Well Done, Billionaires

I ran into a neighbor on the street the other day and we chatted about life at home during COVID-19 and how we are all coping with social distancing. I mentioned how grateful I am that our nearby Whole Foods market seems well-stocked (except for toilet paper).

She made a comment about how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, which also owns Whole Foods, should really be less greedy and share their wealth. (She didn’t know that Bezos has donated $100 million to US food banks during the pandemic, but charity is beside the point.)

The dominant narrative that billionaires are greedy and big companies like Amazon are monopolistic, exploitative tyrants is not only misguided but deeply troubling for the future of prosperity and human progress. This rhetoric is nothing new. Successful businesspeople have long been smeared as robber barons who take and take, detracting from the “common good.” But this rhetoric and these smear campaigns fail to recognize just how much these billionaires give. And I don’t mean give in terms of charity.

They give by doing, by building, by creating, by inventing. They give by making products or offering services that people want to buy at a price they want to pay in pursuit of things they want to do, and employing thousands of people who choose to work for a wage they choose to accept.

They give by creating value for people, free of force and in an open marketplace of voluntary exchange. In the case of Amazon and Bezos, it got big and he got wealthy by building a superior product that millions of people freely choose to use because they can get goods they want at lower prices and faster speeds, freeing up their precious time and resources to devote to their own personal pursuits.

Amazon is a marvel of modern enterprise, and is one of the few companies keeping our emaciated economy from completely collapsing during this public health shutdown. Instead of disdain, the people who built these companies deserve our respect and appreciation. They are the builders and the creators, the thinkers and the doers. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt reinforced this point recently in a virtual presentation to the Economic Club of New York. He said:

Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon, for example. The benefit of these corporations — which we love to malign — in terms of the ability to communicate … the ability to get information, is profound — and I hope people will remember that when this thing is finally over. So let’s be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now and have really helped us out. Imagine having the same reality of this pandemic without these tools.

Yes, imagine. In her classic book, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand did just that, showing what life would be like if we mistake success for greed, achievement for exploitation, and progress for oppression. Billionaires, like Bezos, who have built great companies contribute daily to the “common good”—not only through charity, but through human ingenuity and the progress and prosperity that produces for all of us. During this pandemic, Audible, an Amazon company, is offering hundreds of its children’s audiobooks, and many of its adult books as well, for free. Atlas Shrugged is one of them.

We can, and should, balk at attempts to corrupt the process of voluntary exchange when business and government become entangled. That isn’t capitalism, it’s cronyism and it poisons the promise of free markets.

Economist Dan Mitchell describes the difference as being pro-market or pro-business, with the former acting as a champion of free enterprise and trade while the latter relies on government handouts and business buffers in the form of subsidies and bailouts.

Government officials trying to woo Amazon with subsidies and preferential treatment to build additional headquarters in a particular city is an obvious example of being pro-business at the expense of a dynamic free market.

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos assume enormous risk and invest significant time, energy, and resources into inventing products and services that people want and need. They spot an opportunity to create value for others, and build a business around that idea using their own originality and will. If they succeed in creating something that others value, they will be rewarded financially; but even Jeff Bezos isn’t as rich as you think. Most billionaire wealth is inextricably linked to the companies they built, continuing to generate value for others, continuing to give.

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Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional Safety

“In America we say if anyone gets hurt, we will ban it for everyone everywhere for all time. And before we know it, everything is banned.”

It’s a common refrain: We have bubble-wrapped the world. Americans in particular are obsessed with “safety.” The simplest way to get any law passed in America, be it a zoning law or a sweeping reform of the intelligence community, is to invoke a simple sentence: “A kid might get hurt.”

Almost no one is opposed to reasonable efforts at making the world a safer place. But the operating word here is “reasonable.” Banning lawn darts, for example, rather than just telling people that they can be dangerous when used by unsupervised children, is a perfect example of a craving for safety gone too far.

Beyond the realm of legislation, this has begun to infect our very culture. Think of things like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” These are part of broader cultural trends in search of a kind of “emotional safety” – a purported right to never be disturbed or offended by anything. This is by no means confined to the sphere of academia, but is also in our popular culture, both in “extremely online” and more mainstream variants.

Why are Americans so obsessed with safety? What is the endgame of those who would bubble wrap the world, both physically and emotionally? Perhaps most importantly, what can we do to turn back the tide and reclaim our culture of self-reliancemental toughness, and giving one another the benefit of the doubt so that we don’t “bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security,” as President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about?

Coddling and Splintering: The Transformation of the American Mind

Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional SafetyTwo books published in 2018 provide parallel insights into the problems presented by the safety obsession of American culture: The Splintering of the American Mind by William Egginton, focused on the tendency of Americans to tunnel themselves off into self-selected bubbles, and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which deals more with the tendency to avoid any uncomfortable or unpleasant information.

