Arthur Brooks is a social scientist and the president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Last week, TED Talks released a speech Brooks delivered calling for a united, bipartisan effort to confront the issue of poverty. Brooks comes at this issue from a pro-free market perspective, but I think some of the points he makes about partisanship are worth delving into. Below, I am highlighting and annotating key portions of the speech, which you can view in the video above.
Before I begin, I'll confess that I think much of the dialogue about partisanship in the United States is overly simplistic. It's often too much about "Why can't we all just get along?" and doesn't acknowledge the underlying factors -- the real reasons the two sides can't come together and often have very logical reasons not to. One of those factors is that our society is increasingly polarized and essentially demands a more polarized political system. Which is part of what Brooks gets at below. (This transcript is from the TED Talks website.)
BROOKS: I come from one of the most liberal, tolerant, progressive places in the United States, Seattle, Washington. And I grew up with a family of great Seattlites. My mother was an artist, my father was a college professor, and I am truly grateful for my upbringing, because I always felt completely comfortable designing my life exactly as I saw fit.
And in point of fact, I took a route that was not exactly what my parents had in mind. When I was 19, I dropped out of college -- dropped out, kicked out, splitting hairs.
And I went on the road as a professional French horn player, which was my lifelong dream. I played chamber music all over the United States and Europe, and I toured for a couple of years with a great jazz guitar player named Charlie Bird. And by the end of my 20s, I wound up as a member of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in Spain. What a great life.
And you know, my parents never complained. They supported me all the way through it. It wasn't their dream. They used to tell their neighbors and friends, "Our son, he's taking a gap decade."
And -- There was, however, one awkward conversation about my lifestyle that I want to tell you about. I was 27, and I was home from Barcelona, and I was visiting my parents for Christmas, and I was cooking dinner with my mother, and we were alone in the kitchen. And she was quiet, too quiet. Something was wrong. And so I said, "Mom, what's on your mind?" And she said, "Your dad and I are really worried about you." And I said, "What?" I mean, what could it be, at this point? And she said, "I want you to be completely honest with me: have you been voting for Republicans?"
Now, the truth is, I wasn't really political, I was just a French horn player. But I had a bit of an epiphany,and they had detected it, and it was causing some confusion. You see, I had become an enthusiast for capitalism, and I want to tell you why that is. It stems from a lifelong interest of mine in, believe it or not, poverty.
See, when I was a kid growing up in Seattle, I remember the first time I saw real poverty. We were a lower middle class family, but that's of course not real poverty. That's not even close. The first time I saw poverty, and poverty's face, was when I was six or seven years old, early 1970s. And it was like a lot of you, kind of a prosaic example, kind of trite. It was a picture in the National Geographic Magazine of a kid who was my age in East Africa, and there were flies on his face and a distended belly. And he wasn't going to make it, and I knew that, and I was helpless. Some of you remember that picture, not exactly that picture, one just like it. It introduced the West to grinding poverty around the world. Well, that vision kind of haunted me as I grew up and I went to school and I dropped out and dropped in and started my family. And I wondered, what happened to that kid? Or to people just like him all over the world? And so I started to study, even though I wasn't in college, I was looking for the answer: what happened to the world's poorest people? Has it gotten worse? Has it gotten better? What?
And I found the answer, and it changed my life, and I want to share it with you.
See -- most Americans believe that poverty has gotten worse since we were children, since they saw that vision. If you ask Americans, "Has poverty gotten worse or better around the world?", 70 percent will say that hunger has gotten worse since the early 1970s. But here's the truth. Here's the epiphany that I had that changed my thinking. From 1970 until today, the percentage of the world's population living in starvation levels, living on a dollar a day or less, obviously adjusted for inflation, that percentage has declined by 80 percent. There's been an 80 percent decline in the world's worst poverty since I was a kid. And I didn't even know about it. This, my friends, that's a miracle. That's something we ought to celebrate. It's the greatest antipoverty achievement in the history of mankind, and it happened in our lifetimes.
So when I learned this, I asked, what did that? What made it possible? Because if you don't know why, you can't do it again. If you want to replicate it and get the next two billion people out of poverty,because that's what we're talking about: since I was a kid, two billion of the least of these, our brothers and sisters, have been pulled out of poverty. I want the next two billion, so I've got to know why. And I went in search of an answer. And it wasn't a political answer, because I didn't care. You know what, I still don't care. I wanted the best answer from mainstream economists left, right and center.
And here it is. Here are the reasons. There are five reasons that two billion of our brothers and sisters have been pulled out of poverty since I was a kid. Number one: globalization. Number two: free trade.Number three: property rights. Number four: rule of law. Number five: entrepreneurship. It was the free enterprise system spreading around the world after 1970 that did that.
Now, I'm not naive. I know that free enterprise isn't perfect, and I know that free enterprise isn't everything we need to build a better world. But that is great. And that's beyond politics. Here's what I learned. This is the epiphany. Capitalism is not just about accumulation. At its best, it's about aspiration,which is what so many people on this stage talk about, is the aspiration that comes from dreams that are embedded in the free enterprise system. And we've got to share it with more people.
