Intro. [Recording date: May 21, 2019.]
Russ Roberts: My guest is Arthur Brooks... His latest book and the topic of today's episode is Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.... What do you mean by 'the culture of contempt?' It's a great phrase.
Arthur Brooks: Well, when I started doing work on political polarization and political bitterness, I thought the problem was anger, because people certainly act like they are being angry with each other a lot. But I was clued in by somebody I admire a lot--he's the social psychologist John Gottman--probably the world's leading expert in marital reconciliation. He has the Gottman Marriage Laboratory in Seattle. And he says that the problem in marriage is, when you are going to divorce, is not anger. Anger is a hot emotion. It's a hot cognition that says, 'I care what you think.' It's when you take anger and mix it with disgust: it turns cold, and it turns people who love each other into enemies. And that's--anger plus disgust--is what Schopenhauer called the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another person. Contempt. And so when you get the habit of contempt--it's kind of a communications tic. When you talk to other people as if they were worthless, their ideas are worthless and hence that they are worthless people, you'll drive them apart. That habit, when it spreads around a culture, can become what I call the culture of contempt, which is what I think we're suffering from in America today.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, you mention the problem of eye-rolling. We've talked about this before on this program. It's really bad for a marriage, and it's very destructive to constructive political conversation.
Arthur Brooks: Absolutely. Eye-rolling is one of the physical signs that you have contempt for another person. Sarcasm, derision, dismissiveness--all these things tell other people that you think what they have to say is worthless, and hence that you think the person is worthless. And, it's kind of incredible, because most people who treat each other with contempt, they don't hate the other person. They are just in the habit of behaving that way. So, John Gottman will often point out that couples can be brought back together because they actually love each other. They just are weirdly acting as if they hate each other, and reacting to the contempt of the other with contempt of their own. So you have to break that cycle. This is one of the things that I talk about in the book and in my research these days. It's how we can build, how we can break cycles of bad communications habits in American politics.
Russ Roberts: One of the challenges of that--one of the [?] I have with--you know, I have similar feelings as you do about our culture and similar recommendations to what we might do about it. Part of the problem is that tic--that tic of contempt, of eye-rolling, that habit we get into--after a while we come to enjoy it, in my experience. We become a little bit addicted to the superiority it engenders in ourselves, our feeling of self-worth because we're better than the people around us or those, at least, who disagree with us. How do you fight that? And how do you encourage people to break that habit?
Arthur Brooks: That's a really adroit observation. And, by the way, what you personally have written about this and about love and [?] has been very moving. People don't think that guys like us, economists, that we actually have hearts--
Russ Roberts: hearts, souls. Yeah, I'm trying.
Arthur Brooks: You've written really well about this.
Russ Roberts: Thank you.
Arthur Brooks: And the problem is, when I say there's a habit of expressing contempt, that is very close, psychologically, to the phenomenon of addiction. That's the reason that people use 'addiction' and 'habit' synonymously. Any time there's an addiction, or virtually any addiction that we have, whether it's behaviorally or to anything chemical, it involves a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is produced--it's very rewarding, to get a shot of dopamine. So, you light a cigarette, you get dopamine. You take a drink, you get dopamine. When you treat somebody with contempt and feel like you are right, you get dopamine, too. It's kind of amazing how ubiquitous in our learned behavior that reinforces rewards. It's involved in--there's a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens that imprints habitual behavior. But, the neurotransmitter that it is occurring with is dopamine. So, for sure, when we have a habit of doing it, it gives us a little reward; the reward is reinforced neurochemically; so therefore it gets harder and harder to get out of that cycle. The thing that we need to keep in mind is that, with most things that give us a little bit of dopamine--hence a little bit of satisfaction--that the reward is very different in the short run and as it is in the long run. There's nobody who says, 'You know what I love? I just love being addicted to cigarette smoking.' It's just--people don't talk that way, because they wish they weren't smokers, even though they get a reward and keep doing it in the short run. It's what you and I as economists, we talk about discount problems, or even hyperbolic discounting, and which it's very, very hard to break habits because the discount rate just balloons out as you get further and further away because of the nature of how habitual behavior works. And that's certainly the case in the way we talk to each other, as well. So, the key thing to keep in mind: there's a sort of a cognitive satisfaction that comes with being right. There's a little shot of dopamine that you get, sort of like when you smoke a cigarette--when you feel like you're right and you vanquish your opponent, you show that somebody else is wrong, and maybe even stupid and evil. But, the problem with that is that the satisfaction that you get in the near term is inconsistent with that which you get in the long term. It's a problem that we as economists wonkishly refer to as a hyperbolic discounting rate. And, the only way that you can beat your tendency to get short-term satisfaction is to remember the long-term goal that you have. Love and reconciliation in the long term are much, much more rewarding than feeling like your interlocutor is a moron in the short term.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; it's a tough transition. I like to say--and I don't know if this is helpful but I say it a lot, 'Try to get pleasure from saying I don't know.' As a way of reducing overconfidence and hubris, and confirmation bias. And, I say--actually, until you just gave me that way of thinking about it--I never really think about it much, other than just saying, 'You ought to try that. You'll come to like it if you can work on that habit.' The problem is, is what you've just pointed out, which is: But it's really fun to pretend that you do know.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, that's right.
