The Value of Faith, Family, Community, and Meaningful Work, Part I

A book review of Arthur Brooks' “The Conservative Heart” with George Khalaf

“The Conservative Heart” by Arthur Brooks was published in 2015 and offers “a new vision for the pursuit of happiness, earned success, and social justice”. Brooks is a scholar, economist, author, and the former President of American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  His latest venture, a film called “The Pursuit” will be released this Spring. To attend an advance screening in Phoenix, click here.

Micah:  It might be an understatement to say you are a huge fan of Arthur Brooks.  We’re pretty close to starting an office tally for how often we hear “the culture of contempt” or “meaningful work”! It’s ironic considering that the first time you went to hear Brooks speak at AEI’s Leadership network, you were ready to write him off as just another ‘think tank guy’. What changed your mind?

George: Most people who are in “think tanks” sit around and raise money to think and put out very academic articles. What struck me about Dr. Brooks’ approach to the sitting and thinking was his real-world application. That’s the critical thing. Not every think-tank does that. It’s unique to his work and leadership at AEI, which is why I was happy to be a part of the leadership network. The concept of the leadership network is to spread the ideals of human freedom, dignity, and potential to the average, everyday American.

Micah:    What’s different about how he presents his ideas?

George: Rather than talking in facts and figures—and he’s a brilliant, PhD economist – he speaks in stories. The Conservative Heart, arguably one of his most popular books to date, is anchored around stories that illustrate the facts, figures, and hypotheses that he and scholars at AEI have tested.  That is critical and something we are missing by and large these days. How do we better articulate the benefits of democracy and free enterprise? I believe the data proves we are right, but we often talk about it in a way that’s difficult for the average American to receive. When Brooks speaks, you relate because of the stories he shares.

Micah:  You recently read his book The Conservative Heart, so we thought this would be a good opportunity to get your insights on his ideas. The title “Conservative Heart” brings to mind the tagline of “compassionate conservative” we heard in the early 2000s. How does Brooks frame this differently?

Any time you have this qualifying word on “conservative” you are giving up the argument that conservative values are inherently compassionate.

George: Actually, that’s the whole point of the book. Brooks didn’t like the phrase “compassionate conservative”. Any time you have this qualifying word on “conservative” you are giving up the argument that conservative values are inherently compassionate. [tweet this!] This new brand of “compassionate conservatism” misunderstood the idea that all conservatism is actually compassionate. The idea of philosophical conservatism as pioneered by Edmund Burke is compassionate. It talks about the social fabric, the role of government, church in society, the economy, and all that. The argument in this book is that conservatism has been proven around the world to lift up people in the margins, more so than any other set of ideals.

Micah:  In a nutshell, why are conservative ideas really better for people in their daily lives, lifting them from poverty?

George: As Conservatives, we believe in empowering people towards meaningful work while also providing assistance from the social safety net, which most of us realize is necessary. We are distinct in that we believe the social safety net should be attached to meaningful work.  Brooks goes on to prove time and time again that just handing people cash does not make them self-sustaining. It does not make them inherently happy or get them out of a cycle of poverty. You can have more money and yet not be happier than you were before because you aren’t living out your God-given abilities.  Happiness is not attached to money. It is attached to meaningful work.

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Brooks talks about an Indian slum called Dharavi, which by all measures is far more impoverished than almost any area in America. Yet, he was amazed at how proud people were of the progress they have made. The residents are optimistic and busy.  Why? Because they’ve come a long way and are doing meaningful work. There’s an entire economy in an area that has monstrous poverty and where people live on top of each other, but they are happy. They have a very efficient system of recycling trash into useful materials that are sold around the world.  People actually move to this slum to work because there is so much opportunity and industry there. How many people are in the upper-class or upper-middle class that are stuck in what they deem as dead-end jobs and they are unhappy because they are sitting in their cubicle? They are still making good money, but there are people making far less that are happier because their work is more meaningful.

Micah: What would meaningful work look like for people coming out of the cycle of poverty or incarceration with no connections or assets?

George: Brooks cites a New York City organization called The Doe Fund that provides meaningful work opportunities to homeless or formerly incarcerated men.  Their first job is joining a team known as the “Men in Blue” to clean 120 miles of New York City streets. For over 22,000 people who have successfully gone through the program, this was the first step to getting their lives back. Why? Because for the first time, they felt like they mattered.  They were cleaning up the streets of their city and giving back to the community. It was trash, but it mattered.  Obviously, we don’t want people cleaning up streets for the rest of their lives. There should be upward mobility. But when you can’t see “the social ladder,” any work becomes meaningful because you want to feel like you belong and have a relationship with your community. Their  relationship to the community came from the fact that for the first time in a long time, they feel needed.

Micah: Those of us who don’t live in poverty often struggle to relate to those on the margins.  What is the role of relationships in addressing poverty?

George: I actually just heard about a project that was started in Denver where people go in groups of two and three and walk the same streets for two years, building relationships with these homeless people. Many of the permanently homeless have no meaningful relationships. They refuse social services because they feel ashamed. The Doe Fund was actually started by a gentlemen who used to walk Grand Central Station everyday.  He realized that his greatest reception wasn’t when he handed people money, but when he gave someone the time of day and asked them how they were. He started seeing the same homeless people over and over and began forming relationships. When you get to know someone on a human level, the shame they feel will decrease.

Micah:   How can Conservatives talk about issues in a way that reveals the “conservative heart” and true conservatism?

We have to really get foundational and start recruiting candidates for office who reflect the heart of conservatism when they talk about the issues.

George: Again, it starts with stories. We need to be armed with facts and data, but stories will capture hearts. We need to get our elected officials and those running for office on board with that mentality.  As I’ve said before, we have given up the idea that conservatism lifts people up from the margins. We have to really get foundational and start recruiting candidates for office who reflect the heart of conservatism when they talk about the issues.  For example, there’s a way to talk about immigration that addresses the legitimate concerns regarding secure borders and national sovereignty, but also addresses the human component of immigration. We also need to take the opportunity to humanize economic issues. We have the best solution for those people on the margins but the way we talk about conservatism is much too wonkish and economical. Take Paul Ryan, for example. He is one of the most brilliant people when it comes to tax policy, but during the 2012 Presidential election he struggled to articulate things at a human and storytelling level. Now, he does it better than many, but he still didn’t get to where we need to be. I think that is the issue. So politically, I think conservatives have a role to play in humanizing the way we talk about our policies, and recruiting candidates that do the same.  But as humans, the key takeaway is the value of meaningful work – both for our own lives and also for lifting up those at the margins.

… to be continued

 
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George Khalaf is the Co-Founder of The Resolute Group and President of Data Orbital.  He has a background in grassroots politics, survey research, and political data.

 
 
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Micah Vandenboom is Research Assistant for The Resolute Group.  She is currently studying political science at Arizona Christian University and will be graduating in May.  

 
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