Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Editor-at-Large of the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, had a thought provoking discussion on Kristol’s “Conversations.”
Recorded on April 24th, the interview discusses several hot topics in today’s news, including society, politics, education, and history. Kristol and Sasse also discussed Sasse’s upcoming book, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, which will be released on May 16th. The book is already listed on Amazon’s #1 Best Seller’s List.
When discussing the upcoming book, Sasse referenced Senator Pat Moynihan’s famous “Everyone is entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts” quote.
“…in advance of the “fake news” crisis, I’ve believed we’re headed toward a place where there is just more and more subjectivism and we don’t have a lot of shared dialogue, and it’s because we don’t start with shared facts,” Sasse said. “In the Senate, we rarely agree what problem we’re even tackling before we start bickering and arguing about process. So, partly that, and partly because of Moynihan’s concern about family structure in the mid-1960s. Even though I’m the third most conservative guy, I think, in the Senate by my voting record, I’ve been a big fan of Moynihan’s since my undergraduate days.”
Sasse also discussed some his early lessons from when he first began his term as a Senator in 2015.
“One of the surprise takeaways for me was that, in private, most people in the Senate believe that we have big, national problems and that the Senate isn’t actually tackling those big, national problems,” he said. “But everybody feels a little bit helpless on how to fix it. There’s a collective action problem.”
Kristol then asked Sasse if Congress is as “broken as it looks from the outside,” while asking if one should be in “despair” or “anger.”
“I don’t believe in despair,” Sasse answered. “I think anger’s pretty unproductive, but I’ll say that I think the problems are at least as big as people think, maybe bigger. I had kind of a 2×2 matrix before I got to the Senate, and maybe I won’t typologize – I used to work at the Boston Consulting Group and there was this sort of cash-cow matrix.”
“But, I won’t put people’s pictures in the four quadrants, but if you had a sort of self-interested, Machiavellian dimension, and a let’s call that “efficacy.” And then there’s a self-absorption dimension, I kind of thought that everybody in the Senate was really, really able and competent but not all that public minded.”
“Being in the institution, I actually think it’s filled with really, really fine, well-meaning people, but maybe not quite as talented or urgent about the magnitude of the problems we face as far as what leadership is required to really tackle big, national problems.”
Sasse also discussed the views of the American people, adding that he believes the Republican Party has failed to properly address income inequality.
“The really important things in life, in the American view, are not political things. Whether you’re talking about those cultural challenges and passing on a sort of robust sense of the meaning of America, which is not primarily about government. Government is about power; it’s about compulsion. Or if you’re talking narrowly about the subset of life that can be affected by power and compulsion, I think we just don’t do a very good job of talking about the moment we’re at in economic history.”
“I think the Republican Party has done just a terrible job of ceding the field about income inequality to Democrats, as if we shouldn’t all be hyper-concerned about the median American family. We should,” Sasse continued. “We can have a different debate about what the government’s role is to intervene in the midst of that, but I think that we should acknowledge that one thing that’s happening now that is new in human history is we have a shrinking duration at jobs in such a way that people are going to have to cycle through lots of different jobs and industries and vocations in their lifetime, and that’s really never happened before in human history.”
Sasse also discussed jobs, and noted that college graduates “don’t just change jobs, they change industries three times in their first decade post-college.”
Sasse says that his book is “not at all about politics” and the focuses on the “need” to have a conversation with young adults about “self-reliance” and “work ethic.”
“My book is about the sort of preconditions for work anchoring lives. Because it isn’t just about how do you put bread on the table,” Sasse noted. “We’re the richest people in human history. Right? We live in the richest time in the richest nation the world has ever known, and in a weird way, we have all of the symptoms and dysfunctions of affluenza.”
“I mean, if you think about trust-fund babies across the world, or folks who’ve had inherited wealth in the Saudi empire, it’s usually not very good for your soul, when you’re 12 or 14, to just be incredibly rich. Wealth should be the fruit of your labor. And it’s wonderful when people can have leisure, and when you can have time and space for reflection and for consumption, but it’s production that makes people happy.”
“I mean the data is really clear on this. If you have a meaningful job, if you get up on Monday morning and you need to go somewhere and you think that someone needs you, by and large, you’re going to be happy. If on Monday morning you don’t think you’re needed and there’s no one that needs your work, you’re almost certainly not going got be happy.”
“So, the correlation there isn’t “is my job hard?” Do my ankles hurt, or my knees hurt, or my back hurt? Do I think I get paid enough money? Do I sit next to some jack-wagon at the office who just annoys the tar out of me? It’s none of those things. Those things matter, but by and large, people in America have enough money. The median American family still has a lot of resources at their disposal. But I think, we’re lonely. I think there’s a lot of data that shows that we’ve got a problem with this disconnect between production and consumption.”
Sasse noted that during his five years as President of Midland College, he was “shocked” to find that the incoming students had “never worked before.”
“They’d never done any hard labor. I don’t mean getting a lot of dirt under their fingernails or actually having to work in the fields, which is what I grew up doing. I meant they just never really had to do any work of any kind.”
“…I fault them in a way, but mostly, I faulted their parents and my parents and our grandparents to say, “Wait a minute, what have we done to lose the transmission of a work ethic to these kids?”
“We live in a time in history where work has been so separated from the home that there really isn’t much work for kids to do when they’re 10, or 12, or 14. You don’t grow up around a house where there’s a lot that needs to be done. So, consumption, passively, becomes the thing that you use to fill your time. I think it raises all sorts of fundamental questions about meaning, and the soul, and scar tissue,” he said.
Sasse added that his book isn’t meant to be condescending.
“This tone truly in the book is not moralistic hectoring, it’s not get off my lawn, but I know how I feel when I ate way too much food, two or three or four meals in two days, and I don’t feel good. I feel a lot better when I strap a backpack on my back and my kids and I go hike a mountain. I don’t think we’re having a deliberate conversation about the fact that we are rich, and we are sort of collectively spoiled. Again, this is not just a rich person’s problem, this is a civilizational problem where work is a not a part of our coming age experience.”
Sasse also addressed the “grade 13 problem” and compulsory education laws.
“The passing of compulsory education laws was partly a byproduct of progressive concerns, noble concerns, about mistreatment of young people in factories, but the accidental byproduct of that is an assumption that somehow, we need to protect kids from work as opposed to free them up to find meaning in work.”
“So, I think it’s highly dangerous to think that the main thing 14 to 18-year-olds should do is sit still and be in a classroom, inside, for the majority of their waking hours Monday thru Friday. I think most people who come to be really interesting and curious and creative and dynamic – and by the way, it’s not a choice between creativity and actual, objective, knowledge-content appreciation and understanding. I think most people flip a Socratic switch at some point, and they realize that when they’re the questioner, they’re going to go and shake the trees of the world and find a whole heck of a lot of fruit. Right? This is what Socrates is telling us when he says, “If the questioner isn’t asking the question, my answer’s going to fall on hard soil.”
Sasse also noted their family’s decision to send their daughter to a cattle ranch to work for a time, adding that she was “startled” and “scared” but she thought it was great.
“My daughter was living on a cattle ranch not because her dad’s a senator but because we’re concerned about her character development and her work ethic,” he concluded.
A full transcript of the interview can be found here.