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Social Policy with Karl Zinsmeister

Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. The old saying goes, you canít legislate morality. But many problems in America -- from illegal drugs to teen sex -- have the government doing just that. Political elites line up on one side or the other, and PR machines crank out a barrage of buzzwords that inflame, but donít inform. Can social policy actually fix the problems of society without dividing it further?

To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Karl Zinsmeister, my very first research assistant, former editor of the American Enterprise magazine, now a fellow at AEI. He is also the author of 'In Real Life: Powerful Lessons from Everyday Living.'

The Topic Before the House: The Politics of Division. This Week on Think Tank.

WATTENBERG: Karl Zinsmeister, old friend, welcome back to part two of our discussion. Part one dealt with Iraq, weíre both hawks. Part two is going to be about you. We want to do a series of programs with the younger intellectuals, thinkers, policy purveyors. So, letís start with a little personal bio and political bio and I will pepper you and interrupt.
ZINSMEISTER: You know, I think, Ben looking back, I didnít realize it was happening at that time, but the thing that Iíve learned as Iíve kind of progressed intellectually is that Iíve decided that my ancestors werenít idiots and that the things I learned at home and in school and in church and growing up, were in many cases, closer to wisdom.
WATTENBERG: Is yours a German ancestry?
ZINSMEISTER: Iím a mix of German and English and itís three generations back, so Iím not a direct, early or close immigrant, but I think it was Robert Frost, Ben who said that he got out of college and had to spent years unlearning everything heíd learned in college. I lived in a rural area, a farming area with a lot of farm kids and not at all a kind of competitive or high-speed high school.
WATTENBERG: The name of the community?
ZINSMEISTER: Itís called Baldwinsville, New York. You know, I really cherish my grade school and high school years, because I met just everyday Americans. You know, I was not kind of in the D.C. or New York City suburbs on the fast track with other kids who were just like me, and wealthy parents and, you know, the expectations that youíd be a partner at age 30 or your life is wasted.
WATTENBERG: And you must have done well enough in school to get into Yale.
ZINSMEISTER: Iíll tell you, I found it a very alienating experience. I did not enjoy Yale, the whole prep school culture and drugs and kids with money and cars was not familiar to me, and not fun for me.
The other critical thing for me, Ben, is in addition to putting a lot of energy into sports I took my junior year abroad and I lived in Ireland, which was just a fantastic thing for me. I really had a great year at Trinity College and kind of got my academic wheels under me. I was kind of a refugee from college. It was not my formative experience; it was not the highlight of my life by any means. And when I got out, I was kind of confused like a lot of kids. I got out of college a little radicalized. I thought I was a Marxist for a while. I thought all kinds of silly things. I wrote my thesis on a very famous Irish Marxist and came out and it kind of took me awhile to figure out what I really believed in. I found out -- I very quickly returned to my roots which were very commonsensical, very middle American and thatís sort of where I am today and Iím proud to be so.
WATTENBERG: Then you came down to Washington and worked for Senator Moynihan.
ZINSMEISTER: My first job was in the Senate and I worked for Senator Moynihan and that was a little disappointing for another reason. He was, as you know, Ben, a very smart guy and I had extremely high expectations that I would be thinking and, you know, working with him on those sorts of things. Unfortunately it was an election year and any senator, to be fair, in an election year has to basically become a hack. Thatís what you do in election year, so we were doing much more politics and much less kind of thinking and policy and principled stuff and I just realized the Senate life was not for me.
WATTENBERG: I am working on a book now and I make the following statements that the three names that keep coming up in American politics in the last 40-50 years, are Jesse Jackson, George Wallace, and Pat Moynihan.
ZINSMEISTER: Interesting.
WATTENBERG: He represented New York. He voted fairly liberally, but in his writings with very few exceptions, he was what we call neo-conservative, scrutinizing the program; do they work, do they not work, if not how theyíd do better.
ZINSMEISTER: You know, even despite his brevity my period with Moynihan was very formative and he kind of got me set on a track that then my time with you and other places, reinforced.
WATTENBERG: I would say that for our viewers, I had received a call from some foundation saying, ďYou need a research assistant donít you?Ē I said, yes, sure. And I got a letter from you, which was very well phrased, I must say and met you.
