Sunday, July 18, 2010

No Self Control in the Age of the Self

About a week ago, I wrote a piece on The Good Phight examining the Phillies’ performance in the first half of the baseball season through the prism of a dozen chosen metrics, six for hitting and six for pitching—runs scored, on base percentage, innings pitched from starters, strikeout to walk ratio, and so on. I thought that collectively those twelve stats pretty well told the story of the team’s strengths and weaknesses through a bit more than three months of play, how they compared both to the rest of the National League this season and to their 2009 performance (both also included) and highlighted areas where improvement is needed.

A night later I was watching “The Colbert Report,” and saw a statistic that startled me much more than anything the Phils have done this season: in 1991, the U.S. state with the highest percentage of obese residents (Mississippi, at just over 15 percent) had a considerably smaller share of really overweight folks than the state with the lowest percentage of obese residents today (Colorado, at over 19 percent). As a country, we’ve gotten much fatter in not a very long piece of time. (I was 18 in ’91, and I’m 37 today; needless to say, I’ve probably contributed more than my share to this increase. But at least I have metabolism as a (somewhat lame) personal excuse.)

This seems at least as meaningful a metric as any number measuring the Phillies’ anemic offensive performance or bullpen inconsistency, and it got me thinking about what other data points I’d want to collect for a picture of America’s “performance”—our strengths, weaknesses and needs—in 2010, with comparisons both to our collective past performance and to the global “competition.” I think the proper metrics would include things like average educational attainment, personal savings rate and indebtedness, average hours worked, life span and wellness (including something like average days of illness in a year as well as the obesity rate), political participation and other forms of interconnectedness.

While a number of these might seem more immediately telling than the obesity stat, there’s something about that one that feels unusually revealing. I think it has to do with this very perceptive piece from a recent New York Times Sunday magazine, titled “Dysregulation Nation.” Taking as a starting point the disaster of the BP oil spill and the larger question of regulation in our polity, Judith Warner suggests that the real problem is a failure of self-regulation:

The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere. Eating disorders, “in general a disorder of self-regulation,” according to Darlene M. Atkins, director of the Eating Disorders Clinic at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, grew epidemic in the past few decades, and in recent years have spread to minority communities, younger girls, older women and boys and men too. Obesity is viewed in many cases by mental-health experts as another form of self-dysregulation…

Mental-health professionals report seeing increasing numbers of kids who are all out of sync: they can’t sustain attention, regulate their rage, moderate their pain, tolerate normal types of sensory input. Some of this is biological; a problem of faulty brain wiring. But many of the problems — in both children and adults — according to Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles, come from living in a culture of excess.

Under normal circumstances, the emotional, reward-seeking, selfish, “myopic” part of our brain is checked and balanced in its desirous cravings by our powers of cognition — our awareness of the consequences, say, of eating too much or spending too much. But after decades of never-before-seen levels of affluence and endless messages promoting instant gratification, Whybrow says, this self-regulatory system has been knocked out of whack. The “orgy of self-indulgence” that spread in our land of no-money-down mortgages, he wrote in his 2005 book, “American Mania: When More Is Not Enough,” has disturbed the “ancient mechanisms that sustain our physical and mental balance.”

If you put a person in an environment that worships wealth and favors conspicuous consumption, add gross income inequalities that breed envy and competition, mix in stagnant wages, a high cost of living and too-easy credit, you get overspending, high personal debt and a “treadmill-like existence,” as Whybrow calls it: compulsive getting and spending.

In Freudian terms, the id has kicked the superego’s ass. We’re now seeing the consequences play out in virtually every corner of public life, from the otherwise inexplicable decision of Lebron James to announce his free agency destination—a choice that almost inevitably would anger exponentially more people than it pleased—on a bloated one-hour TV special, to the unhinged voices at the political extremes… one wing of which, in terms of sheer numbers, can’t really be characterized as “fringe.” Thanks to a media culture that does the same thing writ large, the “Tea Party” has made blind, unreasoning, illogical rage the It Girl of American politics in 2010.

This is a particularly concerning problem because our society seems inexorably to be evolving toward a model in which the individual is more empowered than at any previous time in human history. This helps explain why we’re getting more “liberal” on issues like gay rights even as we’re becoming more “conservative” on a range of economic questions; the common thread is toward greater personal autonomy. Phillip Bobbitt, a longtime academic and former National Security Council member during the Clinton administration, calls this emerging societal/governance model the “market-state”:

The “market-state” is the latest constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen.

In his brilliant and massive work “The Shield of Achilles,” which traces the evolution of constitutional orders, Bobbitt mostly concerns himself with the interaction between warfare abroad and societal change at home. Leaving aside the military aspect—and its core assumption of collective action and conformity as necessary conditions for success, which is somewhat problematic for his larger hypothesis—I find his analysis of the emerging market-state enormously compelling. Everything from the decline of unionization rates and the increasing link between educational attainment and positive labor market outcomes to the decline in strong religious affiliation, the increasing vogue of libertarian ideas among better educated Americans and the endless proliferation of entertainment options and Internet-driven subcultures suggests that we’re both more “into ourselves,” and succeeding or failing based on our individual attributes and competencies, than has been the case in more than a hundred years.

And this in turn is why Warner’s hypothesis—that, collectively, we’ve lost our self-control, as borne out in part by rising obesity rates, indebtedness, etc—is so troubling. If we really are on our own, it becomes that much more important to make wise choices about everything from eating right to staying in (or going back to) school in order to boost employment prospects and earning power. Too many of us aren’t doing that, and, worse, we seem entirely resistant to the notion of taking responsibility for our own mistakes, or learning from them. As she notes, the various policy implications of “nudge theory”—behavioral economics—are intended as a better fit for a political climate inimical to mandates and centralization, informing better choices and shifting incentives. Like others, though, I worry that the problem goes deeper than something that calorie counts or credit card terms disclosure can ameliorate. And as always, the political incentives in a democracy align against telling hard truths and forcing hard choices as much on a societal level as we evidently are facing now at an individual level.