We Get What We Deserve
The progressive view today is that America needs to invest in its infrastructure in order to dig its way out of the hole in which it has placed itself. And when we think of infrastructure we thing of bridges, roads and broadband – physical things, divided into the shovel-ready and those that at some point will require a shovel. This ignores an important fact. One of the main reasons why the United States finds itself in its current predicament is because of the weakness of its intangible cultural infrastructure. If this is not fixed then it is just a matter of time before we find ourselves, albeit surrounded by windmills and fiber-optic communications, in another mess, entirely of our own creation.
Culture matters. People, especially en masse, respond to incentives. We often think of this when we talk about economics but wealth is not the only incentive. Status can also be of at least equal importance. In his novel, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway observed “[t]his honor thing is not some fantasy, that I am trying to inflict on you . . . I swear it is true. Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine or olive oil. There is honor among pickpockets and honor among whores. It is simply that the standards differ.” The value of honor, which is just one type of status, is not limited to Spaniards but is something we all feel and appreciate. The cultures of the world are replete, not only with examples of those that chose honor over wealth, but often those that choose honor over life itself. Friederich Nietzsche takes this idea one step further. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he argued; “[a] table of values hangs over every people. Behold it is the table of its overcomings; behold it is the voice of its will to power.” I have always been fascinated by this quote because for me it captures a powerful idea – a society can decide where it will go tomorrow by the values it chooses to live by today. The Roman poet Virgil said it best; “we make our destinies by the gods we choose.” I think the important word is “choose.”
It is not always easy to choose the things that a culture values because we often think that culture is something that emerges over time. But to leave it at that is as irresponsible as saying that wealth emerges over time and to make no further inquiry into the conditions in which wealth develops and to try and create the most favorable environment for such growth. We perspire to no end to ensure that we create the right conditions for economic growth yet we seem fecklessly indifferent when it comes to encouraging a culture that will drive us to a favorable destiny. I am not saying that the United States does not have a table of values, it very much does. The problem is that some of the values are out of date. They are mismatched in the modern world and this mismatch is crippling the nation. I like to think that it is a unique observation of mine, that with respect to people and nations, it is often that which made them great that also unravels them. The headstrong entrepreneur pushes through all the naysayers and makes his vision a reality only to lose it all by ignoring everyone who tried to tell him the end was nigh. The culture of the United States values individualism and self-reliance but these values also contain within them America’s greatest weakness.
Times have changed. Individualism is all well and good when what happens to you doesn’t affect me. As I sit on the stoop of my Texan ranch and watch my children and cattle grow strong on the back of fertile soils, it matters little in fact, that my neighbor seems unable to thrive in God’s Country. But with industrialization, the people exchange their pastures for a paycheck. Now my destiny and security are inter-connected with that of my colleagues in joint-venture. As our society evolves the inter-dependencies increase. I receive and make payment with pieces of paper, relying on the expectation that my fellow citizen will do likewise. I connect my home to common networks of energy and communications. I send my children out of the home for their education and hope that they will return safely in the evening. I even allow others to have an equal say in how I can live by participating in a democracy and obeying the rule of law. As this process continues, a tension emerges between the values of independence and responsibility and the reality of my inter-dependence and the fact that I am increasingly affected by the actions of others for which I am not responsible. In 2009, the American citizen stands on the balcony of his urban condominium and surveys a nation that has lost fifty percent of its wealth on the stock exchange, one in 70 homes foreclosed, several millions unemployed and the nation bleeding billions of dollars and thousands of lives in an unnecessary war that we started because of a lie. A Re-run of the film Wallstreet plays with dripping irony in the background and the Talking Heads ask “how did I get here?”
For the sake of dramatic effect, let me answer that question in one word: education. The American educational system is corrupt. It is the footprint of a culture that is too in love with values of independence and self-reliance applied to the absolute. Therefore, the system was considered optimal if my kids got a good education. What happened to your kids was your problem. And so the system spread across the continent with good schools for the rich and the illusion of an education for everyone else. The outcome was obvious. In 2003 the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development compared the performance of American 15 year olds with that of other nations. Americans came 24th in a table of 38 competitors in mathematics, 19th in science, 12th in reading and 26th in problem solving. In a 2006 assessment the US came 35th out of table of 57 in mathematics. And everyone who lives in the United States knows that the national figure masks a huge range in educational performance. For example, in the capital of the United States, only 46 percent of elementary school students were considered proficient in reading and 40 percent in math. In high school only 39 percent were proficient in reading and 36 percent in math. And it gets worse. The desperation for a good education became so intense that even the prestigious schools could not resist the fortunes that parents were willing to spend to rescue their children from falling into the growing underclass. Soon, prestigious universities realized they could make more and more money from stamping people’s heads with labels like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Just ask a law graduate from either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School what they learned during their time there and they will freely tell you that they discussed only vague jurisprudential concepts and policy considerations. One friend of mine told me recently that her entire tort law class involved applying the idea of societal cost and benefit to various scenarios. Merely saying that ensured that you passed the class in a program in which grades were never disclosed to employers. I learned that much at the kitchen table. Don’t get me wrong, some of the smartest people in the country graduate from these schools, but if they were among the smartest people in the country going in, what did the school do for them? It doesn’t matter does it? Because the goal was to get a high paying job when you graduated. Indeed, just in case there was any doubt, the cost of the education is so high that you have no choice but to search feverishly for a high paying job just to get the bank off your back. In 1999, lawyers’ salaries at the top firms jumped 25%. The next year law school tuition went up as well – did the quality of the education jump that much or was it just the cover charge?