ZINSMEISTER: Well, what I did with both you and with Moynihan, Ben was very similar. I kind of immersed myself in the world as it really is. In your case and in Senator Moynihanís case that I was asked to sort of examine the data. What did the data really show about race, about family structure, about sexuality, about religion, about the way Americans really live? And thatís kind of become my M.O. You start with the way the world really is; not how you wish it was, and then you sort of walk backwards from that, and so I sort of learned this.
WATTENBERG: Moynihan had this famous statement, ďWeíre all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not all entitled to our own facts.Ē But these days you have these dueling studies that everybody has -- they come to a conclusion first and then they array the facts to support it and it seems to me more so than ever before, but you never know whatís presentism and...
ZINSMEISTER: Well thereís still tremendous necessity for judgment and for principle and all that in any kind of political decision-making, but I do think that this sort of database journalism that Iíve tried to practice that you helped teach me that Iíve learned from other places is really important and different and that if you start with that as your method, you will end up in different places and one of the places you end up for me is you come to admire the sort of massive middle in this country. Ben, I am not someone who believes that the American elites are particularly impressive. I think the Japanese elites, the European elites are just as impressive. I think we have our own very serious underclass problems at the bottom of our society.
WATTENBERG: You were more conservative than I was and when you started the American Enterprise Magazine, it had a decidedly conservative tilt in my judgment. Itís a good magazine. It was a follow-on to a magazine I had started here called Public Opinion. You had some pretty tough people of the right writing for you. Have you moderated your views as youíve seen the whole array?
ZINSMEISTER: You know, my sympathies, both intellectual and emotional, have been with this middle. How Iíve changed Iím not sure I know or could even accurately describe to you, but what Iíve seen happen in this country is that the middle is much more commonsensical than either the ideologues of the right or the left understand and Iíve tried to sort of model my life on that. Intellectuals kind of scoff -- the bourgeoisie, the people who fumble in greasy tills and work in shops all day long donít hold much respect or allure for most thinkers and intellectuals in this country have always been frustrated that they donít have the privileged perks that intellectuals in Europe have, for instance, where they pretty much run the country. I always say thank God we arenít run by intellectuals in this country, that the big decisions, the really important things are decided by everyday Americans and Iím not being sort of an ignoramus or sort a of ranting populist. I really believe that the common sense and the wisdom in this country is embedded in the middle class.
WATTENBERG: When I knew you, you lived in a townhouse on Capitol Hill, which you did some remodeling that was unbelievable. You built a circular staircase without knowing a damn thing about carpentry work, full of crime, full of drugs. Your wife-to-be I think was away at school for a while and so you used to sleep at night in my office sometimes because we were crashing on a book. But you got married and you moved to one of the quintessentially beautiful, smaller towns in upstate New York -- Cazenovia, New York -- which is old houses. Iíve been through it a number of times. Thereís a four star restaurant, Krebs -- on the theory as I recall that you didnít want your children exposed to this popular culture and yet, you canít get away from it in the age of a computer and the blogosphere. Am I correct that they are no dividing lines now?
ZINSMEISTER: Ben, thatís a gigantic question. Itís a great one. Letís break it into two pieces we can kind of make manageable. First, my period when I was living on Capitol Hill, that was really important to me. I was and still am a very idealistic person and I was a very resistant. I was working, as we discussed earlier, on issues like race and crime and demographics and I kind of refused to accept a lot of the racial boundaries that people said existed. I also didnít have much money at that point I in my life. I was freelance writer and was kind of moonlighting as a carpenter on the side to keep my family and groceries.
WATTENBERG: So you did have carpentry experience?
ZINSMEISTER: Yeah, I learned it, but anyway as you pointed out.
WATTENBERG: This is before you came to Washington?
ZINSMEISTER: This is after I came to Washington and when I was trying to launch my career as a freelance writer.
WATTENBERG: After you left Moynihan, before you came here?
ZINSMEISTER: After you actually.
WATTENBERG: Oh, after me. I see. Right.
ZINSMEISTER: So, I had very little money and lots of idealism and I ended up buying an abandoned townhouse, hadnít been lived in for 15 years, across the street from the worst public housing project in D.C.. It was called Ellen Wilson Homes. It was named from Woodrow Wilsonís wife and it had none of the sweetness that she had. It was a really bad, dangerous place. I watched crack move into DC in the 1980s and can tell exactly what happened. And it was very hard. There were a lot of guns on the street. There was a lot of violence. I was attacked many times. Iíve seen all kinds of things. I had friends in the projects. I had a guy over there who was an ex-con who I used to hire to work with me and I really enjoyed, a nice guy. His dream was to save up enough cash to send himself to tractor-trailer school and become a driver. And he kept his money in a pillow in his apartment and the crack heads broke in to his apartment one night and stole his pillow with more than ten thousand dollars in it. And Dwight kind of collapsed and just disappeared after that.
