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No Mercy No Malice

Institutions

March 12, 2021

This week, I get to cross something off my bucket list: a byline in The Economist. Those familiar with the newspaper (how the firm refers to itself) know it doesn’t byline its writers. However, The Economist also runs an online “By Invitation” section, which has featured Madeleine Albright, Garry Kasparov, Arnold Schwarzenegger — people I roll with all the time.  So, how did this happen? I. Don’t. Know. 

Anyway, below is an excerpt (complete with adorable British spelling). The full essay is available here


American Individualism and Institutions

I grew up on stories of the second world war. During the aerial bombardment of London known as the Blitz, my mother, aged seven, had to sleep in tube stations for protection. She was given a mask against poison gas. It was difficult to put on, and frightening to wear, so a thoughtful designer had modified the children’s version with a rubber nose — my mother thought it made her look like Donald Duck. Sheltering underground with a gas mask was traumatic, but society was under threat and sacrifices had to be made. Today, when people refuse to physically distance or wear a mask at Walmart, I envision my seven year-old mother as a child, on a dark tube platform, with her awkward Donald Duck gas mask.

Once again, society is under threat — not from tanks and bombs but from an enemy one-400th the width of a human hair. The toll has been catastrophic. In America, Covid-19 has claimed more than 500,000 lives. Millions of people have lost their jobs and 40m face eviction. A generation of children have had their education interrupted or impaired.

America’s failure to defend itself against the virus is not unique, but neither was it inevitable. Other countries have beaten back the virus with fewer cases and deaths, with less interruption to daily life and at lower economic cost. The pandemic has dealt a blow to the notion that America is exceptional. Why has it fared so poorly? What is behind the refusal to adopt basic precautions, from social distancing to face masks?

In recent decades many Americans have conflated liberty with selfishness, adopting the notion that freedoms are self-sustaining, that liberty is a birthright that no longer requires sacrifice or collective action. In turn, this attitude has denigrated the institutions and traditions that yielded our freedoms in the first place and served as the connective tissue holding the nation together. These attitudes are societal comorbidities, and when the pandemic hit, the results were tragic. Despite having just 4 percent of the world’s population (and nearly 30 percent of the world’s wealth) America suffered 25 percent of reported Covid-19 infections and 20 percent of its deaths.

To respond to the pandemic — and other societal challenges — America must rediscover its communal values and its capacity for sacrifice. There will always be a place for the rugged individual in the American landscape. But we must abandon the delusion that such a figure can stand alone and isn’t obligated to sacrifice in the service of others.

American Individualism

Individualism is an essential part of the American story. The pilgrims left England on the Mayflower to freely practise their religion. Cowboys tamed the Wild West. Inventors and industrialists built the country’s commercial might. In my area of focus, technology, the idolatry of innovators is foundational. Success is the result of individual achievement, we are told, and failure comes from a lack of grit and genius. The message is seductive for the successful.

As the only child of a single immigrant mother who lived and died a secretary, I used to think I was self-made. But the truth is that I’m American-made and have benefited from a time and place of unprecedented prosperity, which dampened my failures and bolstered my successes.

To be sure, I work hard. But none of my ventures would have been possible without California’s public-education system, where I went to primary school, university, and business school from the 1970s to 1990s for a total of $10,000. I entered as an unremarkable, lower-middle-class kid. I left with credentials, a network, and my first startup. Without the generosity of California’s taxpayers, and being born in the right demographic (white, male), I’d probably still be installing shelving — my job until UCLA accepted my second undergrad application.

The same is true for many of our myths of individualism. Persistence and the plough “settled” the frontier, not a handsome white guy with a six-shooter and a pack of smokes. Cowboys were poor men who did dreary work for low wages; Hollywood and Madison Avenue morphed them into gunslinging heroes. Likewise, the wonders of Silicon Valley were built on a foundation of government-funded projects — the computer chip, the internet, the mouse, the web browser, and the GPS.

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it.

Self-Centered Politics

The modern spokesperson of America’s rugged individualism was Ronald Reagan. He captured the ethos in his famous declaration, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” It was the opening salvo to a 40-year assault on public-sector institutions carried out under the banner of liberty and supposed self-reliance.

Reagan gutted administrative agencies by appointing leaders opposed to their very mission. His first director of the Environmental Protection Agency cut the organisation’s budget by 22 percent in 22 months before resigning amid scandal. The pattern continued in bipartisan fashion: Elected leaders pared back agencies’ powers and accepted the sentiment that the default government action was inaction.

Our hostility to institutions has immolated international bodies. Consider the World Health Organisation. Mr Trump’s decision to pull America out of the WHO in the midst of a pandemic (reversed under President Joe Biden) was galling, particularly as the WHO is responsible for one of humanity’s greatest public-health accomplishments: the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s. To appreciate the magnitude of this, Google images of “smallpox” and glimpse the horror that once killed millions each year. It was a victory for co-operative, state-funded projects and it cost a mere $300m. By one estimate, America, the largest contributor, recoups the value of its share every 26 days from savings in vaccinations, lost work, and other costs.