Again and again you see the culture cutting its own throat because of a mis-guided belief that all that matters is that I get ahead and education serves no greater purpose than to allow me to climb over you. Your fate is irrelevant. The problem is that as we become more and more interdependant through systems that become more and more sensitive, what happens to you is almost as important as what happens to me. For example, in a democracy, a great measure of my fortune is decided by a committee composed of every single person in the United States. If a sufficiently large number of the people on that committee are badly educated, if they cannot tell the difference between responsible media and idiots, between populist rants and logical arguments, between the better judgment and the idiotic, then they are going to get me in trouble. And that’s exactly what happened. 85% of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attacks and so the United States invaded a nation that had zero relevance while the rest of the world looked on in disbelief and horror. The Iraq War has now lasted longer than World War 2 and has cost the Republic trillions. The handful of media companies completely failed to unearth the truth at the time because it had no incentive to do so – the educated are a minority – to reach the majority they have to dumb it down, which was easy and cheap. And so the cycle perpetuates itself. A man fired from a job managing a horse-association is put in charge of national emergency planning and everyone expected that to work. As if in some biblical tableau, the corruption increased such that the just were smitten and the ignorant raised high. Financial news networks failed to ask how long a nation can borrow money or how long real-estate prices can continue upwards without end because the majority didn’t care to know. Political candidates went on television and argued that they were qualified to handle the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation because they could see another nation off the shore. And the educated knew it was ridiculous but they voted for that party nonetheless because they still believed that it was more practical to ensure their individual independence than to share an intelligent government. And then the music stopped.
And there you are. You thought you could go it alone didn’t you? You thought all those test scores and foreign policy adventures were irrelevant to your life didn’t you? How is your 401k now? I am being severe to make an urgent point. Whereas taking care of your neighbor may have been a religious precept thousands of years ago, in today’s interconnected society concern for your neighbor’s welfare is a necessity. I am not advocating a nanny-state where initiative is crushed and the lay-about is rewarded the same as those that work hard. I am advocating that we acknowledge that we are more interdependent today, as a neighborhood, a nation and a globe than at any time in history. Issues that were once either yours or mine are now ours. And the most important; our most vital national infrastructure, is our respect for education, for better judgment, for wisdom. Because it is from the status that we give to education, that a better education system will emerge. And today, our respect for education is as dilapidated as any bridge in Pennsylvania. If it were otherwise how could we live with the shame of our poor performance in international educational comparisons? If it were otherwise how could television news networks have the audacity to put forward a level of programming that is so intellectually impoverished that it is laughed at in the rest of the world? If it were otherwise how could demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, a man who makes more money the more outrageous he can be, emerge as the pre-eminent voice in a conservative tradition replete with great thinkers? If it were otherwise how could NBC get away with having Keith Olberman throwing pieces of paper at a television camera in lieu of content? America does not value education because if it did how else could we explain a nation that has managed to create the perception of an even debate on global warming when the vast majority of scientists are lined up on one side? How can a nation that values education put the theory of evolution and a fairytale told to an ancient people on an equal footing?
So how about we stop it? Please. Let’s turn this ship around now while there is still time. Enough, with the pretty twinkies and the chiseled-jawed news anchors that can’t tell Iraq from Iran without a tele-prompter. Enough, with the two-car garage and the half-witted offspring. Enough, with the erectile dysfunction ads and the worship of gaudy vulgarity. Enough, with seeing political candidates struggling to distinguish foreign factions and then arguing that we should kill one or all of them. Enough, with the ridiculous argument that an American life is worth more than a human life. Enough, with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in. Let us pause for a moment and realize we took a wrong turn somewhere and that we need to recover our course. Let us start with our values. Let us value reasoned discourse. Let us encourage learning because it is dignified and makes our society better in a myriad of ways. Let us communicate to children the value of reading, music, art, science, justice and making a difference in the world rather than bling-bling, tits and ass. Let us have some sense of shame and a more appropriate sense of honor. Let us speak highly of teachers, especially in the company of children. Let us each, in our everyday lives communicate the value of education and the model of an educated life. That seems to me to be the stimulus we most urgently need.