My Thoughts On “The Age Of Innocence”

David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence is interesting, both for what it says and for what it means.  What it says is that the American political system is broken.  What it means is that even a columnist at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world lacks the gumption to make his point directly.

Rather than simply reaching conclusions about America, Brooks softens his views by addressing both the European and American democratic systems.  Does anyone actually believe there are similarities between these “systems”?  America has been a representative democracy for almost 250 years; Europe still had crowned heads leading it into a bloody war less than 100 years ago.  The balkanized, multi-party, coalition-dependent parliamentary systems in most European countries bear little relation to our two-party system, where nearly every election has a clear winner and loser and a ruling majority results.  Until recently, America had stoutly resisted the European socio-economic model, with its early retirement ages and short work weeks and months of paid vacation.  And no one in their right mind would equate the European Union with our Congress.  The ponderous bureaucrats of the EU will be there forever, impossible to root out; in America, in contrast, voters can easily — as the last three election cycles have shown — toss out incumbents and install new representatives who purportedly will better reflect their views.

Still, Brooks reaches the right conclusion.  America is on the wrong track because people have stopped viewing government as a necessary evil and have come to view it instead as a kind of personal gravy train.  John Kennedy’s stirring statement in his inaugural address — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — has been turned completely on its head.  Many Americans now just want to get government benefits without paying taxes.  They want the government to provide them with jobs, and “loans” that will ultimately be forgiven, and “free” health care.  And our poll-driven “leaders” are perfectly happy to encourage this dependency on government and are too craven to act responsibly, whether it comes to the federal budget or eliminating programs that don’t work well — and in some cases don’t work at all.

Brooks recognizes this.  Why, then, does he create a false equivalence between America and Europe?  I think it’s because simply stating that America is on the wrong track, and our politicians have led us there, requires more guts than he possesses.  He doesn’t want to unnecessarily upset any of the powerful inside-the-beltway types that he hobnobs with, so he writes something that makes it seem as though democracies, generally, are doomed to fail through the sheer force of greedy human nature.  That conclusion makes the bitter pill a lot easier to swallow:  it’s no one’s fault, really.

I strongly disagree with that.  America has been, is, can be, and should be different from Europe.  Our failure is the failure of political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — who want to hold on to the reins of power and have pandered to the worst instincts of people and corporations and interest groups rather than saying “no” and even requiring sacrifice.

Europe is probably doomed; with America, though, there is still hope.  We just need some leaders who will fight to get us back on the right track, rather than throwing up their hands and concluding that we and Europe are on the road to hell together.  It would help, too, if we had journalists who were willing to state that conclusion, sharply and plainly, as journalists are supposed to do.  One of the reasons our politicians have gotten away with their behavior is that the news media has for the most part failed to call them out for their irresponsibility.

Answering Andrew’s Request

Our bright and gifted nephew and godson, Andrew, put up a Facebook post stating that the David Brooks’ column The Age of Innocence in the New York Times was “great fodder for Webner House.”  I agree.

In fact, I’d like to try a kind of experiment with Andrew’s suggestion that we really haven’t done before — at least, not intentionally.  Anyone who reads our blog knows that the Webner House posters approach issues from very different parts of the political spectrum.  We frequently disagree on things, but try to do so reasonably and respectfully.  Therefore, I’d like to invite Richard, Russell, UJ, and Uncle Mack to post their own views on the David Brooks column, and then see what Andrew’s thoughts are in response.

As we move closer to the election, there undoubtedly will be other issues where we might want to take the temperature of our contributors, just to see how the far-flung branches of the Webner clan are reacting.  I think everyone, regardless of their political inclination, believes that this election will be a very important one.  Our little discussions can be like family talks at the kitchen table after dinner — except that our table will be the Webner House blog, accessible to anyone who is interested.  I’ll post my thoughts on the David Brooks column later tonight.

No Surveys, No More

One of the more annoying developments in modern American shopping is this:  you can’t buy something anymore without somebody asking you to take a survey.

Usually the scenario is as follows.  You buy a product, and at the cash register the clerk hands you the ridiculously long receipt and points out the website address that is printed there.  S/he asks you to go to the website when you get home to take a “short survey” (“it won’t take more than five minutes”) so the store “can provide you with better service in the future.”  Sometimes the clerks ask you to give them a favorable mention, by name, when you complete the survey. And, of course, if you do so you might win some kind of prize — like a gift certificate to the same store.

Do any consumers actually go home and complete the requested survey?  Other than shoving knitting needles up my nostrils, it’s hard for me to come up with things that I would less like to do than take a survey where I provide a store with personal information in exchange for nothing — and do so at the expense of my valuable downtime.

When I’m at home, every moment is precious, to be hoarded like a miser’s stash of gold and spent carefully.  I resent it when stores act like my time is so worthless that I would eagerly go home to give a store marketing data that it can sell and rave about the kid who rang up my transaction.