Turning Points Rotating Header Image

This Guy Is a Conservative??

I subscribe to a feed from Off-Grid, a source of information for people who are into self-sufficiency, gardening, building their own homes, photovoltaics, solar energy, and related topics. The most recent issue to land in my in-box featured a link to a Time Magazine article by Reihan Salam, entitled The Dropout Economy. I read the article and was fascinated with the man’s thinking. But I was distressed to read, at the end of the article, that he was a blogger for the New Republic and a columnist for Forbes.com, both hotbeds of conservatism. Since I had a hard time reconciling my views of the New Republic and Forbes with what I had just read, I decided to do some digging. I checked out The New America Foundation, of which Mr. Salam is a fellow, on SourceWatch and didn’t see any red flags that would indicate that that organization had any patience with Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, so I continued my research. After I watched an interview of Mr. Salam on Big Think, I was hooked because he seemed to embody a whole new definition of conservatism, one that I can agree with. In that interview, he says that what he would like to conserve about America is its ability to be creative in devising solutions to problems. To learn more about his ideas, read his essays at The Daily Beast.

Read the piece that Time Magazine published and see if he doesn’t intrigue you also. If you are, click on the link to Big Think and watch or read that interview, too. Interesting ideas, indeed. A friend of mine said, upon reading the The Dropout Economy, that the homeschool movement has been predicting this for over 30 years. News to me, but then, the older I get, the less I know….

Here is Reihan Salam’s essay, as published in Time Magazine on March 11, 2010:

The Dropout Economy

Middle-class kids are taught from an early age that they should work hard and finish school. Yet 3 out of 10 students dropped out of high school as recently as 2006, and less than a third of young people have finished college. Many economists attribute the sluggish wage growth in the U.S. to educational stagnation, which is one reason politicians of every stripe call for doubling or tripling the number of college graduates.

But what if the millions of so-called dropouts are onto something? As conventional high schools and colleges prepare the next generation for jobs that won’t exist, we’re on the cusp of a dropout revolution, one that will spark an era of experimentation in new ways to learn and new ways to live.

It’s important to keep in mind that behavior that seems irrational from a middle-class perspective is perfectly rational in the face of straitened circumstances. People who feel obsolete in today’s information economy will be joined by millions more in the emerging post-information economy, in which routine professional work and even some high-end services will be more cheaply performed overseas or by machines. This doesn’t mean that work will vanish. It does mean, however, that it will take a new and unfamiliar form.

Look at the projections of fiscal doom emanating from the federal government, and consider the possibility that things could prove both worse and better. Worse because the jobless recovery we all expect could be severe enough to starve the New Deal social programs on which we base our life plans. Better because the millennial generation could prove to be more resilient and creative than its predecessors, abandoning old, familiar and broken institutions in favor of new, strange and flourishing ones.

Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias.

Rather than warehouse their children in factory schools invented to instill obedience in the future mill workers of America, bourgeois rebels will educate their kids in virtual schools tailored to different learning styles. Whereas only 1.5 million children were homeschooled in 2007, we can expect the number to explode in future years as distance education blows past the traditional variety in cost and quality. The cultural battle lines of our time, with red America pitted against blue, will be scrambled as Buddhist vegan militia members and evangelical anarchist squatters trade tips on how to build self-sufficient vertical farms from scrap-heap materials. To avoid the tax man, dozens if not hundreds of strongly encrypted digital currencies and barter schemes will crop up, leaving an underresourced IRS to play whack-a-mole with savvy libertarian “hacktivists.”

Work and life will be remixed, as old-style jobs, with long commutes and long hours spent staring at blinking computer screens, vanish thanks to ever increasing productivity levels. New jobs that we can scarcely imagine will take their place, only they’ll tend to be home-based, thus restoring life to bedroom suburbs that today are ghost towns from 9 to 5. Private homes will increasingly give way to cohousing communities, in which singles and nuclear families will build makeshift kinship networks in shared kitchens and common areas and on neighborhood-watch duty. Gated communities will grow larger and more elaborate, effectively seceding from their municipalities and pursuing their own visions of the good life. Whether this future sounds like a nightmare or a dream come true, it’s coming.