Russ Roberts: And it takes a while--it's an acquired habit to enjoy saying, 'I don't know.' I would say it's a little like beer: at first it seems bitter, but you'll come to like it. Exhort people to try it: 'Eventually you'll be a better person and you'll enjoy that.' And I think that's easy advice to give and harder advice to take. Let me give a personal example. I struggle with snacks during the middle of the day. I work at home, and I have--if I have, say, peanuts or almonds around, I'll eat way too many of them. So, one way to deal with it is just don't have them around. That's--it works, but it tends to just force me into some other snack. But lately I've gotten into a way of keeping track of what I eat on an app on my phone; and now I get enjoyment from not snacking. So far. I'm a few weeks into it. My body says--and EconTalk listeners are going to be interested in this because we've talked about weight loss, and Gary Taubes--we're going to come back to this; don't worry. Not today: down the road. But, by telling myself, by giving myself a reward--a mental reward of 'I am not snacking today,' I'm changing my sort of--my dopamine meter. And I don't know if that's possible to do in these less physical areas of, say, arrogance or contempt. But I think maybe there's something there.
Arthur Brooks: There really is. And so, this is what people who study habit talk about--they speak of reprogramming your nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that reinforces habitual behavior. The way that the nucleus accumbens--this is a very ancient part of the brain. It's about the size of the end of your pinky finger. Very deep in your brain. It was evolved at least 500,000 years before the prefrontal cortex--the part of the brain that makes executive decisions, and conscious decisions. And, what happens is that you do something and it gives you a little reward; it's programmed your nucleus accumbens and you start to do it automatically. The more you do it, the harder it is to break. Now, the reason that's important is that if you reprogram your nucleus accumbens by substituting one behavior, rewarding behavior, for the other, you can break that habit. And that's exactly what you're talking about. So, you want a handful of peanuts: not good for you, makes you fat; it ruins your appetite for dinner. So that's not good. So you get something else that's a reward, a psychic reward--reward is reward; it's fine--from your phone. It might not be quite as rewarding in the beginning, but it will take on more rewarding characteristics as you start to see that not eating the peanuts is doing good things for you. Well, the same thing is true when we're talking about our political discourse. It's rewarding to, say, you know, on Twitter, and to own the Libs, or the Conservatives, or whatever you are doing on Twitter. On the other hand, if you substitute a friend or other behavior, which the Dalai Lama talks about, is when you feel contempt, you should actually react with more partedness[?]. This is what he's saying: Stop when you are stimulated. Stop; consider your response. Choose a response that you want, and get a reward from it. Which, what you find is it's actually quite incredible. I tell audiences all the time, and this is one of the key things I recommend in my book, is, when you feel stimulated to behave contemptuously--which is almost always because somebody has treated you with contempt--stop. Decide, which is like what your mother says: Count to 10. But the Dalai Lama talks about increasing the distance between stimulus and response. And then choose something that you actually like better. And you'll find it's incredibly rewarding. Because, one of the things you just talked about--you're talking sort of obliquely about the satisfaction and pleasure that comes from humility. That's when you are saying, 'I don't know.' And, to be persuasive is great, by the way. Nobody has ever been persuaded in history with insults. So, if you want to be more persuadable then contempt is the wrong way of going about it. It's unproductive. But there is something intensely satisfying about being persuadable, as well. And to do that you actually need to not respond, ever, with contempt, because you will be blocked.
Russ Roberts: Do you meditate?
Arthur Brooks: Mmmhmm. Yes, I do. I'm a practicing Catholic, and I have a practice of Catholic meditation that I have engaged in for a long, long time. And I've gotten most of my technique from studying with Hindu and Buddhist masters in India.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no: I do Jewish meditation, also with some Buddhist influence. There's a lot of Jewish influence in meditation, too. It's just not as well known. But, in my experience, that has helped me find that gap between stimulus and response. Although, it could just be because I'm getting older. But I do find incredibly satisfying not to respond to contempt with contempt. And I wonder how much of that is just that I'm reveling in my self-control: I'm grasping at the desire to think I'm better at meditating, and controlling--
Arthur Brooks: I don't know, Russ: I think--I don't know. I think that we are made for love. That people want love, and people want to express love. And I think it's actually unsatisfying for us, importantly unsatisfying for us to be doing something that is so bad for the soulful health--to be treating other people with contempt. And whereas the satisfaction is minor, it is very much like smoking a cigarette. It's not going to give you any satisfaction, you know, 10 minutes from now. It's just basically satisfying the desire in the meantime. On the other hand, if you can do something where you have the self-control, but also that gives you the payoff, and something gets even that much more important than the health of your lungs, it's the love that you have for other people. I think that we're living up to how we're made and who we're supposed to be in doing that. That gives us an equilibrium that you can't get any other way.
Russ Roberts: I like to think you're right. I'm not sure. We'll come back and talk about that maybe later. I will just make the point that, when I have the--and it's a physical urge--to grab a handful of peanuts, and I say to myself, 'This is not going to make me happy,' in a minute after I finish some, I'll want some more. And, tomorrow morning when I'm on the scale, or a week from now, I'll regret it. It doesn't help so much. It's really hard to change your mind about your mind that way. Reasoning that this insult is actually a sign of a person's, say, insecurity about their argument in a political debate in the moment is such a hard thing to rationally decide. You really have to build a different habit, go down a different path--whether it's embracing love or whether it's embracing humility or whatever it is--it's hard to think yourself out of those problems, in my experience.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, for sure. Sometimes you have to lash yourself to the mast--
Russ Roberts: Yeah; well that's, 'Don't buy the peanuts.'
Arthur Brooks: Well, but don't buy the peanuts. But another way to do it is, if you basically have a huge drinking problem then you can put on Twitter that you've joined AA [Alcoholics Anonymous]. And next time--if you ever post a picture of yourself on social media holding a drink, you are going to hear about it. In my case--or your case, Russ--when you and I write a book, people read it. I mean, it's amazing to have the incredible blessing to write a book that could become a best seller. And so, if you basically say, 'I'm committing myself to being the person who talks about love and reconciliation in the face of contempt'--I mean, trust me: If I do something where I'm behaving horribly toward another person, I'm popping off on social media, on Twitter, I'm saying that somebody is a complete moron--I mean, I'm going to look like the biggest hypocrite in the world. And writing this book has been--
Russ Roberts: That's interesting--
Arthur Brooks: one of my commitments to myself.