We had another friend in the projects, who used to baby-sit our children. A very sweet girl and I got to know her and her mother quite well and it really tore me up and broke my heart to see the kind of very ugly social stresses in this kind of environment. And to this day, Ben I wonít take any guff from anybody who wants to lecture me about poverty or racism or drugs or crime. I have seen it; I lived through and I understand that.
WATTENBERG: Youíve so far managed to duck my question. Doesnít that go on in Cazenovia as well?
ZINSMEISTER: It does. I didnít sort of think we were going to paradise or that we wouldnít have to navigate lots and lots of cultural issues, but I felt it would be more like the real America, and that my kids would have a more normal upbringing and not be in the fishbowl quite as much. And...
WATTENBERG: Did that happen?
ZINSMEISTER: It has worked out for us. And the only reason I talk -- Iím kind of uncomfortable talking so much about my own family, but this is something...
WATTENBERG: No, no. I asked.
ZINSMEISTER: ...but this is something I think that a lot of Americans go through. A lot of Americans wrestle with this and end up making similar choices. You know, weíre a country that votes with our feet and I think a lot of Americans sort of establish a career in a metro area and then try to go to a part of the country where they...
WATTENBERG: Karl, let me interrupt. Some say, I mean, you tune into -- as we all have -- into government social policy. Some people say the best social policy is no social policy. You buy that?
ZINSMEISTER: You know, in general, I think the best possible mix is for the government and more generally the sort of external structure of society to have as few rules and as few limits as possible. But you know what? Youíve got to have limits on human behavior; thatís just life. The way you make good citizens is to give them the authority to act, but also the responsibility for their actions. Both. Otherwise you treat them like children.
WATTENBERG: Give me some examples.
ZINSMEISTER: Well, you know, again, letís return to the social policy area. If you do everything for people and kind of hand them everything, I think you sort of undercut them. You take away their pride and their confidence, you sort of reward them.
WATTENBERG: We cut out AFDC. Itís a New Deal era program and went to TANF, whatever that stands for, which is much tougher and cut the welfare roles even in a recession and so...
ZINSMEISTER: Yeah, I was...
WATTENBERG: ...thereís been real progress there.
ZINSMEISTER: Tremendous. The shifting of welfare responsibilities away from a straightforward government give-out to something that the individual has to earn and work through.
WATTENBERG: And weíre actually giving more money through the states and everything else. I mean, I think most Americans -- I donít know if you agree with this, Iíve said all along -- for people who really need it, theyíre not getting enough and for people who are ripping it off, theyíre getting Ė to hell with them. Do you buy that?
WATTENBERG: Do you buy that?
ZINSMEISTER: I do buy that, but you know, I think money is the least of it. I think the real problems in this country have almost nothing to do with money.
WATTENBERG: Itís dependency.
ZINSMEISTER: Itís not just dependency, but itís sort of taking responsibility for your life. The real poverty problem in this country is not money; it is family structure and when we have a world where literally only 39% of black kids today are going to go to bed with a mom and a dad in the house -- even if you give them all the money they need, there are going to be very serious problems in that family.
WATTENBERG: You know, I mean, I donít deny that and Michael Novak at AEI has the four-word solution for poverty which data backs, which is ďget married, stay marriedĒ. You have cohabitation rates in some of the European and Scandinavian countries that are probably as high if not higher than ours and itís regarded as marriage, itís not sinful in itself, I donít think.
ZINSMEISTER: No, I donít even think you have to...
WATTENBERG: I think marriage is a great institution; Iím for it.
ZINSMEISTER: Sure. No, I donít think...
WATTENBERG: But with the divorce rate so high, you know...
ZINSMEISTER: Yeah. You know, I donít think you have to resort to the whole language or concept of sin. You have to just look at practical results and the practical results for kids who grow up without two parents are not good. My wife and I always joke that even two parents arenít enough. Weíre in favor of polygamy. Weíd like to have a third parent around to help out on busy weekends. This family breakdown, Ben is the root not only of our poverty problem; itís the root of our crime problem, the root of our drug problem; itís the root of many of our social pathologies.
