Arnold Kling  

Hard America, Soft America

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I just breezed through Michael Barone's Hard America, Soft America. Reviewers tend to quote the following passage (p. 12).

UPDATE: see also this article by Barone which leads with the sentence I quote.


For many years I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds.

Barone's explanation for this paradox is institutional. He argues that American public schools are Soft, meaning that participants are insulated from competition and accountability for failure. Eventually, however, Americans encounter the Hard institution of the market, which forces them to develop skills and resourcefulness.

Barone's view of personal development is somewhat like my view of economic growth. I believe that economic growth results from trial-and-error learning, and that this process is stunted when organizations are insulated from the consequences of mistakes. If weak firms are not allowed to fail, then inefficient processes in the economy will persist.

What was disappointing about Barone's book is his failure to address explicitly the relationships among institutional characteristics, personal values, and political beliefs. Implicit in what he writes is the assumption that institutional characteristics shape personal values and therefore political beliefs. However, this raises the question in my mind of how competitive fields like movie-making or newspaper journalism would come to be dominated by people whose political beliefs favor softness.

In contrast, George Lakoff's Moral Politics looks to family relationships rather than institutional characteristics as the source of differences in America. He views "strict-father morality" as the basis of conservative politics and "nurturant-parent" morality as the basis of liberal politics.

For Discussion. How would you sort out the causal relationships among institutional characteristics, individual values, and political beliefs? Think of how you would use such a causal model to describe what happened in the 1980's, when Barone argues that the corporate takeover boom and increased foreign competition served to "harden" America.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
John Roth writes:

I'd tend to think that this a myth, for one simple reason: competence depends on experiance,
and how much one learns from experiance. School, no matter how good, does not develop competence. That is only developed by actually being out there, getting your hands dirty, and observing (and learning from) the results of your activities in the arenas where those results count.

John Roth

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Just what evidence does Barone adduce to support his claim?

Bear in mind that, as John says, 30-year olds tend to be more competent than 18-year olds in general, simply because of their experience. To draw the sort of conclusion Barone wants to reach he has to show that the difference in the US is abnormally large.

If he can't do that then he's just making noise.

Boonton writes:

I think the problem here is we are dressing up subjective impressions with 'hard' sounding scienctific analysis. What exactly is the distinction between being 'hard' and 'soft'? What policies are 'hard' policies? How about raising taxes to equal government spending? Is that a 'hard' policy or 'soft' one?

Boonton writes:

Just to clarify, these descriptions sound more like self-images than objective reality. The right wing would like to think of itself as 'hard' as opposed to their enemies, the 'soft' liberals.

This is just a delusion, though. The 'hard' right wing will celebrate a President who feels the Fed. Gov't must save steelworkers jobs with tariffs, provide steep tax cuts to the rich least they loose their 'incentive' for producing, spend huge amounts of money on credit and so on.

Even leaving politics let's look at the how different 'hard' and 'soft' really is. Is the world of entertainment really that 'soft'? How easy is it to make it in Hollywood? How does this compare to the business world with 9 to 5 jobs, 4% raises each year, air conditioning and unlimited internet access?

I'm speaking in sterotypes, of course, but the fact is that is all this is about.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Barone remains basically correct, but not for the right reasons. It is a question of responsibility. No one in their Twenties is given truly independent operational power. The difference lies in the demand. Students are allowed to take their time, and allowed to redo failed effort. The Business world says you will get this amount of work done per day, within a learning period, or you are gone. Educational facilities provide no real incentive. The Business world trains workers.

The 'Hardening' process for organizations shows the exact opposite: I find the majority of top Corporate officers to be some of the laziest people in the world. The can be accounted by the fact Government allows them no taxation, or tax reduction to make up for failed Profits. I would like to see a Government law-mandated Term Limit for Executives of Five years, where they were forced to find new positions on a basis where their skills are actually honed for production. lgl

Joshua Allen writes:

Since when have American 30 year-olds been "remarkably competent"? Sounds like wishful thinking to me.

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