The Genteel Nation

Published: September 9, 2010
  • Most people who lived in the year 1800 were scarcely richer than people who lived in the year 100,000 B.C. Their diets were no better. They were no taller, and they did not live longer.

David Brooks

Then, sometime around 1800, economic growth took off — in Britain first, then elsewhere. How did this growth start? In his book “The Enlightened Economy,” Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University argues that the crucial change happened in people’s minds. Because of a series of cultural shifts, technicians started taking scientific knowledge and putting it to practical use. For example, entrepreneurs applied geological research to the businesses of mining and transportation.

Britain soon dominated the world. But then it declined. Again, the crucial change was in people’s minds. As the historian Correlli Barnett chronicled, the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce, tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.

This history is relevant today because 65 percent of Americans believe their nation is now in decline, according to this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. And it is true: Today’s economic problems are structural, not cyclical. We are in the middle of yet another jobless recovery. Wages have been lagging for decades. Our labor market woes are deep and intractable.

The first lesson from the economic historians is that we should try to understand our situation by looking for shifts in ideas and values, not just material changes. Furthermore, most fundamental economic pivot points are poorly understood by people at the time.

If you look at America from this perspective, you do see something akin to the “British disease.” After decades of affluence, the U.S. has drifted away from the hardheaded practical mentality that built the nation’s wealth in the first place.

The shift is evident at all levels of society. First, the elites. America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism.

It would be embarrassing or at least countercultural for an Ivy League grad to go to Akron and work for a small manufacturing company. By contrast, in 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard graduates and 43 percent of female graduates went into finance and consulting.

The shift away from commercial values has been expressed well by Michelle Obama in a series of speeches. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she told a group of women in Ohio. “You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. … Make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry.” As talented people adopt those priorities, America may become more humane, but it will be less prosperous.

Then there’s the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show,” not the Kramden family of “The Honeymooners.” As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared. The trade deficit exploded. The economy adjusted to meet their demand — underinvesting in manufacturing and tradable goods and overinvesting in retail and housing.

These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers. One of the perversities of this recession is that as the unemployment rate has risen, the job vacancy rate has risen, too. Manufacturing firms can’t find skilled machinists. Narayana Kocherlakota of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank calculates that if we had a normal match between the skills workers possess and the skills employers require, then the unemployment rate would be 6.5 percent, not 9.6 percent.

There are several factors contributing to this mismatch (people are finding it hard to sell their homes and move to new opportunities), but one problem is that we have too many mortgage brokers and not enough mechanics.

Finally, there’s the lower class. The problem here is social breakdown. Something like a quarter to a third of American children are living with one or no parents, in chaotic neighborhoods with failing schools. A gigantic slice of America’s human capital is vastly underused, and it has been that way for a generation.

Personally, I’m not convinced we’re in decline. There are strengths to counter these weaknesses. But the value shifts are real. Up and down society, people are moving away from commercial, productive activities and toward pleasant, enlightened but less productive ones.

We can get distracted by short-term stimulus debates, but those are irrelevant by now. The real issues are whether the United States is content with gentility shift and whether there is anything that can be done about it in any case.

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‘The ambulance is more Muslim than you’: Abdul Sattar Edhi

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

abdul sattar edhi

That was the answer Abdul Sattar Edhi gave to a question when once asked ‘why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulance?’ By any stretch of imagination, Abdul Sattar Edhi is an enigma to most people. None of us truly understand him. I often think that Edhi walks a fine line between passion and lunacy. I am not able to comprehend why this man insists on doing what he does, in the capacity that he does it, for as long as he has done it for. The heart wants to register it, but the mind questions the motive. Motive. What the hell is his motive? Please, someone tell me what this man’s motive is.

Through no easy deduction, I submit that I have discovered the answer to my question. It has taken every critical bone in my body to genuinely understand the answer, but folks, I can safely say that I have finally reached a verdict: there is no motive. There is. No. Motive. Edhi has destroyed my carefully built assessment of Man over the years. He has ruined my calculated analysis of the weaknesses of people. That he has negated all my years of hard earned views on Man single handedly almost leaves me infuriated with him.

