Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 September 2010

Cheap Culture


During the last decade or so, human-development scientists have discovered one of the most important determinants of individual success. Take a two- or three-year-old child able to understand language. Sit the child in a chair with a table and a bowl. Put a piece of candy in the bowl. Then tell the child, “I’m leaving the room but will be back in a few minutes. If the piece of candy is still in the bowl, I’ll give you another. If you’ve already eaten it, that’s all you’ll get.”

There’s now been enough time to study how children who react differently to that simple test fare later in life. Those who wait to get the second piece of candy do better on every measure of success: intelligence, marriage, economic advancement, and lifetime earnings.

What this study tests has different names. Some call it “delayed gratification,” some “emotional control.” Others call it “discipline.” Today we might call it “planning ahead.” Our Founders might have called it “prudence and moderation.” Just for shorthand, let’s call it “second-piece waiting.”

Scientists still don’t know whether second-piece waiting is genetic or cultural, inbred or learned. Since it appears very early in childrens’ character, it must have a genetic component. In fact, very recent tests show that some chimpanzees have it, too. Maybe it’s part of what makes us human. It’s easy to see how that trait could confer an evolutionary advantage, especially among social animals competing in groups.

We Americans used to have it, lots of it. If anyone can train children to wait for the second piece of candy, the Pilgrims must have. They endured decades of hardship and persecution in Europe, a months-long sea voyage in miserable conditions, and yet more decades scraping a living from wilderness with winters colder and longer than any they had known. Many suffered, sickened and died. But those who persevered built our nation.

The pioneers were much the same. They crossed a huge continent on foot or horseback. They contended with strange and sometimes dangerous wildlife and sometimes hostile natives. But they persevered, building a new life out of wilderness, all the while waiting for that second piece of candy.

That spirit lasted about two centuries. Thanks to Providence, our Greatest Generation had it too. Many were sleeping in small-town isolation when called to the most brutal war in human history. But they went, uncomplaining. With brilliant organization from leaders who knew how wait for that second piece, they beat the Great Depression and two of the most formidable military dictatorships ever devised. Then, with the patience of Job, they waited again for over forty years—all the while under threat of nuclear annihilation—until the Cold War’s end.

How we lost that spirit in just two generations is a puzzle that historians, social psychologists, and anthropologists will ponder for as long as our species exists. But nothing today is as clear as that loss.

We have the lowest savings rate in the developed world. We don’t invest—except for the quick kill. We let our infrastructure decay to the point where it will take a $2.2 trillion dollar investment just for maintenance. We no longer build. During most of the last century, the world’s tallest buildings were here. Yet for the last several decades they have oscillated between Asia and the Middle East. After nearly a decade, we’re still fighting over what to build at Ground Zero, and whether a cultural center with an Islamic prayer room can rise a few blocks away.

Our present predicament stems directly from our first-piece grabbing. We destroyed our economy and most of the world’s because we wanted to have grand homes before we could afford them. It doesn’t matter whether you blame the government accomplices (Fannie and Freddie), the bank accomplices (and predators), or the homeowners who took out loans they couldn’t repay. Every one of them grabbed the first piece of candy without a thought to the future. It was a society-wide failure of longer-term thinking.

Now our electorate is reportedly set to punish a federal executive that has been in office for less than twenty months. Why? Because he hasn’t solved problems that we all know took decades in the making.

Our farming forebears once knew that is, at most, three planting cycles. They wouldn’t expect big changes in that short a time. But we no longer have the patience of our Pilgrims, pioneers, farming forbears, or Greatest Generation. We no longer wait for results; we want them now. Corporate executives who have a bad quarter we show the door. We trade stocks of real businesses by the microsecond, just to get an evanescent advantage over rivals. People who wait decades for anything we see as suckers.

We don’t give all our children a first-class education anymore. We don’t make things; we “serve.” The vast majority of our economy involves transient services, which we aggrandize as “post-industrial.” Why? Because services are here and now; they don’t take time to build.

And they’re hard to compare and assess. If you practice law, you lose a case and move on. If you’re a “motivational speaker,” your “clients” never call you out if their lives or businesses later fail. Services are risk-free, the greatest boon to a first-piece grabber. In contrast, if you make cars and produce an Edsel, you suffer for years. We no longer have the stomach for doing hard things that might fail; we want that first juicy piece.

Modern religion is an accomplice. In its original form, every major religion on Earth taught second-piece waiting. You live a lifetime of good deeds on Earth. Then—and only then—you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (or have a better incarnation in the next life). Bliss was a reward for waiting for that second piece of candy.

Now we have all kinds of shortcuts. Preachers with huge electronic audiences declare, “Jesus wants you to be rich.” Fundamentalists think “End Times” are near, so you have to wait only a few years. If you like, you can even hurry the “Rapture” along by provoking Israel and Iran to create Armageddon right here on Earth, right now.

Relgious first-piece grabbers aren’t confined to the United States. What else are Islamist “martyrs,” who seek to enter Islamic Heaven early by killing themselves and slaughtering innocents—even other Muslims—whose fates be damned? If the truth be told, the mental gap between a suicide bomber and a car buyer on credit who knows he cannot pay is only a matter of degree. Both are avid first-piece grabbers.

The consequence of our own loss of long-term thinking is a culture of cheapness. If you grab that first piece of candy, you don’t get another. If you buy your clothes and furniture at Wal-Mart, you don’t have to wait until you can afford better; but you don’t get the best.

You also don’t get to build an industry at home that can make things dearer but better. Our auto industry nearly died pandering to first-piece grabbers. It just may be learning—and teaching its customers—that quality is worth waiting for.