This transformation will be not so much political as antipolitical. The decision to turn away from broken and brittle institutions, like conventional schools and conventional jobs, will represent a turn toward what military theorist John Robb calls “resilient communities,” which aspire to self-sufficiency and independence. The left will return to its roots as the champion of mutual aid, cooperative living and what you might call “broadband socialism,” in which local governments take on the task of building high-tech infrastructure owned by the entire community. Assuming today’s libertarian revival endures, it’s easy to imagine the right defending the prerogatives of state and local governments and also of private citizens — including the weird ones. This new individualism on the left and the right will begin in the spirit of cynicism and distrust that we see now, the sense that we as a society are incapable of solving pressing problems. It will evolve into a new confidence that citizens working in common can change their lives and in doing so can change the world around them.

We see this individualism in the rise of “freeganism” and in the small but growing handful of “cage-free families” who’ve abandoned their suburban idylls for life on the open road. We also see it in the rising number of high school seniors who take a gap year before college. While the higher-education industry continues to agitate for college for all, many young adults are stubbornly resistant, perhaps because they recognize that for a lot of them, college is an overpriced status marker and little else. In the wake of the downturn, household formation has slowed down. More than one-third of workers under 35 live with their parents.

The hope is that these young people will eventually leave the house when the economy perks up, and doubtless many will. Others, however, will choose to root themselves in their neighborhoods and use social media to create relationships that sustain them as they craft alternatives to the rat race. Somewhere in the suburbs there is an unemployed 23-year-old who is plotting a cultural insurrection, one that will resonate with existing demographic, cultural and economic trends so powerfully that it will knock American society off its axis.

Salam is a policy adviser at the nonpartisan think tank e21, a blogger for the National Review and a columnist for Forbes.com

11 Comments on “This Guy Is a Conservative??”

  1. #1 Beth
    on Mar 15th, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Lots of food for thought there, Jeff…thanks for posting that. He certainly does put forth some intriguing ideas. I’m not so sure that the high school dropouts are “middle-class” though. I think you’d probably find most of them them to be from lower-income families. And, as someone who only has a high-school diploma, I can attest to the difficulty of finding a job when you don’t have a college degree. College might be an “overpriced status marker” but having a degree certainly helps in finding work. Or at least work that pays a living wage.

  2. #2 Jeff
    on Mar 15th, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I didn’t see where he wrote that the high school dropouts were “middle class” – he simply made the observation that 3 out of 10 kids drop out of high school and that from a middle class perspective, this is irrational. Perhaps it is, but many college students graduate with stunning debt loads that disadvantage them terribly when they are trying to start out in life. Perhaps Salam is over-reaching, but his ideas are certainly provoking, if nothing else. I surely wouldn’t want to be a high school senior or a college student graduating these days – times are very tough indeed, across the board, for working people anyway.

  3. #3 Beth
    on Mar 16th, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Hi, Jeff. I completely agree that his ideas are very thought-provoking and that his essay is compelling. I was just writing from the perspective of both my husband Tom and me who didn’t go to college, but are competing with those who did in looking for work. Having a degree is definitely an advantage, and I’m really glad that our two children are getting their degrees. They are now nearing the ends of their college careers and are indeed finding jobs scarce. But I know having the degrees will help, and Ariel and Benjamin tell me that college taught them how to think and expanded their vision of the world. And, by the way, I think it’s likely that Mr. Salam went to college and is probably very glad he did.

  4. #4 Beth
    on Mar 16th, 2010 at 9:15 am

    I did want to say, also, that I think it can be a very good idea for a high school senior to take a gap year after graduating before starting college (which he mentions in his essay). A year in the high-school graduate working world can be very educational and eye-opening. And for an 18-year-old to have a year to contemplate their future career path before investing in college can be quite beneficial.

  5. #5 Jeff
    on Mar 16th, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Beth,

    I truly hope you didn’t think that my comments were directed at you, personally. I don’t think you did, did you? I completely understand your situation, wanting your children to have a better shot at a higher standard of living. I think every parent wants the same for their kids. I didn’t take Salam’s piece as an attack on college, per se. Rather, I see his thoughts as being part of his orientation against “bigness”, which suffocates creativity and innovative solutions to problems. He rails against the “higher-education industry”, for instance. There are an awful lot of kids in college who are going solely for the purpose of learning a trade – an intellectual trade, that is. They are not there, like Ariel and Benjamin, to stretch their minds. They are there to learn, by rote, everything that is required to be a software engineer or whatever so that they can make gobs of money. I think if you ask your kids that they will tell you this is so. I saw it when I was in college and I think it has only gotten more pronounced.