There is an interesting phenomenon involved in coddling: Australian psychologist Nick Haskam first coined the term “concept creep.” Basically, this means that terms are often elastic and expand past the point of meaning. Take, for example, the concept of “trauma.” This used to have a very limited meaning. However, “trauma” quickly became expanded to mean even slight physical or emotional harm or discomfort. Thus the increasing belief among the far left that words can be “violence” – not “violent,” mind you, but actual, literal violence.

In the other direction, the definition of “hero” has been expanded to mean just about anything. Every teacher, firefighter and police officer is now considered a “hero.” This isn’t to downplay or minimize the importance of these roles in our society. It’s simply to point out that “hero” just doesn’t mean what it used to 100 or even 30 years ago.

Continue reading Bubble-Wrapped Americans: How the U.S. Became Obsessed with Physical and Emotional Safety at Ammo.com.

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Setting an Example

Nobody asked but …

When we ask why a nation behaves the way it does, the first question we should ask is: “how have children been treated there?”

— Robin Grille

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

— Albert Camus

My parents gave me the gift of deciding many critical issues on my own.  They told me there were religions, and it was my responsibility to either choose one or reject all or to cherry pick among several.  They never asked me to select a political bent, although they were both dyed in the wool Democrats, but my Dad was a dixiecrat, prejudiced, and fiscally conservative, while my Mom was a Bostonian liberal, who broke the color line on Chattanooga city buses.  I was watching them.

Thinking back, I don’t believe that either would have set the best example for me.  So there is more than letting your kids be free range.  You have to set a good example.  My mother would have trusted the doctors and the liberals during this Coronavirus scourge, but my father would have discounted the medicos and cursed the politicos (who were not dixiecrats).  I was somehow left suspecting that all doctors are not the same,  nor are public servants.  I was further suspicious that there were huge numbers who didn’t give a damn what I suspected.

It is almost humorous watching people explain their doctrinal takes on Coronavirus.  They appeal to the past (when there has been no pandemic like this), they appeal to the present (when nobody knows anything for sure), and they appeal to the future (which hasn’t happened yet).

The blind are being led by the blind.  In the society of the blind, the one-eyed person, inappropriately, wears the crown.  The untested becomes the exemplar.

Await the instruction of time.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Government Likely to Make Itself Hero

What have you learned from the coronapocalypse so far? Has it changed you?

The experience has shown me where my preparedness was good and where I could make improvements. I discovered the need for some supplies I hadn’t considered before. I’ll work to fix those areas, but it’s hard to prepare for everything when you can’t know what “everything” might include. Next time could be completely different.

I have become more appreciative of the freedom to simply be around other people. I’m not excessively sociable, but I like being able to choose to socialize when I’m in the mood. It will be nice to go to a fast-food place and sit inside and eat among other people again, even if they are loud.

I’m not afraid of the virus, but out of consideration for those who are — and those who have more risk if they do catch it — I’ve changed my behavior during this pandemic.

If I had any trust or faith in government, this experience would have destroyed it for good. Of course, that ship sailed decades ago, so watching the incompetence and tyranny from those who imagine they know best how to run your life hasn’t affected me much.

I’m suspecting the differences in how people view government’s response will further divide America between those who imagine government saved the country from certain disaster and those who realize everything government did in response to the pandemic harmed the country worse than the virus.

Those in the first group will want government to have even more power over our lives from now on, and those in the second group will want to take back our rightful liberty, which was stolen over the last couple of centuries.

This isn’t a huge change, but the disagreements may get more heated unless one side backs down. I don’t see that happening.

I’ve become more skeptical of the sanity of those cheering the police state tactics justified by the virus, the intelligence of those begging government to do more, and of the morals of those who became snitches, reporting anyone they suspected of not complying with unconstitutional orders.

Speaking of learning — I’m curious how this time will look when it’s history. Unfortunately, government gets to decide what the history textbooks will say about this event, so its version will be taught to generations of children in its schools. Expect government to make itself out to be the hero of this story, regardless of the truth.

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Harvard Magazine Calls for a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling: Here Are 5 Things It Got Wrong

Author’s Note: This is a copy of my submitted Letter to the Editor of Harvard Magazine regarding its recent article,“The Risks of Homeschooling.”

Dear Editor:

As a Harvard alum, longtime donor, education researcher, and homeschooling mother of four children in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was shocked to read the article, “The Risks of Homeschooling,” by Erin O’Donnell in Harvard Magazine’s new May-June 2020 issue. Aside from its biting, one-sided portrayal of homeschooling families that mischaracterizes the vast majority of today’s homeschoolers, it is filled with misinformation and incorrect data. Here are five key points that challenge the article’s primary claim that the alleged “risks for children—and society—in homeschooling” necessitate a “presumptive ban on the practice”:

1. Protecting Children from Abuse

I agree with the author of the article and Harvard Law School professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, who is widely quoted throughout, that it is critically important that children be protected from abuse. They argue that sending children to school prompts “mandated reporters,” such as teachers and school administrators, to identify possible child abuse. But many parents choose to homeschool their children to remove them from abuse at school, whether it’s widespread bullying by peers or, tragically, rampant abuse by teachers and school administrators themselves.

