Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.
Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a lament of a bizarre trend in American civil society - as institutions have become less elitist and more open, the trust that people place in these institutions has decreased. He certainly does not want to hearken back to the discrimination of the past, but his rose-colored view of the past is in need of strong skepticism.
Institutions today are more open and transparent than ever before. There has been a democratization of investigative tools - cameras are cheap, connections to others are quick and gatekeepers that used to screen this information are no longer in power. We know more information about more things than humanity has ever previously experienced. Even the National Enquirer is writing possibly Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative pieces.
Yet as this information has increased dramatically, our ability to adapt our standards to the deluge has not caught up. We still expect our politicians to be pure, and we are outraged over the abuse of public funds. We distrust the mainstream media, but then proceed to believe a blogger with little more than a computer and an opinion. But has anything really changed? Is our world really more corrupt and less trustworthy, or are we experiencing a classic problem in statistics - we are beginning to detect what has always been in existence.
There are voluminous examples of scandals throughout the years, so we cannot claim that the good people of the past were entirely pure. I doubt people are sleeping with their staffs more than in the past or stealing money in more significant amounts (inflation-adjusted of course, for both sex and money).
There has been a theme in the media, and Brooks has submitted to it, of lionizing the immediate past as a time of greatness. This example of corruption shows just how dangerous such thinking can be. The world was not less corrupt, but when we allow the history to fade away, we may forget that times were just as bad now as then.
Outside of corruption, Brooks also criticizes the obsessive focus on the short term over what he perceived was longer-term thinking in the past. He writes that the old system of corporate family dynasties ensured that a company would focus on long-term profits because the company would one day be handed off to the CEO's heir.
Again, one needs to take one look at the immediate history to see that the evidence does not match this view. A perfect example is the Cuban Missile Crisis, an example of the kind of slow thinking and methodical approach that we should appreciate (I am, of course, being facetious).
The speeding up of life and the focus on the short term is not due to an antiquated form of corporatism, but like corruption, the increase in information on institutions. Wall Street adjusts its evaluation of the value of a company as information comes in as the flow increased, so did the speed of the changes of the price. While society certainly has an effect on mentality, and it does not help that business schools teach the bottom line exclusively, it is hard to argue that the internet and the concomitant increase in information has not played a substantial role in the increase in short-term thinking.
Why then do prolific and high profile writers keep trying to remake this glorious past? We live in a different world, with different rules and players. We cannot expect to change the game back to the way it once was. Instead, we must be constantly vigilant of those who would revere the past and attempt to block society's progress.
My message is one of skepticism. Brooks' column is an ode to a time that did not exist, and likely never will. There have been many recent examples of this genre in the media. We may be in the Great Recession, but we also need to keep perspective on where we are and what we face. Without it, this country will never recover.
Posted on February 24, 2010