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

Comorbidities around Us

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

Societal Antibodies

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 


Again, the full essay is online here at The Economist (non-subscribers need to register with an email address to read it). 

Finally: It’s a big week for us. Our online education startup (Section4) closed a $30 million round of financing. We’ve assembled an impressive team and an outstanding roster of teachers. 

And tonight, I’m appearing on Real Time with Bill Maher. I’m in Los Angeles for the taping this afternoon, and I’m sure it will go great. The last sentence is a lie — there’s a non-zero probability I will throw up and pass out. So… tune in. Tonight at 10pm, on HBO betamaxplusnowgo.

Life is so rich,

P.S. Section4 has added spaces to the upcoming sprint, How to Win in the Platform Economy. Taught by renowned consultant and professor Mohan Sawhney, this sprint dives into how platform businesses (think Airbnb, Roblox, Uber) dominate traditional product markets. Sign up now.

P.P.S. On this week’s Prof G Pod, NYT columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin gives us the state of play on SPACs, the markets, and tech stocks. We also hear about Andrew’s typical workday and how the pandemic has impacted his family life. Plus, I share my thoughts on why states shouldn’t receive a bailout as part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Netflix’s short video clips, Twitter’s e-commerce experiments, and whether or not you should pursue an MBA. You can find our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen

98 comments

  1. Rosie Inge says:

    My daughter, who runs her own international business, forwarded me this piece, saying she loves your writing. I turn from optimism – the pandemic has enabled people to experience the good feelings of helping others – to sadness. The ‘Government’ is denigrated all the time for all the idiotic and stupid things it does – rightly so, it must be held to account – but the balance never swings in the opposite direction, demonstrating how much good it can and should do. The problem is that we have all been taught how to save and avoid tax which means Gov departments have to cut their budgets. We should all realise that a fair amount of tax paid by everyone, especially the super rich, will enable each of us to benefit from the proper level of Government funded education, health services, justice and all other services we require.

  2. Rob Rice says:

    The work I have done for the past 30 years is a result of the lack of Doctorate preparation. Academic colleagues tell me that nothing has changed. So as I drift into my dotage I’ve helped construct a programme to help people at the beginning of their Doctoral journey. See what you think: http://www.mdciedu.com/dpp
    Ps love the tenor and content of your article

  3. Connie says:

    Amen!

  4. Francis X Bergmeister says:

    A great read but…”An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes”
    Think the taxes are not that high…based on conversations with CPAs…Here is a link to a breakdown for a family of four making $100K
    https://www.richmondsavers.com/how-a-family-of-four-with-a-100000-yearly-income-pays-only-6400-in-federal-income-tax/

  5. Samrat Dhar says:

    Prof. Galloway, you have made very salient points about the American populace at large losing respect for institutions. I also agree that the Founding Fathers intended for the country to have a stable governmental structure. But that structure in the old days was composed of only the three branches of government. Nowhere did they envision its morphing into a Prussian-style bureaucratic state of the 19th century. The agencies which have been created over the last century have little accountability to the population at large. They are comprised of appointed and not elected officials and have overreach beyond reasonable limits. Congress cannot regulate them nor can the courts question their action. The vast majority of laws are no longer passed by Congress and signed by the President. They instead take the form of regulation by unelected officials. This has resulted in a massive shift of legislative power from Congress to the executive.

  6. Georgia Pangle says:

    I agree with you right down the line, Scott. As a middle class child of the sixties and seventies, my timing was great for education and opportunity. I grew up watching WW II movies from the fifties depicting diverse foxholes of American fighters for freedom: the Brooklyn Italian kid, the Iowa farm boy, the Black kid from SC, all together in the fight for people to be free. And I believed it then, and after many incredulous, infuriating and, yes, tearful days these last several years, I want to believe it’s still true. But we have seen our weak and flabby democratic muscles fail and the time to come together, in shared sacrifice and defense of democratic institutions, is NOW. These days institutions, and the people who work in them, require our attention and support and tax dollars. I’m all for civics courses and civil service—and I will happily support these efforts with my time, and money. Let’s do it. And, great appearance on Real Time. Killed it!

  7. Philip Lay says:

    Perceptive arguments, Scott. Your last sentence makes complete sense: “Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community.” And it is at times of adversity that the community spirit is called into action. I think one of the best outcomes of the Covid crisis will turn out to be a renewal of the importance of community and individual duty rather than the widespread sense of entitlement that beknights our political and social life today. The U.S. should never have abandoned the Peace Corps and too few people sign up for the armed forces. A Corona Corps would be a superb, timely socio-political initiative.

    • Jeneva says:

      @PhilipLay – thanks for your endorsement, as a former Peace Corps volunteer. FYI: the PC Is alive and kicking!