Russ Roberts: What do you mean by 'coercive leadership'?
Arthur Brooks: So, one of the people that I admire the most--and what I teach at Harvard is leadership, in both the Kennedy School and the Business School. And, really one of the great recent thinkers on leaders and leadership is a psychologist at Harvard named Daniel Goleman. And he wrote a paper in 2000, has a bunch of research on it, but also wrote for the Harvard Business Review for a more popular audience, a paper called "Leadership That Gets Results," where he has a sample of 4000 CEOs [Chief Executive Officers] in the United States. And he uses factor analysis, which I know you and I as economists that we don't do that very much, or we're not sure we believe in it. But it has some use--
Russ Roberts: 'Studies show that it works.' But, yeah, go ahead. Sorry.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, exactly right. It's like, 'the observations are not IID [Independent Identically Distributed], but it still kind of works.' So, in factor analysis--this is a technique for clustering patterns, finding patterns in the data. And among these 4000 CEOs he finds there are 6 basic types of leaders. That go from best to worst. The worst are coercive leaders. These are people that say it's sort of 'my way or the highway.' They can be extremely effective in the short term. Because they are bullies. And they get immediate compliance in the face of a crisis. On the other hand, in the long term they almost always fail, because hate bullies. And they don't like to be coerced. You know, this has obvious implications for business. But it also has obvious implications for politics, these days. Where, in a moment of incredibly coercive leadership, in both political parties, where people are being rewarded for belittling and bullying and saying 'If you don't do it my way it's because you are an idiot,' and 'you are an enemy.' And it--you know, that can work for a little while, while people are really, really freaked out: let's say in the wake of the Financial Crisis [Financial Crisis of 2008] and the polarization of our times. But in the end, it's actually not--it's not what we want. And it's ultimately, at least so far in American history, not something that has persisted in the long run as politically successful.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; I'm a little skeptical about that. I think Steve Jobs was a pretty coercive leader, and was pretty successful. But he, to some extent, might be the exception. But he motivated people in ways that, you know, are not appealing to me--
Arthur Brooks: Yeah; though that's interesting, Russ--
Russ Roberts: But it draws people to him--for other reasons, perhaps. Or maybe even because of it: That, they want to prove themselves; they want to earn his respect and it's obviously hard to earn. I don't know.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, I know. I love that example, actually. Because, in the paper, Goleman, he says that the best leadership style is called 'authoritative leadership.' Not 'authoritarian.' 'Authoritative leadership.' Which is basically incredibly vision oriented: 'Here's a big vision; you are part of it. Will you join me?' And that fires people up and makes them feel, like just incredibly motivated. And the interesting thing that Goleman says is that you can mix leadership styles. So this is exactly what you are talking about. Steve Jobs, according to all accounts--I didn't know him--but by all accounts was a mix of authoritative and coercive leadership. And--which is, it means that there were certain things that were hard to deal with, but other things that were irresistible, at the same time.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I hate to quote movies as an example of evidence, but having seen the movie Patton, it's a similar model. You know: Jobs wanted to put a dent in the universe. And, if you wanted to be on the team that was doing the denting, which is an exhilarating idea, you had to play by his rules. And this--you know, Patton was going to liberate Europe from the Nazis. And it wasn't a lot of fun along the way.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Except for the outcome. So, I think that's--yeah, it's a different, it's a more complicated story.
Arthur Brooks: For sure. For sure. And Goleman would say that Jobs or Patton absolutely have incredible followers that are extremely loyal because of the authoritative part of their leadership. They, of course [?] in part comes along and gets immediate complaints and effectiveness in the short run. But, in the long run, even they would have been more effective had they been less coercive.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's probably true. Although, you know, I think, again it's pretty complicated and hard to know--
Arthur Brooks: for sure--
Russ Roberts: but I think the key point--and it's the one you bring up later in the book--is that: Loyal to cause does not mean being a robot, or a pawn. And that, I think what made Jobs a successful leader of Apple was that he was able to engender a huge amount of creativity from his employees, in that crucible. And that crucible is not so fun. Not everybody can handle it. Most of us can't. That's why we work at think tanks.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: One of the least crucible-like environments there is.
Arthur Brooks: Unless you're the president. That makes it a little tricky.
Russ Roberts: That's true. It's 100% correct. The hard job being the president. I know that. I get that.
Russ Roberts: Tell the--it's an incredibly entertaining story, but I think there's a deep, deep truth in it. Tell the viola player story, about the viola player who comes home to find his house has burned down.
Arthur Brooks: So this is a--for listeners who don't know--I was a professional French horn player for many years. I was--from the time I dropped out of college at 19 until I had dropped back into college at 31, I was a professional French horn player. In symphony orchestras. Among other things. And there's a joke that all orchestra players tell that has a lot of pathos--that sort of describes the relationship that orchestra musicians have with the conductors. Conductors, for those who don't know--we used to say that some of them are evil geniuses, but all of them are evil. These are the classic course of leaders. And, you know, I've seen it reduce grown men to tears--horrible, horrible stuff. And, so, and the joke is that there's a viola player, in the symphony orchestra. And the viola is always the most marginalized instrument. It's hard to hear. Viola players generally start out as violinists but they are not good enough--at least that's the stereotype. You know, I'm going to get dragged on Twitter for that.
Russ Roberts: Shame on you.
Arthur Brooks: Shame on me. I know.
Russ Roberts: But you respect them. You don't have contempt for them. You pity them, actually.
