Paul Pillar

The Selfish Society and National Power

Frank Bruni had a thoughtful column the other day about how rarely anyone, including our leaders, talks about sacrifice anymore. That means sacrifice in personal situations for the sake of a larger national good. Bruni mentions several factors as both manifestations and causes of the children of the Greatest Generation being so much more selfish than their parents. These include the diminishing proportion of the population that performs military service and “the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists.”

The most conspicuous characteristic of the now-dominant pattern of selfishness—which extends to not only the children but also the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation—is an overriding priority given to the acquisition of personal wealth. It is the pursuit of wealth as a value for its own sake, or as a means to nothing other than high net worth and conspicuous consumption. It is especially, consistent with other ways in which American society has moved increasingly to winner-take-all rules, the aspiration to acquire great wealth.

The attitudes involved echo some patterns in earlier periods of the nation's history. Gilded ages come and go. Over the last half century, the principal trend has been a long one away from the sense of national obligation and sacrifice of which John Kennedy spoke to the selfish society that we see today. Bruni notes that Jimmy Carter, the only president since Kennedy who tried to interrupt this trend by telling us to don sweaters and turn down thermostats, was ridiculed for doing so. Even during his presidency Carter was able to observe, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” This pattern is even more pronounced now than when Carter was in office.

This circumstance raises many issues of domestic equity, fairness and meeting the needs of large portions of the citizenry. But set those issues aside and consider just what this pattern means for the overall strength of the United States, bearing in mind how that strength affects how well the country can assert its interests in world affairs. We are all familiar with free-market concepts, dating back to Adam Smith, that explain how economic activity motivated at the individual level by personal aggrandizement can lead to a bigger and more prosperous economic whole. But among the portions of the economy that have grown most conspicuously in recent decades have been ones whose contribution to that bigger and more prosperous whole has been minimal or nonexistent. In short, they are parasitic.

This is true of large parts of that much-ballooned segment of the economy known as the financial sector. Parts of that sector provide the important function of efficient allocation of capital. But other parts do not, and some of the latter are among the most obvious models for aspiring titans of the latest gilded age. An op-ed by Roger Lowenstein discusses just one example: high-frequency trading, the computerized practice of split-second moving in and out of equities to take advantage of even tiny inefficiencies in the market. Some big fortunes have been made from this practice. And as one former trader testified to a Congressional committee, the practice has “no social benefit.” Instead, it is “a destructive force in the market,” as illustrated by the flash crash two years ago. It is easy to find other examples. They include the creation and peddling of some of the instruments that were most involved in the financial meltdown four years ago. And they include the manipulation of debt, fees and corporate control that are the techniques of private-equity artists.

All of this gets to what was perhaps most wrong about Mitt Romney's now-infamous statement about the 47 percent. It is not just that there is no segment of the U.S. population that fits the entire description he offered in terms of economic status, personal aspirations and political preference. It is not even only that there is far more dependence on government, in terms of dollar value, in the upper reaches of the other 53 percent, certainly when taking tax preferences into account. The biggest mistake is that being a parasite rather than a producer is not only, or even chiefly, a matter of receiving a check from the government.

Some of the financial methods that are destructive rather than productive can have a direct impact on matters that go beyond that nation's shores. The international contagion involved in the financial crisis demonstrates some of the ways. As for high-frequency trading, Paul Sullivan has an interesting analysis of how that side of financial markets threatens to amplify the negative repercussions of any political and security crisis in the Persian Gulf.