WATTENBERG: You buy the faith-based initiatives? And have they worked?
ZINSMEISTER: I donít think theyíre panaceas, but I think theyíre helpful. Again, to return to where I started, you know, if youíre not going to have external constraints, if youíre not going to have the government telling you what to do and the government in the bedroom, which Lord knows Iím not in favor of, well, how then do you get people to act responsibly? The alternative is internal restraints. So, I donít want to have laws that prevent people from divorcing; I donít want to have laws that make people marry.
WATTENBERG: Do you want to have laws that prevent people from having abortions?
ZINSMEISTER: You know, personally I would vote in favor of that.
WATTENBERG: So you would feel comfortable putting a doctor in jail for performing a procedure that a woman wants? And not just on-demand, but it could be rape, incest, life of the mother.
ZINSMEISTER: Sure. No, again, I have a definition that had some exceptions for rape and incest where there could be real psychological damage to the mother. But yeah, Ben, I mean, you know, if a Ghanan immigrant wants to have a clitorectomy done by a doctor on his daughter, I would also send him to jail for that. There are places we have to draw lines and I donít pretend to, you know, have the only answer in this area. I understand thatís a contentious area but I think the larger point that you have to have some boundaries is an important one. And my own preference is not to have these rules and these laws that externally oppress people, but instead incorporate these inside people, to have them decide for themselves that they would rather get married than have children without being married; to have them decide for themselves that theyíd rather put their child up for adoption rather than have an abortion. You do that in a slow organic process by encouraging and teaching and leading people to try to make more socially constructive choices, and religion is a very important tool for doing that. Itís, for instance, we know itís one of the best ways to get off of drugs; itís one of the best ways, one of the only ways thatís had any affect in getting people form becoming repeat criminals when they get out of prison. You canít coerce this, you canít press people. It has to be sincere. Religion, by the way, isnít the only way you can do this. I mean, itís a very important way (cross talking)...
WATTENBERG: ... a lot of things that...yeah.
ZINSMEISTER: But my view is you have to have some sort of compass built into citizens if theyíre going to be good citizens and if our societyís going to be healthy. Because the alternative is to do all that from the outside with rules and regulations and coercion and thatís something that I think both left and right agree ought to be avoided when possible.
WATTENBERG: Let me read something that I put together here about people within this conservative, neoconservative ambit including definitions by their friends and opponents and see if you can tell me where you are. Paleocons, Classical Liberals, Democratic Imperialists, Crunchy-Cons --- those are people who vote for Bush and shop at Whole Foods -- Big Business conservatives, Country Club Republicans, libertarians, Supply-Side Republicans, Theocons, Plain Vanilla Republicans, Republicans, Burkeans Eastern Establishment Republicans, Fiscally Conservative Republicans, Wing Nuts, RINOs -- thatís Republicans-In-Name-Only -- Log Cabin Republicans, which my producer is telling me -- Ripon Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Home-School Republicans -- I think one of your children was home schooled for awhile -- Neoconservative Republicans and some Neocons like me who are still registered Democrats, but occasionally vote that way. Pick a label. Label yourself.
ZINSMEISTER: Wow. What a list. Iím ashamed that after thirty options I still canít find one Iím comfortable with, but thatís where I come out. I mean, maybe the Home-School Republicans. Thatís a fresh and original one. When we got into the home school culture with one of our sons who was in need of some extra help in school, we found that itís a really fascinating underworld. You get into it and youíve got on the one hand...
WATTENBERG: A million-and-a-half, two million kids...
ZINSMEISTER: First of all itís large; itís a million-and-a-half or two million, and second, the variety. You have people who are doing it for religious reasons; you have people who are sort of ex-hippies who do it because they donít like authority; you have people who want to have a more structured environment for their children; you have people who want to let their children sort of just live and experience life. Thatís what they call education.
WATTENBERG: And itís not typically just one parent teaching one child. You have groups and...
ZINSMEISTER: Very mixed, and lots of social cooperation and, so I think thatís a good example, Ben of how mixed a lot of these categories are. Myself, again, I donít want to sort of say Iím above labels or be silly about squirming away but again, if I had to put myself in any label Iíd say Iím a militant middle American advocate. Thatís where I come down.
WATTENBERG: You wrote -- we had an issue of your magazine about sexual choices -- about sex and you wrote, and I quote, because I looked at it today, ďOnly a eunuch or a fool could imagine that sex is casual.Ē Now the so-called worldís oldest profession is prostitution.
