Ep. 25: Ben Sasse on the Space between Nebraska and Neverland
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The US senator and former college president joined Tyler for a conversation on adolescence, adulthood, driving for Uber, loving Luther, hate-reading Rousseau, the decline of small towns, backpacking across Europe, America’s peculiar fondness for age-segregation, the source material behind his funny tweets, and why his latest book contains so little sex.
Listen to the full conversation
You can also watch the full video here.
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Ben is from Fremont, and he is a fifth-generation Nebraskan.
Just to be clear, this is the conversation I want to have with Ben Sasse, not the one you want to have.
BEN SASSE: I thought I was interviewing you on The Complacent Class. Is that wrong?
COWEN: That’s wrong.
COWEN: So I’m interested in Nebraska.
SASSE: As all freedom-loving people should be.
COWEN: Exactly. I’ve been to both states — they have almost an identical per capita income, median income, age structure, demographics. Yet when I’m in Kansas and Nebraska, they feel to me like very different states. How would you describe that difference, and where do you think it comes from?
SASSE: When I was a kid, the joke was, if you go back to Kansas, you have to set your watch back 24 hours — 24 years. Ahhh, I ruined the joke.
SASSE: My dad is going to be so disappointed.
I didn’t know you were going to ask that. I have no idea what the difference is. They have a lot of wheat; we don’t have a lot of wheat.
COWEN: So it’s alfalfa versus wheat.
SASSE: We have corn, beans, and we’re the largest cattle state in the union.
COWEN: Willa Cather said you’re a newer state. John Gunther says you’re a state with fewer do-gooders. It seems you have more northern European immigrants, very different history with slavery, and Kansas is more dependent on Missouri. And somehow when you stack those up, you have two states, each very independent in its outlook. Nebraska to me feels more progressive and almost, in a way, ornery — in a positive way, ornery.
SASSE: We’d have to define both progressive and ornery, but I think your list, just the fact that they’re Missouri-dependent, and we’re not Iowa-dependent, means we win.
COWEN: You win.
COWEN: Cultural appropriation. Bruce Springsteen, he’s done this album called Nebraska, but once he starts singing, it’s actually all about New Jersey. It’s about Mahwah —
COWEN: The turnpike, the wee, wee hours; there’s a mention of the word bleak — and then he goes back to New Jersey. Are you offended?
SASSE: I think we should let Tyler monologue for a while. This is good stuff, and I don’t think I’m going to add a lot of value here. Just keep going.
COWEN: Here’s what else to me is striking about Nebraska, and as a fifth-generation, you might have insight into it. There’s a certain generation of performers, and so many of my favorites come from Nebraska: Fred Astaire, Johnny Carson, James Coburn — tough guy, incredible actor — Marlon Brando, and finally, Henry Fonda, who we might think of as grandpa on Golden Pond, but the young Henry Fonda was a bit more like James Coburn: tough guy, very strong, lots of charisma. James Baldwin admired him greatly. So what is it about Nebraska that has produced this stream of charismatic men?
SASSE: I don’t know, but let’s be clear that Kansas doesn’t have that list.
COWEN: Another striking feature of Nebraska — I’m sure you’re familiar with it — you’re the only state —
SASSE: [George Mason University] President Cabrera made it clear that you do your homework, and I just want to say that he’s right.
COWEN: You’re the only state that has a single legislature, right?
SASSE: We are.
COWEN: And that dates from 1937. George Norris, who was a great senator from Nebraska, not exactly my politics but a smart, very driven man, very independent, always independent of his party — that’s a longstanding Nebraska tradition. But what’s your view on the notion of having a single legislature at the state level?
SASSE: It’s an interesting option that more states should consider. There are pros and cons, but we are not just a unicameral as opposed to bicameral legislature. We’re also nonpartisan. Our legislature meets five months one year and three months the off year, basically whether or not it’s a budget year.
The culture of the state senator, the state legislature is really different than most legislative bodies across the US. There are 99 of them. We have one, and all the other 49 states have two each. Because it’s a nonpartisan unicameral with no caucusing — officially it’s about 2 to 1, Republican to Democrat, if you actually had everyone declare their affiliation — but the culture of the place allows different kinds of coalitions to emerge. I believe strongly in the separation of powers and in the decentralization impulses of our founders to divide power both vertically and horizontally. But there’s no obvious reason why state legislatures should need to mirror what the federal legislature does. So I think more states should consider a unicameral, and even a nonpartisan unicameral, structure.
COWEN: George Norris’s original case for a unicameral legislature: he hated what he called the “conference committees,” that the two houses would each have a version of a bill. Then a time would come when the two versions had to be reconciled, and then, in his view, the voters would disappear. Deliberations would take place secretly, and this was what Nebraska needed to abolish. How does that analysis seem to you now that there’s many years of experience with a single unicameral legislature?
