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1994: The Year in Ideas

Think Tank Transcripts: 1994 The Year In Ideas

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. As Richard Weaver oncesaid in his book, 'Ideas Have Consequences,' ideas have consequences.During this season, other discussion programs look at the majorevents of the year. Here on Think Tank we want to try somethingdifferent, to look at the ideas that have been bubbling to thesurface, which we will do in precisely 26 and a half minutes.

Joining us to discuss the influential ideas of 1994 are JudgeRobert Bork, Olin fellow at the American Enterprise Institute andauthor of the forthcoming book, 'Slouching Toward Gomorrah: ModernLiberalism, An American Decline'; Robert Wright, author of 'The MoralAnimal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology'; Jodie Allen,editor of the Washington Post's Outlook section and one of America'sleading idea brokers; and James Fallows, Washington editor of theAtlantic Monthly magazine and author of 'Looking At The Sun: The Riseof the New East Asian Economic and Political System.'

The topic before this house: 1994, the year in ideas, this week onThink Tank.

Just consider some of the ideas that caught the imagination: Deathwith dignity, the politics of meaning, the backlash against politicalcorrectness, religion in the public square, sexual behavior withinmonogamous relationships, the chaos theory of foreign policy,reinventing government, sustainable development, high-techconservatism, individual responsibility, cyberspace, free trade, letalone science notions like weakly interactive massive particles.

Some very old ideas about virtue and morality rose toward the topof the public policy agenda. 'The Book of Virtues,' a children's bookby conservative intellectual William Bennett, has been on thebestseller list for an amazing 51 weeks. Pope John Paul's 'Crossingthe Threshold of Hope' has been a number one bestseller.

Nineteen ninety-four will also be remembered for the intellectualfirestorm that erupted over Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein'sbook, 'The Bell Curve,' and its analysis of class, race andintelligence in America.

In science, new insights into our genetic makeup made us thinkafresh about the nature of human nature.

In the realm of economics, the General Agreement on Tariffs andTrade spotlighted the rapid and sometimes disorienting changes in theemerging global economy.

In cyberspace, the Internet got hot as it extended its reach intomillions of homes and offices.

And as always, the world of politics made its contribution to theworld of ideas.

Ladies and gentlemen, present your ideas. Start your engines.Let's do it quickly once around, and then we'll go with each one. BobBork.

MR. BORK: Well, I think one of the major developments this yearwas the rising concern in the public about values, which I think isreflected in part in the last election in November.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Jim Fallows.

MR. FALLOWS: I'm interested in the emerging tension between twokinds of mobility, the very great and increasing mobility of ideasand goods and technology, and the still relatively limited mobilityof people from country to country. I think that tension is going tohave some unexpected effects in the long run.

MR. WATTENBERG: In terms of refugee flows and things like that?

MR. FALLOWS: Yes, that either it's difficult when people can'tmove and difficult when they can move, too. And each of thosesituations has some consequences.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jodie Allen.

MS. ALLEN: Well, my idea, my new idea, is really an old idearepackaged for modern times. It's being pushed most forcefully byAsian Prime Minister -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir,who argues that the West's brand of dynamic capitalism is so carelessof social costs in its rampant pursuit of consumerism that it is, infact, neither efficient nor satisfying to the very people, theconsumers, that it's supposed to serve.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that's why the Malaysians live at a higherstandard of living than we do. We will come back to that.

Okay, Robert Wright.

MR. WRIGHT: Oh, I think social scientists and philosophers arefinally starting to take seriously something that biologists havebeen saying for some time, which is that there is something calledhuman nature. It's a product of evolution. And understanding it canshed light on things like life within the family, relations betweenthe sexes, and in that way can inform discussion of morality andvalues.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, four separate ideas. Let us fondle themeach briefly.

Bob, can you elaborate on what you were talking about?

MR. BORK: Yeah, I think we're increasingly dividing about ourideas of values. The general public tends to have one set of ideas,and what I might call the cultural elites, by whom I am surroundedtoday -- (laughter) --

MR. FALLOWS: Of course, you would not be a member yourself.