  8. C Cook says:

    Institutions have also condoned Concentration Camps (WWII Japanese Americans), illegal activities (Obama’s IRS), complete incompetence (too many to name, but ‘fast and furious’ and VW emissions scandals come to mind), and such. The idea that the institutions are responsible for individual achievement is how bureaucrats explain away their 30 years in Civil Service as greatness. When Obama told us ‘you didn’t build that’, it was a slap in the face to the people who create the tax base he and his cohorts spent so freely. Like or hate Ayn Rand, she did characterize the role of the lone individual against the system. If she had been a Socialist, system against the lone wolf, likely she would be on a Postage Stamp.

  9. Lorna hogg says:

    Love it an articulate voice of reason Thank you

  10. Thomas says:

    I think most reasonable people would argue that there is value in institutions and believe in supporting the greater good — as evidenced by any number of barometers such as charitable giving. Where I think we have gone awry is that people now chafe at the yoke of institutions which they feel are increasingly enslaving them. That rules, upon compounding rules, are encircling and ensnaring them more on a daily basis. I think that what we are seeing is a symptom and not the disease. A visceral recoiling against the continued intrusion of government in all aspects of life. Rather than react, this feeling has caused us to overreact. That institutions no longer serve the populace, but rather the institution itself, or worse, some preferred subset of the populace. That government as a tool is like doing surgery with a hammer and not a scalpel.

  11. Ron Wilson says:

    Tax is theft. Just because government spending is out of control, this is not an excuse to embark on an even more confiscatory tax regime. The top 1% already pays 35% of the total taxes paid and the top 10% pays 66% of the total taxes paid. (IRS data).

    • Paul says:

      Thank you Senator for clearing up the authors misgivings from lack of study. How can we lower taxes for the top 10%?

    • C Cook says:

      @Paul People here want more blood. The assumption is that the ‘rich’ will give it. View of California, NY, NJ, CT say they may not. What then? Wokd Latte Makers cannot support bloated California economy with Musk, Rogan, Ellison lead the charge out.

  12. Aleksey Romanov says:

    Unrealized gains are not taxed but they are the biggest part of the wealth in top 0.1%. This phenomenon was close to non-existent before Bill Gates. So the graph 1950 vs 2018 is misleading: top 400 pay effectively zero in taxes.

  13. Bob says:

    It is astounding how without providing the full context, pundits will extract a short phrase that can be repeated as mantra, and convince a broad audience of a message unintended by its originators. Here’s a few examples regarding our irrational worship of individualism as the ultimate right, usurping all others. – Referring to “The right to bear arms” without mentioning the fact this refers to militias, not individuals…”A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” – Using as a rallying cry for individualism “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, while failing to note the very next sentence states “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Of course this presents an impossible absurdity, because if every individual has unfettered rights to do whatever they want, a functioning society is not possible. There will be enough people lacking respect for others who will attempt to impose their will and belief system on others. They will not play by the rules, because in essence there would be no rules. So how did this tendency develop, and why is not only allowed to happen but is considered reasonable? One could make arguments about poor education, lack of attention span, etc. However, I would suggest this has been a longstanding American tradition, and is founded from the acceptance of myriad newly created religious sects throughout the history of this country. Our preachers and self-proclaimed prophets would chose the message, simplify it, and get folks to embrace it, even though a cursory analysis would expose its flaws. Many people fervently think their belief system is superior and unique. And their righteousness justifies their barely tolerating those with a different viewpoint.

  14. Rick Morris says:

    Smart post. Impressive show on Maher. I agree that American ‘individualism’ has become an obstacle – grown from a romanticized myth, as in your Marlboro cowboy. It has become politicized, and militarized (militias). That and our decentralized governing system ensured that there were fifty different strategies to combat the virus where one drawn and funded by an engaged federal government would have sufficed. No one took the lead, knowing that few would follow. I’m new here, but I’m gonna stick around.

  15. John Murphy says:

    Scott, Your participation on the Bill Maher Show was truly scintillating. Your succinct, cogent quick jabs truly lit up the stage As a life long Libertarian, I necessarily question ‘all’ aspects of BIG government, and I will continue to do so. But your many sharp arguments for organized (collectivized) collaborations for the greater good hit home hard. (State-run University systems as a for instance) I realize that “Libertarianism”, when reduced to its essential theory is a non starter. But the essential theory is strong! I learned Libertarianism when I worked for Roger Milliken (Milliken & Company) for six years in the early 70’s. It was an unbelievable experience to be in a large private corporation ($3 billion in those days!) that only had ONE mission —- The goals of one man who loved efficiency more than anything else. It taught me about the power of constant measurement vs. assigned goals, “waste” and “ACCOUNTABILITY.” Your stance never seems to mention accountability. Big government is sloppy. I understand that. But politicians are never accountable for anything? If you would speak more about that, and reinforce that the country must have term limits both in the courts as well as the Congress, it would be a great addition to your brilliant philosophy. Mr. Milliken’s favorite political expression was “WHETHER YOU ARE LEFT-WING OR RIGHT WING YOU ARE ‘STILL’ A WING ON THE SAME BIRD OF PREY.” It says a lot. Politicians & Judges cannot remain in office forever! Thanks for being so sharp and insightful. It was a treat. JM

  16. Kent says:

    You certainly are the poster child for big government and big bureaucracy. Fortunately, only half of the country agrees with you.

