Artur Davis’s NRI Speech

by Reihan Salam

I don’t have too much to say about Artur Davis’s excellent speech at the National Review Institute’s recent summit other than that it was excellent, and that Republican elected officials need to pay careful attention it. It is the best speech I’ve heard or read in years. But more to the point, its underlying message was important and compelling:

Does it bother us as conservatives that the median earnings in this country, if you control for inflation, go no further than they did in 1964, when Barry Goldwater was keynoting conferences like this and the Supremes were at the top of the charts and the Beatles were first appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show? Does it bother us that the number of able-bodied men who are working is 15 percent less today than in 1982? Does it bother us that the number of people with college degrees is no higher statistically than in 1979?

Does it bother us as conservatives that the level of public trust is the lowest it has been since Richard Nixon’s top aides were doing perp walks? Does it bother us that we are fragmented to the point that we are increasingly two cultures, equal but separate?

I think we must care as conservatives. You know, one of the central problems with liberalism is that liberals don’t trust individuals. But isn’t it also true that, if they don’t trust what we can do as individuals, some in our ranks don’t trust what we can do when we come together?

I know that Scott Winship would take exception to Davis’s characterization of median earnings. The following is drawn from Scott’s article in the latest issue of Breakthrough Journal:

As another example of the importance of wealth levels and absolute growth, consider that the mean hourly compensation of workers in the nonfarm business sector grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent during the 1950s (from 1948 to 1959, which were business cycle peaks). From 1959 to 2010, growth slowed to 1.7 percent per year. Had mean compensation continued to grow at the 1950s rate, it would have stood at $75 an hour in 2010 rather than $36 an hour. Obviously, our lives would be enormously better if growth rates had not slowed. On the other hand, the 3.8 percent raise that workers got in 1952 was worth about 44 cents in today’s dollars, while the 1.2 percent raise that workers got in 2005 was worth almost as much — 41 cents. Because we are richer today, we get the same absolute benefit from a smaller percentage change in growth.

But Davis’s essential point is an important one, and it reflects the fact that the downshift in wage growth has had an extremely uneven impact on American workers. And Davis is also invoking the idea that conservatism ought to be a one-nation creed, dedicated to the idea that though we are and ought to be a diverse society, it is important that we see ourselves as part of a national community with a shared fate. That sense has frayed, for all kinds of reasons. To some extent, this is a reflection of the intersection of culture and economic geography. As Enrico Moretti observes, the divergence between high human capital regions and the rest of American has grown stark. But this phenomenon is also reflected in political rhetoric. I am inclined to see this in Barack Obama’s characterization of his political opponents, but of course some conservatives have also tried to read Obama’s brand of social democracy out of the American story as well. Whether we like it or not, big-government liberalism has been around since at least the 1930s and it is here to stay. We have to argue against it, not pretend that it’s some historical aberration. 

All of this is to say that I hope Artur Davis gets back in the political fray soon.