Arthur Brooks: I do. It's more pity. That's exactly what people want[?]. So, there's the viola player--he's been just mercilessly abused by the conductor in his orchestra, for a decade. I mean, it's just terrible. He's just whipped by the conductor over and over again. And one day, he comes home from a particularly terrible rehearsal: you know, he stops by the bar on the way home, he's drowning his sorrows. And finally when he gets home he notices that police have cordoned off his house. You know--the police yellow tape. And there's a cop standing there, the flashing lights. And he says to the police officer, 'What happened?' And he says, 'Who are you?' And he says, 'This is my house!' And he says, 'Oh, you are the owner. Well, sorry to tell you, sir, that there's been an incident. Somebody has come here, burglarized your house. Burned it down. Killed your dog. Driven off with your family. In your car.' He says, 'Well, who did it?' He says, 'That's the worst part. It was the conductor of your orchestra.' There's this long pause. Finally, the cop says, 'Do you have any questions?' And the viola player says, 'The Maestro visited my house?'
Russ Roberts: I love that. I've never heard that joke. And enough listeners will like it as much as I do. But, it's really magnificent. And one of the reasons it's more than just--it's not funny, actually.
Arthur Brooks: It's terrible--
Russ Roberts: The reason it's insightful is that it captures a part of our humanity that I think, at least, libertarians prefer not to think about. And I'm somewhere--I'm something of a libertarian. But the idea that people enjoy not being independent. They don't--they might not even mind being abused, because they so desperately want the respect of someone in power. I like to quote Adam Smith, that man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely. And we want the respect of people around us. And, just that, 'The Maestro came to my house.' That he paid attention to me, makes it all worthwhile. Okay, he burned it down. But. And I think that's a human--that's the dark side of our desire to be loved, that Smith talks about. That we want to be taken--we want to matter. And, 'Okay, you burned the house down. But at least you burned my house down.'
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. That's right.
Russ Roberts: And I think the same thing--the reason it's a serious story is I think, in the political realm, people will accept outcomes and abuse from leaders they revere because he's their leader.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. Yeah; no, that's right. There's also a point that, when you are on a knife edge politically--like, when countries are suffering from a lot of populace polarization, you find that it's bully versus bully. In a highly bullying environment, people are forced to choose one bully or the other. And you say, 'Look, I don't necessarily love my guy; but the other guy is really dangerous and terrible.' You know, 'He wants to take away my stuff, and hurt me, and hurt my family.' And so, 'Even though I don't like my bully, at least he's fighting for me.' And, that can be a temporary equilibrium. I hope it's not more than a temporary equilibrium. Because it's a really dangerous situation. In politics. It leads to suboptimal outcomes. And it's also extremely unstable. And I think that some people might think that that sounds a little bit like what we've got going on right now.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, yeah: 'I don't like him but it takes a bully to beat a bully,' is the standard rationalization, I think, that people do in the voting booth. And it's where we're headed, anyway.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, on both sides--
Russ Roberts: On both sides--
Arthur Brooks: I hear Republicans and Democrats saying that. Yep.
Russ Roberts: Before we go on, I want to take a little side trip. Because I recently interviewed David Epstein about his book, Range, which makes a case for non-specialization. It makes the case for trying out different things. It makes the case for how different experience enriches your life and your productivity. And I'm curious, given that you were a professional musician--which I think is extraordinarily rare among economists, and among public policy intellectuals. Obviously, you can be glad you did that for the experience itself. But, do you think it made you a better President of AEI [American Enterprise Institute], a better scholar, a better author? Was there anything productive about that in the narrower sense of the word?
Arthur Brooks: I think--I really think that, in the idea economy which rewards creativity and it rewards experiences, that virtually everything is fungible. And, the answer is, 'For sure.' What I learned as a French horn player, what I learned about music, the appreciation that I have for ideas and aesthetics and also just a performance ethics that I got, was extremely important. Made it possible for me to get some mastery of the field. Sometimes I feel like I should write a book called 'How to Play the French Horn'--
Russ Roberts: good title--
Arthur Brooks: which is not about how to play the French Horn. It's--yeah. It's basically all the things that I've learned. So, for example, I'll give you a couple of examples. When you are a professional classical musician, there are three things that you have to be comfortable with. Number 1 is, is, is endless repetitions. It's reps. It's getting your reps. Again and again and again. Playing the same passage over and over and over again. Because, until you actually get the reps, you won't have the ballistic movements into your brain. Which is to say, you won't be able to bypass your prefrontal cortex in playing music. You need to do everything automatically. It's just happening too fast. You won't get technical perfection, otherwise. But that takes reps. The second is slowing everything down. If you--when you are playing a classical instrument, and you are learning a piece of music, to make it such that it will sound great, flawlessly, over and over again, you need to play everything incredibly slowly--it's the rule in classical music that you shouldn't be able to recognize the music. If you can recognize the piece, you are playing it too quickly. And the last is, is, an appreciation of failure. You are just going to fail a lot. You are going to fail a lot before you can succeed, because the level of technical perfection is so demanding that there is just a lot of failure involved. Those are really the three things that have guided my ability to do now. I mean, as a president of AEI until recently, my job was giving 175 speeches a year, and with my colleagues raising $50 million dollars a year. So it was basically like running for the Senate and never getting elected. But the technical dominance from actually doing 175 speeches a year required endless repetition, to make it good. It required slowing everything down until I could truly understand what I was saying till a turn of the phrase was completely clear. And it was being willing to get out and fail with certain sets of ideas. In other words, playing the French horn taught me everything I needed to know to be the President of the American Enterprise Institute.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's really beautiful. I want to add something, though, that you didn't mention, and see you reflect on it. Which is: Subjugation of one's ego. It's hard not to have an ego when you are the president of anything. But, when you are a French horn player, or a viola player--and worse--your quote 'only part of an ensemble, most of the time'--your notes, your--the only time you'll stand out, in fact, is when you make an error. But otherwise you have to take satisfaction from being part of a creative whole. And, you know, academics aren't good at that. By definition. A lot of us are in the business because we like to see ourselves as the center of the universe. And our work is profound; and everyone else's is not as good. And it's a solitary pursuit--very different from an orchestra. But I've suggested recently that by seeing ourselves as part of an ensemble rather than as part of--as a narrative where 'I'm the hero'--which is, I think what our ego tells us to do: By being part of an ensemble, I can have a richer interaction with other people. I can not be as likely to use them as objects and be more likely to relate to them in a, what Martin Buber called 'I, Thou.' I'm curious if that resonates with you at all.