MR. BORK: No, no -- tend to have different ideas, moreegalitarian, more permissive. They divide, for example, on thingslike affirmative action, quotas, abortion on demand and a number of--welfare, illegitimacy and so forth, the severity of punishment ofcrime. And I think that's polarizing more than ever before on thoseissues, and the last election showed it because the moderates in bothparties tended to lose, and we now have a much more liberalDemocratic congressional party and a much more conservativeRepublican congressional party.

MR. BORK: Is that the theme of your new book, 'Slouching TowardGomorrah'?

MR. BORK: Well, there are a lot of themes in the new book, Ithink.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right.

MR. FALLOWS: I have an historical question about this, which is,at almost any given moment of history or part of the world there'sbeen a tension between an elite of that society that's always moreurbane, always more permissive in certain ways than the mass of thatsociety. How different is the situation you're describing now thanthe way humanity has always been?

MR. BORK: Well, I don't know that humanity has always been thatway. I don't think, for example, that in many societies theintellectual and cultural elites felt alienated from the society atlarge. I think that's a modern phenomenon.

MR. FALLOWS: Well, think of the founding fathers versus the peoplein the backwoods, you know, in Appalachia. There was a certaindistance between them.

MR. BORK: I don't think in terms of values. In terms of wealth,yes. In terms of cosmopolitanism, yes. But I don't think in terms ofvalues.

MS. ALLEN: Oh, but surely in Europe over the centuries one hadquite a different lifestyle instead of operating mores at the courtthan one had out in the countryside, or even among the bourgeoisie. Imean --

MR. BORK: The court, sure, if we're talking about an aristocracy.But I'm talking about, for example, artists and intellectuals didnot, I think, feel alienated from their societies as ours do now. MR.WATTENBERG: They were actually frequently conservative and defendersof the status quo.

MR. BORK: That is true.

MR. FALLOWS: And what stage of history are we talking about?

MS. ALLEN: Yes, I mean --

MR. FALLOWS: In the Renaissance, many of these people were -- MR.WATTENBERG: We don't have to tell you. (Laughter.)

MR. FALLOWS: I mean, I guess I agree with your basic observationabout life today. I'm just wondering if this is an observation aboutlife or about life today.

MR. BORK: I think it's about life today, and I think what accountsfor it is the idea of equality and individualism have been workingtheir way through this civilization for a long time. But for a longtime individualism in particular was restrained by religion, by thenecessity for hard work, which technology is increasingly relievingus of. And also technology is bringing us instant gratification inentertainment in a way that was never before possible.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Wright, does that touch any of your ideas onbiology and innate human behavior?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, I think evolutionary psychology, the study ofhuman nature, helps us understand why moral restraint is often inorder. I mean, we're finding out that human nature is not all that wemight hope that it is. And so if, for example, you want to makemonogamy something that typically endures in a society, it's going tocall for a certain amount of restraint.

And historically when that institution has been sustained, there'sbeen a certain amount of moral sanction. I mean, for example,stigmatizing divorce; that's the sort of cost that we may have to payif we're going to indeed preserve families amid all the forces thatwork against them. And one of those forces is really human nature.

MS. ALLEN: Actually, both of these ideas feed into the moreelaborate form of the idea that I think comes out of Asia now butfinds resonance over here, because essentially Edward Luttwak made--applied the Asian argument to the American scene in a piece forOutlook in November that we got an enormous amount of feedback on.And what he argued was essentially that there was also a divorcebetween the economic elites and the people; that America has, throughits brand of destructive capitalism, which isn't new but is nowoperating in a much faster --

MR. WATTENBERG: 'Creative destruction' was the phrase. MS. ALLEN:Yeah, right, creative destructive -- destruction. Right. It's notnew, but it operates much faster now. And as a result, it's verythreatening to communities. It's very threatening to families. It hasproduced a very wealthy international elite, but that elite has lostsight of the social good. And it is no wonder at this time that theAsians look at our model -- and to be sure, Malaysia's standard ofliving is not as high as ours, but their degree of personal securityis higher.