Our best pundits, including Nobel-Prize winner Paul Krugman, scream for sanctions against China’s “currency manipulation.” Why? Because of our huge trade imbalance. Just adjust the currency exchange rates, they think, and the consequences of thirty years of first-piece grabbing will just disappear.

Would it were so simple! Japan and Germany don’t seem to have the same problem with China. Why? Because they take the time and effort to make things of quality that the whole world sees. They take the time to produce first-class wares that China can’t yet produce and charge more. We just grab the first piece of candy and complain that it’s sour.

First-piece grabbing now has permeated our entire society. It’s gotten so bad that people my age hardly recognize our country.

It’s not just consumers who built up debt to buy what they couldn’t afford. It’s the banks who packaged that debt for the quick fix of a bonus or stock rise. It’s not just our military-industrial-complex, that went into wars with too few troops and failed to equip them with body armor and vehicles invulnerable to IEDs. Its Big Pharma, which wants blockbuster drugs without paying the price of proper testing and the frequent failures that real innovation requires. It’s doctors and radiologists, who want to make a financial killing by doing procedures and making tests without careful evaluation of their medical necessity, costs and benefits. Its teachers and administrators who teach to the test and forget about educating the children in their charge. Its businesses that build appliances, computers and cell-phones that you don’t fix; you just throw them away when you tire of them or when a newer model comes out.

In English, the word “cheap” means both “inexpensive” and “tawdry.” Our culture has become both. We entertain ourselves by watching untrained, undisciplined amateurs embarrass themselves on screen. Then we distract ourselves momentarily by lauding the one-in-a-million rare talent or gossiping about the private lives of tortured professionals. Our youth make “friends” on Facebook in milliseconds, counting their friends’ value by their number, never learning how a single true friend can enhance an entire life. Friendship becomes as disposable as an obsolete cell phone.

The ultimate cheapener, of course, is Twitter. By broadcasting every mental fart, we cheapen the wisdom handed down to us, as well as our own better insights. Everything of value gets lost in a whiteout of trivia. My mental image of a Twitterer will always be someone having a difficult bowel movement. “Turd number two is coming out. Thoughts?”

We do, of course, still have people who wait for the second piece of candy. One of them is our President, whom we elected for that very reason but might not give the time to finish the job.

Far more numerous are those in our ruling class. Increasingly rare, they believe in their bones that their second-piece waiting makes them a superior species. Understandably, they have little respect for the cheap culture to which they have wittingly or unwittingly contributed.

Why? They didn’t do it for us, the nation, or our species. They did it for themselves and their families. They live in a different world, one made for those who wait. They have all that wealth can buy in the modern world. Their multiple residences don’t leak and are full of timeless, original art. Their cars runs smoothly and well. Their clothes last for years and can be changed on a whim.. They believe their discipline and hard work entitled them to riches and to rule. Compared to most of the rest of us, they might be right.

But soon four things may conspire to destroy their world as well. First, we have too few of them. In the long run, a culture dominated by first-piece grabbers cannot survive, let alone compete with disciplined cultures like China’s, Germany’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s. The patient among us may find the rest of society dissolving right out from under them. Or their children may have to emigrate to find a place where second-piece waiters have critical mass.

Second, modern feudalism has its dangers. Gated communities can only make gates so strong. Popular discontent among the first-piece grabbers can explode unexpectedly. The resulting revolution may be economic, social or bloody. The Tea Mob is just a tiny, pale precursor to what might happen in a decade or two, if present trends continue.

Third, modern society is interdependent in so many ways. Poverty can enter the ruling class’ homes secretly and undetected. A suffering nurse or gardener can spread a grave disease. An attractive loser can entice a child into drink or drugs, get a daughter pregnant, or infect a son with HIV. A presumably loyal hireling can turn out to be an enemy, even a secret agent or assassin.

That brings us to the final and greatest casualty of first-piece grabbing: trust. We are social animals. In better cultures and on better days, trust lets us work together enthusiastically. In less pleasant times and cultures, cooperation requires coercion, economic or physical. The difference between Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia and Western democracies is mostly trust, which (in the latter) runs both ways.

When you have a society of second-piece waiters ruling first-piece grabbers, there can be no trust. There will always be envy, misunderstanding, deception, and resentment, often both ways. So it was in Dickensian England and in our own slave era. So it may be here again, as economic bondage morphs into a new feudalism, with the corporate CEO replacing the landed lord. The new feudalism may be even worse, for the old feudal lords felt an obligation, absent today, to protect and maintain their vassals.

It’s hard to know which way things will go here. Our culture is so rotten, and our media so assiduously promote the rottenness. Fox Propaganda is not the only culprit. We may already be too far gone.

But there are admirable cultures of second-piece waiters. China is becoming one. So, it appears, is Germany. South Korea is already there; as long as the Kim Dynasty doesn’t prevent, it will be a global example for the foreseeable future. So will the overseas Chinese in our own country, whose children are replacing earlier immigrants’ in our finest universities because they study hard and know what’s important. They turn to American Idol, Facebook or Twitter only when the serious work of learning is done, or not at all.

In the long sweep of human history, culture is king. Our Constitution is just a piece of paper. If our ruling class neglects its values, or fails to adapt them to the intervening two centuries, nothing in that document can save us from historical irrelevance.

Today, no dispassionate observer can view our culture with unvarnished admiration—whether in the highest councils of our government or corporations or the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. As our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved beyond dispute, changing culture is harder than making war or winning elections. And we haven't even begun.


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