He lauds America's "manic energy" in the pursuit of wealth, and he calls it good.
He repeats the stories that have been handed down to us: work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, think of an original idea, and you too, will have wealth beyond all measure.
Yeah. That works for some people.
According to Brooks:
This energy was first aroused by abundance, by the tantalizing sense that dazzling wealth was available just over the next hill. But it has also been sustained by a popular culture that celebrates commercial ambition. From Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, through Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale, up until Donald Trump and Jim Cramer, popular figures have always emerged to champion the American gospel of success, encouraging middle-class people to strive, risk and make money.
(Um. David. Donald Trump? Really? How many bankruptcies has he been through? And Cramer? After THE DAILY SHOW last week? Are you kidding me?)
Brooks leaves out some history. If you subscribe to Max Weber's proposition, put forth in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, then you're aware of the theory that capitalism had succeeded in Protestant countries (the Netherlands, for example) because Calvinist theology argues that your going to hell status was determined by God either before (if you're prelapsarian) or after (postlapsarian) the Fall in the Garden of Eden. You've got no chance of changing God's mind. No good works. No good living (although you should live a moral life because it helps other Christians to do the same), no pleas, are going to get you into heaven.
But, said Calvin (according to Weber), God may give you "visible signs of election." What might those be? Well, if you're working hard and making lots of money, that was a pretty good sign that God liked you better than your slovenly, poor neighbors (you can see where this might go, right? In terms of how the poor get treated?) Anyway, Weber argued that it was ANXIETY about the state of their souls that drove those good Dutch Calvinists to work their fingers to the bone to prove that God loved them.
And who were the first settlers of the United States? Puritans, an off-shoot of Calvinism.
This country was founded by people anxious about acquiring wealth to make sure that God was smiling on them.
This gospel gets dented during each of the nation’s financial crises, but it always returns with a vengeance. The late 19th century was a time of economic turmoil. Yet it was also a time when this commercial creed was preached most fervently. Andrew Carnegie published “The Gospel of Wealth.” Elbert Hubbard published “A Message to Garcia,” which celebrated industriousness and ambition and sold nearly 40 million copies. The Baptist minister Russell Conwell traveled the country delivering his “Acres of Diamonds” sermon to rapturous audiences more than 6,000 times.
“I say that the opportunity to get rich, to attain unto great wealth, is here now within the reach of almost every man and woman who hears me speak tonight!” Conwell thundered to his audiences. “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich ... Money is power, and you ought to be reasonably ambitious to have it. You ought, because you can do more good with it than you could without it.”
Oh David. So, there were a few people writing about getting rich, and there were lots of robber barons, and there were no labor unions, and most of the people who got rich got rich off the backs of labor that they worked like dogs (or locked in their workshops so they couldn't get out so that when fire broke out at the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory, all those women jumped from eighth story windows to avoid being burned to death.) Yeah! Let's go back to the era of the Robber Barons!
We're a little outraged by robber barons right now. You know? Those guys at AIG, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, and while we're at it, Haliburton.
You say there's no stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. Well, maybe a lot of people have woken up to the fact that many of these "fables" are told about men who were born on third base and thought they'd hit a triple. (I mean, even Bill Gates is the son of one of the most prominent attorneys in Seattle. He never wore rags.)
And apparently, our not-so-concerned-with-chasing-wealth president has got Brooks flummoxed. (I mean, sheesh, George Bush used the White House like some auction house to make him and all his friends wealthier.)
The president speaks passionately about education and health care reform, but he is strangely aloof from the banking crisis and displays no passion when speaking about commercial drive and success.
Um. Can I say that I like a president who is passionate about something other than money?
Here comes David's new dream:
Somewhere right now there’s probably a smart publisher searching for the most unabashed, ambitious, pro-wealth, pro-success manuscript she can find, and in about three months she’ll pile it up in the nation’s bookstores. Somewhere there’s probably a TV producer thinking of hiring Jim Cramer to do a show to tell story after story of unapologetic business success. Somewhere there’s a politician finding a way to ride the commercial renaissance that is bound to come, ready to explain how government can sometimes nurture entrepreneurial greatness and sometimes should get out of the way.
Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.
So, what I find sad about this is that there's no acknowledgment of two crucial things in this essay by Brooks.
The first is the recognition that those people who chase wealth and get fabulously wealthy? They're a minority in this country, a tiny minority, and they already own the bulk of the wealth in this nation. And, their money often comes at the price of laying off half their work force but then taking some obscene multi-million dollar bonus for being "the best and the brightest."
But here's the even more sad thing that I don't think Brooks recognizes: chasing wealth does not bring happiness. Buying, obsessive buying, the belief that buying this thing or that thing is going to make you happy? That's not commercial enterprise, David. That's addiction. That grasping, deep need to buy something, even though you cannot afford it and will have to put it on a credit card but you convince yourself that if you just own this one thing? That's insanity. Addiction. Not great for the human soul.
And even worse for the planet. Imagine if every time someone was feeling needy and shaky, they took a little walk by themself out in the fresh air. Noticed the trees and the wildflowers and the wildlife. Imagine if they took deep breaths and listened to the wind sough through the trees. Yeah. It's not going to change the difficulties of their lives, but it's a hell of a lot more healthy and soul-restoring than yet another trip to the mall. And you don't tear up the earth to partake of it.
And David? If God exists, I don't think he looks down and says, "Oh, I'm going to bless America, because they have so much money. Wow look at that speedboat and that Ferrari." I think, if I may be so bold, God might look around and see some poor child living in a stable in a war-torn area and think, "Hmmm. If only I could see her fellow human beings taking care of her, I might think that humans had figured out how to get to my kingdom."
I believe that MASTERCARD might call that, "priceless."