right now we need a good, optimistic, conservative opportunity ideology that is totally geared toward lifting up the poor. That’s what I most want to see in candidates.

DP: Could you expand on what you mean that the world needs us to stop losing — you mean conservatives . . . or America?

AB: For me, the answer is “both.” The cornerstone values of modern American conservatism are that 1.) free enterprise is the best means of lifting up the vulnerable and empowering people to earn their success; and 2.) American leadership on the global stage helps people everywhere resist tyranny and oppression.

These values have done an immense amount of good all around the world. Since roughly 1970, the proportion of human beings on the planet who live at starvation-level poverty has fallen by 80 percent. It wasn’t that some especially genius central planner at the United Nations or a groundbreaking philanthropist finally cracked the code. It was primarily the spread of American-style free enterprise around the world that permitted societies across the globe to industrialize and trade with each other. If we are going to keep building on this legacy and help more people, we need to rediscover and fight for these core conservative values.

DP: We are seeing a lot of discussion in this election cycle that’s centering on the style of the candidate vs. the substance of the debate. Do you think that any of the candidates will be able to fix the right mix…not too hot, not too cold, but something just right? Are there conservatives who you think are communicating well, in the style you suggest in the book?

AB: Absolutely. I’m cautiously optimistic about a whole bunch of the 2016 candidates. More and more, we hear everyone from Bush, Rubio, Christie, Perry and Walker speaking in aspirational terms about how they will fight for people, and not merely fight against bad things.

But looking outside the presidential race, I am a big fan of Sen. Mike Lee, Congressman Paul Ryan, and Governor Nikki Haley, just to name a few. They are among the best at sharing the optimistic, inclusive nature of their conservative principles.

DP: What are your must-reads in the morning?

AB: I keep it simple. I start with “AEI Today,” our daily morning e-mail with the latest from American Enterprise Institute scholars. Then I make my way through the front pages and editorial pages of both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

DP: My last question — the French horn…in Barcelona…Why?

AB: My personal story is a little unorthodox. As I explain in the book, I dropped out of college at 19 to hit the road as a professional classical musician, which I’d always dreamed about. And when I was 24, while on a concert tour in France, I met a Spanish girl named Ester. She was a serious person and made it clear I’d need to make a big commitment if I wanted any shot at getting her to marry me. So I moved to Spain, took a job in the Barcelona Symphony, and started studying Spanish.

It took two years to seal the deal, but now we’ve been married almost 24 years and have three teenaged kids. We moved back to the States and I went back to school, finishing my BA just before my 30th birthday and then pursuing a Ph.D. to become an economist. Life takes some crazy twists and turns!

Ester’s an American citizen now. She loves her adopted country. She reminds me every day why it is such a wonderful thing to be an American.

Dana Perino currently serves as co-host of FOX News Channel’s “The Five” (weekdays 5-6PM/ET). She previously served as Press Secretary for President George W. Bush. She is the author of the new book “And the Good News Is…: Lessons and Advice from the Bright Side” (Twelve, April 21, 2015). Ms. Perino joined the network in 2009 as a contributor. Click here for more information on Dana Perino.

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