Monday, August 31, 2009

A distinct sort of society

Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire David Brooks' ability to turn a phrase, and more. Here is a remarkable summary of aspects of the American character, particularly with regard to the nature of change in our country. My readers from other countries might find that it provides a window into our politics. I think it says a lot about the current debate on health care issues and why a consensus in this complex field is difficult -- for example, why the single payer movement runs into problems, but also why advocates of laissez-faire get little traction. It comes from a column in the New York Times this past weekend.

We in this country have a distinct sort of society. We Americans work longer hours than any other people on earth. We switch jobs much more frequently than Western Europeans or the Japanese. We have high marriage rates and high divorce rates. We move more, volunteer more and murder each other more.

Out of this dynamic but sometimes merciless culture, a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. America’s G.D.P. per capita is nearly 50 percent higher than France’s. But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery.

This culture, this spirit, this system is not perfect, but it is our own. American voters welcome politicians who propose reforms that smooth the rough edges of the system. They do not welcome politicians and proposals that seek to contradict it. They do not welcome proposals that centralize power and substantially reduce individual choice. They resist proposals that put security above mobility and individual responsibility.


StudentGuyManPerson said...

Sure, it is our own and we must take responsibility for it. But the pride placed in this amalgamation of faulty systems, in my opinion, is sorely misplaced and over-esteemed. It's because people don't know or remember that much of the strength America enjoys now was because of the military-industrial complex America had subsidized after the World Wars, which created an enormously successful and abundant country - steeped in manufacturing (before which we were a 2nd rate country who's strength was derived from exploiting various people and ideas). Since then, America has traded (re:lost) much of its manufacturing capacity for the capitalistic consumerism based in the boom-bust industries of real estate and capital investments. Essentially, our economy's strength is contingent on our spending, which (as of late) has been hindered by the recession.
I agree with the last point made (final paragraph) but this insistence by the American people to grasp on a series of broken systems in a storybook-childhood belief in sustaining some personal ideals will be (to say the least) disappointed when Asia, lead by China and followed by Japan (given the recent elections), begins its emergence as a world power. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

REKording said...

A succinct and pithy description that is, as you say Mr. Levy, revealing of the whys of the current debate on health care reform.

StudentGuyManPerson: we have a 16 trillion dollar GDP. We still lead the world in medicine, pharmacology, engineering, software development, media content, aerospace, and, in general, the development of Intellectual Property. While our role in the world is changing, and China is rising to take its rightful place, we are not a failing concern. Our faith is in the wisdom of We, the People, and not in appeal to authority.

StudentGuyManPerson said...

I agree that "faith is in the wisdom of We, the People", but an increasingly uninformed population who rely on limited means of gathering information, coupled with a failing school system, means we will not remain leaders for much longer. Americans fear ideas of "socialism", "big government", etc...without understanding that this establishes fear and a "divide and conquer" situation that does more to further the negative effects of socialism than any public reforms could possibly do and that other countries may take advantage of.
We are currently leaders in all you named, but the US position as a world leader is on shaky ground. Leaders in technology, soft. development, and similar industries will be emerging out of Japan, India, and possibly south Korea. Canada, Russia, China, and the UK are in favorable positions to overtake positions currently occupied by the US if we don't pick up the slack and reinvent ourselves. Gradual change is more realistic, but no change is dangerous.

David said...

American Exceptionalism, especially the parts about individual freedom from an oppressive state and the economic opportunity for anyone to get ahead, is rooted in how and why the nation was founded, and remains a strong part of our self-identity. Those who are culturally predisposed to see these freedoms and opportunities as benefits for the individual laud the virtues of such a social structure. Those culturally predisposed more toward a society that is communal and egalitarian see the flaws. Brooks, to his credit, acknowledges both.

I can not commend strongly enough the power of the Theory of Cultural Cognition to explain these different worldviews, and the increasingly fierce polarized views people take on all sorts of issues as a result. It's well explained at

Anonymous said...

Interesting view here, too:

Sharon said...

Skillful cherrypicking of statistics to prove his point. "America's GDP per capital is nearly 50 percent higher than France's." The conclusion we're supposed to reach is that the U.S. brand of capitalism is more productive and efficient than a country with more of a social safety net (and more emphasis on equality of wealth distribution.)

