David Brooks has published a new column about how we were all better people back in the good old days when we were more religious. I have to admit I'm having trouble getting past Brooks's first anecdote, the key point of which I've highlighted below:
About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, though the family had happily paid for Judd's two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.But how does this anecdote illustrate that? If that's what Judd's father really believed, wouldn't he, instead of encouraging his son to wash dishes to pay for college, have encouraged him not to go to college at all, and to save his soul by being a humble dishwasher for the rest of his life?
His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.
Judd took the train to the university, arrived at the station at 10:30 and by 12:15 had found a job washing dishes at the cafeteria of the Y.M.C.A. He did that job every day of his first year, rising at 6 each morning, not having his first college date until the last week of the school year.
Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963. The anecdote is small, but it illustrates a few things. First, that, in those days, it was possible to work your way through college doing dishes. More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.
In any case, Judd didn't avoid the "morally perilous" -- he became a doctor, a twenty-year member of Congress, and the keynote speaker at the 1960 Republican convention. He was a prominent anti-communist, and he lived long enough to get a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan. A life like that might give a guy a swelled head, don't you think? And thus subject him to moral peril?
Brooks goes on to express nostalgia for a bygone era when we were skeptical about the worth of success. He even gives a shout-out to Depression-era lefty proletarian fiction. But mostly it's religion that's kept us on the righteous path, in his view:
It wasn't as if Americans renounced worldly success (this is America!), but there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man's hierarchy, the artist's hierarchy, the intellectual's hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.Um, you know where they really don't feel any ambivalence about commerce? In the red states, where they denounce liberals as capitalism-bashers and howl at Barack Obama ("You didn't build that!") for challenging the notion of entrepreneur-as-Randian-demigod.
Over the years, religion has played a less dominant role in public culture. Meanwhile, the rival status hierarchies have fallen away. The meritocratic hierarchy of professional success is pretty much the only one left standing.
As a result, people are less ambivalent about commerce....
Now, which are the most religious states in America? And which are the least religious? And how do those rankings line up with the success of that unabashed champion of commerce Mitt Romney?
Mr. Gallup, may I have the envelope, please?
The ten most religious states in America all voted for Mr. Bain Capital. Only one of the ten least religious states (Alaska) voted for him.
And, of course, Rick Perry, probably the most God-bothering governor in America, spends much of his time rubbing other states' noses in the economic success that his state has achieved as a result of high oil prices and a shredded social contract.
Brooks used to think it was perfectly OK that people craved the trappings of wealth -- or maybe he just said that because it was an easy way to bash Democrats who engage in "class warfare":
Americans live in a culture of abundance. They have always had a sense that great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing. None of us is really poor; we're just pre-rich.He also seemed to think that rich people don't really lose their moral bearings -- or maybe he thought that was true only outside the decadent big cities:
Americans read magazines for people more affluent than they are (W, Cigar Aficionado, The New Yorker, Robb Report, Town and Country) because they think that someday they could be that guy with the tastefully appointed horse farm. Democratic politicians proposing to take from the rich are just bashing the dreams of our imminent selves.
Most successful people, like Lincoln, also have a core faith in the moral power of hard work.What happened?
... many of the hard-working people who make up the ranks of the gradually successful are flamboyance vacuums. Often they are far more interested in working and making money than in consuming and spending money. According to research that Thomas J. Stanley did for his book "The Millionaire Next Door," written with William D. Danko, 70 percent of millionaires have their shoes resoled and repaired rather than replaced, and the average millionaire spends about $140 on a pair of shoes, which doesn't get you Guccis. After Visa and MasterCard, the most common credit cards in the millionaire's wallets are charge cards for Sears and J.C. Penney . In that 1996 study, Stanley and Danko reported that the typical millionaire paid $399 for his most expensive suit and $24,800 for his or her most recent car or truck, which is only $3,800 more than what the average American spent.
In other words, they shop the way most Americans shop....
In this, as in so many respects, people who live in Manhattan or Los Angeles or San Francisco or even Dallas have to keep reminding themselves that their experience is not typical. In most places in America, there are no massive concentrations of rich people and hence no Madison Avenue boutiques, no fine art galleries, no personal shoppers. There is just the country club, and certain social pressures to be just this affluent, to prove you are a success, and no more so.
Did we decadent city folk burn down the churches all these Millionaires Next Door used to attend? I don't remember doing that myself, but maybe I was drunk on atheism.