Arthur Brooks: It does. It resonates a lot. And I've reflected on it quite a bit, too. When I was in the orchestra, I would often think, you know, 'What holds us back as an ensemble'--and virtually--well, there are a lot of different reasons--the biggest is when ensemble players are not thinking about the beautiful whole that comes out, but really our only thinking about their own part. And that ruins the ensemble nature. It ruins the cohesiveness. It makes the music just less beautiful, to do that. Conductors--the best conductors, throughout history, they have big egos. And they can, in fact, be evil geniuses. But they have a strong sense that--they know--that without the orchestra members, they are just a guy waving a stick. Which is--you look like an insane person. You take the baton out on the street and do that and you look like a lunatic. And so, they have a sense that the people in the ensemble have to be playing together as well. I think I've learned as much, that the negative lesson from bad conductors and being the President of AEI. It's easy to build up your own ego when you are the president of a think tank. I mean, it's not like we're these big celebrities. But certainly as big a celebrity as an average city symphony conductor. And it--to say, 'Why AEI's great, well because Arthur Brooks is the President'--well that's insane. That's nonsense. Without the scholars and the staff doing their thing, I would just be a equivalent of a guy waving a stick in silence. And so, remembering that the best conductors relied integrally on the beauty and the harmony and the ego-lessness of the people that were sitting in the sections, that actually did the real work: Those were my best days as President of AEI.
Russ Roberts: It just strikes me that a great conductor--and I'm thinking now--you are a sports fan--I'm thinking of Bill Belichick, who is the conductor of a football team. And somehow gets people to, you know, play along and do their job. That's his mantra: Do your job. And, you know, the joke--not the joke, the story, which I'm sure is true, is that, when Tom Brady would throw an interception, the next week, Belichick would rib or tease or needle Brady that he could get somebody who could throw the football as well as he did at Foxboro High School. And Brady was obviously thinking too much about his girlfriend or wife at the time--Gisele Bündchen. And, that changed the dynamic of that locker room, when Brady had to take a hit, given that Brady was by far the biggest celebrity in the room. And it's just interesting how--at least, Belichick at least pretends--I don't know what he thinks deep in his heart--but he pretends that it's not about him: It's about the team. And to the extent that he can inculcate that culture among the players--which is the same as the conductor's goal--I don't know; you can tell me how they manage to do that. But then the ensemble plays better together.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, for sure. One of the things that I--because I, you know, teach leadership at Harvard. And, you know, all of my metaphors are no doubt going to be from either running a think tank or being in a symphony orchestra--from our own professional experiences. Well, one of the things that I think is really important for leaders to remember, whether it's coaches or conductors or think tank presidents, or any of us--any of the people who are listening to this conversation--because everybody has leadership in their environment, whether it's in their family or their workplace. Everybody has influence over others. The key trick is--let's start with what really holds back leaders, which is, pride and envy. You know, these deadly sins--
Russ Roberts: It's all about me.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. The pride and envy of the leader really demotivates people. So, you can be--you can be effective, of course, as a leader. But ultimately you downfall will be pride and envy. Well, there's a heavenly virtue that opposes these things, that's the instant antidote to envy and pride in your work: and that's admiration. You know, it's very hard to do. You know, admiration of the skills and abilities and talents, the efforts of other people--this is hard. You and I have been in Washington, D.C. for a good part of our careers. And Washington, D.C. is a city that doesn't admire. And this is the big problem. I mean, but basically, the satisfaction that comes--the deep moral satisfaction that comes when you find yourself saying, 'You know, Russ Roberts, that guy he's incredibly talented. He's so good at what he does. I just admire this show. I admire what you've written.' And I remember--I've actually said this about you and the things that you've written, because I really do admire it. And it gives an intense satisfaction because it's like a little death. It's a little death of one's pride and envy. And, unless a leader is willing to die a little bit, that leader will not be motivating, and will simply not be an adequate leader. And so one of the things I recommend to students--and I recommend to myself, which I try to live up to--is that I'm always going to be a leader who spends a lot of time admiring the people in the ensemble. But authentically admiring the people in the ensemble for what they do.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, I appreciate those kind words. Which I know were just an example--
Arthur Brooks: Heh, hah, hah, hah--
Russ Roberts: But I know it's true. But, for the sake of discussion, what's interesting, of course, was that, you know, I had a chemical reaction--even though I didn't want to. But that's the way we are as human beings. But, some people would say, 'Actually it's better to have pride and envy because it motivates you.' When you withhold it--it goes back to the Maestro came to my house story. The--my graduate adviser was Gary Becker, and the highest praise I think I ever got from him--I don't want to say what I got from him--but he would say a paper was, like, 'Pretty good.' That was like, 'Wow.' And I don't think that's the ideal way to live life. You know: He was who he was. But I think he's better to be more giving of compliments when they are earned. But, when you do act that way--and Steve Jobs was the same way--people desperately wanted that positive word because it was scarce.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah--no; I think that certainly is true. If something is scarce, you want to be--you know, you want to be, Gary Becker is, congratulations where this doesn't suck--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
Arthur Brooks: and everything is relative. But, you know, I don't think that's optimal leadership. I mean, in point of fact everybody who is an effective leader has to see him- or herself; and that requires not envy. I think envy is always bad. I think it was Aquinas who said that was the only deadly sin that's not even fun. But, there is pride involved. And part of that has to do--and you want to be prideful, to be sure; but you want to have an understanding of what you can do is great. The key thing is not letting it eat you alive. Not letting it become the modus operandi. And that's why admiration really takes the edge off. It can take someone who does have a good, healthy sense of ambition and sense of self worth--and also remember that the instantiation of my prideful tendency is to turn it into something that's great for humanity requires that I admire others because I simply can't do this alone.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about dignity. You talk about the dignity--we're going to now shift back to the theme of the book more directly. You talk about a 'dignity gap.' And I've become a little bit obsessed with this issue, because, as an economist, my joke is 'There's no variable for dignity in the dataset.' And so economists--
Arthur Brooks: So it doesn't exist--
Russ Roberts: And it really doesn't. I think it's a grotesquerie of our profession: stuff that doesn't exist. You know, stuff that we can't measure doesn't exist. But, it does exist. It's really important. What do you mean by the dignity gap? And how do you think we might get to a world that had a little more of it--for some folks, here in America?
