David Brooks’ column in the New York Times (online, 13 July 2012) reflects his usual desire to see politics and high finances in the light of ethical concerns. I appreciate that quality in his writing.
In July he wrote: “If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.”
Our most powerful political and economic leaders are mere brats? Seems a realistic assessment to me, but there is something deeper going on here. These people are merely the temporary winners in a game of power, a game whose rules have been set by more subtle forces.
In order to understand the rules and their origins we need to think of the broader values which have risen to the top of the American psyche. Certainly greed and self-centeredness, once considered vices, are now seen as virtuous, even while they are eating away the American soul.
How did we get here? The answer, of course, is more complex than any one person or study can grasp. Certain factors, though, are easy enough to see.
One, after the period of Depression and World War Two, the world of business and management became dominant in our culture. Robert Bellah’s excellent book, Habits of the Heart (Harper & row, 1985), explicates this theme well. See chapter two, “Culture and Character,” for example.
The rise of television gave marketers and advertisers a far more powerful tool than they had available before the War. They used that power not merely to push the products of their clients but, more broadly, to inculcate a set of values centered on consumption. Neil Postman and Christopher Lasch have explored aspects of this.
Political decisions unleashing capitalism, based on the poorly founded belief that “The Market” provides all the ethical guidance we need, allowed enormous rewards for greed, manipulation, deception.
The American Dream of becoming a solidly established citizen with a cohesive family and a good home became transformed by the belief that American wealth is so great that we can all get everything we want without compromise.
A slogan used a few years ago by Dell Computers put it simply, Accept no limits. That is utter nonsense, of course, because even their computers have severe limits to speed, memory, and even to the kinds of tasks they can do. Nonetheless, the advertisers know that appealing to greed is an effective way to sell products.
In today’s newspaper (St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 24, 2012) one writer praises the Toyota Yaris – which is one small step above the defunct Yugo – as being a car with “no compromises.” Utter nonsense.
No wonder in American life we no longer remind ourselves that “we can’t have our cake and eat it, too.” Our old maxims applied to a time when greed was still considered a problem.
Now that we approve of greed, it is more of a problem than ever.