Child abuse is horrific wherever it occurs, but singling out homeschooling parents as potential abusers simply because they do not send their children to school is both unfair and troubling. Child abuse laws exist in all states and should be rigorously enforced. Banning homeschooling, or adding burdensome regulations on homeschooling families, who in many instances are fleeing a system of education that they find harmful to their children, are unnecessary attacks on law-abiding families.

2. Recognizing Homeschooling’s Diversity

One of the more incorrect assertions in the article is the statement that up to 90 percent of today’s homeschooling families are “driven by conservative Christian beliefs.”

It is true that religious conservatives were key to the growth of homeschooling in the late-20th century, as the number of US homeschoolers swelled to 850,000 in 1999. About two-thirds of today’s nearly two million US homeschoolers identify as Christian (equal to the US population as a whole), but the homeschooling population is becoming increasingly diverse, both ideologically and demographically.

According to the most recent data on homeschooling by the US Department of Education, the most significant motivator for parents choosing this education option was “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure,” exceeding other factors such as a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.

Much of the current growth in homeschooling is being driven by urban, secular parents who are disillusioned with a test-driven, one-size-fits-all mass schooling model and want a more individualized educational environment for their children. Federal data also reveal that the percentage of black homeschoolers doubled between 2007 and 2012 to 8 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic homeschoolers is about 25 percent.

3. Embracing Civic Values

Bartholet also argues against homeschooling on civic grounds, saying that it’s “important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”

Indeed, research on homeschoolers finds that they are tightly connected with their larger community and may have more community involvement and participation in extracurricular and volunteer activities than schooled children due to their more flexible schedules and interaction with a wide assortment of community members. This reinforces similar research on private education more broadly, suggesting positive civic engagement and outcomes.

Moreover, public schools are struggling to inculcate a strong understanding of democratic values and civic knowledge. According to a 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 37 percent of Americans could not identify one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and more than half of them erroneously believe that undocumented immigrants have no constitutional rights. Worrying about homeschoolers’ civic education when public schools are seemingly floundering in this regard is misguided.

4. Ensuring the Proper Role of Government

The central tension between those who advocate for homeschooling bans and heightened regulation and those who don’t relates to how each side views the proper role of government. The former sees a proactive role of government in “intervening to try to safeguard the child’s right to education and protection,” while the latter relies on the historical underpinnings of our democracy, going back to the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. We are endowed with “unalienable rights” and that to “secure these rights, governments are instituted.”

If a child is being abused, whether in a homeschooling situation or a public school classroom, the government should intervene to protect that child. But to single out a particular group for increased suspicion, monitoring, and invasion of privacy under the guise of “protection” is as un-American as similar attempts of the past. I agree with Bartholet when she says in the article: “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” She is concerned with families having this power, while I worry about giving that power to government.

5. Identifying Homeschooling Outcomes

In 2018, The Harvard Gazette spotlighted three Harvard students who were homeschooled using an informal, self-directed approach to learning. “There wasn’t much of a plan or a long-term plan going in; I just took classes I was interested in,” said one of the students, while another asked, “Why would you go to the same building every day and do the same thing every day?” The article said that the students all demonstrated a “spirit of curiosity and independence that continues to shape their education.” While there may always be outliers and more research is needed, most peer-reviewed studies on homeschooling outcomes find that homeschoolers generally outperform their schooled peers academically, and have positive life experiences.

There is room for robust discussion and debate about education and homeschooling, including what is considered effective and beneficial—and who decides. Given Harvard Magazine’s reputation for editorial excellence, I was disappointed to see this article’s emphasis on the potential risks of homeschooling without highlighting its benefits. Bartholet indicates that “tolerance of other people’s viewpoints” is a key civic value. I agree, and I hope future articles in this magazine demonstrate this tolerance.

Sincerely,

Kerry McDonald, Ed.M. ’01

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Freedom of Association

Why shouldn’t you be forced to marry and have children against your will? Why shouldn’t you be forced to join and support a religious organization? Why shouldn’t you be forced into friendships to spend your leisure time with people you don’t like? Why shouldn’t you be forced to do unimportant and unproductive work for an abusive boss? Why shouldn’t you be forced to comply with the demands of politicians who steal your money and use it in unethical and counterproductive ways?

The answer is simple: nobody has a higher claim on your life than you do.

Argument against freedom of association constitutes a rejection of ethics. Politics is what you are left with after you reject ethics. It is the systematic violation of consent. It is an endless fight over oppressive control and stolen resources in which association must be either forced or prohibited.

When civilized people disagree, they don’t claim the moral high ground while violating consent to enforce their unprincipled demands on others. They respect the right of individuals to self-select into associations that seem most likely to result in their safety and happiness. If the internalized cost/benefit ratio is not satisfactory, they are free to disassociate.

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