Left unmentioned by Mr. Brooks: U.S. GDP per capita is 44% lower than Norway's.

Oh, and by the way, if he's using GDP per capita as a statistic to show the effectiveness of government's role in producing economic activity, the top 3 U.S. states in per capital GDP: Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Despite its incredible advantage in natural resources, Alaska and its libertarian Republicanism ranks below New York; and oil-rich Texas is below Vermont.... Read More

What's more interesting to me is the greater ability of U.S. start-ups to grow into major corporations than their European counterparts (as documented in The Economist).

Anonymous said...

I don't think the particular statistics are the point. The point is more along the lines of David's comment, an explanation of that which creates a powerful political dynamic. Sure, some of that dynamic exists in other countries as well, but I think Brook's characterization of its scale and scope as somehow uniquely American has merit.

Engineer on Medicare said...

" . . . a distinct style of American capitalism has emerged. The American economy is flexible and productive. . . . But the American system is also unforgiving. It produces its share of insecurity and misery."

Early in my life I learned a phrase from my father: No work; no eat." There should be a plentiful supply of insecurity and misery for persons able in mind and body who choose not to engage in work that society finds is valuable and productive.

Anyone who wants to "do their own thing" should be free to do so but society should not owe them a living. We don't let people starve or freeze to death but the helping hand should not raise the comfort level to the point where they would rather be on the dole than do meaningful work.

We have reached a point in our society where people put themselves in situations where it is inconvenient for them to work (school dropouts, disqualification by criminal actions, having children without the means or ability to support them) and then expect society to take care of them. Those people need to be able to enjoy the experience of work even if society has to deal with the impediments that keep them from it. They should work even if it means carrying rocks from the south side of the road to the north side, and then back to the south side, while someone else is raising and teaching their children to become productive members of society.

Keith said...

Given the history of our country, it is not suprising to find this aversion to goverment interference in the daily affairs of citizens. After all, msot of our citizenry came here to escape religious or ethnic persecution with the exception of native americans and the african american populations which were enslaved. I am not certain what point Mr Brooks is attempting to make other than to explain the schism that seems to exist in our politics.

Applied to the current health care debate, we presumably have those rugged individuals who do not want the goverment infringing on their freedom of choice opposing the liberal minded, big goverment, profligate spending members of the current majority party. It truly is an argument that I could buy if one accepted that the playing field of the path to success was truly a level one. But alas, the idea of rugged individualism results in great disparities in education and access to health care that make this a more difficult dream to attain. Our society should provide these benefits equitably to its citizens so that all can reach their potential, and only then can the cream rise to the top without so many impediments to success. It is what every other Western civilization does. To constantly point to our GDP as the mark of success should be considered a grave mistake. To my way of thinking there are many other aspects of what makes a great nation, including its wilingness to care for the less fortunate of its members. Is it individulaism or is it greed?

Anonymous said...

I think the point being made is that U.S. society is NOT "every other Western civilization" - hence the contradictions in our attitudes. However, reading the "cutting the dog's hair" post (what an interesting blog!) has me dimly groping toward the doubtfully-unique insight that our health care "system" actually has the worst of both worlds - it is "individual" enough to have created haves and have-nots depending on employment and insurance coverage, and to have inadequate regulation(unlike a European system would); but socialized enough to prevent the natural business pressures from coming to bear and making it function like a true competitive business. So therefore, theoretically we would be better off going further in either direction - more socialized or more business-like. Attempting to straddle the middle like we are doing may be the biggest mistake. Huh - never thought of that. Test my mental model.


Keith said...


Yours is the same thought I have. Either bring the power of a socialized single payer with all its market clout to control health care costs, or do away with insurance, and in the true capitalistic/individulaistic way, make everyone pay for their health care out of their own pocket. Now that would bring some real cost control to the whole medical-industrial complex!

REKording said...

I believe the song "My Way" says it all about the American preference for individualism.

This national debate is a very good thing; we need to listen to each other and compromise. Telling folks they are uneducated no-goodniks unable to think for themselves does not advance a solution. Everybody is at the table; let's make a deal.

Too many think that opposing a single-payer insurance system means you are opposed to government regulation. It does not. Regulation is a proper role of government. Running an insurance company is not. Deciding what care is best for you is not. I prefer a single payer of premiums and a single definition of a universal health policy. See