Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: March 12, 2011

David Brooks: Mixing apples and oranges

David Brooks has a column today in which he talks about how people in the US see themselves in relationship with how other people in the world view themselves.  As  you might expect, Americans have a tendency to be a bit taken with themselves.  For instance:

We’re an overconfident species. Ninety-four percent of college professors believe they have above-average teaching skills. A survey of high school students found that 70 percent of them have above-average leadership skills and only 2 percent are below average.

Note where the two examples originate.

Moving on:

Americans are similarly endowed with self-esteem. When pollsters ask people around the world to rate themselves on a variety of traits, they find that people in Serbia, Chile, Israel and the United States generally supply the most positive views of themselves. People in South Korea, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and Morocco are on the humble side of the rankings.

Not the key word (“self-esteem”).

Yet even from this high base, there is some evidence to suggest that Americans have taken self-approval up a notch over the past few decades. Start with the anecdotal evidence. It would have been unthinkable for a baseball player to celebrate himself in the batter’s box after a home-run swing. Now it’s not unusual. A few decades ago, pop singers didn’t compose anthems to their own prowess; now those songs dominate the charts.

American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.

We’ve talked about this before.  The “my precious” syndrome – where every little munchkin under the sun is told everything he or she does is special and wonderful and that they are just a unique special person who just can’t do anything wrong.  This has spawned sports games with no score, baseball leagues where everyone gets a trophy, and everyone is as talented, smart, able and unique as anyone else.

Except that’s not true at all.  And most of us know that.  Much of it is fostered upon children in the schools where we see them go overboard to ensure that every student feels his or her work is extraordinary even when most of it is, at best, adequate.   We’ve come to believe that it is more important to shelter most kids from the reality of their mediocrity than to challenge them to overcome it.

And that has a tendency to shape behavior and attitudes like those reflected above.  

The institution of education isn’t the only entity to contribute to this syndrome, obviously many parents are on board too.  And they buy into the premise that it is okay to hide reality from kids because, well, they’re kids and it hurts them to realize they aren’t super-stars.

The two results of that are overindulged children who do have talent feeling the need and having the permission (given how they’ve been encouraged in their short lives) to act out as the baseball player does in the batter’s box.  

The other result is when the less talented kid’s brittle self-esteem meets reality and shatters like a window pane hit by a rock.  They’re not emotionally prepared for that reality because it’s been hidden from them and when it finally is sprung upon them, the results can be devastating.   The “my precious” syndrome fosters emotional immaturity that unfortunately retards the development of kids who’ve been raised as such. 

However, even the talented who act out as the baseball player does will eventually meet with a dose of reality.  The next time he steps into the batter’s box he can count on being hit somewhere other than in the bat.  If he is smart he will learn quickly not to do something like that.  He may be “my precious” among his intimate circle but outside of it he’s a show off deserving of a lesson.  And he usually gets it.


In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.

Writers like Twenge point out that young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit. Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen.

Exactly right.  However, that doesn’t mean or lead to this:

Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.

Perhaps the enlargement of the self has also attenuated the links between the generations. Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations. But no generation has done it as freely as this one. Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.

It’s possible, in other words, that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.

Did you understand all of that and how he’s trying to tie the “my precious” syndrome with the fiscal mess we’re in today?  Do you agree that there is an unwillingness to support the sacrifices necessary to avert fiscal catastrophe tied to the self-esteem mess?  Is this “enlargement of self” the reason we’ve gotten into the position we’re in and are likely to stay there?  Have we undergone a fundamental shift in values?

Well, if we have, much of it comes from those 94% of college professors who think they have above average teaching skills – and all the answers.

OK, I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Obviously I don’t buy into the belief  that says we must praise every mediocre thing little Johnny does as “special” and “wonderful.”  I also don’t believe that problem has fundamentally changed American culture or how American’s view citizenship.   Michael Barone wrote a book called “Hard America, Soft America” in which he details pretty successfully how we manage to reorient victims of the “my precious” syndrome.   The few that slip through the cracks, unfortunately, are usually talented in some way or the other.   And because they’re talented, they’re indulged to a far greater degree than others (take our current president for example).  At some point we all meet with “hard America”, i.e. reality – no matter how special someone has been told they are or how talented they think they are, there are limits to how far that will take you. 