  17. Roger Brownlie says:

    Thanks Scott. Btw, it’s not British spelling, it’s English spelling. American individualism?

  18. Fernando says:

    Hi, Scott! I always enjoy your articles. I think there is a typo in the world population which is 7.674 M, not 6.774. Thank you for sharing your opinions. Take care.

  19. Mel Osterman says:

    The destruction caused by the Reagan era: Supply Side Economics The Fairness Doctrine Legalized Stock Buybacks EMTALA Union Busting Demonized Government Tax cuts for the rich from 70% to 50% Deficit Spending normalized

    • C Cook says:

      Reagan also presided over the massive drop in interest rates, the destruction of the Soviet Union, stopping Cuba aggression in Caribbean, and the return of a growing economy. Unions shrunk themselves via corruption, something they (UAW) continue to do today.

  20. Robin Mitchell says:

    👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

  21. Dick Tater says:

    Bravo Scotty!!

  22. Joe Schmo says:

    Mask up! Get the dose of hope! C’mon Scott, you know marketing (propaganda) better than anyone. A disease so deadly we have convince people how deadly it is. Try looking outside of your liberal elite cohorts, you might find some answers that actually explain why the media and world governments are acting the way they are.

  23. Brian Waite says:

    Hi Scott, saw you on Maher’s show. I am a child of the sixties and among other radical options at the time, I became a Trotskyist. I am now lapsed, but maintain a dedication to class politics, if not revolution. I will settle for a social democratic system where capitalist enterprise is still the driving economic force. I have only a couple of bones to pick – one being your reference to identity-based zealots as leftists – they are not leftists, they are uber-liberals who support the right of transsexuals to kill and die in aid of US imperialism. Second, you should have challenged Bill when he said that the only alternative to the status quo was communism. What about Bernie’s socialist (social democratic) agenda? Regardless, kind regards – I love your passion and can say I am just as angry as you are about life in the time of Covid and late capitalism.

  24. Marcus Bierce says:

    Please re-read the Constitution, especially the Bill of RIghts, study the lives and times of the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Mellons, and take a primer on Marxist thought. The US did poorly because the large swath of the population is pre-, undiagnosed, or currently full-blown, type 2 diabetic and obese. Those individuals and groups who support those lifestyles are the cause of such terrifically sad outcomes. Sure societal antibodies are a nice idea. Yet, the US needs to study what constitutes human health, and not force everyone to become guinea pigs for experimental Big Pharma products that possess unknown long-term consequences.

  25. Anna says:

    Great job on Bill Maher last night-agreed with everything you said!

  26. Rena Levine Levy says:

    Applaud and support the concept of Covid Corps….would like to add, seniors would be another cohort who would not only benefit from being included, but bring years of experience in the work world to the table….Count me in once the concept becomes a reality….

  27. Just a Guy says:

    I’m not nearly as eloquent as most. Freedom means the freedom to fail as well as succeed. Limited governmental reach over the individual exercising free will is a necessity to this liberty. Individual moral compass – just because I can doesn’t mean I should or will- is the corresponding limit the individual is required to manifest. And yes, Scott is accurate when he points out that roads and other taxpayer funded projects are a legitimate use of governmental power and taxpayer money. Perhaps unwittingly he has referenced the Preamble to the Constitution.

  28. Carter says:

    My favorite read of the past year. It’s so eloquently stated and without any bravado or finger pointing. So well put! Thank you for this. It was refreshing and a joy to read.

  29. Susan RoAne says:

    Insightful, thought-provoking article. Saw you on Bill Maher and found you compelling. Loved your phrase “dunk on each other”. That must end. Totally agree with your eval of Gillebrand’s agenda re: Senator Franken.

  30. Amy Marr says:

    Scott, you are incredibly articulate, insightful, and thoughtful. Unlike so many others, your success is both well deserved and inspiring. Too many shallow, disingenuous people seem to reap ill-gotten rewards. I just wish that I’d been given and taken to heart your advice as a young person! In mid-life how can we recover, correct our course and have hope that there is yet opportunity?

  31. David Murphy says:

    I learn something every time I read or listen to you. Thanks for the insights. It helps that you deliver with maniacal energy. Please continue the good fight!

  32. Silvia Chudnovsky says:

    Watched you on Bill Maher. You comments were compelling. I subscribe to your newsletter.

  33. Silvia Chudnovsky says:

    The lack of empathy and the misuse of rationalization has set this country on a path of self destruction. The harm caused by last administration is beyond measure. Still I am not giving up and will continue to do all I can to leave this world better than I found it.

    • Ray Sparks says:

      I applaud you. The lack of empathy in our country amazes me, more so the older I get. People are self-centered and plain out mean. I have called out many posters on various sites for reacting before thinking – I always suggest that we take time out for a walk before reacting and espousing hatred and mean spirited sentiments which solve nothing but perhaps give the espouser 2 seconds of self aggrandisement..

