Arthur C. Brooks – Bringing America Together
Articles,  Blog

Arthur C. Brooks – Bringing America Together


– What do we do about this deep political polarization problem? That’s what I wanna
talk about today. I think that the title that
we put on the lecture is “How to Bring America
Together”, right, and one of the points
I’m gonna make is that we all can be
part of the experience and the project of bringing
America back together again, and it doesn’t matter if you’re
on the left or the right. I wanna talk about
some principles that transcend your
particular political views and indeed should make
us want to come together, especially because
we don’t agree. Crazy idea, right?
It sounds sort of idealistic, but if I do my
job, you’re going to understand what I believe should be the
philosophical underpinnings for what all of us think
would be the best country, and then we can
disagree about the means while coming together to try
to hit these philosophic wins. Okay, that required
me, over the past year, to come up with a
couple of commitments toward my own work that
I’m gonna make to you. Number one is the philosophical
commitment toward progress. The second is the stylistic and the communications
commitment toward respect, and those are the two
topics I’m gonna cover in the next 25 minutes. Okay, so first of
all, philosophically. Now, any time you have a
big problem in a country, you’re not gonna make
very much progress unless you can identify, you can ascertain the
root of the problem, okay? So if you look at pundits
and political analysts, they’ll say America’s
really angry, and there’s a lot
of populism and … What’s the problem? That’s just basically
describing the circumstances, which is not that interesting. What’s the problem that
leads to the current level of polarization and the
level of political populism that we see today? Here’s what I offer to you as
an economist is the problem. When you see a recession,
like we’re seeing today, it’s a financial
markets recession, and we’ve seen them
all throughout history. And what they don’t
have in common with ordinary recessions is that the country never
comes back very quickly or nearly from a normal
recession like the dot-com bust in 2001 or Black Tuesday
in 1987 or whatever. It’s usually one or two
years before the country and the economy really
starts coming back. Financial market crises
take 10 years, alright? Now this is something
that critics of the current president
have never gotten right. The critics of the current
president say look, if we had good policies,
we’d be cooking as an economy right now. That’s wrong, okay. Now, it doesn’t mean that we
shouldn’t have better policies. I don’t like a lot of the
policies we have in Washington. We could be doing
better than we are, but it’s not right that we’d
be all good and all normal. The data say that we
could have Milton Friedman as President of the
United States today, and that would be
good by the way, (audience laughing) but we still wouldn’t be
back to where we were. We would still be suffering from a certain
amount of recession. All the data show very
clearly that it takes eight, 10, 12, even 15 years after
a financial markets crisis for a country to come back, and furthermore,
here’s biggest problem: you have insufficient
growth, but you have asymmetric growth.
That’s the biggest problem after a financial market crisis. What does that mean? That’s, you know,
wonky, economics talk. It’s uneven. So
what have we seen? Since 2008, since fall of
2008, the bottom eighty percent of the American
economic distribution
has had zero percent income growth. Zero percent.
All of the income growth in the United States over the
past eight years, has occurred in the top twenty percent
of the income distribution. So think about what that
means, as an economist, you know, I go on TV and they
say “What’s the growth rate going to be this year?”, and
I say “Two and a half percent, slow but steady.”,
right? That’s a lie. Basically, what we have is two economic growth rates
in America today. For the top twenty percent,
there’s a five percent economic growth rate, effectively.
I mean, you can’t measure it like this, but this is
effectively what’s going on. The top twenty percent has
a five percent growth rate, and the bottom
eighty percent has a zero percent growth rate. So, economists have been
saying “we’ve been out of the recession for a long
time”, and ordinary citizens are saying “no we’re
not”, and both are right. That’s the paradox that we face. It’s a paradox of information,
and a paradox of experience and when people don’t
recognize that people get angry and you get populism and
that’s where we are today. When I was a kid,
what percentage of able-bodied,
non-institutionalized,
men were out of the work force? You
know what that means is, men, this is a demographic
characteristic, between twenty to sixty-four, not in the
military, not in prison. Alright, what percentage
of those men were idle? The answer was seven percent. What is it today?
