The Gordian Knot of America’s Economic and Social Problems

From National Review’s email “Morning Jolt” yesterday. Some of us figured this out a long time ago…it’s good to see the folks at NRO and Commentary coming along:

Here’s our conundrum — or at least one of them:

Americans’ standard of living won’t dramatically improve until our workforce is better prepared for the challenges of the modern, globalized economy. If you’re an unskilled worker, your options and opportunities are lousy and shrinking. But our workforce can’t get more prepared without a better education system. While there are a lot of ways we can and need to improve our education system — school choice, greater accountability, charter schools, etc. — our schools can only do so much for the kids who don’t have a good environment at home. Maybe the best teachers can break through when a child has no father in the house, discord and instability in the family, no good role models around them, and so on. But it’s hard for most teachers to get a child to learn when there’s no support at home.

A big part of that problem is young adults’ decision to have kids before they’re ready, and the increasing cultural consensus that separates marriage from raising a child.

But there is no federal Make Bad Parents Become Better Parents Act, and there is no state-level Give People Better Judgment Act.

I mention all this because over at Commentary ‘s Contentions, Pete Wehner argues Republicans need a governing agenda:

Mr. Obama, then, is not only not up to confronting the problems of this era; he is exacerbating them. But even those of us who are critics of the president should admit that the problems afflicting the American economy–including (but not exclusive to) wage stagnation among the middle class, less social mobility among the lower class, and increased inequality–predate the Obama presidency. They are complex and defy simplistic partisan explanations.

Depending on which trend we’re talking about, they are rooted in deep cultural shifts (including a weakening marriage culture), globalization and advances in technology (which have moved us toward an economy that favors skilled over unskilled labor), a decline in workforce participation rates, rising health care costs, educational mediocrity (and downright awful education for the underclass), the structure of our entitlement programs (our transfer payments are increasingly regressive and benefit households headed by older adults, who tend to be wealthier than young adults), a byzantine tax code, and slow growth (the post-2008 recession growth rate has been roughly 2 percent).

In the face of America’s deep cultural and structural problems, assembling an agenda–including a comprehensive social-capital agenda that equips Americans, especially poor Americans, with the skills, values and habits that will allow them to succeed in a modern, free society–is a hugely complicated task. It will require a thoroughgoing reform agenda focused on entitlements, education, immigration, our financial system, and our tax code. A lot of good work is being done by policy experts and public intellectuals, by governors, and some members of Congress. (At a later date I’ll lay out what I think would constitute the broad outlines of an agenda, but for starters it might be worth reading thisthis, and this.)

For the most part, however, Republicans and conservatives sound out of touch, their solutions stale, as if they fail to take into account new circumstances. And it is no wonder that Republican policies seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago.

The country’s well-being needs Republicans to have a coherent, well-thought-out, compelling governing agenda. But that is a separate question from what Republicans need to win. With the president having largely been elected on his cultural identity, Hillary Clinton apparently determined to run on the country’s need for a woman president, and the rising star of Julian Castro as the preeminent politician of his ethnic heritage and his age . . . we’re seeing the opposition run campaigns where policy is distinctly second to their cultural identities.