On Idealism Versus Cynicism

I know from Twitter interactions that Peggy Noonan is not everyone’s favorite essayist. But I like what she has to say in her February 18, 2014 blog post “Our Decadent Elites.” She starts by talking about the TV series “House of Cards”:

“House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there.

Peggy points out how, rather than dispute the picture of Washington given by “House of Cards,” many Washington politicians “embrace the show and become part of its promotion by spouting its famous lines”. And she brings in the folks on Wall Street by flagging Kevin Roose’s fly-on-the-wall account of financial bigwigs at play in the New York Magazine: “One-Percent Jokes and Plutocrats in Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society.”

What I like most is Peggy’s picture of how things should be. She writes:

We’re at a funny point in our political culture. To have judgment is to be an elitist. To have dignity is to be yesterday. To have standards is to be a hypocrite—you won’t always meet standards even when they’re your own, so why have them?

Judgement, dignity and standards are the watchwords. And here is her picture of the white hats (which is my attempt at a gender-neutral equivalent of “the good guys”):

No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”

Highlighting the key words, that is: 

  • earnest outsider,
  • sober steward,
  • grind,
  • carrying a cross of dignity,
  • staid,
  • willing to say “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession."

I think that often, doing good can be more fun than Peggy suggests. But in the tough cases, this is a good picture of the kind of idealism we should all strive for–and never be ashamed of.

The need for such idealism cuts across all professions. For example, as I wrote in "When Honest House Appraisers Tried to Save the World,”

Being a bond-rater may not seem like the kind of job that could save the world, but it was. In particular, the financial crisis that has cost us so dearly since 2008 could have been avoided if the bond-raters had refused to stamp undeserving mortgage-backed securities as AAA.

On the whole, I am impressed with the degree to which the economists I know put truth first, and how seriously they take the responsibility to push public policy in constructive directions. And for unabashed idealism, the blogosphere is like a shining light in comparison to the darkness that Peggy sees in the halls of power.

But is idealism a chump’s game that can only lead to personal disillusionment? I don’t think so. As I wrote in my 2013 Christmas column “That Baby Born in Bethlehem Should Inspire Society to Keep Redeeming Itself”:

… the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way.

For those who have something worthwhile to say, there has never been a time in the earth’s history when it was easier to reach more young people to make one’s case. And somewhat parochially, I can’t help thinking that young economists are an especially important audience. (Here I include among economists all those who love economics, regardless of their level of formal training.) The world listens to economists–and will continue to listen to at least that subset of economists who put truth first, ahead of personal gain and partisan commitments.

The wheel of time turns, and today’s darkness is swept into the grave (sadly, along with much that is very, very good). Let us create light for the future; then in the future there will be light.

Update: In a tweet, Claudia Sahm speculates about the operative definition of “young.” My answer in that convo was this:

My image of “young” is someone who does not yet feel powerful, but is likely to have more influence in the future than now.

I have the sense that not yet feeling powerful often makes people more open to persuasion, starting with the time and willingness to hear out a new idea. “More influence in the future than now” has different timelines for different kinds of influence. Those under 18 are on a track to having more influence as voters in the future than now. Peak influence within economic in hiring and tenure decisions, and as journal referees and editors comes later. Peak influence within an organization like the Federal Reserve Board probably comes later still in the life cycle.