Arthur Brooks: So, dignity--the definition of dignity is to be worthy of respect. And, you and I believe, and everybody listening to us believes, um, I would wager, that dignity is radically equal between all people. You know, this is one of the things--this is one of the things that I most admire about libertarians, as a matter of fact. Because there's this strong, strong sense of, of equal human dignity. Of every single person, zero exceptions. And that people need to live up to up to it, and people need to respect it. And, you know, that's along the moral undercurrent, I see, of a lot of libertarian thinking. Which, again, has my complete admiration. The problem that we have is not that anybody, very many people, disagree that dignity is radically equal--be people are worthy of respect. It's that people don't sense their dignity. And this becomes a public policy problem, and a moral problem in our society, very, very quickly, is that people don't sense their dignity. They don't sense that they are worthy of respect. And so one of the questions that I ask--and this becomes an empirical question that you and I as applied social scientists that we can measure, is: Why is it that some people lost their sense of dignity? And my reading of the data, and the work that I've done over the years, suggests to me that it's because they don't feel needed. They don't feel needed by society, largely because their sense of dignity is stripped away by not having a job, for example. Or having their family not need them. Or their community find them superfluous and unnecessary. One of the most alarming things for me in modern life, with the growth of a very, very large welfare state, which, by the way I celebrate insofar as a safety net, just like Hayek did, but that the safety net sometimes metastasizes into a platform that says that certain people are charity cases and the rest of us are caretakers. And what I regret about that is not the money. What I regret about that is the attenuation of the sense of human dignity. Since I believe it's radically equal, my moral purpose is to help people sense the radical equality of it--in others and in point of fact in themselves; and the last thing that I want are public policy systems that would strip that away. Which is why I have some very, very strong views on work; very strong views on inclusion in society. I have very strong views on issues like immigration. And it all comes down to, not just the existence of human dignity, but the purpose of finding an equal sense of human dignity.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The failure to recognize it often to my mind leads to infantilizing: turn people into children. Treating them as if they are not morally capable of making their own decisions. It just strikes me as a--as I think you agree--as the wrong path to go down.
Russ Roberts: Do you think--what do you think of the role of agency, is in this? And one of the things--I've been thinking a lot about the loss of, potential loss of work and to the reduction in male labor force participation--the long term trend. A lot of it to me is a loss of agency. And without agency, dignity seems really hard to recognize oneself.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. Sure. So, dignity requires a couple of different things. One is to require or [?] requires that you have control. Which is agency. And the other is to feel that you are not superfluous. Which is another way of saying that you are needed in society. And, so, this is very, very important, that--when we think about what it means to be--you and I are dads. And what we think it means to be good fathers--good parenting is, you know, you don't make your kid feel unneeded. And you don't make your kid feel like he has no agency, that he has no control. Those are bad things. And we all know parents who have kind of done that. And their kids are goofed up. They get to college and these are the kids who are demanding to safe spaces. Because they've never had any risk in their lives. And they've never felt like they've had any control. Or they've never been able to fail on their own. Or they've never had any repudiation of their views. They become weak and soft. And, you know, this is a kind of a form of abuse, in my view. That's not good parenting. So, as such, when we have an in loco parentis relationship with our fellow citizens under any circumstances, even if it's as light as through a set of public policies interacting in people's lives just occasionally, it's not right for us to set up these policies in a way that would take people's agency away, or in any way tell them that they are not needed or make them in point of fact be less needed in society.
Russ Roberts: You say a number of times--I used to believe this; I don't any more, but you still believe it so I'm going to let you defend it: 'The people that I disagree with, we have the same goals; we just disagree on how to get there.' And I wish that were true. But--I don't think it is, so much. Tell me why you think it's true and what its implications are, and then I'll tell you why I don't.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah; no. And, basically, for me to say, 'Every person I meet has exactly the same goals as me,' that commits a fallacy, which is the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. It just happens to be the positive version of it. So I don't want to overstate this point. I just think--the point that I'd like to me is that, almost inevitably, when you have an interlocutor who is on the other side ideologically from you, almost inevitably that person actually shares more of your deep moral sentiments than you think. Almost inevitably. So, it's not to say that the person sees the world in just the same way that you do and you are just fighting over something--scraps. There might be some pretty profound differences in the moral outlook. Moral foundations theory is very clear: I mean, there are some moral foundations differences. You might be defining your moral foundations in pretty dramatically different ways. But, one of the things that I've found is that what people tend to do is to go at each other hammer and tongs about means and never start a conversation listening deeply about moral ends, to see, actually, there might be some commonalities around which we have differences in the way that we can reach those moral ends. And, so, I probably have overstated my point in the book, but that's the case that I'm trying to make. Is that actually that more in line with your thinking?