SASSE: Yeah, George Norris had a bunch of different transparency impulses, the vast majority of which are good. Some of them are complicating. So, all public searches in Nebraska are supposed to be declared. Well, when you’re searching for a new president of a university system, that changes the culture quite a lot in ways that takes away a whole bunch of candidates.
When President Cabrera mentioned George Mason becoming the 67th R1 research university in the country, if you are just hypothetically speaking — I’m not naming where Nebraska falls in that pecking order — but if you’re research university 30 in the country, and you want to get a new president, and maybe you think you should reach up, and there’s a reason why person leading institution 20 should be at Nebraska. Or a person at university 40, who may think that he or she has a shot to lead a top-10 institution, and you’re the 30th institution, you want to go grab them. Most people are not going to be a party to a search where they might publicly lose.
So if you have a lot of opportunities in life, the impulse toward transparency in executive search is not always a great impulse. But the vast majority of what Norris wanted to accomplish with shining a spotlight on conference committees, I think he’s been right about a lot of that.
On the many counties of Nebraska
COWEN: Something else striking about Nebraska — a lot of states in the Midwest and the whole country — the country’s now well into economic recovery, but small towns, let’s say, below 15,000 population, are often having trouble with some of this across the country. I’m not asking you about particular policies, but conceptually, as a Nebraskan, what is it you feel you understand about this process of rebuilding, or maybe even shuttering up, a declining small town that the rest of us here may not understand as well? What wisdom could you carry to us on this?
SASSE: Wisdom’s too big of a word, but at the level of analytics, we’re not thinking at all, or we’re not thinking nearly aggressively enough about what’s happening as we transition from what I think of as the third-stage economy — industrialization — to this fourth-stage economy, where you’ve gone from hunter-gatherers to agrarianism to industrialization, mass urbanization, mass immigration to this new thing, which we don’t even know how to talk about yet. We don’t have a real name for it. The “postindustrial economy” is the way of throwing in the towel and saying we don’t know what to call this thing, that is, the IT economy, the service economy, the mobile economy, the digital economy.
It’s useful to map those economics on top of local community neighborhoods. You had nomads, you had villages, you had urban ethnic neighborhoods, and you have whatever this suburbia-exurbia-mobile thing is.
Lots and lots of our problems are that we don’t know what human capital is going to look like in this fourth stage. When you look at a state like mine, it’s a little easier to see what that transition looks like — I mean see what the disruption looks like, not transition, because that implies we know where we’re headed, and we don’t.
Nebraska is 93 counties. Long ago before I was a politician — I’m one of five people in the Senate who’s never been a politician before. I’ve never run for anything until I did this, and I used to feel really free to just say whatever I thought, even when I thought it was witty, regardless if it would get me in trouble. And I used to joke that we have 93 counties in Nebraska and 12 of them have people. It turns out people from the other 81 counties don’t like that kind of joke.
I’m from one of those places, and it’s fun to think you’re from a place that has 80 head of cattle per person. When you parse Nebraska’s 1.9 million people, we have 750,000 basically in metro Omaha, we have 250,000 in Lincoln and a few small towns that it’s swallowing up, and the vast majority of the rest of the state is essentially built along a spine on I-80 or on the Platte River, where you have 25,000-person towns that are where the meat-packing plant is, where the truck dealership is, where the tractor dealership is, where the grain elevator is. There’s a regional hospital in most of these 25,000-person towns. That’s basically the scale, and then all the other places are much, much smaller.
The third-largest city in Nebraska, we often joke, is the University of Nebraska–Lincoln football stadium on game day, when we have 95,000 people. But you fall from there to we have a 40,000-person town, then a bunch of 25,000s, and then these communities under 5,000.
The vast majority of counties in Nebraska right now are rapidly shrinking, but we don’t understand how much they’re shrinking because we’re unable to account for the age migration inside the county. In most of our counties, again 70-plus of 93, that are shrinking, the county seat is actually growing, so think about that. The county’s shrinking but the county seat is growing. What’s really happening is 65-, 70-, and 75-year-old farmers are moving to the town where they go out to dinner, or where they play golf, or where the assisted-living facilities are because they’re going to age and they’re going to retire in the community they’re from.
But technological substitution for labor on these farms is that — other than the breadbasket of the world — we’re getting more and more agricultural productivity out of these counties than ever before in human history, but with rapidly diminishing labor inputs.
