Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found the last few weeks in American politics particularly unnerving. Our economy is still very fragile, yet you would never know that by the way the political class is acting. We’re like a patient that just got out of intensive care and is sitting up in bed for the first time when, suddenly, all the doctors and nurses at bedside start bickering. One of them throws a stethoscope across the room; someone else threatens to unplug all the monitors unless the hospital bills are paid by noon; and all the while the patient is thinking: “Are you people crazy? I am just starting to recover. Do you realize how easily I could relapse? Aren’t there any adults here?”
Where in the world has Tom Friedman been? The bickering didn’t just start after the crisis; it’s been ongoing for at least the last 75 years and possibly for all of our country’s history. At least since Jackson’s time.
In the body of the article Tom Friedman complains about two things:
- That politicians, bankers, corporate CEO’s, and union leaders are showing situational values rather than sustainable values.
- That politicians are behaving like children.
Actually, I think the second is a canard—it’s grossly unfair to children. Any kindergarten class shows more decorum than the U. S. Senate does these days. However, let’s deal with the two in sequence.
Of course people in positions of leadership show situational values. That’s how they got into positions of leadership.
Nearly every aspect of our society is situational. Our economic system, political system, social system and so on all reward short term performance. If we wanted to take a longer term view we’d need to start taxing wealth rather than income, not require monthly or quarterly filing of various different statements, and so on.
I should also point out that most Americans have more formal training in driving a car and more careful review that they remember that training than they do in ethics or how they live their lives. Our romantic Rousseauian pretensions predispose us to believe that a sense of morality is something you’re born with or that just naturally comes to you rather than something that you learn and that must be refreshed on a regular basis. I understand all of the arguments against such training. If societies don’t inculcate some ethical values into their members from earliest childhood and they reward outcomes regardless of the ethics or lack of ethics that produced them, they will have members without ethical values.
There’s a good reason that politicians behave like children: we elect children. Our current educational and social system produces a prolonged childhood in the members of our society. All too frequently people are elected to office straight out of school or nearly so with little in the way of life experience or having held responsibility.
Consider our current vice president, Joe Biden. He graduated from law school in 1968, was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970, and to the U. S. Senate in 1972 when he was just 30 years old, the statutory minimum. He was a senator until becoming vice president in 2009. Although his case is an extreme one, it’s not an isolated one.
In 1790 the life expectancy for males was about 30. At thirty a man had in all likelihood been a responsible adult for half his life, making his own way, earning a living, frequently having responsibility for a wife and family. Today that would be exceptional. Presidents with a minimum age of 35 were elder statesmen.
If we were to index age and responsibility to the statutory minimum age for senators, the minimum age for a senator would be 70. The problem that we have now in which we’re treated to the spectacle of senators who’ve been in the Senate for 50 years is not merely that they’re serving too long, it’s that they’re being elected too young.