Monday, September 07, 2015


I've noted a couple of times here that Arthur C. Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute, is at least terrible a New York Times op-ed columnist as the better-known Brooks. Both Brookses pretend to dilute conservatism with compassion. Both also like to tell people how to live. Yesterday in the Times, Arthur Brooks's op-ed skills were on full display, as he compassionately hectored readers for their bad life choices:
EVERYONE has heard of the Peter Principle: Managers rise to the level of their incompetence. Today, however, a whole class of hyper-competent Americans will never find their level of incompetence. Instead, they will suffer a similar principle in which they rise to their level of misery....

People generally have a “bliss zone,” a window of creative work and responsibility to match their skills and passions. But then the problems start. Those who love being part of teams and creative processes are promoted to management. Happy engineers become stressed-out supervisors. Writers find themselves in charge of other writers and haranguing them over deadlines. In my years in academia, I saw happy professors become bitter deans, constantly reminiscing about the old days doing cutting-edge research and teaching the classes they loved.

Why don’t people stop rising when they are happy? Because we are built to think that more is better -- more power, authority, money and responsibility. So we incorrectly infer that promotions will equal greater satisfaction.
This has the potential to be an empathetic column -- but Brooks never acknowledges that people might take jobs in which they prove to be unhappy because they could really use the money, or because they live in a society that doesn't respect the non-ambitious. No, for Brooks it's all because "we are built to think" ambition is good, and, later, it's because "People are wired for progress." We're just pathetic automatons who take that raise and promotion because we can't help ourselves.

Did I mention that Arthur Brooks has apparently not experienced this problem himself? He (unlike you, peasant) seems to have risen steadily over the decades without ever exiting the "bliss zone." A professional French horn player in the 1980s, he went on to get degrees in economics and policy analysis. He worked for the RAND Corporation and then taught at Syracuse, writing about subjects such as the relationship between tax rates and charity. He said later of that point in his life, "the whole time I knew I was missing something."

Did he downshift? No. He wrote a book arguing that religious people give more to charity than secular people, and that believers in a government social safety net aren't particularly charitable.

It's possible that he wrote this book in a state of bliss -- or it's possible that he knew what those who could confer bliss by welcoming him into their elite circles wanted to hear. Soon, President George W. Bush was asking for his advice, and what followed were a couple of New York Times bestsellers, the presidency of the American Enterprise Institute (where he makes a salary that, while hardly that of a hedge-funder, puts him solidly in the 1%) -- and, now, he's writing for the Times. In his life, it certainly seems as if "more is better" -- but he still feels entitled to lecture the rest of us not to go for that regional manager job.

How has he managed to rise and sustain his bliss? In the column, he tells us:
I believe that service reduces stress and raises satisfaction because it displaces the object of attention from oneself. When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me. When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention. Adopting a service mind-set guarantees some measure of success.
Ahhh, I see. He feels he's serving humankind. Yes, it must be nice to have presidents and plutocrats seek your counsel because they crave reassurance that their skinflint policies toward the less well off are really in the less well off's best interests.

But some of us can't even aspire to that sort of work. What are we supposed to do? We've been told that our ambitions, unlike Brooks's own, are bad for us. What's our alternative?
... almost any work can be understood as a genuine service job. The type of work is actually less important than the attitude of the worker. This point is illustrated in the parable of a traveler who happened upon stonemasons. When he asked the workers what they were doing, one mason simply replied, “I am making a living.” But another stonemason answered differently: “I am building a cathedral.”
But a lot of us aren't building a cathedral. Some of us are building horrible, gaudy Trump hotels. Some of us are cleaning toilets. (I guess we aspire to supervise toilet cleaners because we're wired to, not because it's a reasonable ambition under the circumstances.)

But perhaps I've misunderstood Brooks's meaning:
Every one of us is building a human cathedral. In our interconnected world and global economy, our work transforms the lives of countless others. Sometimes the impact is obvious: Managers and executives directly inflect their employees’ happiness and career success. But everyone, in every industry, affects the lives of co-workers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, donors or investors. How often do we spend our morning commute thinking consciously about how to make their lives better through our work? What if we made this as routine as our morning coffee?
But what if we're working for a horrible company like Amazon that mandates cruelty to workers? Or what if we're just kept too damn busy with project work to be saints on the job?

It must be easy to feel this way if you're Arthur Brooks. But Brooks has no idea how the other 99% live.


Blackstone said...

Steve,this is one is one your best skewers. I am sure it is due to your selfless service mindset. I bet your stress level has gone down and your personal satisfaction has gone up.

Ten Bears said...

Sounds to me like it was born with a silver spoon firmly implanted up its hindquarters. And of course its notion of "serving humanity" is you and I "serving" its kind.

Yes "it". It isn't human. It is less than human.

Victor said...

The rich - and people who reach certain economic/hierarchical status - are like thoroughbred racehorses. And I'm not just talking about the frequent inbreeding to improve the breed.

They have blinders on to keep them from getting spooked by the other horses in the field.
This keeps them in their own little world, and they don't notice the rest of the field.

Once you reach a certain status, your pressures change. Sure, there still are some. But, between connections you've made and the money you've earned, you don't have as much to worry about if your circumstances change.
Your frat/sorority members will find something for you - if not permanent, then at least until you find something permanent.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald:
'The rich and powerful are different from you and I...'

Ken_L said...

Arthur's about 30 years behind the times. Business schools have been teaching customer-focused management for decades, including the core notion that every job is nothing but a service for either internal or external customers. It's all part of the relentless campaign to create a culture where efficiency and profitability are the universal religion, managers are its priests, and any other belief system is literally unthinkable.

BK said...

Wait, did anyone see the anti-labor billboard about the 15$ min wage in NYC.? S whic is it,conservatives -- are workers supposed to strive, or be lazy? And which do you say they are doing too much of? Make up your fucking minds, so we peasants can do your will, O overlords.

Grung_e_Gene said...

"Serving humankind"????

For the Plutocracy... It's a Cookbook!