And certainly the Japanese, which is the model that they're reallylooking at and looking to pursue, have achieved a level of socialorder. They've gone through what they bill as the worst recessionsince World War II. Their stock market fell in half, and yet there isno sign of social disorder.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who are the --

MR. BORK: The crime rate is rising in Japan.

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, yeah, some.

MR. BORK: The crime rate --

MS. ALLEN: Yes, but, you know, it's miniscule -- you know, I mean,to even --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's stop for a moment and go on to Jim's thoughtfor the year.

MR. FALLOWS: Fortunately, it's a logical segue from what we'vebeen talking about. I think there are two interesting phenomena ofthe modern world that have a common root. One we've just beendiscussing, which is a sense that America has been prospering butmany Americans, perhaps a large number, perhaps most, feel that overthe last 20 years they have not prospered.

That seems economically difficult to understand, if the wholeincreases but most people don't feel that they're better off. But itseems to be part of this sense we're of an increasingly globalizedeconomy where there are greater returns on average for everybody butthey're -- in any one country you have a kind of microcosm of theworld income distribution that's being created with one -- so youhave trouble when people can't leave the U.S. to take opportunitiesin Korea or France.

You also have trouble when people feel they have to leave theirhome countries for the same reason. We see that right now in Mexico.You know, NAFTA in general has been good for Mexico. NAFTA has beenterrible for the farmers in Chiapas, and there's a revolution now inChiapas for this reason. There's a new surge of people from Mexicointo the U.S., partly because their farming jobs aren't thereanymore.

So when people can't move, there's problems with globalization;when they can move, there's problems, too. You see this in China aswell. So this is my idea.

MR. WATTENBERG: How does that relate to your thought?

MR. WRIGHT: Well, I would say, first of all, I think economicprogress has led to social dislocation for a very long time now. It'sbroken up families. And from the standpoint of evolutionarypsychology, if you want to see a social environment in which peopleare much less likely to go crazy than in the modern environment, onething you would naturally do is look at a hunter-gatherer society,which is very much like the society we evolved in.

People -- and this is the kind of place people's minds aredesigned to cope with. People are staying near their families fortheir whole lives. They have lifelong friends. There are virtually noanonymous situations. They're always around people they know. And thedifference between this and the modern environment is a very profoundproblem that people have to cope with, but I think economic progresshas been creating this problem for a very long time. And whatglobalization does is add to the problem, I would say incrementally.

MS. ALLEN: I think that -- I mean, Luttwak's point is that you'requite right. This is not new; it's just much, much faster. And, ofcourse, the numbers involved, just as the populations involved, aremuch larger, are more frightening. And you literally, in China, forexample, have 100 million people now --


MS. ALLEN: -- kind of just dislocated. And we have a fair number,too. But to go back to Ben's point, I mean, it is true that Americanshave a much higher level of consumption now than they ever hadbefore. More VCRs. Bob Samuelson wrote a very good column on that.

MR. FALLOWS: More cars.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, Bob Samuelson is talking about a globalrolling boom for the next decade, which doesn't really square verywell --

MS. ALLEN: But this isn't what seems to satisfy --

MR. WATTENBERG: -- with what you're saying.

MS. ALLEN: -- the polls, to get back to Bob's point, that we seemto be suffering from a very high degree of personal insecurity notcorrelated with our consumer level of satisfaction at any point intime. We seem to be craving non-market goods. And yet at the sametime our --

MR. WATTENBERG: We seem to be craving what?

MS. ALLEN: Non-market goods. MR. WATTENBERG: Explain that.

MS. ALLEN: You know, safe streets, stable communities, stablefamilies, stable expectations. Those are the goods that the Asiancountries value, and they encourage their populations to value themover consumer goods.

MR. WATTENBERG: That's what you're saying.

MS. ALLEN: And they grow faster at the same time.