  34. Phil says:

    Not one of your best posts. Confusing “Conservatism,” “Classical Liberalism” and “Federalism” is not a good look. I enjoy reading you when you stay in your lane. Or has that become boring?

    • Tom says:

      OK, so you don’t agree with some of the labels/analogies. Would you characterize this is a period of enlightenment in the USA?

    • Ray Sparks says:

      Unquestionably, we have been through a very dark period in our history and while the current administration is endeavoring to make some changes, I do not see this darkness lifting until Americans collectively come together and end the partisan divisiveness. Labels to my mind are meaningless. We need to realize that American exceptionalism is another label that serves no purpose other than promote a false sense of achievement. We are failing on so many levels – even our attempts at another label, capitalism, is failing. Corporate socialism, whether it be corporations, farmers etc must be rescinded if we are to be true to our philosophy. To my mind, we need a stronger and more vocal “middle ground” – no labels please – just good, honest, hard working Americans pulling us out of the darkness.

  35. Earl Dougovito says:

    “SINGULAR”… His finger on the pulse of the true, American Legend.

  36. David Trim says:

    Loved you on Bill Maher. Came to read your stuff. Not disappointed.

  37. ben says:

    It’s telling that you had to go back 50 years to defend the World Health Organization.

  38. Matthew Pegler says:

    God damn it Big Dog. I’ve been following you since your L2 days before Kara, Anderson, and all the other major players would come to know the Gospel of Prof G (I was so sad when your weekly videos on YouTube went away). Your core message resonated with me very strongly as it confirmed, with nuance and data, the model of reality I operate from for my marketing clients. I just want to say that seeing you make it to the panel of Real-Time tonight was a real moment. Congratulations. I am so fucking proud of you for taking the mantel of your subject matter all the way here and dropping truth bombs with style, nuance, data, and wit. Hearing your message resonate with the audience to Bill and Larry’s surprise made me emotional. Sometimes people know that something is not right but they don’t have the words or context to voice what it is. You are giving America the nuanced words for what is wrong in this moment. Whatever I can do to encourage you to keep going, I will gladly do. Congrats again Big Dog. You have had so many great moments over the past couple of years but I have a feeling this is just the beginning. Brilliant. All the best, Matt

  39. Robert Cardwell says:

    Outstanding distillation of common sense.

  40. Marina schneider says:

    It was great finally to meet you tonight. I intend to start reading everything here now and I forgive you for being on Bill Maher’s show.

  41. Mark McLaughlan says:

    Very interesting article Scott. Thanks.

  42. Vivian says:

    Wow! Two things. First: A reader who is unfamiliar with you will find this a coherent explanation of the state of our country — and a coherent explanation of the state of our country is a rare thing these days. Second: Speaking as someone who is familiar with some of your writings and podcasts, I appreciate the recurring theme of yours about the profound importance of large state university systems. To some readers, I imagine this just comes across as an acknowledgement you appreciatively make about your own “right-place-right-time” good fortune. You know better, of course. Write & podcast about it in more depth.

  43. Nilesh says:

    Scott – love your articles. I will have a slightly different take. American behavior is more individualistic than almost any society or community now or before. This is best described in Henrich’s WEIRDest people in the World (my review: https://shrtm.nu/WHho). I feel, as I write in the last paragraph of the review, that different times and eras require a society to value individual freedoms and duties differently. And societies find it difficult to make the appropriate level of a switch when circumstances change. The fatalism implicit in the assertion is neither an excuse for failures nor to claim nothing more needs to be done. We hope that in peaceful times, there are healthy debates that lead to the State assuming more powers in extraordinary times other than war. More importantly, though, we hope there are steely leaders who deploy the powers granted appropriately when the needs arise.

  44. Mary says:

    Your public institutions are under so much pressure that members of the public find they are often both unpleasant and obstructive to deal with. My American daughter-in-law was blown away by the helpfulness of the New Zealand immigration, health, police & other government departments as they sought a visa and a place in a Managed Isolation Facility for 2 weeks in NZ so that she, her NZ husband (my son) & their 2 year old son could come here to NZ to see their NZ family and help care for 2 relatives who have serious illnesses. On arrival here in January the Ministry of Education sent a parcel of age and gender relevant books and toys to help smooth the isolation of their 2 year old. The food was excellent, the hotel garden a paradise for a toddler who had been cooped up in a small Brooklyn apartment – with a little yard – for a year! ALL this plus flights back up to Auckland from Christchurch was FREE. We, the taxpayers of NZ, value a good life over a rich ( in monetary terms) one.

  45. Mike says:

    Scott – Always enjoy the thoughtful commentary, although not necessarily the political slant. Would agree that faith in institutions should be embraced and nutured. Sadly, those same institutions seem to have performance issues that causes me to wonder – do these “experts” really know what they are doing and are they be held to account for their mismanagement or outright incompetence. Those of us who have worked in the private sector know the cost of failing to meet standards and expectations – consequences for such failures seem few, if nonexistent, in government and the public sector. I hope you and your family are well and would encourage you to get another dog – we just rescued a Lab from Louisiana, 2 years after our other Lab passed away from cancer Life is, indeed, rich !