I don’t think we’ve given much thought at all to what it looks like to think about these towns when you go from being a class B or a class C school to being a place that might not have many kids at all. I don’t think we’re thinking about the ex-urbanization of America as a reclustering around 100 to 250 towns in the country, or cities, but that’s really a lot of what’s happening right now. So there’s no wisdom there, but there’s analytics because you can see a lot of places in Nebraska that are rapidly going to shrink when this generation dies.
COWEN: You have a PhD in history from Yale University, American history, and I’m sure you’re familiar with Frederick Jackson Turner. This idea of a Turner thesis: America being shaped by its interaction with the frontier. In the physical sense, that frontier would appear to be closed; we’re not in the middle of the space race anymore. What today do you see as the American frontier that’s still shaping our dynamism?
SASSE: Here I could tap this guy named Tyler Cowen who has an interesting new book about a lot of our sapped dynamism at the present moment. I think the absence of a clearly defined set of strategic choices around the next frontier is one of the things that leads to a real worry about declining ambition for lots of folks. So I’m mixed on the Turner thesis but the idea of a frontier . . .
David Brooks has done some really interesting stuff, talking about the way Americans have historically looked to the future in ways that there’s clearly a transition happening right now, where there’s enough worry that we have a lot of looking to the past.
The way we talk about deindustrialization is a pretty good example. The vast majority of transformation of industrial economy jobs is because of technology, and we’re pretending it’s because of trade because it’s easier to come up with a way to try to demonize somebody. I worry that there’s not enough looking to the future, and we need a lot more shared vision about what those big opportunities of things we can build together are.
On Sasse’s dissertation
COWEN: I think it’s 2004 when you finished Yale and your dissertation. There’s a copy of it here, which I enjoyed reading.
SASSE: You did not. Did you really? My goodness, I’m sorry.
SASSE: Like every grad student, I wrote a 520-page dissertation because I didn’t have time to write a 220-page dissertation. That thing is woefully under-edited. Sorry, brother.
COWEN: But it won two prizes. I know you don’t have perfect recall of all of the details, but if you could give us a very broad sense —
SASSE: I do not recall.
COWEN: — of what you wrote on. Even the field your degree was in.
SASSE: Well, thank you for giving me lots of room to talk. I wrote on the realignment of domestic politics, 1950 to 1980, in light of the Cold War. The title is something like “The Anti-Madalyn Majority:” (named from Madalyn Murray O’Hair) “Secular Left, Religious Right, and the Rise of Reagan’s America.”
The realignment of social conservatives and a lot of old Democrats into the Republican party, particularly in the South and in the Midwest, had many, many factors that drove it. If you listen to academic historians, usually, the story is very quickly reducible to one factor and one factor alone and that’s backlash against the civil rights movement. There’s a whole bunch of structural and personal racism in America that needs to be confronted, and some of the realignment does relate to backlash of civil rights movement, but the story is actually lots more complicated than that.
I don’t think we’ve done a good job of understanding our present moment and how we got to this place by understanding that, in the Cold War, grassroots America looked at Soviet communist expansionism as a threat, not just because of centrally planned economics, but because of a fear that Soviet atheism was going to be enforced in certain kinds of ways that might expand into the world and, ultimately, forcibly secularize lots of different institutions in American life.
For instance, one of the chapters in my thesis is about a letter-writing campaign to the FCC in the 1960s and 1970s that is arguably the largest letter-writing campaign in the history of the English language, that almost nobody knows anything about. More than 30 million people — Americans — wrote letters to the FCC to protest the fact that Madalyn Murray O’Hair was going to get religious broadcasting declared illegal in America.
There was actually no such effort. There was no Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The FCC was never considering making religious broadcasting illegal, and yet, the ways that people came to believe that that might be true and the way this conspiracy theory took root and led 30-plus million people to write letters, relates to the way school prayer prohibition came about in the Supreme Court decisions of 1962, 1963, and that has to do with a different interpretation of the Establishment Clause than the way Americans had understood the Establishment Clause if you read First Amendment before the 14th Amendment tries to incorporate it, not just against “Congress shall make no law,” but states and localities and local school districts can’t as well.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff that happened in American life in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s that’s really quite interesting and was scary to lots and lots of people. And I personally have no interest in prayer to the unknown God in schools in the 1960s for theological reasons, particular commitments that I have. Abstractions about that don’t interest me very much, but I have lots of sympathy for why people thought forces well beyond their control were making decisions that affected the local.
So I think the realignment that ultimately came to full fruit in 1980 has lots of variables that we have to understand against the backdrop of international understandings the Cold War brought home to local communities in the US.
COWEN: You also show a lot of that realignment had come as early as 1972. So the Southern Strategy, Catholics lining up behind the Republicans, and that year Nixon, that was earlier than people thought and that was tied into religious issues.
