Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Midlife Scouts

Photo from Matthew Johnson's Pinterest.

A funny thing happened on the way to today's David Brooks column, originally entitled something like "Giving Away Your Billion, Warren Buffett", judging from the url, but omitting Buffett's name from the final headline, perhaps because he couldn't decide how to punctuate it, or what it would mean:
Recently I’ve been reading the Giving Pledge letters. These are the letters that rich people write when they join Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge campaign. They take the pledge, promising to give away most of their wealth during their lifetime, and then they write letters describing their giving philosophy.
The funny thing was that he couldn't stand reading the letters enough to get more than six paragraphs out of them:
  • Three for George B. Kaiser, an "oil and finance guy from Oklahoma" who realized with humility that he owed his eight billion dollars not to any special "personal character or initiative" but to the fact that he was "blessed to be born in an advanced society with caring parents", which certainly explains why so few of us have eight billion dollars—I should add that he's clearly nowhere near as stupid as Brooks's quotation technique makes him sound, indeed probably not stupid at all, though I expect I disagree with him about a lot of stuff.
  • Then three paragraphs of generalization: a majority of the givers "started poor or middle class" (since it's well known that more or less all Americans report being middle class no matter how wealthy they are, this is not very informative); a "ridiculously disproportionate percentage" are Jewish; younger ones, "especially the tech billionaires", strike him as "vague and less thoughtful" (snap!); while others "burn with special fervor" to help out with a problem that has affected them personally, eye disease or a child with neurofibromatosis.
Instead, he wanders off into the question of what he'd do if he had a billion dollars to give away, and we get to see what he burns with a special fervor for, and what problem has affected him personally, which is apparently that nobody has ever invited him into a collective of 25 people of a single age group who meet once a week to share and discuss life, go on retreats and celebrate life events together, and make crucial decisions with the help of a "clearness committee", a kind of national network of Adult Scout troops devoted to the cultivation of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves—heart, hands, head, and soul (instead of the usual fourth H, health, which actually starts with an H; and unlike in 4-H the hands are not for physical work, but performing  "small tasks of service and self-control for one another, thus engraving the habits of citizenship and good character")—because that's what he wants to spend the money on.

That is, he wouldn't have had the income qualification for the youngest cohort, Poor Kids ages 16 to 22, whose object would be to "help one another navigate the transition from high school to college", but he'd have done very well with the middle one, Young Adults of all classes 23 to 26 who "don't know why they are here and what they are called to do", and are "under-institutionalized" so that they need assistance finding "a purpose and a path"; and no doubt also with the Successful People of 36 to 40 who need a "baseline of sympathy and understanding as they rise to power", making "intimate bonds across parties and groups" (as opposed, I guess, to "Skull and Bones and such organizations", collectives for the "insular elites"). I'd love to have seen him as the group divides into circle time to perform small tasks of self-control—"David, would you go first, not saying something sarcastic?"

It's not clear that he's thought through what the billion dollars are for in this plan, which looks pretty inexpensive, assuming, as Brooks seems to do, that there's a pretty much unlimited supply of volunteer hosts with living rooms that can comfortably accommodate a 25-person meeting. They'll need to subsidize the retreats for the Poor Kids and a few of the Young Adults, and no doubt the book list, of "biographical and reflective readings" that will "help members come up with their own life philosophies" and "master the intellectual virtues required for public debate".

Oh, and what Brooks calls "small slush funds" to help out in emergencies, perhaps to replace the health insurance the twentysomethings won't have.

With a billion, you could seed 20,000 groups extremely generously across the country for that kind of expenses, at $50K apiece, at this rate, but what Brooks clearly hasn't thought of at all is the administration and oversight of this remarkable exercise, the training of scoutmasters and facilitators, the development of rituals and routines, feasibility studies and instruction manuals, the liability insurance, and salaries for the full-time personnel, the picture of what he might be able to achieve in a lifetime diminishes; it's hard to imagine how he could ever get beyond a wingnut-welfare Brooksy Institute sponsoring research on the concept, and a couple of groups, or spend more than $2 or $3 million altogether, with even the most dedicated effort. He wouldn't be able to put a dent in his principal.

In short, the project is what you might call "vague and less thoughtful" if Brooks were a youthful tech entrepreneur. And at the same time, this daydreamy exercise is by far the most detailed and specific account he's ever offered of how to implement his program for "reweaving" the social fabric, of community and ceremony as an alternative to the traditional socialistic safety net, and you can see how much intellectual effort he's put into working out the scheme. All it's lacking is any contact with human reality.

More from Driftglass, who points out that this story was much funnier when Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., wrote it.

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