  46. Claire says:

    Excellent essay. People’s faith in government has been destroyed – by the government. I hope we can restore it. On another note, congrats on the financing round. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Section 4 classes I have taken so far and I look forward to having the opportunity to take more. You and your team have designed a really terrific experience for students and I have learned valuable concepts that I’ll be using for a long time.

  47. Scott says:

    Scott, possibly your most relevant and spot-on post ever. I couldn’t agree more. This false equivalence between liberty and selfishness, freedom and entitlement has poisoned our nation. And it’s not just the far right. The majority of towns in SF Bay Area have refused to adjust zoning laws to allow for more affordable housing–their supposedly progressive residents don’t want their exclusive enclaves invaded by less well-off (and likely brown) citizens (I know, I live in one of those towns). Opposing investing in public transit options because they don’t use them. I support your notion of a Corona Corps as a way for (1) every citizen to spend at least some time serving the public good; (2) intermixing people from all areas of the country and all income levels–trying to break down some of the barriers created by fear of the other; and (3) creating a shared experience. But we need similar programs for other age groups older than 18-24 too!

  48. Howard Fields says:

    Scott: This is the best analysis I have read regarding why the US performed so poorly in fighting COVID-19. Thank you for simply presenting the facts and for the most part leaving the politics out of this discussion. One additional suggestion to consider is the reintroduction of Civics into elementary, middle and high school curriculums. That would create fertile ground for your Corona Corps concept. Congratulations on your Section4 funding as well. It’s an idea whose time has come. You’ve clearly started 2021 on a high note.

  49. Leo says:

    Congratulations on the great article and a by-line in the world’s greatest newspaper. Hopefully you got to channel your British genes! Bill Maher, $30MM and the Economist all in one week – that’s incredible.

  50. JC Wandemberg Ph.D. says:

    Congrats on your Startup, much needed! About the US Covid death toll, most people seem to be missing the possibility of this high death toll reflecting an incredibly large number of unhealthy people in the US.

  51. C Cook says:

    Scott, you are a great mind, but you glossed over WHY Americans have lost faith in institutions. It didn’t come because of Reagan or the evil ‘right wing’. It came because the institutions themselves let down the citizens they were suppose to serve. EPA was asleep as VW cheated on the emissions test. A hack that was well known to automakers and mechanics for years. And, it was made public not by a public ‘institution’ but a couple of grad students and a PRIVATE lab. You defend WHO, an organization hijacked by the Chinese, with a SecGen elected with votes bought from despot dictators. WHO purposely IGNORED evidence of human to human spread of COVID-19, as that proof came from Taiwan, a state that was not recognized, by order of China. There is a reason why the most divisive quote from ex-President Obama was ‘you didn’t make that!’. The implication is that it takes an all-knowing bureaucracy or institution to create wealth and ‘save’ us. Left out was that it also destroys wealth and costs trust in a government. WHO incompetence cost millions of lives, incompetence from an institution many defend.

    • Alex says:

      Or the “experts” at USDA who gave America the food pyramid. Or the bipartisan free traders who gave the middle class NAFTA. Or the bipartisan Congress that repealed Glass-Steagal. Or the bipartisan Congress that approved the Iraq War. Or the bipartisan Congress that approved the TARP bailout for billionaires. Or any inner city public school administration. Or the Federal Reserve under the past 4 administrations that buys assets to buoy Wall Street. Etc. Etc. Maybe given our detached and clueless elites *more* power and money will work!

    • JRR says:

      Well put. SG has some great insights, but citing what WHO accomplished decades ago is misleading for the reasons you stated.

  52. DP says:

    A nation of toddlers. Our WW2 parents would be ashamed of what we’ve dome

  53. Marc says:

    Correct English spelling.

  54. Tien Lee says:

    There are so many gems in this article. You Sir, are talented.

  55. Threepm Nrg says:

    The Brits make everything funny!

  56. Sheila Santaw Cameron says:

    Brilliant as always – thank you for highlighting how we got here to this point in selfish individualism. Perhaps this Covid virus will plant seeds to change that identity. We have a lot of work ahead of us to rebuild public institutions and costs of public education, the U.S. tax system, and our personal social functionality! Thank you!

    • C Cook says:

      US spends massively on social, health, and educational systems. Just poorly and though self serving bureaucracies. Private and parochial schools deliver better education cheaper than bloated unionized public schools. While ‘woke’ states like California and New York botch public management of COVID vaccines, ‘backwards’ states like South Dakota and West Virginia have had much better success in partnerships with PRIVATE drug store chains. The best way to roll out vaccinations in the US is likely WalMart and not bloated state health departments. How many more people will need to die before the big government pundits wake up?