SASSE: Right. Before you leave that, I just want to say — because a lot of the stuff that we might talk about later tonight — I think the 1960s still produced a hangover for almost every fight we have today.
If you think about the long 1960s, it is amazing. There have only been four truly gigantic landslides in the history of presidential politics in America. I’m defining a big landslide as somebody winning more than 60 percent of the popular vote. That’s only happened four times in US history, but two of them were LBJ in ’64 and then Nixon in ’72. That swing in eight years from a landslide one way to a landslide the other is really amazing, and you could only understand that if you understand how disruptive the 1960s were in community after community across the US.
If you think about the long 1960s, it is amazing. There have only been four truly gigantic landslides in the history of presidential politics in America...two of them were LBJ in ’64 and then Nixon in ’72. That swing in eight years from a landslide one way to a landslide the other is really amazing, and you could only understand that if you understand how disruptive the 1960s were in community after community across the US.
On the intellectual exhaustion of both political parties
COWEN: Just to be clear, what’s going to follow is not in any way a question about President Trump. But Trump —
SASSE: Good. Thank you.
COWEN: Trump is a kind of data, right? So he is not, in every way, a traditional religious conservative it would be fair to say.
COWEN: And given that the Republican party elected Trump as their candidate, and he then has become president, what should this cause us to rethink about the role of religion in the rise of the right over the last 20 to 30 years? Does that new data in any way revise previous theses about whether it’s Reaganomics or religion or counterreaction to the 1960s or — do you see what I’m asking?
SASSE: Not really.
SASSE: A bit. I don’t know that there’s any way we could do justice to a question that big in under a couple of hours but maybe just a few big glosses. I think that both of these political parties are almost completely intellectually exhausted. I don’t think either party can articulate a vision for America that’s five or ten years future-looking right now.
So when you ask the American people, “Do you identify more with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?” and if you don’t give them the option to say “none of the above,” 46 percent of people still interrupt to say “none of the above.” That’s stunning. Basically there are 29 percent Democrat-leaning, 25 percent Republican leaning, and 46 percent refuse to answer your question. If you’re of the party of Lincoln as I am, that’s really scary because our 25 percent are lots and lots older than the Democrats’ 29 percent.
Then when you drill down on the 54 percent who are willing to answer, and you say, “Why are you a Republican? Why are you a Democrat?” Something like 70 percent of the people begin by talking about why the other party is so much worse than your party. So these parties don’t know what they stand for, and they surely can’t communicate it, and they definitely can’t communicate it in a constructive, positive, winsome way.
That’s the starting point for the election cycle of 2016. So both parties were ripe for a hostile takeover. And if you think about 17 candidates in the Republican primary, you went a long way into that cycle before the now-president’s numbers ever got anywhere near 40 percent. And at that same point, Bernie Sanders was getting 45 percent of the Democratic vote and he’s not a Democrat. Right?
So both parties were very ripe for hostile takeover. Then you have to understand some of what happened in the 2016 cycle on the Republican side as partly legacy of a 2012 moment where Mitt Romney had difficulty closing the deal because of the way Ron Paul was able to stick around. So the party changed a bunch of the rules so there would be easier consolidation.
Why do I say all that? I say that because you have to understand the 2016 primary as one thing on the Republican side, and the Republican Party is too vacuous of what we stand for right now. So it was ripe for a hostile takeover. That happened, and then you ended up with what was perceived as a binary choice for a lot of voters between two candidates that were not viewed as very trustworthy. So you end up with a general election choice that is not a big-vision choice.
I don’t know how you would go the next level down and talk in great detail about what the religious components were to a political ideology because I don’t think we made a choice about ideology in the 2016 cycle. We sort of made a choice that was about a lot of folks saying, “Burn the place down and let’s just see what happens because I don’t like the direction we’re headed now.”
On why Sasse visits Israel each year
COWEN: You mention in your book that you visit Israel each year. When you go to Israel, what is the main thing you feel you learn and the main thing you feel you learn about the role of religion in public life?
SASSE: I don’t think that’s why I go. I go because, again, one of five people who’s never been a politician before in the Senate, I’ve been there two and a half years, so I don’t do a lot of congressional delegation trips. I’ve got little kids and I want to to be with them as much as I can.
COWEN: I go because it’s fun, by the way, if you’re wondering.
SASSE: You’re more fun than I am. Your kids are different ages than mine.
SASSE: Yeah, mine are 15, 13, and 6. So when I travel, I travel almost exclusively for national security reasons, and when we have as many troops deployed as we do in the Midwest and I serve on the Armed Services Committee . . .I said Midwest; that’s where I’m from. And we have as many troops deployed in the Middle East as we have —
COWEN: East. There’s troops out there, right?
