Friday, August 15, 2008

A Culture of Responsibility

Today's New York Times features a front page story about the decisions that were made by banks to promote the widespread use of home equity loans. Citibank - currently drowning in an ocean of bad loans - is shown to have adopted the advertising jingle "Live Richly." Appealing in a period when every house had to feature faux aristocratic decorator touches (courtesy of convicted criminal, Martha Stewart), two story entrance halls that demanded a thermostat set at 90, and three car garages to house the Hummers and SUVs, such advertising campaigns appealed to a ready audience primed to spend without worrying overly about the ability to pay back, much less save for the future.

This article - perhaps true of the editorial slant of the New York Times - suggests that a good deal of the blame for the culture of debt lies at the feet of the banks who underwrote massive personal debt on easy terms. Its author writes, "No long ago, such loans, which used to be known as second mortgages, were considered the borrowing of last resort, to be avoided by all but people in dire financial straits. Today, these loans have become universally accepted, their image transformed by ubiquitous ad campaigns from banks." Nothing marks a liberal from a conservative (both, so-called) than the assigning of blame for such a transformation. For the liberal, the blame lies with the corporations, or more generally, "society" (e.g., crime, single-motherhood, poverty, etc.); for the conservative, the responsiblity lies with individuals. Much follows from the distinction.

Recently David Brooks returned to a theme he'd visited earlier - "the culture of debt" - to argue against both these positions and instead suggest a "conservative Burkean or liberal communitarian" attentiveness to culture. He wrote, "This third position begins with the notion that people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them."

Brooks's attentiveness to culture is laudable, but in the end he shows the paucity of his understanding of the sources of culture. Seeking to acknowledge the place of the liberal position, he notes that government is doing its part to reassert cultural norms (presumably by infusing massive dollars into the likes of Bear Stearns, Fannie May and Freddie Mac, and our pockets in the form of "tax rebates"). However, he ultimately notes the need for individuals to change their behavior, arguing that "the most important shifts will be private."

The problem with Brooks's analysis - for all its merits - reflects more broadly the paucity of the contemporary liberal and conservative worldviews. For liberals, solutions lie with government policy. For conservatives, they lie in encouraging individual responsibility. Both tend to neglect the cultural backdrop in which public policy or individual decisions are made. They especially neglect the necessary institutions and community practices (including visibility, an active vigilance against a kind of effective invisibility) that reinforce norms that might chasten our temptation toward self-seeking and individual gratification. Liberals and conservatives alike share the classically liberal distaste for the limitations that communities might exert upon individual choice, particularly sexual (in the case of liberals) or commercial (in the case of conservatives). Each is complicit not only in a culture that has encouraged massive indebtedness of the sort explored in these articles and columns, but more widely a culture that more generally neglectful of the future.

A decisive break with cultural institutions that sought to restrain excesses of individual self-seeking - communal and religious norms especially - has made us lose sight of an important fact that was evident to those cultures. There is not an even playing field on the "battlefield" between individual choice and communal good. What most cultures have always recognized is that the fact of our individual corporality - our embodiedness as separate creatures - means that the fact of our individual gratification will always be more evident and obvious to us. Only with great difficulty can that most obvious and even instinctive urge toward self-seeking be chastened. While it is true that we also exhibit an instinctive love for children, as creatures that manipulate our natural world we can too easily take for granted that particular instinct without due regard for the ways we can actively seek to avoid responsibility for children or even seek to avoid procreation altogether. Our current culture of childlessness confirms that we are creatures uniquely capable of pursuing self-interest to its illogical conclusion.

True to his "conservative" convictions, Brooks suggests that our current debt crisis will be self-correcting - as in the Great Depression or following the dot-com bubble (!!), we will reinstitute the cultural norms that encourage frugality and responsibility. Keeping with Brooks's basic pollyanish optimism, even the bad signs are good. It's remarkable that Brooks can suggest that the popping of the bubble could be interpreted as evidence of a cultural chastening, rather than as one of a near-continuous chain of bubbles that have continually inflated one another. If the Great Depression represented anything, it was the persistence of pre-modern cultural patterns that were able to reassert themselves in the midst of terrible want and deprivation. Neighborhoods and family ties were largely intact (Ronald Reagan's father lost his job and was assisted by neighbors. And, thereafter, the New Deal. Those neighborhoods ceased to exist, many under the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Morning in America usually meant that it was moving day, time to leave the neighborhood for the exurbs that Brooks adores). Those networks and ties, experienced daily and directly, and their capacity to reinforce communal norms have been eviscerated.

We use the word "culture" with great ease and familiarity. Popular culture, Culture Club, multiculturalism - and so on - trip from the tongue without a true accounting for the profound challenges and constant assaults that any culture must weather. Rather than seeking to shore up what we inherited, we collectively disassembled most of what remained during the great build-out following World War II. In half a century's time we largely undid what generations had built. If indeed we now face a time of rebuilding, it's to be wondered whether anyone has enough knowledge of how to put together what was so easily taken apart.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Nice to see you back.

brierrabbit said...

Great to see you back! Love your insights, and commentary. You make me think.

Anonymous said...

Nice to have you back. My peak oil "novel" After the Crash addresses some of these culture issues - wish you'd comment on it.

Unknown said...

Very good post. Thanks for this.