Eighteen percent. What percentage of men,
today, are actually necessary in family life?
Necessary, as fathers? You know, this is,
these are questions that don’t have answers that any
of us like, no matter what our ideology is. This is not
just about men, by the way. It’s difficult to find
areas of public life, today, of American life
today, where people in the bottom twenty percent
of the income distribution are more necessary
than they were. In the mid 1960s, with
the best of intentions, the United States put
together the war on poverty, and the Great Society
programs. Fantastic. I mean, if you read the
address of President Johnson, to kick off these programs,
it’s inspirational, and it’s aspirational,
and every one of us would agree with every single word. Well, what happened? The country got
good at helping, and the country got bad at
needing. Our job is to think “what can we do with the
education system, what can we do with the economic
system, what can we do with the tax system, what can we
do with the welfare system, that doesn’t just help,
that needs people more.” That’s commitment number one. Commitment number one–two,
is how we talk about it. You know, the polarization
problem I talked about a little bit earlier, you
know, people describe it as a problem of anger.
Everybody is so angry, anger. That’s actually wrong. As
a psychological matter, the problem today is
not anger in America, polarization is not
a problem of anger, it’s a problem of contempt. Contempt is a distinct
psychological phenomenon. Anger leads to resolution,
or nearly anger flares up and anger goes away,
and there’s resolutions. A natural resolution of anger. There’s no resolution
to contempt. Contempt is the belief in
the utter worthlessness of the other. It is
kind of crazy, isn’t it? You know, how we’ve
gotten to the point of holding each other in
contempt because we have different political views.
So that, the question is, what do we do when
we feel contempt? ‘Cause you know what? I
feel contempt all the time. I don’t like the policies
of the government. A lot of the policies of
our current politicians. You know I dream of all
these new, bad policies coming out of the
regulatory state. Then I get up and open up
The Washington Post, and it turns out what the
administration did was worse than my dreams every night. And what do I feel? I
feel contempt! Right? But I can’t show that because
then I’m part of the problem. So what do I do instead? What
do I recommend to you, when you feel contempt because
you think that somebody is saying something so
politically stupid. I’ve been thinking
about this for awhile, and I have a very
special relationship. I have a wonderful teacher,
and somebody I work with, very closely, is the Dalai Lama. And, you know, I went to
him, you know, I asked him the question of what do I
do when I feel contempt. That’s a guy who
should feel contempt. 1959, teenager, he gets
kicked out of Tibet by the Chinese government,
at the end of a rifle. Basically saying that you
cannot practice your religion, sent into exile with the
Tibetan people, to be forgotten because they’re poor. You
know, six million of them and they’re poor. To
be forgotten forever. Right? Turns out he’s the
most respected religious figure in the world today,
right? So who’s laughing now? But the Dalai Lama, if anybody
is going to feel contempt it’s gonna be him.
So I asked him. “Your Holiness, what should
I do when I feel contempt?” and he said,
“Practice compassion. Practice warmheartedness.
Be kind instead.” And I thought, “Ugh!” You
know, that’s kind of like a random…warm thought.
Give me something I can use, Your Holiness. Then I
thought about it, I thought, “That’s what he does!” You
know, he literally wakes up every–and I mean, like
him or dislike him, I mean I have a lot of friends
in China who think he’s on the wrong track,
a guy, right? But, he wakes up every day,
and the first thing he does is to pray for the
Chinese leadership. He practices warmheartedness
when he feels contempt. Okay, there’s a long
philosophical and psychological tradition of displacement
of certain views with other views on purpose. If
you believe you’re not a slave to your emotions, if you believe
that you are a true master of yourself, you can do
that. You can do that. I started thinking about it,
I started trying to do that. And I remembered something
that happened to me a few years ago that really
helped me, and I’m gonna tell you about it.
This was serendipity. I did the right
thing by accident. When I felt contempt I
accidentally practiced warmheartedness. I’m gonna
tell you what happened. So, it was 2006, and my
first commercial book had come out. I’d written
a lot of books as an academic but they
were all really boring and nobody ever read them.