    I watched a video interview of Salam (the link is in the post) and in that video, he was asked how he defines a conservative or something like that. His response is truly interesting: he says that he wants to preserve individuality and the creative process. Now, that is an answer that I can’t imagine any other conservative that I’ve ever run into giving. Thus, the title of the post, “This Guy is a Conservative??” The whole thrust of his piece is all about the value of the individual and, though he didn’t come right out and say it, the extent to which huge organizations and bureaucracies are stifling the creative process.

    I think one of the things that Salam would agree with is that the holy grail pursuit of college demeans the value of working with one’s hands. I went to school with a guy who took over his father’s septic tank business. He didn’t go to college, as far as I know and I did. He is a multi-millionaire and I’m not, by a very, very long shot!

    I’ve written about it before and no doubt I’ll write about it again: there is nothing wrong with not going to college. Believe me, please: college is not all that it is cracked up to be. If you leave college learning how to learn, that is absolutely wonderful, but I don’t think many students do. Does that mean I’m against college? No, not at all. But I am against huge bureaucracies that are placing ever-tighter nooses around the minds of our youth so that they conform to some standard of what an education is. Everyone learns in a different way and at a different pace and to devalue that process upsets me greatly.

    I’m very much in favor of decentralization and localization – remote authorities decreeing when, where, and what we will do with our lives goes against my grain more and more. I get crankier and crankier the older I get!! 🙂

  6. #6 Debi Kelly Van Cleave
    on Mar 21st, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Interesting article. I don’t think it’s possible for people to go back to self-sufficiency (why are my fonts so small? I can’t even see what I’m writing!) and become homeschooling Buddhist vegans who raise their own food, drive solar cars and reject the government. We don’t have enough land. It’s a romantic idea though and I think many people are attracted to it nowadays.

  7. #7 Jeff
    on Mar 22nd, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Well, I don’t think Mr. Salam is asking people to go back to self-sufficiency. Instead, he is describing what he sees coming up in the future. Whether he is right or wrong will become evident in the coming years. As I wrote, the article is most assuredly thought-provoking. It deserves some time to be digested. We may well have no choice but to be self-sufficient or something pretty close to it in the future.

  8. #8 Kay
    on Mar 22nd, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    There’s a lot to consider here, I agree. Much of this transformation is happening already, around us, in every corner, and it’s good to see it rising to the surface of societal awareness. See, for instance, the movement of growing and sustaining young farmers under the umbrella of The Greenhorns (http://thegreenhorns.wordpress.com/). There is a new generation of good hard-working folks who are embracing the changeover from reliance on “broken and brittle institutions” to forging those resilient communities Mr. Salam refers to, and providing an alternative to the cubicle/commute paradigm.

    The thing to remember is, this is happening in cities and urban areas, as well. Land is not the issue. People are exercising a level of creativity and community the likes of which have not been seen since the war rationing and food shortages of WWII sparked a nation of Victory Gardeners to grow their own food. Whole communities in inner cities are feeding themselves and the less fortunate around them, with plain old hard work and basic skills brought back to life. It’s not romantic, it’s common sense.

  9. #9 Jeff
    on Mar 22nd, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Indeed – common sense. Or necessity. I got a note the other day from a friend who said that the mayor of Detroit has proposed bulldozing a number of blocks of abandoned and vandalized houses and turning the land into a big community garden. I think that is part of what Mr. Salam is writing about – out-of-the-box solutions to pressing problems that the politicians in Washington are too busy, because they are in bed with Wall Street, to address. People are hurting and are taking control of their lives and saying the hell with the empty promises of the political class.

  10. #10 Mark Thomas
    on Mar 24th, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for digging up the background info on Reihan Salam. Someone on FR33Agents.net posted a link to the Time article and I had exactly the same reaction. It sounds like straight-up Agorism.

    I think I even saw him describe himself as a neo-con! I did some more googling and found this AntiWar.com article criticizing Salam for fearing the anti-war right (who believe that America’s dreams of Empire may destroy the American economy, society, and even the American ideology of Liberty).

    How’s that for double-take whiplash? How do you pick between the off-grid neoconservative who wants to preserve hippie culture and the anti-war, Constitutionalist conservative with a think-tank full of anarchists?

    This is definitely not the world my high-school teachers prepared me for!

  11. #11 Jeff
    on Mar 24th, 2010 at 9:36 pm


    Boy, you got that right! I’m glad someone else had the same reaction that I did. Salam definitely doesn’t fit into any pigeon hole that I know about! I did a search on “resilient communities John Robb” and came up with Global Guerrillas, which is on my sidebar. I’m delving into the material on that site. Interesting reading.

Leave a Comment