He has forced me to start over from scratch. For that, I cannot forgive him.
This is a man that I cannot imagine my own life without. Mind you, I have never met him. I don’t want to. There isn’t a single day in my life that has collectively added up in honor to justify me being able to sit opposite Edhi. I have at best, been able to find the courage to go and drop off some extremely basic things at one of his many, many, charity centers the world over. While there, I stay for just long enough to try to fathom what all this man has done for my country. Being an impossible task, I soon give up trying to reach to the bottom of that barrel and leave very quietly. I imagine it is pretty much what anyone would do.

For those unaware of who this man is, let me put it in a very simple way: Hollywood has Batman, Superman, The Hulk, and Spiderman. Pakistan has Edhi.
What has inspired me to write about Edhi? He certainly doesn’t need any more press validating his incredible efforts or work done. He already has, safely locked away, the hearts of some 170 million people. But yesterday, I was brought to my knees by an action I witnessed that for lack of any other descriptive word, I can only describe as ‘Edhi’.

I was in a market in Karachi buying some movies. As I turned to leave for my car, I was fully ready and in anticipation of the small army of beggars I would confront before actually reaching my car. The well trained and relatively well meaning average person already has a few small notes ready in pocket to quickly disperse so as to satisfy some of the beggars, yet be quick enough to plot for a speedy getaway. I too was ready.

As I made my way, a few kids and some adults quickly made their way towards me. I took out three 20 rupee bills and handed them to the three that looked most dressed for the part. 60 rupees and a satisfied conscience later, I reached my car, and quickly got into it. Of course, I still had to wait for a friend who was still in the store. While waiting, a young man no older than 18 years came to my window. He spoke through the raised window with just a loud enough voice that I could make out what he was saying. It started off relatively standard. He told me that he isn’t a beggar, but that he is genuinely very hungry and hasn’t eaten anything all day. He went on to say that he does get daily wages for work he does on a construction site, and that today had just been a bad day for him of no work, and hence no money. He was good. Very good. I was sold. In fact, I was more then sold. I was suddenly very sad. I concluded that I had to help him however I could. The irony is, I am the farthest thing from being a ‘good’ man. This is no reverse psychology. I am truly, incredibly average.

I went into my pocket, however, to take out some change, and the only thing I had left was a 500 rupee note. By anyone’s measure, that is a lot of money to give to any beggar. As I mentioned, I’m not a noble man, and I don’t pretend to make a habit of it. I guess he was just good enough at the moment, and I was weak enough at the moment to give the whole 500 to him. His eyes practically popped out of his sockets when he saw the note, and in excitement, he accepted it and showered the usual blessings on me. He went away to the little hotel right next to where we were. I could see him get a bun kebab sandwich and a drink that must have together cost about 85 rupees.

While I was waiting for my friend, I saw him walk to the next store, where outside there was a collection stand for Edhi. You have already anticipated what I’m going to say. That young hungry man put the remaining money he had into Edhi’s drop box for the Flood Relief fund. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I quickly got out of the car, and called the young man over to me.
I asked him why he just did what he did. I also told him that I had given him that money because he himself was poor and he didn’t need to do that. He told me, burger and drink in hand, that his countrymen were under water, and that the only man that could help them was Edhi. He said his hunger was now satisfied, and that he was confident of having paid work the next day, and so he was ok. He went on to say that he was a dumb and helpless person, who couldn’t help anyone even if he knew how, but that Edhi would find a way. He smiled at me, chomped on his burger, and walked away. I was destroyed. I can’t remember the last time I felt the way I did. I just sat back in my car.

My friend came back, got in the car, looked at me, put on some music, and we drove away. I didn’t mention what I just saw. It was pointless. It was just the moment in itself and it didn’t need rewinding.

As I left the market, I couldn’t get Edhi out of my mind. What level of reliable kindness does it take for an incredibly poor and hungry soul to give away his lion’s share of money and put it into the care of a man he’s never met? More importantly, how powerful a name does one have to have, in a country where names are easily trampled on, that an unprotected drop box miles away from Edhi himself satisfied this young man’s trust enough to blindly drop that money into it. Such is the power of this thin, fragile, 80 year old man who lives with his equally kind hearted wife in one tiny room of one of his charity centers.

With a body that can hardly move a small table, this man has moved an entire nation. I would thank Edhi for all that he has done if thanking him was enough. I would recommend the Noble prize for Edhi if that could sum it up. I would do this if I could.

I would do that if I could. In truth however, none of it would matter to him. None whatsoever. And that is what makes him so great. So, so, great.

edhi foundation

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