In addition to the thoughts in my earlier post, there are some other considerations linked to Brooks' column that are worth drawing out. In many ways, Brooks is making an argument that I find very similar, if in less nationalistic tones, to the kind of argument I've been criticizing Beck for making. The essential parallel is that both see the US declining and wish to attribute this to what are essentially individual level shifts in ideas and values.
There are a few problems with this. The first is that we are in relative not absolute decline. This means that either others were doing something wrong and stopped, or they started doing something we're not. Neither case requires that anything that we're doing is behind our relative decline. Something we're not doing may be, but not anything that is changing within our own nation.
The second problem with this is that Brooks doesn't have any evidence that the US is failing to start new businesses or that people have stopped getting their hands dirty. A few brief internet searches for evidence showed that new business start ups are continuing to rise (with noisy data, there remains an upward trend). If we had become too genteel for business it seems unlikely that this would be the case. Of course, I couldn't find any per capita data, which is what would be really relevant, but I think there is a lot of reason to doubt that a shift in values have led Americans to work less or to have less desire to get involved in the messy business of commerce. I do believe more could be done to encourage these values and to make it easier for people to attempt risky new ventures but this would need a change from old thinking to achieve, not a return to it.
The third problem with this is that it is the most tired, and unproven, explanation for decline in history. Every society gets a group of people who are saying that the reason their society is declining is because they are falling away from the ideals of a proud past. The Chinese did it, the Romans did it, I doubt you can find any society that didn't fall because of a disaster that didn't use this excuse.
The problem with it is that the societies that end up replacing these cultures don't look like what these cultures did in their supposed golden age. Instead, these cultures always had learned everything they could from the supposedly declining societies and then introduced innovations (the exception being nomadic cultures that overthrow earlier ones based on superior military technology, these cultures tend to get absorbed into the sedentary culture however so are an interesting exception rather than something immediately relevant). So the key factor is not that the declining society has changed but that someone else has become something new.
This hints at how we should respond to decline. The question is how to adapt ourselves to a changing world with new innovations and how are society must change to meet these challenges. The problem is that old ways of managing the world break down in the face of social change, you get mass social disruption. Trying to restore the old order is futile, the mass production society of the 50s required different social traits than the modern information and high tech economy of today. We need to adapt ourselves to social institutions and ideas that will provide ideas, norms, and values for this world, not the old ideas that were so successful in the 50s. Otherwise, our decline relative to other societies is inevitable because we will be hopelessly out of sync with the emerging world. Facing the problem from a position of what would social and institutional structures look like that produce what we need to continue to be successful holds promise to answer the problems Brooks notes about social breakdown and skills mismatch, though not too many bankers*.
* Basically what do the successful entrepreneurs of today look like? Well, successful people today generally marry late, are highly mobile, are well educated (not necessarily in school), have social support of some kind to fall back on, have an ability to work with people from very different backgrounds, etc. So, what would the social institutions look like that promote this kind of lifestyle? Those of the family from 1950, or something different? Then we can get into institutional structures, such as how corporations are constituted, litigation, etc. Might we have to change substantially, yes. Might this be a bad thing from a human happiness perspective, yes. But if we're worried about decline, it comes down to power. If you're worried about human happiness or some sort of objectively defensible social order, worry about this and stop fretting about losing relative power. Leave power to those that desire to make the changes to get it because from this perspective, the costs are too high.
[Brooks does have something with the role of finance. While cases are too few to generalize from, the Dutch and British both had strong financial sectors after decline was inevitable. However, they also had strong financial sectors while they grew. This is a complicated topic beyond the scope of this post. There is a problem however, if the financial sector is relied upon as a strength while other sectors decline. It can become a parasite in the right conditions, I have no idea if that is descriptive of today. If it gets, and stays, too influential in the political process however, than there might be a problem.]