Now, I want to tell you about a second epiphany that's related to that first one that I think can bring us progress, not just around the world, but right here at home. The best quote I've ever heard to summarize the thoughts that I've just given you about pulling people out of poverty is as follows: "Free markets have created more wealth than any system in history. They have lifted billions out of poverty."
Who said it? It sounds like Milton Friedman or Ronald Reagan. Wrong. President Barack Obama said that. Why do I know it by heart? Because he said it to me. Crazy. And I said, "Hallelujah." But more than that, I said, "What an opportunity."
You know what I was a thinking? It was at an event that we were doing on the subject at Georgetown University in May of 2015. And I thought, this is the solution to the biggest problem facing America today. What? It's coming together around these ideas, liberals and conservatives, to help people who need us the most.
Now, I don't have to tell anybody in this room that we're in a crisis, in America and many countries around the world with political polarization. It's risen to critical, crisis levels. It's unpleasant. It's not right. There was an article last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is one of the most prestigious scientific journals published in the West. And it was an article in 2014 on political motive asymmetry. What's that? That's what psychologists call the phenomenon of assuming that your ideology is based in love but your opponents' ideology is based in hate. It's common in world conflict.You expect to see this between Palestinians and Israelis, for example. What the authors of this article found was that in America today, a majority of Republicans and Democrats suffer from political motive asymmetry. A majority of people in our country today who are politically active believe that they are motivated by love but the other side is motivated by hate. Think about it. Think about it. Most people are walking around saying, "You know, my ideology is based on basic benevolence, I want to help people,but the other guys, they're evil and out to get me." You can't progress as a society when you have this kind of asymmetry. It's impossible.
How do we solve it? Well, first, let's be honest: there are differences. Let's not minimize the differences. That would be really naïve. There's a lot of good research on this. A veteran of the TED stage is my friend Jonathan Haidt. He's a psychology professor at New York University. He does work on the ideology and values and morals of different people to see how they differ. And he's shown, for example, that conservatives and liberals have a very different emphasis on what they think is important. For example, Jon Haidt has shown that liberals care about poverty 59 percent more than they care about economic liberty. And conservatives care about economic liberty 28 percent more than they care about poverty.
Irreconcilable differences, right? We'll never come together. Wrong. That is diversity in which lies our strength. Remember what pulled up the poor. It was the obsession with poverty, accompanied by the method of economic freedom spreading around the world. We need each other, in other words, if we want to help people and get the next two billion people out of poverty. There's no other way.
Hmm. How are we going to get that? It's a tricky thing, isn't it. We need innovative thinking. A lot of it's on this stage. Social entrepreneurship. Yeah. Absolutely. Phenomenal. We need investment overseas in a sustainable, responsible, ethical and moral way. Yes. Yes.
But you know what we really need? We need a new day in flexible ideology. We need to be less predictable. Don't we? Do you ever feel like your own ideology is starting to get predictable? Kinda conventional? Do you ever feel like you're always listening to people who agree with you? Why is that dangerous? Because when we talk in this country about economics, on the right, conservatives, you're always talking about taxes and regulations and big government. And on the left, liberals, you're talking about economics, it's always about income inequality. Right? Now those are important things, really important to me, really important to you. But when it comes to lifting people up who are starving and need us today, those are distractions. We need to come together around the best ways to mitigate poverty using the best tools at our disposal, and that comes only when conservatives recognize that they need liberals and their obsession with poverty, and liberals need conservatives and their obsession with free markets. That's the diversity in which lies the future strength of this country, if we choose to take it.
So how are we going to do it? How are we going to do it together? I've got to have some action items, not just for you but for me. Number one. Action item number one: remember, it's not good enough just to tolerate people who disagree. It's not good enough. We have to remember that we need people who disagree with us, because there are people who need all of us who are still waiting for these tools. Now, what are you going to do? How are you going to express that? Where does this start? It starts here. You know, all of us in this room, we're blessed. We're blessed with people who listen to us. We're blessed with prosperity. We're blessed with leadership. When people hear us, with the kind of unpredictable ideology, then maybe people will listen. Maybe progress will start at that point. That's number one. Number two. Number two: I'm asking you and I'm asking me to be the person specifically who blurs the lines, who is ambiguous, who is hard to classify. If you're a conservative, be the conservative who is always going on about poverty and the moral obligation to be a warrior for the poor. And if you're a liberal, be a liberal who is always talking about the beauty of free markets to solve our problems when we use them responsibly.
If we do that, we get two things. Number one: we get to start to work on the next two billion and be the solution that we've seen so much of in the past and we need to see more of in the future. That's what we get. And the second is that we might just be able to take the ghastly holy war of ideology that we're suffering under in this country and turn it into a competition of ideas based on solidarity and mutual respect. And then maybe, just maybe, we'll all realize that our big differences aren't really that big after all.