The Money Culture War

[This Thursday re-run first appeared September 30, 2009.]

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a column worth reading by David Brooks. It is a little confused, even by the standards of Times columns, but the British Tankgist of it is a call to arms for a brand new culture war, this one over money.

I’m all for that.

Brooks starts out by recalling a centuries old idea.

The theory was that great nations start out tough-minded and energetic. Toughness and energy lead to wealth and power. Wealth and power lead to affluence and luxury. Affluence and luxury lead to decadence, corruption and decline.

This was a theory invented for, and more or less exclusively applied to, the fall of the Roman Empire. But don’t let the fact that it’s long since been cast aside by historians distract you. Brooks thinks we’ve gone soft.

In the good old days (pre-1980, apparently) we Americans kept ourselves tough and energetic no matter how rich we got. No luxury or decadence here. Nope. Not the American way. We’re strong.

That’s because despite the country’s notorious materialism, there has always been a countervailing stream of sound economic values. The early settlers believed in Calvinist restraint. The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west. Waves of immigrant parents worked hard and practiced self-denial so their children could succeed.

Yeah, okay. But let’s call a spade a spade here. The reason we didn’t let our riches become complaisant luxury is because no matter how rich we got, we wanted to get richer. Those are our sound economic values. Calvinist restraint was not motivated by the shame of public ostentation, it was motivated by a belief that you should save and invest to become as wealthy as possible, because divine favor was manifest in material success.

And here is where Brooks gets really confused, telling us that our moral decline began when we started legalizing gambling and when "executives and hedge fund managers began bragging about compensation packages."

I know many executives and hedge fund managers and I’ve never heard one brag about their compensation package. Of course, all of them have an earnest desire for even larger wheelbarrows full of money. But how is that not in keeping with our traditional Calvinist culture?

Brooks’ contribution is to call for a new culture war to get the nation back on track economically. You are familiar with the old culture war, aren’t you? That’s the fight between those that want to destroy evolution and those that want to destroy Christmas. It’s hugely important to hundreds of people.

As I said, I’m all in favor of a new protracted fight over our money culture for the hearts and minds of op-ed contributors everywhere. I might even get a book deal out of it.

But it seems to me that our core culture is unchanged and unthreatened. Supersized restaurant portions aside, we haven’t gone soft. We still want to get richer and are prepared to work hard and go without to do so. We just can’t figure out how to do it anymore. Our economy has grown and evolved to the point where our basic instincts to accumulate more are not enough. There is no 21st Century equivalent of "Go west young man." For most Americans, the problem is not a lack of drive to get richer, it’s a lack of knowledge. And, as I probably don’t need to add, mainstream personal finance advice is not helping much.

So let the war commence! I’m not sure what the sides are exactly, although I think that whatever they are Brooks and I are not on the same one. Still, this does sound like fun.


  • By jim, September 16, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    “The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardship during their treks out west.”

    I think if the government offered free land today that we’d also see some people volunteer to trek towards it.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, September 16, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    Trek? You mean drive in our SUVs with satellite radio and a DVD system for the kids, don’t you?

  • By mwarden, September 17, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    Do you think there was as much talk about “fixing” income disparity back then? Here is a post on reddit from yesterday that basically says “this person has too much money, so we ought to take it from her through taxes”

  • By Craig, September 17, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    I understand the kids these days require independent DVD systems so they don’t have to all agree on which video to watch next.

    The cycle of vigor–prosperity–decadence–fall was perhaps best articulated by the scholar Ibn Khaldun, one of the most unjustly ignored historians and philosophers of the western tradition ( He probably deserves the title “Father of Sociology,” but the sociology books all seem to prefer pinkos like Marx and Weber.

    The link between “divine favor” and “material success” is one of the most important things you can possibly learn about American history. In fact, it’s kind of a magic key that unlocks so much else about our history and our psyche. But, again, it’s something they just don’t talk about in history classes. That’s maybe the one place I’d like to see more religion in the public schools, because I’d like to see more people seriously thinking about this “prosperity Gospel” stuff.

  • By jim, September 17, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    Frank, I don’t know if the trip is over 500 miles I think I’d rather fly.

    Mrwarden, which “back then” time frame you asking about? The Socialist Party got 6% of the vote in the 1912 presidential election. For most of the 20th century top marginal tax rates were over 70% and they peaked at 94%.

  • By Boston Steve, September 20, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    The pioneers volunteered for brutal hardships because all the land on the east coast was taken by rich white men through European chartered companies. Read “History of the Great American Fortunes” by Gustavus Myers:

    The more things change the more they remain the same….

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