The bratty baseball player learns not to celebrate in the batters box when he gets tired of getting cracked ribs after every time he does.  Hard America.  The stud athlete who was an indulged college star finds he’s just an average player, for the most part, when he steps onto the NFL field for the first time.  Hard America.  The kid who was told he was tough finds out what it is to become a member of the team in basic training and AIT, or washes out to his eternal shame.  Hard America.  The child who was told how smart he is and how everything he does is wonderful fails his college entrance tests because his effort falls short of the unforgiving and unmovable mark.  Hard America.

We have a culture that handles that part fine.  And has for years.   Our literature is full of stories of the pampered and indulged child who finally meets up with the real world and learns how it works and what he has to do to be a part of it.  I don’t think that has changed significantly.  But I don’t see that as a reason for what is going on today politically.

While there may be a cultural reason for what is happening, I think it is more along the line of our culture not knowing how to handle politics or politicians who have indulged themselves (in your name and, supposedly “for you”) with your money.  And there’s a reason for that.  Until the ‘70s or so, we didn’t have to worry about it.  For the most part, our political culture matched our national culture. 

But then something happened.  Not to the overall American culture, regardless of what Brooks tries to paint in the beginning of his article, but with the political culture.  A dramatic shift in both focus, priority and power took place.   The focus changed from a government focused mostly on protecting us and our rights to one that believed it was the purpose of government to engineer our lives and grant us “rights” and indulge them.  We went from equal opportunity for all to social justice.   And to do that the government needed power and money.  Because that change of focus was very gradual and sounded benign, we mostly ignored it and went on with our lives. 

The fiscal crisis changed all that.  All of a sudden people who hadn’t given government a second thought for most of their lives were forced to take a look at what these successive generations of politicians had done over the intervening decades.

And, for the most part we realized that’s not the government we want.  But we haven’t really figured out how to change that.  So this isn’t so much a denial of the need to sacrifice by the citizenry as it is anger about being in the position we’re in because we made the mistake of trusting those in power to do the right thing and they didn’t.    It is also discovering, for a good portion of the population, just what a mess we’re in.

It’s also frustration.

What we haven’t figured out yet in Hard America is how to teach the the lesson that needs to be learned by our politicians and government(s).  Yeah, we can fire politicians and replace them, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem.  Crack the ribs of the bratty ball player and he either learns the lesson or he suffers it again.  At some point though, he’ll modify his behavior.

Whose ribs do we crack to modify the behavior of our political system? How do we cause enough pain to force behavioral change?  It is that answer our citizenry seems to be searching for.  Witness the three past wave elections. 

Brooks, I think, interprets that search for a solution to modifying governmental behavior as a refusal to make sacrifices.  It is instead an electorate that has just been awakened to a huge problem and is casting around for a compromise solution.  That’s why you get mixed messages in polls.  They say overwhelmingly that spending must be cut, programs must be eliminated, etc.  But then you hear, but they don’t want to give up this or that.

That’s simply the process of deciding what government should actually be, something most of the citizenry hasn’t worried about for decades.   Suddenly, their worried.

So no, Mr. Brooks, this isn’t a result of the inflated view of ourselves some of us have, or the result of the “my precious” syndrome, it’s an awakening.  And it is an awakening that has just begun, is disorganized and is still finding its legs.  Hopefully it is one which will snatch us back from the abyss to which our so-called leaders have led us.  Hopefully we’ll figure out a way to crack the ribs of the system enough to modify its behavior and put it back on the right track. 

Because I think we’ve all realized that if we don’t, it won’t matter how much or how little we think of ourselves once we fall off that cliff our politicians have put us on, that just won’t matter very much.


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