But I wrote this first commercial book, and it was
very academic too, I mean it was quantitative and had
an appendix full of numbers and it had a lot of math in it. But it hit the cycle of
the news in just a really weird way, and it happens
to college professors sometimes. I was just working
in professorial obscurity and circuits. And it took
off, and it was about charitable giving and it
asked who gives more to charity, conservatives
or liberals. Right? Hot topic, but not
that interesting. But it just hit the news
cycle, right, and started selling hundreds
of copies a day. And my life was changing
just before my eyes. So like, a week after the
book comes out, I’m on Rush Limbaugh’s
radio show, right? And its like much to the huge
consternation of my friends in the faculty
lounge, I assure you. It turns out, they listen
to Rush, so who knew, right? So, um, and I started
getting emailed from people I’d never met. I mean, just
strangers across the transom. And when you’re a professor
you never get emails from people you haven’t
met. It’s very rare. You get emails from students
protesting their grades. I mean, that kind of what
you get correspondence about, and your co-authors, and
your paper is late, and you know, that kind of stuff. But, I was getting
hundreds of emails from people I’d never met
before, who were hearing about the book, or reading
about the book, or something. And it was really, super weird. Two weeks after the book
comes out, I get this email, over the transom, in the
afternoon, from a guy in Texas. And I really remember
this, and it starts off, “Dear Professor Brooks, you
are a right-wing fraud.” (laughs) It’s a great way to start
a note, I think, right? And, um, very promising.
And I keep reading. I used to read all my emails,
my email was very easy to get in those days. And, I noticed
that the email is like five thousand words long. It’s
gonna take me twenty minutes, I’m a very slow reader. And it’s gonna take me twenty
minutes to read this email. And I’m getting through the
email and I get a third of the way through the email,
and I realize that this guy is refuting every single thing in
the book, chapter and verse. In detail. You know, “Table Three,
Point One, the columns are reversed.” Stuff
like that, right? And you know, I’m reading
on and on and on and I’m having this one emotion
that’s coming back to me, over and over again, and
you know what it was? He read my book! Right? (audience laughs) So I decided to tell him that. I wrote back the guy, I
don’t know why, I mean I’m such a virtuous.
And I write back to him, and said “you’re so and so. I
could refute your refutations, I could rebut you, point by
point, but I got to tell you. It took me two years
to write that book. I put my whole heart into that. And, you read the whole
thing, thank you.” Send. (laughs) And then I wait. I go back
and I’m writing a little bit, working on a little bit of data. Fifteen minutes later,
his response comes back. Kinda nervous at
this point, right? Open it up, “Dear Professor
Brooks,” no insult, “next time you’re in Texas, if you
want to get some dinner, give me a call.” He’s my buddy! (audience laughs) And I thought, “Power!” (audience laughs) The Dalai Lama says I
defeat my enemies when I make them my friends. He’s not
trying to defeat his enemies because they’re evil, he
wants to make them into his friends, ’cause, I
don’t know about you, but I need more friends. The
Dalai Lama needs more friends, I really need more
friends, right? That’s what I learned
from that guy in Texas. You know, that’s how you do it. Think about it, when is the
next time you’re going to have this beautiful,
blessed opportunity to make your enemies your
friends by substituting warmheartedness for contempt. You’re gonna, I bet
you’re gonna be able to do it by the end
of the day, today. You’re going to find an
opportunity to do it. How do you do it? You do it
by seeking out the people who disagree with you,
looking for the opportunity, finding people who
disagree with you, and showing warmheartedness where
you could have shown contempt. You do it with a random act
of kindness on social media. Insane, right? Nobody
does that, right? Find something kind to say,
for no apparent reason. I mean, people will
think you’re nuts. Show random warmheartedness
on social media. You can do this, see
this is the beauty of it. You can find excuses to
do it, and when you do it, it proliferates. You will
find that people, I mean, some people are so pathological
they continue to hate you, but its rare. You’ll be
like the guy in Texas. You’ll see, you’ll see.
