I’m a parent, and now a grand parent and I’ve certainly indulged in what seems to be a favorite, perhaps the most favorite pastime of parents, and to a much lesser extent grand parents (who after all have learned something about how little their words have influenced their children) — that of telling my children what to do.
Didn’t we always tell them to do the right things, while all the time not appearing to be insensitive to who they were and in particular to how they were different from us? But how many times did our words — do your homework, get home early, have safe sex (if we were of a more liberal persuasion) — how many times did our words significantly influence their behavior?
Actually parents telling their children, teachers their students, pastors members of their flock, editorial and op ed writers their readers, the country’s elected leaders their constituents, and many others telling others, all of them probably believe that their words can change people’s actions and consequently their lives for the better. And of course there is little or no evidence that their words have such power.
This sort of thing, believing that words can influence behavior, is now, and probably always has been, a national pastime. And in fact people do change, good things that should happen do happen, —women getting the right to vote, Blacks obtaining full civil rights, and right now gays and lesbians being about to be able to serve openly in the armed forces, but these good things don’t come about by our telling people to change, by our telling people what to do. **
In each one of the cases mentioned the people most affected forced by their actions the rest of us to make the appropriate changes, to do what we had to do. But as long as the particular rights sought were ours to give or withhold they were not accorded.
Now given our at present depressed economy accompanied by high unemployment not a day goes by that we don’t hear from people, and not only economists, about what our country needs to do to set things right. If they could at least agree on their prescriptions but they don’t.
Just this week, in a cover story in Time Magazine, Fareed Zakaria, joined the chorus of those telling us what we need to do if we would keep the American Dream alive. While admitting that his prescriptions would be difficult to apply he goes on to make than anyway:
“…cut some spending, pare down entitlements, open up immigration for knowledge workers, rationalize the tax code, make large investments in education and training, research and technology, innovation and infrastructure”
Zakaria places himself among the many who are telling us that the very survival of the middle class is seriously threatened. For manufacturing that provided the bulk of middle class jobs in the past is now a much smaller part of the economy, and even the little that is left here at home faces intense global competition.
And he says, again along with many others, that the only good jobs that will remain in the United States are directly related to knowledge and innovation. The information economy needs knowledge workers, so we tell our jobless to learn new skills. And we tell our leaders in Washington to invest in research and development in order to spur innovation and job creation.
What’s wrong with all this, with Zakaria’s highly reasonable and intelligent prescriptions? Well, it doesn’t work. Nothing happens. Again words, even the right ones, “do your homework, learn a new skill, be on time at the work place” don’t have the power to change people, let alone the entrenched ways and habits of a country.
What should be our response to the Time cover story? Should we laugh or cry? For we know, alas, that his prescriptions won’t be followed.
You who have been telling your son day after day to do his homework before texting or emailing, before downloading his music and films, before hanging out with his friends, what change have your words brought about? You know how difficult it is to change your child’s habits. Doesn’t Zakaria know how impossible it is to change the “bad” habits of a country of 300,000,000 people by words, prescriptions alone?
And yet to save the American Dream and the middle class that’s all that the magazine cover story can come up with. And again you wonder whether to laugh or cry.
Why is it so hard for us to accept that telling people what to do never works? Does Zakaria really believe that his prescriptions will be heard, let alone acted upon by readers, let alone our leaders? Has spending ever been cut (what spending is he referring to, by the way?) have entitlements ever been pared down?
Why, one could reasonably ask, would such prescriptions as, for example, downsizing a government entitlement or program, ever be undertaken willingly by a legislator when by doing so he or she would probably be voted out of office?
And even in regard to what seems a simple and reasonable prescription, “open up immigration for knowledge workers.” Aren’t the people who propose this aware of the tens of thousands of “knowledge workers” already here and already citizens, and now out of work?
By our allowing knowledge workers to come in what happens to those unemployed “knowledge workers” already here? Out of work a second time? And this may be what is happening. See this story in the Washington Post, Foreign-born workers gained jobs while native-born lost them, by Shankar Vedantam.
How might we change immigration policies? Unfortunately many of those most affected, not the least of which being the 11 million or so illegals, unlike the women, Blacks, gays and lesbians, don’t have a position in public from which they might speak. About this particular situation I would cry.
Or what could be more reasonable than Zakaria’s proposal to simplify the tax code? Many are with him on this one. I know I am. And the tax code probably is, pretty much as Zakaria describes it, “a monstrosity, cumbersome and inefficient, 16,000 pages long and riddled with exemptions and loopholes.”
But this monstrosity has entrenched within it, as Zakaria admits, thousands, tens of thousands of the special claims of special interests. Who thinks that the special interests are going to allow themselves to be pushed aside by the enlightened reformers, if there still are any of these left in Washington, who would simplify the code.
About all this, specifically our all too apparent inability to correct things that have gone wrong in our country, I guess here also I would cry.
For whereas we know what to do to solve most of our problems (Zakaria’s proposed corrections couldn’t be simpler and more reasonable) we are apparently powerless to do it, and instead continue to go bungling and stumbling on in the same but more and more intolerable conditions of our urban and suburban lives. (Perhaps way out in the country words still have real meaning.)
Are we waiting for something to happen? Perhaps an even more severe economic downturn, making it that the impoverished and the unemployed among us outnumber the rest of us, and thereby become major players and force radical change upon us?
The tragedy, or comedy is that while we seem to always know what to do, and certainly what to tell our children to do, we seem to know nothing about how to take the first step.
Perhaps the children have always seen this, that all our good words do little to make things better, and because of this they turn away from us, or at least don’t listen to us. And perhaps it’s because the people see what the politicians do, or rather what they don’t do, that they don’t pay attention to what these same politicians say.
Notes**F.D.R. understood this, how real reforms do happen, how progress is made: The labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, was visiting F.D.R. to push for a favorite policy. “Make me do it,” the president is said to have replied. Perhaps the members of Congress are waiting for the public to “make” them do the right thing. They are certainly not doing it on their own. In today’s NYTimes (10/27/10) Thomas Friedman says pretty much what I am saying in this post, although in different words — “A dysfunctional political system is one that knows the right answers but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them….”