SASSE: It turns out Ohio and Jordan are really similar.
SASSE: I want to be sure I understand what we’re working on in terms of developing a national security strategy for post-1989 because we’re 28 years since the end of the Cold War. We’re 26 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.
COWEN: But now that you’ve been there a number of times more, what is it you understand now that you didn’t before?
SASSE: Well, Israel is a place that believes in human rights and the rule of law and a whole bunch of things that a lot of their neighbors don’t believe in. So when I’m going to visit troops at different places, Israel’s just a place that we end up stopping, coming and going, and have meetings with the prime minister and other folks in the parliament. I’m not there for reasons related to religion and public life. I’m there because I don’t think we have a national security strategy for an age of cyber and jihad.
If you’re like we are, when we teach our kids about the world or we’re talking about something on the global stage and a new country’s name comes up, we get out a globe and you spin it around, and we make our kids find the country we’re talking about and look at their neighbors and think about who their trading partners are, think a little bit about the culture and the history and the geography.
But one of the downsides of that is, you look at a globe and it has borders around 200 countries, and we act like there are 200 countries in the world that are really similar. There are about 140 countries on the globe that have a monopoly on violence within their borders. There are about 60 places that are more like Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, where there really isn’t a monopoly on violence with the government.
So that distinction that most Americans learned after 9/11 between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban is operative in lots of places in the world. We were not attacked on 9/11 by the Taliban. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda, but Al-Qaeda is only possible because the Taliban didn’t really control their territory. And in these ungoverned spaces, organizations that are not states but can have a global reach emerge.
We need a strategy for how we think about all these places. We don’t have a strategy for Syria right now, the biggest humanitarian, the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. There were 21 million people in Syria on the eve of their civil war. Today about 11 million of 21 million people have been displaced from their homes, half beyond the borders and half basically amassed on their northern and southern borders, right?
Jordan is always in danger of falling right now because of the pressures of the Syrian refugee crisis into their country. King Abdullah will tell you that there are lots of local communities, lots of school districts in Jordan that have more Syrian kids than Jordanian kids in their schools. Think about what that would be like in the communities where you live, if all of a sudden you had a majority of kids from a different country.
That’s really why Israel becomes a stop-off point on that, and there’s a lot more we can unpack. The reason I reference it in the book is because of the 17-year-old kid serving in the IDF running missile installations.
On driving for Uber
SASSE: As a rider I’m often uberX, but I’m just regular Uber as a driver.
COWEN: How often do people recognize you?
SASSE: I currently have an argument with Senate Ethics Committee, so I’m kind of on suspension from Uber.
I currently have an argument with Senate Ethics Committee, so I’m kind of on suspension from Uber.
SASSE: But my Uber rating, by the way, is outstanding. It’s at 10,000. People tell me it’s the best Uber rating anyone has ever had. It’s phenomenal.
COWEN: Better yet than your ACU rating? [laughs]
SASSE: Yeah, it would be better than that.
COWEN: What do people tell you when they recognize you? What would they say?
SASSE: In Uber?
COWEN: In Uber.
SASSE: First of all, I’ve tended to drive around Nebraskan football games, and so I’m often letting people know that it turns out Uber has $150 surcharge if you vomit in the back of a car.
SASSE: That’s a market mechanism.
COWEN: And you still got high ratings. [laughs]
SASSE: That’s right. People like to know in advance before they get the charge. When you’re picking up people after the football game or after tailgating, it’s amazing how frank they’ll be if all of a sudden they find they have their senator as their driver for nine minutes, and they’ll tell you what they’re worried about.
I tend to view voters very similarly to the way I thought about who my audience should be when I was writing a dissertation, which is, “Assume that the people you’re writing for are a lot smarter than you are, but that they know nothing about your topic.” It’s a useful way to think about complicated policy discussions: Assume that the voters are a lot smarter than we are, that they’re wise but that they’re not immersed in the detail, day to day. So you need to figure out how to telescope in and out at the level of detail you want to talk about.
And I’m very fascinated by work. It’s a fundamental anchor of human identity. Instead of just doing town halls with my constituents, I like to work with people. So I do lots of ag labor, partly. Again, I have little kids, and I want them to suffer, and so I take them with me to work on the farm or on a ranch. It’s pretty easy in Nebraska to figure out ways to do ag labor. It’s tough to find ways to work with people who have modern knowledge-economy jobs, and learn from them. And so that’s why I want to play on the sharing economy, to learn a lot more about it.
And people understand that we’re going through a massive disruption in the nature of work. This is unprecedented in human history to have people who are going to be 40 and 45 and 50 and 55, and get disintermediated not only out of their job and out of their firm, but out of their whole industry. That’s never happened before.