MR. BORK: I think that's right. I think that's right. And thetrends we see now, I think, have been present for a long time, butthey accelerated enormously in the 1960s. And those attitudes aboutpermissiveness, about taking away stigma from things like divorce andso forth, really became very prominent then, and I think we're stillsuffering from them.

MR. FALLOWS: I wonder if I could ask a question here. Like Jodie,I've noticed the way the Asian model, you know, values these thingsthat are more difficult to value here. My question is, where can wefind a theoretical basis in the American tradition, either oureconomic tradition or our political tradition, to say that somecollective values, some of the traditional moral values, havestanding? Because we have a theoretical basis for individual rights,a theoretical basis for individual consumer welfare, but notheoretical basis for the things you're talking about.

MR. BORK: We haven't. And that's because I think when we, forexample, wrote the Bill of Rights, we assumed constraints that werein the society then. When John Stuart Mill wrote 'On Liberty,' heassumed constraints that his theory would have destroyed if left torun free. And those constraints --religion, technology, need to workand so forth -- have steadily dropped away, so that we now face avery anxious and unhappy society. And it's very hard to know how toput it back together.

MR. FALLOWS: And so how are they reconstructed other than saying,'Oh, the '60s is still blighting us'? There must be some way to movethe ball farther down the field.

MR. BORK: Well, I wish I knew how to -- if I knew how toreconstruct the society, I'd be out there doing it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just put a fine point on it. Do you believein canings? That was one of the things that happened in 1994 whichwas sort of the visual and physical embodiment of a more disciplinedsociety with less freedom and more punishment.

MR. FALLOWS: I have this, I think, not impossibly nuanced view. Idon't want canings here. I believed for them in Singapore. And mypoint of Singapore is that everybody knows how the system worksthere. There's no surprise. There's no misinformation. You know whatthe rules are. And so I thought there was, assuming the guy wasfairly -- Michael Fay -- was fairly tried, then I believe he shouldhave taken the punishment.

MR. BORK: You'd have to work back towards that. You couldn'treintroduce it suddenly here. We used to use stocks. We can'tsuddenly introduce them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, would you like to move toward a system thatincludes canings?

MR. BORK: I'd like to move toward a system of severe punishment.I'm not going to -- you know, canings maybe; I don't know. Butcorporal punishment, I don't see anything wrong with it.

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean --

MR. BORK: You can't suddenly do it. It would have to be a societythat gradually reached a moral consensus that some things are so faroutside what is allowable.

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean, if I committed a white-collar crime, youthink sooner or later it'd be a good idea to whack me around?

MR. BORK: Which white-collar crime, Ben?

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I don't know. If I knew what derivativeswere, I would say derivatives. (Laughter.)

MR. FALLOWS: I would argue that in the Singapore case the power intheir own society was not so much the physical punishment, but thesense of the certainty of it, and that even though this was, youknow, a foreign kid, et cetera, et cetera, that he was going to bepunished. And that certainty, no matter what the actual punishmentwas, has a more deterrent effect than anything else.

MR. BORK: And the humiliation in a society like that of beingcaned.

MS. ALLEN: See, that's what we've lost, and it's too bad, becauseshame is a very efficient, cost-effective way of punishing people.The stocks.

MR. BORK: We now have --

MS. ALLEN: Now I'm not sure it could work because we have solittle sense of public shame.

MR. BORK: Well, now, we have prisons full of people who feel noremorse for what they did, and being in prison is just a part oflife.

MR. WRIGHT: Well, and we have politicians like Newt Gingrich whoare talking a great game of family values, but meanwhile, you know,he's left one family. He's left his wife. And the truth is, if youwant to look at modern societies where monogamy has been a stronginstitution, they've been societies where a man who did that wouldhave a real hard time getting elected to office. You know, it's not-- it's easy to talk a good game of family values, but it's not easyto do. And it'll come at some cost to everyone.

MR. BORK: Well, our president has had some character problems inhis background which would have been disqualifying in a priorelection.