Now at first it’ll be “I saw this conservative
person”, or “I saw this liberal person,” or whatever, you
know, “a lot nicer than most of them”, right? But
it’s kind of extraordinary. Because, if we can make
it a pattern, who knows what we can do. What
can you do today? Somebody is going to say
something politically really stupid to you, in
the next two days. How should you think to
yourself, what should you do? Such that you can become more
warmhearted and be part of the solution to America’s
problem and yours. I was looking for the answer
to this, and I remembered the greatest book I ever
read, with a terrible title. And that was a book
written in the 1930s, by a self improvement
guru named Dale Carnegie. Some of you’ve read this book, “How to Win Friends
and Influence People.” So ridiculous, why would
smart people read that? Because it’s a beautiful
book about moral winning. (laughs) That’s why you
should read that book. It sounds like how to
bend people to your will, that not what its about at all. Its about how to be a
good person, basically. Read the book, you’ll enjoy it. So, it’s very beautiful. And he was going around
the country, looking for the most successful
people in the country and trying to find their
secrets to success. In 1920s, he was traveling
through New York and he goes to see a famous magician,
the most famous magician of the era, named
Howard Thurston. You can google him, he
was a really famous guy, the Great Howard Thurston.
And this guy had been, for forty year, performing the
same magic tricks on Broadway. Those days, it wasn’t
big musicals, it was variety shows on Broadway,
you know, rabbits out of hats, and card
tricks, and all that. If you were performing
the same magic tricks for forty years, what
would be your attitude? Its like, you know, all
the rubes coming out of Wisconsin or something
and they’re coming to New York and they’re
looking at the estate and you’re like “yeah rabbit out
of the hat, idiots”, right? He went to see this guy,
and it was magic. Truly. And not just the fake
kind. He said it was like it was his first night,
he was ebullient. The real secret to his
success was that he loved them and he loved what
he was doing. Aha! What? How did he do that?
After forty years, how did he do it? So, he goes to
the guy’s dressing room, The Great Howard Thurston, and
he goes to his dressing room. And he says,
“What’s the secret?” Howard Thurston says, “Simple.
Every night, before I go out to perform my
show, I say to myself, ‘I am truly grateful for
the people in those seats, who make it possible for
me to make my living doing something that I love.'”
Huh. How grateful are you? You know, its easy to
not be grateful, because we’re in circumstances where
we disagree with a lot of people, we hear things
that hurt our feelings, or that threaten our sense
of identity, I got it, right? But how grateful are you
for the people that co-exist with you in a
competition of ideas. Are you grateful enough,
or are you ungrateful? Howard Thurston had the right
plan. He looked at those people out there, he
thought about those people, and he said “I get to do
something I love! They came to see me, they’re paying!”
It’s incredible. I do these congressional
classrooms and I ask the members of Congress, I
say, “how grateful are you for people who disagree
with you politically, and don’t like you politically?
You live in America where there’s no jack-booted
thug, and there’s no knock in the night, where
you can express any political opinion you want and you’re
not worried about going to jail or getting beat up.
How grateful are you for that, are you grateful
enough for that?” I dare say they we’re not.
And if we remember that the source of our gratitude
should include, should emphasize the people who
disagree with us, it’s gonna make us more warmhearted,
particularly toward those for whom we are not
predisposed to show kindness. That’s the hack, it’s changed
my life. I have to tell you. You know, I travel all the
time, I do like one hundred and eighty speeches a year,
which is, a wonderful thing, I have to tell you. But
its not always people who are super nice like you.
You know, I go places where, I mean, we’ll
see in the Q&A, I know. I go to these places,
and some of these people are really mad at
me, really hostile. You know, I did a
thing in Orlando, and people booed me last
week, alright? They booed me, last week. I think,
okay, I’m still gonna say the same thing,
you know, I’m not gonna tailor the message. But, now
what I do before I go out, and what I did today, is I
said, “I am truly grateful for the people sitting
in these seats, who make it possible for me, and my
institution to exist in this great country, and for me
to make my living doing something that I love.” It’s
true. It’s ’cause of you. And you are the solution
to the problem we are talking about. So for
that, for the discussion we’re about to have, for
listening to me today, and more importantly, for the
effect this might just have for you, I can only say, God
bless you, and your work, and thank you. (audience applauds)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *