City Paper is not for tourists
Robert J. Samuelson knows the status quo. In his book, The Good Life and Its Discontents, the Newsweek and Washington Post columnist nails it with an exhausting and literal-minded array of statistics about where we live and what we own. His implicit message: If only Americans would realize how many TVs they have per capita, they’d sit down and stop whining. Or as he puts it, “In the United States today, things are much better than they seem or are routinely portrayed.”
Since only a few pages of The Good Life discuss the failings of the contemporary media, that “routinely portrayed” is something of a red herring. Samuelson’s real target is the average middle-class bellyacher or Generation X grumbler who thinks that he or she will never have the opportunities for wealth proffered to earlier generations of Americans. The book hits that guy with a barrage of numbers about the Depression, followed by the latest figures on VCR ownership (81 percent of households in 1994). Samuelson has heard of Marx, but “alienation” is not in his vocabulary.
To Samuelson, man is an economic animal. Everything that doesn’t directly promote wealth—environmental protection, say—is a nicety. The author blithely reduces graduate degrees to status symbols, and pronounces “absurd” the aspirations for equal treatment by poor, disabled, and merely fat citizens. “Government cannot do everything for everybody,” writes the author, which is of course true, but still leaves much room for discussion over what public policy should do.
As he promises in his introduction, Samuelson largely avoids the words “liberal” and “conservative,” and diligently spreads the blame around: All of us—well, all of us except some savvy commentators—are guilty of having turned the pursuit of happiness into a “sense of entitlement” that overstates the possibilities of government and thus leaves us bitter and disillusioned. The author’s disregard for entitlement junkies is seldom savage, and he takes care to mention (usually in one of the book’s hundreds of parenthetical phrases) the people he doesn’t much care about: African-Americans, women, gays, poor urbanites, and the like. Still, such Americans are cited only in passing, and without much interest or insight.
Samuelson reveals himself in chapters like “Elusive Equality,” in which he professes that the push for new rights (granted, in many cases, by activist courts) will undermine the polity. “Everyone is ultimately entitled to everything,” he writes. “The great harm—or danger—is to destroy people’s faith in government itself, because (quite obviously) everyone cannot have everything.”
Samuelson even resembles a Dickens villain occasionally, as when he waxes nostalgic for the days when illness equaled death: “Paradoxically, health care was the most equal when there was less of it—say in the nineteenth century—because it couldn’t do much for anyone, regardless of income.” This is a reflection unlikely to occur to those who see medicine in human rather than fiscal terms, but then Samuelson is the sort of economic historian who can explain dwindling manufacturing jobs largely in terms of increased productivity; the decline of industrial unions doesn’t seem to have registered with him.
The government’s indulgence of “interest groups,” he concludes, “explains the erosion of popular esteem for the nation’s political leadership and institutions” more than do “specific events,” of which he musters only a few, including Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-contra. It seems unlikely that Samuelson would be interested in a larger list of disillusioning events, especially one that emphasized the activities of the CIA, FBI, and NSC over those of the EEOC.
The book’s case, of course, is not primarily psychological or even political. Under intense pressure from interest groups and lobbyists, “American government and politics seem almost suicidal,” Samuelson writes, but his cry for increased citizen “responsibility” seeks to save not America’s political system or soul but its economy. The book’s final chapter presents a prescription, and its emphasis is not spiritual: We must balance the federal budget, increase the oil tax, decrease rates of increase in Social Security, and cut government programs that don’t benefit the author and his family.
The Good Life started as a collection of Samuelson’s columns, and it retains some of the annoyances of the mainstream newspaper. It includes the occasional typo (“superiorty”) and ethnic slur (the government “welshes” on its promises), as well as numerous repetitions and explanations of the patently obvious. (At one point, Samuelson defines “WASP.”) The book is also disinclined to re-evaluate daily journalism’s quick assumptions about events like the Gulf War, which the author casually identifies as “a unique triumph.”
Aside from Samuelson’s long tenure in the consensus-seeking mass media, The Good Life’s secondhand quality no doubt owes something to the fact that it is secondhand. The author quotes everyone from historian Frederick Allen Lewis and sociologist William H. Whyte to new journalist Tom Wolfe and art critic Robert Hughes, and the book’s notes admit heavy debts to other writers for certain pieces of analysis (the role of the gold standard in the Depression, for example).
The author’s studiously center-right worldview might be described as semi-libertarian or neonSocial Darwinist. Or it could simply be called blinkered and self-satisfied. From his perch in affluent Bethesda, Samuelson sees the triumph of the automobile, the suburb, and interstate highway system as sheer poetry. While damning federal subsidies to mass transit and Amtrak, he can’t shut up about “new” and “better” cars. And in his potentially interesting discussion of how federalism has allowed those dreaded interest groups to play off different levels of government to their advantage, he ignores how it has also led to America’s wasteful suburban sprawl and gluttonous energy use.
In short, Samuelson’s vantage point on the good life is so suburban that it impedes his vision. Take, for example, his harrumphing about how other programs have begun to piggyback on the interstate highway program, which he says began as a simple 28-page law. But the interstate system is a massive federal program that has transformed America more dramatically than Social Security and has inevitably attracted hangers-on because it’s rolling in taxpayer dough. As the tepid response to the new Dulles Greenway toll road indicates, Americans now feel entitled to free superhighways. That’s the sort of “sense of entitlement” that Samuelson doesn’t analyze—presumably because it’s his own.CP