MR. WRIGHT: Well, but he hasn't left his family, and he has nottalked with nearly the same degree of arrogance about family values.

MR. BORK: I want to --

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, of course he has. He ran his campaign onplaying by the rules. I mean, that's what he keeps talking about, Imean, and a return to responsibility.

MR. WRIGHT: I don't think his stridency matches Newt Gingrich's.But, I mean, this is --

MR. BORK: Well, there's no --

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, no, you're right; it doesn't match it. Ithas doubled and redoubled, I think.

MR. FALLOWS: Well, without beating that issue anymore, I think thequestion for me is whether what we're talking about is like physicallaws of entropy; that is, whether this is an irreversible process.When these stigmas go away, is it possible to reinstitute them? Idon't know historically.

MR. WRIGHT: There have been pendulum swings.

MR. BORK: It did happen once that I know of, and that was theRegency in England, which was an enormously dissolute period,followed by the Victorian era. Of course, England is right back towhere they were.

MS. ALLEN: (Laughs.) Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you this. Is a society, in yourjudgment, better off with divorce or without divorce?

MR. FALLOWS: It's better off --

MR. WATTENBERG: A society without divorce has enormous personalproblems.

MR. FALLOWS: It's worse for many individuals but better for thesociety as a whole if divorce is discouraged but not prohibited.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's go on to Bob Wright. Do you want to --

MR. WRIGHT: Yeah. The modern study of human nature is based on anew field called evolutionary psychology. And Jim was asking, isthere some kind of theoretical basis for an emphasis on morality, onself-restraint maybe. At the early part of the Victorian period, partof the theoretical basis was in a way the doctrine of original sin --

MR. BORK: Methodism.

MR. WRIGHT: -- the idea that we're really not all that great.There's an animal within us, and for society to do well, we all haveto restrain it somewhat. And I would say, by my reading, at least --Idon't think every evolutionary psychologist would agree -- there'squite a bit of that in evolutionary psychology. There's a lot ofunfortunate news about human nature.

For example, evolutionary psychology tells us why there is veryrarely a good substitute for a child being reared by the twobiological parents. Evolutionary psychologists are the ones who dugup the statistics on how much higher the risk of abuse or even murderby a parent is if one of the parents is a stepparent. It also --evolutionary psychology tells us that, again, marriage is notnecessarily -- lifelong, monogamous marriage is not really naturalfor either men or women and it takes work, it takes sacrifice, and itmay take moral sanction to make it work on a society-wide basis.

So, you know, I think -- you know, this is not the same as tellingpeople we've proved there's a God and you'll go to hell if you don'tbehave. But on the other hand, I think the first step towards somekind of moral resurgence may be to understand that our impulses arenot to be trusted.

MR. FALLOWS: Maybe your answer indicates the way we can evolve, ifyou will, toward some theoretical basis, because using methodism asthe example proves the problem, because for our state no religiousprinciple is a legitimate theoretical basis, even though for manyindividuals it is, but --

MR. BORK: No. Why do you say that?

MR. FALLOWS: Well, because of Thomas Jefferson, separation ofchurch and state, et cetera.

MR. BORK: Well, we can argue about Thomas Jefferson, who didn'tknow what he was talking about in this respect.


MR. BORK: But there's no reason why religion can't be strong inthe society -- MR. FALLOWS: No, that's not what I'm saying.

MR. BORK: -- as a collective.

MR. FALLOWS: What I'm saying is that for the sort of foundationsof the state, they cannot be drawn from religious doctrine because --my Hindu neighbor will disagree, my Moslem neighbor will disagree --this is not, you know, a monotheistic state.

MR. BORK: But they won't disagree about morals.

MR. FALLOWS: They will disagree on something drawn from methodisttheology or Christian theology and by original sin.

MR. WRIGHT: And certainly among the elites that you're concernedabout, religious belief is much less widespread than --

MR. BORK: Oh, they're indifferent or they're hostile.

