Friday, September 10, 2010

Brooks on the Genteel Nation Part 2

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.]


  1. Your point is well taken, but, and this might be an over-40 thing, I keep coming back to the contemporary U.S. and Asimov's Foundation trilogy. We seem to be at a moment in time where, as a society, we can't tolerate less and so drive ourselves to less.

    How many people, present company excluded, will say that apart from the great noble themes of assimilation and secure borders, eliminating undocumented immigration just isn't worth the effort? Immigration reform failed because the people's chosen representatives on both sides didn't believe they could compromise.

    Likewise, pricing carbon fails, not in the "it will cost this much money and this many jobs, and there's a this-percent chance that pricing carbon will offer this return" but in a battle between "the sky is falling" and "why don't you love warm temperatures?" or between "there is no cost to priced carbon" versus "there is no cost to carbon."

    Forgive me for galloping off on another tangent, but a subset of the problems with our polarized narrative is the assumption that waste, conspiracy, greed, evil, sloth, etc. cannot be tolerated. Even for merriment and diversion, finance will be both parasitic and productive. As will farming.

  2. Doug,

    Good comments. I agree there is a major problem with the polarized debates of today. Well, maybe not so much with the political polarization, I think that's always been part of American politics, but with the lack of either sides political polarization to ultimately be grounded in practicality. To the extent that Brooks' original column makes any real sense I think this might be what we've lost. We've always been a practical, as well as passionate, country. The passion, and the ideological divides that go with it, seem to have survived. The underlying practicality that allows for compromise seems to have fled us. This is a cultural trait that may have fled us, though I don't believe I'd trace its loss to a move toward gentility.

    I also agree with the assumption that waste etc. can't be tolerated goes along with our polarization. From what I remember about the Federalist Papers, a large part of the virtue of democratic government and the separation of powers is rooted in the idea that waste, fraud, abuse, and general selfishness are an intrinsic part of human nature. Neither markets or government can eliminate these things or even reliably reduce them to an absolute minimum. The idealogues on both sides of the political spectrum seem to believe that the guy in their corner can eliminate these things and usher in a near utopia. This is something that never has, and never will happen in human history. But listening to the polical debate today gives the impression that all these things are the fault of the ideology of the other side rather than part of the human condition.

  3. "But listening to the polical debate today gives the impression that all these things are the fault of the ideology of the other side rather than part of the human condition."

    That might be threshold for declaring discourse too polarized. Or nonsense. When you blame human nature on your opponent and call him or her a beast.