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Tucker Carlson’s Populist Cri de Cœur

Tucker Carlson (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Fox News host Tucker Carlson unleashes a monologue about America’s troubles that stirs intense reaction among conservatives, a hard look at whether Americans are properly prepared for the challenges of life, China’s economy stumbles, and beware the “super blood moon wolf eclipse!”

Tucker Carlson’s Diagnosis of America’s Ills

On any given weeknight, Tucker Carlson will sit down in front of the cameras at Fox News and say some bizarre or silly things (Beware the Gypsies!) or downright repugnant things, like that poor immigrants “make our own country poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” But a lot of people are buzzing about Carlson’s opening monologue from Thursday night, a long and winding journey through what troubles the United States of America as 2019 dawns. Our Kyle Smith calls it “galvanizing” and a “populist cry of dissatisfaction that is underlain by certain grave truths.”

Carlson’s monologue begins:

At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

Eh, GDP isn’t completely disconnected from the health of the nation, either. But the broader point stands — the United States had a GDP of $19.3 trillion in 2017, twice the GDP of 2000. And yet . . . how many people would argue our overall condition is twice as good as it was then? (Although as I argued last year, we’re in better shape, and have a better record of solving problems, than the daily media coverage would lead you to believe.)

Back to Carlson:

The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us and would want if they cared.

Leaders may want those things for us, but we should have no illusion that they can provide those things for us. Dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, and deep relationships have to come from within, and get cultivated and developed by our own actions. Good parents and relatives, teachers and communities can all help cultivate that, but it all starts with the individual — and if the individual isn’t willing to try to cultivate that, no one else can cultivate it for him.

But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

Which “leaders” does Carlson have in mind? Surely not the president he praises almost every night.

NBA superstar LeBron James opened up a school for at-risk students in his old hometown of Akron that includes STEM summer courses as well as GED courses and job placement for parents. (Around this time, President Trump mocked LeBron James as stupid.) Carlson’s last book, Ship of Fools, depicted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos as some of the fools on the cover. Zuckerberg has pledged to give away 99 percent of his fortune during his lifetime, and his personal foundation has built a massive medical research facility. Jeff Bezos just committed $2 billion to a “split between the Day 1 Families Fund — helping homeless families — and the Day 1 Academies Fund — creating a “network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

Aren’t these folks who have skin in the game and who are demonstrating a long-term obligation to their communities?

Carlson’s monologue veers in some unexpected directions.

Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.

Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

Carlson is right on a lot of this, but he starts with a wildly inaccurate exaggeration that manufacturing “all but disappeared.” There are currently a half-million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States. Manufacturers are desperate for workers, calculating there could be 2 million unfilled openings, and a separate 2.8 million new openings spurred by retiring workers in the next decade. Manufacturing wages have steadily increased at varying paces, even during the Great Recession. In this environment, why would men still have a hard time out-earning women and attracting spouses? If modern men are collapsing in the face of these challenges, how much of this is the responsibility of Washington policies or business owners, and how much is the responsibility of the men?

Carlson laments the legalization of marijuana, and I happen to agree with him. But it’s hard to believe that the current legalization of marijuana is dramatically different than drug use in past eras — and we certainly had higher rates of drug-related crime and violence a generation ago. In Colorado, teen use of marijuana actually declined significantly after legalization, and the same thing happened in California. (Maybe legalization makes marijuana less taboo and thus less tempting to teenagers.)

Carlson concludes, “If you want to put America first, you’ve got to put its families first.” The good news is, the vast majority of Americans would agree with him. But we’ve all got very different ideas of what “putting families first” means.

How Do We Get Americans to Become More Successful?

Let’s go back to Carlson’s point about the GDP being a subpar measurement of a healthy country, and whether as a country we’re overall wealthier but less happy than a generation ago.

Americans have dreams. I think as a culture and as a country, we do a better job of encouraging those dreams than teaching people how to achieve those dreams. Everyone gets to gaze at the shop window, but only some figure out how to get the money to buy what’s inside the store.

My belief in freedom means I don’t carry around grudges about conspicuous consumption. But American culture no doubt celebrates ostentatious displays of wealth, which no doubt fuels envy and resentment. It always has — George Washington was one of the first Americans wealthy enough to display a sofa — but the rise of mass media, from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to MTV’s Cribs, to today’s reality television (all of the Real Housewives series, all of the various Kardashian series), celebrity weddings, HGTV’s millionaire homes . . . we’re constantly bombarded with images of what the good life could be, advertisements and commercials and billboards for luxury cars, perfumes and colognes. Then throw in social media showcasing friends’ vacations on Facebook and glamorous models on Instagram. You’re relentlessly reminded of the life that you don’t have.

Americans fantasize about the good life — a big house, a fancy car, stylish clothes, vacations in far-flung exotic locales — and they often envision this luxurious life paid for by a wildly lucrative career, most often in entertainment, athletics, or music. Of course, those are some of the toughest industries to just make a living in, never mind making a fortune.

But research in books such as The Millionaire Next Door demonstrated that a lot of those who ended up wealthy did so by living the opposite of that ostentatious champagne and caviar* lifestyle. About 80 percent are first-generation rich, meaning they didn’t inherit their wealth. And they often did so by working hard, in jobs that required a great deal of education and dedication: medicine, accounting, law, finance. Some formed a small business and steadily built it over a lifetime. Most start-up founders work 18 hours a day, at least at the beginning. The good life rarely “just happens” to people. It’s a combination of hard work and avoiding the most dangerous mistakes in life — drug abuse, alcoholism, early and unplanned pregnancy, and of course, the temptation to quit when life gets difficult.

I’ve written in the past about “effort shock” and David Wong’s essay contending that movies that featured montages leave many people in the audience with a collective misunderstanding of how much time and effort is needed to learn something or improve ourselves. You can chase the American dream, but no one’s going to just give it to you.

I’d prefer a country where before America’s kids and teens stepped into the adult world, they got a heavy dose of Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman discussing the management of personal finances and Mike Rowe discussing professions and career paths. (Think of all the student loan debt that could be avoided.) Throw in some long-married couples talking about relationships and what to look for in a partner for the long haul. Unsurprisingly, financial literacy is often connected to education and income level. We’re only sending a portion of our kids into the world with the lessons and skills they need to succeed.

Step one is getting young people into the world prepared to make the right choices; step two is setting up systems to help them overcome the wrong choices. Crisis pregnancy centers, drug treatment programs, free or low-cost job training programs, anti-recidivism programs to help ensure that a felon’s first run-in with the law is his last . . . there’s a lot of this going on in this country, but it’s not the sort of thing you hear much about in cable-news prime time.

*Ironically, for a symbol of luxury, caviar and champagne aren’t all that expensive. World Market has caviar for $5.99, and Korbel Brut champagne can be found at Total Wine for $9.97.

Chinese Rulers, Using a Ruler

Apple’s bad financial news, and discussion of slower sales in China, is spurring a reexamination of whether that country’s runaway growth is coming to an end — or how much China’s growth has been exaggerated all along.

Although Chinese officials report that GDP have been growing at more than 6 per cent a year for a few years, ‘it looks truly like some sixth grader got out their ruler and drew a straight line with a slight downward slant,’ said Christopher Balding, an expert on the Chinese economy at Fulbright University in Vietnam. ‘It’s totally unrealistic.’

ADDENDUM: Be careful out there today, everybody. The “super blood wolf moon eclipse” is coming.

Do you ever get the feeling that astronomers sometimes get bored, and they come up with really dramatic names for things to cope?


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