  57. Henderson Webb says:

    love this “Persistence and the plough “settled” the frontier, not a handsome white guy with a six-shooter and a pack of smokes. Cowboys were poor men who did dreary work for low wages; Hollywood and Madison Avenue morphed them into gunslinging heroes.” it’s begging to be an NFT. And “Persistence and the Plough” is a book or movie title yet to be written/produced.

  58. Michael V Conley says:

    Individual clarity can be scary, knowing who you really are requires letting go of denial and experiential avoidance. As you point out, the same is true on a cultural level. I am glad you hang out with the rich and famous, I hope President Biden reads your work. Crisis is also opportunity, I hope there is enough evidence from the last four years to convince even “conservatives” that they need to care more for the country than they do for themselves.

    • Brian Conley Jr. says:

      The data indicates the conservatives fared much better than the all-knowing liberals. I think the big takeaway from this pandemic is that people should hold themselves accountable and stop blaming everyone else but themselves for their own problems. What percentage of the people who died of Covid were obese? Roughly 80% – the remaining 20% were most likely aged 85+. The fact that there are so many people who truly believe the right thing to do is to give even more money to the War machine and their career-long politicians in Washington is mind-boggling. How many more trillions do we give the Federal Government before we finally admit a centralized Federal Government is ineffective? Lastly, in terms of best practices in management, it’s hard to find any exceptional companies where decision-making is centralized. Likewise, the Central Nervous System allocates responsibilities in a decentralized manner – there is not some massive overhead deciding what to do. We can learn a lot from studying patterns in our universe.

  59. Robert Tannor says:

    Loved the article in the Economist. And please don’t throw up on Bill Maher :).

  60. Arunas says:

    Thanks for the article. While agreeing to lots of what was written I am thinking maybe explanation is simpler. USA is mostly populated by extra large people who are around 10X more likely to have COVID complications. Accounting for this COVID stats are about average.

  61. Ben Frank says:

    Congrats on the piece. I believe you are in tune with the zeitgeist and that makes me sad. Conservatism is a very bad word or thing to be today – your suggestions and the lot of all folks who think this way are fomenting the end of our experiment in ordered liberty – it will happen Gradually and then suddenly (Hemingway). The premise is: the reason there is suffering or bad behavior is because our institutions lack the power, the money, the remit, the scope…? Respectfully disagree! Our institutions must be kept in check and ought to be criticized and under constant scrutiny – adding to their number or their powers will not achieve that great progressive ideal of the perfection of man – if we can’t get basic governmental functions (the protection of individual rights as previously enumerated – and before the woke supremacists cancel all of us and ‘progress’ us right into marxist utopia) with $4T+ on a budget of under $4T in a total GDP pool of just over $20T, well, we should not enlarge the scope no matter how cool it sounds. Since you were in Economist, my favorite dismal scientist was Dr. Thomas Sowell: “The first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.” “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” So: great: build a corps, make sure poor kids like you get to go to college, or tout the cherry-picked government innovation funded projects that work for a narrative… I’m siding with the Gipper and the constant ongoing need to uproot, diminish, check and curtail the advancing powers of all governmental authorities and bureaucracies in favor of their original purpose: protecting individuals’ freedoms.

    • Just A Guy says:

      I’m not nearly as eloquent as most. Just wanted to reinforce your comments. Freedom means the freedom to fail as well as succeed. Limited governmental reach over the individual exercising free will is a necessity to this liberty. Individual moral compass – just because I can doesn’t mean I should or will- is the corresponding limit the individual is required to manifest. And yes, Scott is accurate when he points out that roads and other taxpayer funded projects are a legitimate use of governmental power and taxpayer money. Perhaps unwittingly he has referenced the Preamble to the Constitution.

  62. Jay Ryan says:

    Thought provoking as always. Much to agree with—and to quibble with. The strongest point I’d like to add is that institutions and bureaucracy, particularly executive agencies, have grown way too large, powerful, and invasive in our lives. Many are practically answerable to no one. Our laws are not written by elected representatives but by permanent creatures of the bureaucracy. We have an upper elite that moves amongst the universities, think tanks, NGO’s, elected offices, high appointed offices, and the media, and a secondary elite that runs the Washington DC and state bureaucracies. American people no longer identify with those who control more and more of their lives. Respect for institutions suffers accordingly.

  63. Erik Stuebe says:

    Thanks Scott! This is one of the most thoughtful and insightful views I’ve read on the state of affairs in the U.S. in quite awhile. The Biden administration is certainly moving us in the right direction, but there’s much more work to be done.

  64. Lee says:

    Well said.

  65. Chris Bell says:

    Spot on as usual. I’ve been recommending your podcasts and especially Algebra of Happiness lectures to all the young people I know who are starting out in their careers.

  66. Alex says:

    Our elites bear responsibility for undermining our institutions. Elites dominate our institutions, but they are increasingly disconnected from normal people. They have nothing but callous altruism for ordinary people. They care nothing about unintended consequences or whether good intentions produce desired results. All the empathy of capitalism with the efficiency of socialism. Public education, the Federal Reserve, Republican tax cuts, environmental policy, etc. etc., and now COVID. No offense, but while respect for institutions is vitally important for a functioning society, our institutions have the respect they deserve. It has nothing to do with some ridiculous Ayn Rand bogeyman. It has everything to do with corporate America, our universities, our media, and our bureaucracy–all of which function of, for, and by the elites.