ZINSMEISTER: Right.
WATTENBERG: Which is about as casual as sex can get.
ZINSMEISTER: That was a little bit spoofing, but you know, the whole term ďcasual sexĒ always blew my gaskets because to me, Ben, sex is the opposite of casual. Itís something -- itís intense; itís fire. It drives people to insanity. People do unbelievable things for it. It is the last part of life that I would categorize as kind of, you know, take it or leave it. And my point is that when you are playing with fire you have to be careful. That this is an area where people become inflamed even when they donít think theyíre going to become inflamed.
People fall in love with prostitutes. People kill prostitutes. All kinds of things happen in the heat of sexual passion, so my point is because itís fire it needs to be governed and treated with respect and treated carefully.
The other point of that essay, the deeper point I would say, was that is this a private activity? Of course. It is the most private thing maybe most of us do. But, but, there are huge public ramifications. An awful lot of what weíve been talking about earlier in this show, you know, family structure and crime rates and poverty levels grow directly out of sexual choices. And for instance, I mean, we just had an issue of my magazine where I had two very, very impressive black intellectuals who I respect, John McWhorter and Shelby Steele, both make the point that really a lot of the problems that we see in black America today start with bad choices on the sex and family life side and that side is something we have to keep in mind.
WATTENBERG: It is said by people on the conservative side that government cannot really change the hearts of men and women. And yet, you have something like seatbelts which used to be for crazy, you know, nuts and everybody had to wear them and itís gotten and its (unintelligible). But, more specifically and more powerfully and potently, you had a whole -- when I was growing up -- a whole quadrant of the country that believed in segregation. It earlier believed in slavery, they believed in segregation, they thought it was -- it had a whole set of reasons for it and then the Civil Rights laws passed and there was so-called massive resistance.
ZINSMEISTER: Right.
WATTENBERG: I donít think you will find many people -- you still have racism in this country, thereís no question about it and thereís built-in reason -- I donít think you will find very many people in America who say ďWhere are the good old days of segregation?Ē Now that is a law that changed the hearts of men and women for the better. Would you agree with that?
WATTENBERG: I absolutely would. I think that you want to have a very light touch in governance, but I do think itís important and necessary, at times, for government to involve itself in very difficult social and moral choices. And the Civil Rights laws are a perfect example. I think thatís something that you just canít avoid and I think itís encouraging that in the long run, you know, we learn about life. We improve. That things arenít just constant. People say, you know, there are no new ideas; everything was thought about -- everything we talk about today was already thought about by Socrates. And thatís true, but you know, there are lots of areas like race, where weíve changed our view and for the better and I think government sometimes needs to be part of that.
WATTENBERG: Explain this to me and maybe we can more or less start moving toward an end. Everybody says the countryís moving to the right, Republicans have a lock and blah, blah, blah. Al Gore won a majority in the popular vote; John Kerry is switched 25,000 votes, it gives him the 50,000 votes he needs in Ohio. Itís still one thing to say that conservatives have all three branches of government. I mean, you have a flip of the coin and itís the other way around.
ZINSMEISTER: Yeah.
WATTENBERG: And so, whereís the beef?
ZINSMEISTER: There is no conservative lock and I donít think there ever will be. I think the great thing about this country is we are competitors. We believe in sort of putting two ideas or two companies or two products at each otherís throats and may the better one win. And I frankly would not want to live in a country where you didnít have to equally robust parties because I think the competition makes both sides better. Iím not panicked about the idea that there are going to be people with very different political views in office than me.
WATTENBERG: I have come to this conclusion. Again, itís hard not to talk about the book youíve written, but I go from the Johnson years to today, which weíre forty years or something like that. And Iíve come to the conclusion that both sides won, which only a really robust and healthy society can provide. I mean, the liberals won on Civil Rights, they won on environmentalism; you can list -- theyíve gone too far on a lot of them, but big, big, big things. The conservatives won on market economics and idealistic foreign policy, and not with a bad result.
ZINSMEISTER: Sure. You know, this is not just lip service for me. I really think that the wisdom of this sort of everyday ordinary Americans is real and is deep and I think theyíve made very, very good political choices over more than a generation.
WATTENBERG: On that note, buddy Karl Zinsmeister, many thanks for joining us again on Think Tank. And thank you. Please, remember to send us your opinions via email. We think makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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