FP: Among the things that makes your book great is that you went out and you reported on America. You saw people, spoke to them -- followed in Tocqueville's footsteps, as some have suggested. Something's broken; you don't want to blame it all on Washington. What's wrong with the American people?
EL: That's a very good question. And I attempt to answer that in different ways, partly though politics. Americans don't participate in politics, or those who don't particularly want to do the rest don't seem to give a damn. And there's a kind of self-fulfillingness to that. And they do give a damn, and I can understand why they're alienated. But their very alienation reinforces what it is that alienates them.
So you've got this kind of weird tandem of apathy versus fanaticism that reinforce each other. But what I found most interesting, and continue to find most interesting, is the education problem -- the problem of K through 12 and the lack of early childhood learning for those at less advantaged levels, the problems with student loans and with community colleges. I think it's a portal onto America's competitiveness problem. But it's also a cultural problem.
The approach of parents to their children's education is a case in point. If we're talking about American values, the first- or second-generation immigrant spirit that might be conjured up in a Tiger Mom or in some Italian family in Brooklyn in which parents force kids to study at night is a truly American value. I have no nostalgia for what I didn't experience, but I do feel that the swing towards celebrating the child, elevating the child, over-praising the child, boosting constantly at every opportunity the self-esteem of the child, assuming the child is a fragile little eggshell that can be broken at any moment, is something quite un-immigrant and therefore quite un-American, and also a great disservice to the child.
I think that tells more about the neediness of their overworked parents' desire for the love of their child than it does for their upbringing skills, which would be to inoculate the children for the world they expect, to show them you can fail, that C grades happen, that reprimands are sometimes deserved. This is a sort of amateur psychological point I'm making, but there are a lot of educationists that I've talked to and a lot of scholars of education as well as teachers in this book who made me realize this is a cultural problem at the ground level with how kids' minds are prepared for the future. And if the future is about minds, it's not a trivial alarm to raise. I'm not the first to raise it, but it struck me that education is perhaps the most fertile way of answering your question about what is wrong with Americans.
I should add that exactly the same problems are visible and talked about in Britain. And it's exactly the same level of concern about how easy or how quickly education can be turned around given just how much of a societal problem it is. This isn't simply a question of whether teachers are paid enough or children tested enough. I quote John Hennessey, head of Stanford, a very admirable man who really knows what he's talking about, a very good scientist, but also a brilliant university administrator. He said, "Look, it took decades for us to get into this problem in education, and it's going to take decades to get out."
FP: You went through Gary, Indiana, and you talked to people in Gary. They were at a casino. They were in a town that was devastated. I had this sense of hopelessness for these people. There is no future. There is not going to be a manufacturing resurgence that they're going to take advantage of. Casinos are kind of strange machines that seem to prosper by sucking the last bits of economic vitality out of a community, because the poor and the old go there and give up their money. And so for a moment, it looks like something is prospering, but at the end of the day it's accelerating decay. I mean, is that your view? It seems like another component of your point about spoiled children. What is your feeling in terms of the problems of the grown-ups?
EL: Part of the reason I to talk about these casinos is to use them as a metaphor for the bankruptcy of public policy, particularly urban public policy. Casinos, sports arenas, and convention centers don't generate income for those who've lost their jobs. The casino is a particularly apt metaphor for the intellectual bankruptcy of thinking, because, if done well, you can generate short-term income and tax revenues. But the costs are pushed back a little bit further, so the balance sheet doesn't show what it's really doing to your community, which is drastically raising all sorts of social bills that you're going to have to pay, whether it be about policing or by prison services or a penal system or indeed the further decay of the community.
FP: Because casinos, particularly lotteries, are sort of last-stage predators, junkyard dogs or vultures. They're preying on economic carrion. Do we have a cultural problem?
EL: It's very difficult to answer that question. If there were a real modern-day, contemporary Tocqueville around with that spirit and that sensibility, touring America with no other purpose other than to take the temperature of the American character and of what is it, what would he say that would be different from what the Tocqueville of the 1830s said? And what was it that Tocqueville of the 1830s most highlighted? I think it was America's sense of egalitarianism. It really impressed him. The sense that people essentially treat each other as equals outside of their jobs, that there is this instinctive social egalitarianism in those days...