Russ Roberts: Well, here's one of the problems I have. Let's take the minimum wage, an example you use in the book. I think it's a really good example. I think the minimum wage is a terrible thing. I think it encourages benefits for relatively high-skilled low-skill workers and punishes low-skilled low-skill workers, so people with the hardest time to get into the labor force find this barrier to be the largest. And I find that--I find it simply immoral. I find it shouldn't--I don't think that's what my intellectual opponents want. And so, I like to point that out. Their reaction is: 'You're a pawn of the rich'--
Arthur Brooks: Right--
Russ Roberts: 'You're pro-business. You don't care about poor people.' Now, I've said I did. I've said I care a lot about them--
Arthur Brooks: Right.
Russ Roberts: And I spend a lot of time arguing for revamping our--well, not a lot of time, but I argue whenever I can for educational change, because I think that's the underlying cause of this problem--that people have skills that aren't being rewarded--don't have enough skill to be rewarded well in the marketplace. And yet, I am dismissed, as I'm sure you have been many, many times--
Arthur Brooks: Right.
Russ Roberts: So obviously I am heartless. So, my opponent does not believe--people who know me well, I like to think we share goals. People who don't know me go, 'Oh. Hoover Institution.' First they say, 'Republican.' I'm not a Republican--at all. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a very partisan person; haven't been, ever. But they make a set of assumptions. And they are not going to give me the benefit of the doubt. I'd like to show them--my joke is, 'Let me show you my tax return. Let me show you how much I give to charity. Would that help?' 'You want to interview my wife? She'll tell you I'm a nice person.' But I think a lot of us don't start there. We don't respect each others' goals. We look at the darkest side of each others' goals. We assume on the Right that the Left wants to organize society as some kind of communist dictatorship. And the Left looks at the Right that they want to organize as a corporate, fascist dictatorship--
Arthur Brooks: Right.
Russ Roberts: And that's where we've come to. Not just like, 'Nyeh, I don't think that will work as well as you think it does.'
Arthur Brooks: Right. Yeah; no: I, this is the same fallacy I was talking about before. And, ad hominem is a very powerful tool. Which, what people use under two circumstances: one, where they are trying to manipulate you or a conversation or lock down a base, which is what when politicians use it. And the other is when people are just extremely lazy thinkers. In other words, they are not that interested in making progress; they are simply interested in vanquishing a foe as quickly as possible.
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Arthur Brooks: And those are circumstances that are not conducive to very good arguments. And, you know, there's a lot of times when that's all people want to do. And, you know, sorry but that's not a conversation that's going to be very productive for me. I don't hate ya', but I, I, you know, standing here and being abused--saying that I'm just a pawn of--I want to lower Charles Koch's taxes--is not very productive thing to do. On the other hand, there are cases in which there are people who have simply never been exposed to Russ Roberts' or Arthur Brooks' thinking about the minimum wage. And so, when I have anything like an opportunity to talk to people that might, you know--all of life is broken into, in anything, whether you are selling Buicks or cheese or the American free enterprise system. They are for of these positions towards those products. You have true believers. You and I are about Democratic capitalism. There are persuadables: People want to hear they are hostiles, who they want to hear are stupid and evil, and they are apathetics. The apathetics, the luke-warmers, are actually the hardest audience of all. But, when you are trying to get to the persuadables, one of the best ways to deal with it is to start looking at the virtues of the other side's argument. And, I have to say, about this minimum wage thing, in particular: It wasn't that long ago that most of the arguments on the Hard Left that I heard, they were not pro-work, at all. They just weren't. They were talking about how poor people and their work, it was just, it was undignified and terrible; and wouldn't it be better if they didn't have to work at all. And they were--And I was saying, 'No. You don't understand the basis of dignity is purpose and meaning, and that actually comes from productive activity. And work is the best way that we can actually get that done.' So, when I hear minimum wage arguments, as misguided as they are--and they are--look at my colleague Mike Strain's stuff. It's just unambiguous that it cuts the bottom rungs off the ladder. It hurts the people at the margin the most, and it helps my--you know, upper middle class kids the most. It's just, it's just not a good policy. But, at least, the impetus for most persuadables--not just the pure ad hominem vitriol that you are talking about--but the persuadables, is: I want work to pay. Because work is good; and I want people to be able to support themselves and their families. And so, recognizing that that's the argument for a lot of people, or even just assuming that it is, says that: You know, this policy doesn't get to that objective very well. So, let me just explain another policy that might be just as expensive. So, I'm not worried about spending government money. I just don't want to hurt poor people. And it's amazing how you can inflect[?] the conversation. It just takes a lot of work. And a lot of practice.
Russ Roberts: Well, I'm going to criticize myself. I think you could criticize my view by saying, 'Well, you used to say that it didn't help any workers--hardly any.' Because the demand for labor was so elastic. Now you are admitting it's inelastic, and you are falling back on this idea that, 'Well, sure it helps a lot of poor people, but the poorest of the poor, it hurts--'
Arthur Brooks: Right--
Russ Roberts: 'And that's just your cover for, you know, advancing the agenda of the group you really care about'--which is, say, businesses. And there is a lot of evidence. I don't like to think it's reliable. But there is a lot of evidence that the minimum wage has relatively small costs relative to its redistributive gains. What offends me is when people say it has no costs--
Arthur Brooks: Yeh. Sure--
Russ Roberts: which I find bizarre.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah; no. In policy analysis one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that anybody in policy who says, this relatively mainstream policy has all benefits and no costs, or all costs and no benefits, is selling you a bill of goods--
Russ Roberts: --a hunch. Yeah.