  67. Larry says:

    But my goal in life is to amass wealth, build a single family office, avoid taxes, and ensure a good life for my descendants 100 years from now.

  68. Evan Press says:

    Great piece. I agree, government does a great deal of good. I, too, am a product of CA public schools through a Masters Degree. I have lived in countries in which the govt does not make much of an effort to help citizens. Not good.

  69. H P Boyle says:

    One quibble, your chart is of marginal tax rates not actual tax rates–would be more useful with real tax rates. That being said, have you seen the NYT article this week on how the Fed drives income inequality? Makes sense to me. Part of our institutional challenge is our flawed fiscal governance system. Our Federal accounting system, if used in the private sector, would send our leaders to jail for fraud. The budgeting process, which is usually take last year and add inflation unless there is a clear crisis, it an odd way to run a credible, purposeful institution. If we persist in this, our natural advantages of freedom and tolerance with consequent innovation and productivity will be overwhelmed by better organized autocracies that get a much better bang (literally) for their fiscal buck (aka, China).

  70. Diego Denson says:

    Life is so rich. Facts! Good Luck Scott on the Bill Maher show.

  71. Edward Riley says:

    First an article in The Economist. Second, I noticed on Pivot last week that you mentioned “x,y and zed”, not “zee”. Are you a closet Commonwealther?

  72. Robert Nadler says:

    I am in total accord with your Economist article. I have been reading a lot of Mariana Mazzucato’s books on economics and they follow exactly the same line. This American ideal of individual goes back to the schism between the Scottish Enlightenment, adopted by the Founding Fathers and the French Enlightenment, adopted by European society. It is deeply ingrained and will take a major cultural and generational shift to change, but Biden is making a good start.

  73. BW says:

    Interesting perspective, but sadly uninformed. You know the old saying, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics!”… The statistics hide the lies. Does anyone find it fascinating that the supposed death rate is different in the one country with the absolute highest rate of testing anywhere in the world? Or, the country who has financially incentivized the declaration that every health issue is “COVID” so that now the annual flu in America seems to have vanished? Isn’t it amazing how financial incentives motivate “Lies, damned lies, and statistics?” Does anyone bother to consider the ACTUAL average death rate of COVID in America is around 1.8% but the W.H.O. global death rate is literally 2x that at 3.6%? While the normal US death rate from the flu is very low by comparison (when it doesn’t miraculously just vanish), the US is leading in reducing COVID mortality ( https://covidusa.net/ ). Then again, why let pesky little facts get in the way of a bash America agenda. I mean hey, didn’t the magical fairy tale miracle worker Democrats get elected and this was all supposed to be fixed?

  74. Brian Parker says:

    Scott, this piece is spot on. After 40 years in the States, I have spend the last decade and a half, living and working in Singapore and the UK. I still have homes on the West Coast that I go back to regularly. The US continues to provide a great foundation for driving a lot of of the world’s technology advancement. That said, the attitudes in the States just disgust me. People in many other Countries are so much more compassionate and community focused, willing to compromise for the greater good. For example, the US has really become a soulless land of Applebee’s, Cheesecake Factory and other Corporate Chains vs. local pubs, cafes and restaurants. The “fibre” that connects is one another is just gone. It’s sad.

  75. Johannes Factotum says:

    A brilliant synthesis of your thinking, and an exemplar of “Americanism” about which I can be proud. Congratulations, and thanks.

  76. Jockular says:

    Great Economist piece! Once, traveling in UK, I tried to buy a copy in a small town. The woman in the News Agent’s responded: “ECOMMUNIST? We don’t carry THAT one …. ” (NoJoke!)

  77. Anna says:

    Scott perfectly said!

  78. Doug says:

    Classic Scott. Blame conservatives like Ronald Reagan for being correct. Let me get this straight, China has repeatedly let loose infectious diseases on the world because of their terrible dictatorship which we slap on the back and Ronald Reagan is the asshole? Gtfo.

    • Grier says:

      I often wonder what prompts comments like this. Conflation makes absolutely no sense.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree with the sentiment Doug, I have to parse out the politically bias to get value from the Prof. Even though we do disagree politically and comments on here line up on the usual political lines, I do find value from his insight. Not this article so much though…

  79. Davis Liu says:

    Congratulations on these successes, calling out BS, and inspiring all of us not only to be better individually but also help those around us when we can. Because it was the Regents of California and the CA taxpayers that gave Scott a chance. It’s time we return to that world not for me per se, but for our children and their children. Enjoying the Sprint March 2021 group!. TY!

  80. Paula says:

    Amen

    • Paul Lubitz says:

      Here is my takeaway: “In order to be trusted, those institutions must be “Trust Worthy”. (perhaps they can meet us halfway?)