MR. FALLOWS: But the point I'm making is that there is aquasireligious role occupied by science these days in our society. Sosomething drawn from science has a legitimacy increasingly thatreligion doesn't have.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jodie, where are you on evolutionary psychology?

MS. ALLEN: Well, I'm not exactly an expert on the subject, but I--

MR. BORK: Broker the idea.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, broker the idea, right.

MS. ALLEN: -- think that Bob is really on to something here, tooffer a secular basis which can have religious concordances with it,but to offer one that can be the foundation for an American state, ofa moral American state, in a way that is broadly acceptable to peoplewith Jefferson's --

MR. WATTENBERG: Based on scientific principles rather thantheological principles, but ending up in the same place.

MS. ALLEN: Yes, at least with scientific principles --

MR. BORK: But scientific principles --

MS. ALLEN: -- lending support to religion. MR. BORK: Well, thatscientific principle could go the other way. They could say, 'Well,that's the way we're built. Let's enjoy it.' I don't see that itnecessarily --

MR. WRIGHT: Well, yeah, but, I mean, I would argue that in thelong run you simply will not enjoy it, at least --

MR. BORK: They won't; that's right.

MR. WRIGHT: I mean, it's an empirical argument, I think.

MR. FALLOWS: It really doesn't --

MS. ALLEN: And this all comes back again to the Asian argumentthat it is up to governments to remind people that there are thesesocial goods. And then in the end, you know, they will not feel soinsecure as they did when they went to the polls in November. And Ithink there's a good case to be made that it was not the desire fortax cuts that people --

MR. WATTENBERG: We have a relatively few minutes left. Let me askthis question and hear from all of you. There is a famous story inthe book publishing business that the guy is looking for a title forhis manuscript and he is told by some marketing maven that the fourmost popular words in American markets are 'mother,' 'dog,' 'Lincoln'and 'doctor.' So he entitles his book, 'Lincoln's Mother's Doctor'sDog.'

Now, what I want you -- we have four views around here. We've got'Lincoln's mother's doctor's dog.' I don't know who's going to playLincoln. Is there a general theme that emerges from these apparentlyfour disparate ideas? I mean, I sense, which I did not sense when wecame into this program, that this is a fairly conservative -- I mean,in the old terms -- this is a fairly conservative view thateverybody's saying we need values. Is that right?

MR. FALLOWS: I think the commonality here is everybody issuggesting different ways that the operating assumptions ofAmerican-style liberal democracy are in trouble in various ways, andwe find some different foundations for them. And I will add one minorbrief note of optimism.

I think that the human flows I was talking about before work outfor for the U.S. than they work out for many other countries. This isa country, as you've written many times, Ben, and I have, too, thatcan take advantage of being renewed by people from outside. That isone strategic advantage we have. But we need to pay attention tothese foundations and values issues, too.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Jodie, do you see a unifying theme?

MS. ALLEN: Oh, yeah, I think you put your finger on it. And justto repeat it, yes, values. I think we are all trying to figure outhow we can re-emphasize them in American society. MR. WRIGHT: Itseems to be the case. And I guess if, as Judge Bork says, we'recultural elites or something, that's good news, right? Now, maybeit'll start to trickle down.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, Bob, you're a pessimist. You surely view allthis as being --

MR. BORK: I enjoy this more than any other thing.

MR. WRIGHT: Right.

MR. BORK: But I think we, in our culture right now, we have astrong strain which says that if we are biologically this way, let itgo. And you remember in the '60s people said, 'If it feels good, doit.' Or they said, 'It is forbidden to forbid.' That's a kind ofpermissiveness that I think is still strong in our culture and it'scausing a lot of trouble.

MR. WRIGHT: I certainly agree it's true that one of the dangers,as we understand the biological basis of more and more things, isthat people will use this as an excuse, and it's a real challenge.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Jodie Allen, Robert Wright, JamesFallows and Robert Bork.

And thank you. We always enjoy hearing from our audience. Pleasesend your comments and questions to New River Media, 1150 17thStreet, Northwest, Washington DC 20036. We can also be reached viaE-mail at

For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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