Arthur Brooks: It's just not right. So, of course the minimum wage helps certain people. Including some people that we want to help. The problem is that, reliably, it most hurts the people we least want to hurt. And we should have a, in my view, a kind of a Rawlsian ideal toward the poor. Look, we are our brother's keeper--in my view. We are not raised by wolves in this way. And I'm willing to have even more expensive policies if we can avoid doing that to the people who are most at the margin of society.
Russ Roberts: I don't really agree with that, Arthur, but I want to stick to the subject at hand. But I appreciate the chance to get the phrase 'Rawlsian' in here--that you're bringing it in, you are dropping it.
Russ Roberts: I want to turn to something I don't think you talked about, much, if at all, which is tribalism. So, I see a lot of our rising[?] contempt as coming from a type, various types of tribalism. And I see your book as a way of suggesting, 'Well, we're part of a bigger tribe, that you are ignoring, which is the American tribe.' That we all really have similar, core values--you say that explicitly at one point. And that, if we can get more pleasure from being part of that bigger tribe, maybe we could dampen down, tamp down the tribalism, the inter-American rather than the American unifying tribal feeling. And, I don't know if I think that's possible any more. I don't--and this is just hard to talk about because we have strong feelings; all of us do. But I would say it this way: Do you really think there's a shared set of values across the Left and the Right today, about what America should and could be? In other words, forget the fact that Make America Great Again is a loaded slogan; forget the fact that it's associated for better or for worse with one party and one person right now; and forget the word 'Again.' Let's just say, 'Make America Great,' or 'Love Our Country.' Which is a theme of your book. What are we going to rally around? What shared values do you think we have? Because, I see so many now across the political spectrum we don't share.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah; no. It's easy to find the stuff we don't share right now because we're focusing most on the stuff we don't share. And this is--ordinarily what happens when--social scientists, they call it a bonding social capital. Typically it happens oppositionally. 'Who am I?' 'Well, I'm not sure; but let me tell you who I'm not.' You know, that's ordinarily what we find in times typical of really big and bad polarization. Which, obviously, we see today. However, the other--the same literature on social capital finds that bridging social capital, which talks about national stories. And this is sort of the national myth or the myth of a people which unites them around common moral values, can be so much more powerful. It takes more work. It takes better leadership. And it takes a certain sort of ecosystem, a set of circumstances--to be sure--which is one of the reasons I wrote the book, is to try to urge that along a little bit. But what social scientists like Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have found is that they can be just way more powerful and enduring, under the circumstances. So, your question is the right one--
Russ Roberts: What's the story?
Arthur Brooks: you know, is it possible that we can actually get that back? I mean, what is the story, any more? When I talk to people--and again, when you give 175 talks a year, a lot on college campuses, everything from conservative activist events to, you know, rooms full of social workers. I mean, I have Right, Left, and Center. And, hard Left and hard Right, along the way. I don't find anybody who objects to the idea of the radical equality of human dignity and the limitlessness of human potential. I just--I don't. I don't get people rebelling against the idea that those things are good.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; those are good.
Arthur Brooks: And, you know, that's the reason I came into the free enterprise movement in the first place. This is one of the things that--you know, my wife who is an immigrant, she just loves this country so much because we kind of believe these things. And, you know, some people try to get them in a way that I think is wrong, and I think is unproductive. And I think a lot of our post-modern conversations, on the Left and on the Right, are just really, really misguided on that. But, deep down, most of the people that I'm talking to, they are making dignity arguments. And they are making human potential arguments. And, you know--those--Russ, I can work with that stuff.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, let me ask it a different way. And I'll put us back in our think-tank hats for a second. At one point in the book, you mention--it's a very casual paragraph--about the difference between liberals and conservatives. It's not the point of the paragraph, but in passing you mention it. You mention things like their differences in their view of taxation, the size of the military budget, regulation. And certainly those are things that liberals and conservatives are going to disagree on. But they strike me as the issues that most people aren't angry about, these days. They may disagree. But what they are angry about are those identity issues. They are angry about--I would describe it as nationalism versus cosmopolitanism--which I think is really the challenge to implementing what you just said, which was beautiful but in a national setting has gotten harder--
Arthur Brooks: Much harder. Yes.
Russ Roberts: So, one: What do you think of that fact--excuse me--that claim that the dividing issues have changed in the last 5-10 years? And, also--obviously in Europe, as well, not just in America. And--well, let's start with that.
Arthur Brooks: I think it's right. You know, the issue that people will really come to blows over, reliably, is abortion--in the United States. And, part of the reason that that's the case is that--it's hard to find any middle ground. Middle ground is a really tricky thing to find. Ironically, most people have a kind of a middle-ground view on abortion. But, as Megan McArdle has written really compellingly, about, when you think clearly about abortion you are on a razor's edge, in a way. And so you kind of fall off to one side or the other. The only way to maintain the middle ground is to not think very much about it. and so, that's an issue that has really sucked up a whole lot of oxygen. And so, that requires, you know, for those of us that are in public policy leadership positions and that are trying to bring people together, that's a big challenge. You know? So, what of a situation like the abortion issue should we be trying to control on the supply side? or, what should we be actually trying to change on the demand side, for example? And, I think there's actually a much bigger role than we've given credit for to policy analysts that have social science techniques and economists who actually use the vernacular in understanding economics--the structure of the arguments. I mean, in other words, Russ, there's still a role for what you and I learned when we suffered through our Ph.Ds. in this kind of argument. On the big, sort of nationalism versus the cosmopolitan issue--
Russ Roberts: Yeah; that's the tougher--that's where immigration comes in--
Arthur Brooks: Really, it does--
Russ Roberts: Your whole identity of what's your role in life? Are you just a person who happens to live within the borders of the United States? Or are you, "an American"? And, I think a lot of people are increasingly willing to be the former and not the latter. [More to come, 58:17]