Bill Gates’s way of talking about it is, “This is the first massive intragenerational economic disruption.” Other economic disruptions when you had technological substitution creating push from the farm and pull to the city, that wasn’t one 45-year-old farmer laying down his tools or her tools and moving to the city. It was 55- and 60-year-olds recognizing that their 15- and 20-year-old kids were not going to have the same life they had and they were going to leave and go to the city.
We’re going to have intragenerational work disruptions and a shortening duration of jobs forevermore. That’s new. And in the sharing economy is a place where you’ll find people that are actually thinking about that.
On pluralizing higher education delivery
COWEN: At age 37, you were president of Midland University in Nebraska — I think at the time the youngest university president in this country. And there’s a common claim that it’s an economic problem for colleges and universities that administrative costs have become too high. Do you agree with this claim or not?
SASSE: I do agree with this claim.
COWEN: What do you feel is the root of that? And what do you think is the solution?
SASSE: I don’t think we have nearly enough forms of higher education in the US. We pretend that we have one model of higher ed — we actually have a handful of models — but we need dozens and scores of different types of institutions.
First of all, we should recognize that the teaching mission of a liberal arts college and the research mission of a large university are really, really different things and we should admit that. Different faculty have really different strengths and weaknesses, and we should admit that. One of the things that I learned, and this is not directly on your point of administrative costs, but there’s an adjacency here.
We used to brag, “Look how great we are. We have a 40:1 student ratio in our accounting programs, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” the flagship big state university campus down the road, “they have a 330:1 ratio. We’re 40:1; they’re 330:1.”
We bragged about that a lot. Turns out, there’s some data on this, and the student experience at 40:1 and 330:1 is just not different at all…
The college that I took over had accounting as its fourth-largest major. And we used to brag at this liberal arts college that happened to have a pretty strong set of business programs, and accounting in particular was large. We used to brag, “Look how great we are. We have a 40:1 student ratio in our accounting programs, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” the flagship big state university campus down the road, “they have a 330:1 ratio. We’re 40:1; they’re 330:1.”
We bragged about that a lot. Turns out, there’s some data on this, and the student experience at 40:1 and 330:1 is just not different at all because 40:1 is well beyond the seminar feel. There are five nerds that talk all the time in a 40:1 class or in a 330:1 class. And in both cases, the feedback loop of the professor, so that she or he understands what students are learning or not, is not well represented by the five kids who talk all the time.
So we started looking at, what if you had all online delivery of accounting classes, all in person, or hybrid. Now let’s measure them based on both cost effectiveness and educational efficacy or effectiveness. As you’d expect, that all online is the cheapest, hybrid is middle, and all in-person is the most expensive.
But counterintuitively, at least to me, hybrid was the most educationally effective, then all in-person, then all online. Why is that? Turns out what the hybrid gets you, is it gets you high-frequency, low-stakes quizzing where individual students are disaggregated and professors figure out what students are bottlenecked on what things. You still have an interpersonal relationship, you have a place to go to have the tutorial which will free you from your bottleneck, but it turned out the IT added lots and lots of value.
I don’t think you’re going to get to that kind of differentiation by program type through the traditional model of just more and more administration and all faculty being treated the same way, whether you’re really primarily a teacher or whether you’re primarily a researcher. So I want a real pluralization of these forms.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: Now before we get to your book, there’s always a segment in the middle of these called underrated or overrated, and I toss something out at you — you’re free to pass, of course — and you tell me if you think it’s overrated or underrated. So let’s start with Stephen Curry. [laughs]
SASSE: He’s underrated because first of all, he’s the best shooter in the history of a really important game, and second of all, he’s a guy who got KD [Kevin Durant] to come to the team. I think Durant said, “There’s not enough shots for both of us.” And Curry said, “I don’t care, I’m a point guard. I want my team to win.”
The low ego on that guy is breathtakingly important. Right now in our superstar culture, we think you’re supposed to do what you’ve always done, which is put up the kind of numbers he put up, and he wanted his team to win, and he was a contributor. He’s a special, special guy.
COWEN: Chevy Chase. Not the town, the actor.
SASSE: Let’s go with both.
SASSE: He’s underrated . . . You did say the comedian?
COWEN: Comedian, yeah.
SASSE: OK, yeah. All of a sudden I thought you were going back to the neighborhood.
COWEN: Comedian. May be begging the question to his critics, but —
SASSE: Oh no, his physical humor is still . . . Every dad everywhere aspires to be able to make the faces he makes to get your kids to laugh. So he’s underrated as a comedian. Turns out, most of the people who’ve worked with him say that he’s maybe a complicated guy.
COWEN: Oh, yeah.
COWEN: King Lear.
SASSE: I think we have to say underrated because nobody’s reading it today. So, they don’t know that they’re missing a lot.
COWEN: Willa Cather.
SASSE: She’s a Nebraskan, so she’s obviously underrated.
COWEN: Like every other Nebraskan, right? Raymond Chandler too; I don’t even need to ask.
Martin Luther as a political thinker.
SASSE: That’s good.
SASSE: The truth is, underrated. But just as a thinker he’s so underrated. I don’t want people to start in this 500th anniversary of the door at Wittenberg — I don’t want people to read him through political lenses because this guy’s going through an existential crisis where he actually believes that there’s a law, and that he’s a lawbreaker, and he’s scared to death about eternity. So he’s not motivated by politics. But in an instrumental sense, figuring out how to navigate politics is underrated.
COWEN: And why do you so admire Margaret Chase Smith?
SASSE: The speech that she gave on the Senate floor when McCarthyism was just being tolerated, it’s a really special speech. Everybody should go back and read it. It was a courageous move for anybody to make, but for a woman to make at that time, in that place, it’s really special.
COWEN: And she was a Republican, right?
COWEN: From Maine.
COWEN: And she was the woman who served longest in the US Senate.
SASSE: I think that’s right.
COWEN: Yeah, yeah.
SASSE: I think she’s Susan Collins’s hero.
COWEN: What did Chaucer teach you about theology?
On Chaucer and Rousseau
SASSE: “Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote. The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. And bathed every veyne in swich licour. Of which vertu engendred is the flour.”
I didn’t know you were going to do that.
COWEN: Well challenged.
SASSE: I don’t know if there’s any theology in there, but I think that people long to go on pilgrimage. And sometimes it’s for theological reasons and sometimes they’re just kind of aroused. It was all sorts of motives.
COWEN: We don’t prepare any of these moments, if you’re wondering.
Now in your book, you say something really quite striking to me. This is a book on education and we all know the great classic treatise on education of the 18th century is Rousseau’s Emile. And you say you spent 18 months living with this book, studying it. Why that book? And what did you learn from it?
SASSE: Some guy on Twitter a couple days ago sent me an apology because he bought my book planning to hate-read it, which is a term I’ve never heard of.
SASSE: But he wanted to hate-read my book, and then he said he read The Vanishing American Adult, and he said it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be. He thought it was going to be some old man screaming, “Get off my lawn,” which is just not what the book’s about. It’s a constructive project that our kids are being raised.
COWEN: That’s a deep theoretical book; it’s not a political book, right? It’s about education in the deepest sense.
SASSE: It is 100 percent not about politics, and it’s 99 percent not about policy. The little bit that’s about policy is that we need to uncouple schooling and education in our mind, so we can pluralize the tools. School’s one tool, we need lots of tools in our education. So it is not about politics or policy.
It’s about this distinction between adolescence, which is a really special thing — and I’ll get back to Emile quickly — and perpetual adolescence, which is really dangerous. We’re drifting into a place where almost all of our kids are being not shepherded through adolescence, and therefore they’re drifting into perpetual adolescence, and they’re ending up stranded.
Neverland in Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.
Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.
Neverland in Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing.
I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, where your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.
So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.
But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read. So, if you’ve never read the Emile, it’s about 500 pages. The first three of the five books are Rousseau taking a kid from birth through puberty.
Just to show you how horrible a human being Rousseau was: he’s a widower. He abandons his own kids at an orphanage so he’d have more time to write a book about how you should raise kids.
SASSE: And then, books four and five are essentially taking boy/man and girl/woman through puberty and into courtship and marriage, and he does it from each side of the two genders, thinking about what that courtship looks like. I first encountered Rousseau’s Emile at St. John’s. I did a master’s program and a great books program at St. John’s–Annapolis. I just fell in love with hating the book, and I carried it around for eight months.
COWEN: So, you do know what a hate-read is.
SASSE: I know what it is experientially, I just didn’t have a category for it. So I hate-read Rousseau’s Emile for 18 months in 1997.
On travel as learning
COWEN: As you know, Rousseau was quite negative on travel as a way of acquiring useful knowledge. He thinks it leads to a false vanity and a belief that you know things that actually you don’t. And you, like myself, you’re quite positive on travel.
Make the case for travel as a fundamental form of learning.
SASSE: Yeah. Fish can’t explain to you what water’s like because he’s never been out of water. And I don’t think you can really understand where you’re from until you go somewhere else and see a different form of social organization.
So, what this book has built . . . The first third is stage-setting about this new thing called perpetual adolescence, and the last two-thirds is five habits that we should want our kids to acquire as they come of age.
One is learning how to have the eyes to see, which come from travel. And it’s very akin to why you learn a foreign language. You may be learning a foreign language because you’re going to need to use it, but even if you never use your Spanish or your French or your Latin, it was still really good to go through the process of having to learn a new language and think about its grammatical structure and other vocabulary from yours because now for the first time, you can see your own language.
It wasn’t until I started to learn Spanish that I understood English at all. And I think that’s what travel is. This is not the grand European tour for rich kids. This is about going 10 miles from your own home and spending time with people in another neighborhood, or this is about going from the built environment where our kids are almost exclusively being raised and going and living in nature for a while. I think you acquire eyes to see where you’re from the first time.
This is something that I first came to see as a little kid. I live in the same farm-dependent town in Nebraska, one of these 25,000-person towns that I grew up in. When I was a little kid, we would go fishing in Minnesota, and we didn’t have any money. My dad was a high school teacher and a football and wrestling coach. We would go stay at this rustic cabin that my uncle had in Minnesota, and we’d go fishing, and I thought I was in the middle of nowhere. I thought this was the greatest thing in the world, to go fishing with my dad and my uncle and my cousins.
My dad and my uncle always put the kibosh on how wild and remote and primitive we thought we were because when they were kids, they used to go up in the northern woods of Canada fishing. It was just a bunch of high school and college boys from Nebraska who would load in a car and drive up into Canada. And literally, they had canoes, sleeping bags, they had fishing tackle, they had fishing poles, and they had a few cans of beans and a can opener as their emergency plan for if they didn’t catch enough food, how they would live.
They would go to remote Canada. And they would talk, without any analytical categories to explain it, but they would talk about how they first understood social relationships. And they first understood the little farm town that they were from, and I’m from, because they could contrast it with being at a place where there was nothing built.
I don’t think we’re helping our kids right now understand the need to get to another place more often so that you have the fresh perspective on where they’re from.
COWEN: In 1992 or so, you lived in Europe for about a year. Where were you, mainly?
SASSE: I was in Prague for the summer of 1992, and then I did a junior year abroad at Oxford in the fall of ’92.
Then December, January, early February — probably two-ish months — I bought a Eurail pass. Back then you could buy, I think it was 600 bucks for 60 days. Limitless train ticket to anywhere in Europe, and a buddy of mine and I went and did that for 60 days, living on the trains in Europe in the middle of winter, and we had no money. Our $660 was all we had, and we budgeted, I think it was $6 a day to live for those two months — which basically meant we had a backpack where you’d have peanut butter, jelly, and mustard. Then you would buy baguettes whatever town you got to. We’d buy water and we’d buy bread.
We didn’t have any money that we were going to be able to pay for lodging, so we quickly realized that whenever you wanted to be in a town for two or more days, or some European city, you’d pick a town that was a 12-hour train ride away. That’s the way that you would be able to sleep, and so you would batch towns. If you wanted to be in city A for a few days and city B, you’d go A, B, A, B so that every night you can take a 10 to 12 hour overnight train as a way to sleep indoors.
SASSE: And we did that for months. It was great.
COWEN: What was the biggest surprise for you in and near Prague, living there?
SASSE: Well, Prague is incredible because it wasn’t bombed out, and we were there, this is two and a half years after the fall of the wall in Berlin. I’m from a part of Nebraska where when I was a kid . . . I live, again, about an hour outside of Omaha, and parts of our state are hispanicizing rapidly. We have a lot of first-generation immigration. But when I was a kid, the town that I’m from was basically 100 percent German. The big cultural divide in town was German-Catholic versus German-Lutheran.
COWEN: [laughs] That sounds pretty tough.
SASSE: I never thought of myself as potentially looking German because everybody where I lived looked like I looked. When I was in Prague for the summer of 1992, Czech and Slovak republics were going to split in November — it was four months later. So they had some old currency that was pre–fall of communism, and then they had a transitional currency, and then they had the current Czechoslovakian currency. They were about to split the country in two. So if you were a tourist, it was really easy to get taken because there was a whole bunch of bad money in circulation that wasn’t worth anything.
COWEN: But you couldn’t lose more than $6 a day, right?
SASSE: Again, I was in Prague the beginning summer and the winter was the train travel so maybe I didn’t budget well.
SASSE: So the beginning summer, I might have lived high on the hog, and then at the end, I had no lodging for a couple of months.
COWEN: Peanut butter and no jelly.
SASSE: In Prague, we ate really, really well because that was the beginning of the trip. And all of these shucksters, who were trying to take your money, would think that I was a German tourist in Prague for the weekend. Because the Germans would use Prague as their playground at this point, and so people would come up to me constantly, very surreptitiously showing you currency in their hand. It was illegal to be a private money changer, but all these people would just come up to me all the time and, in German, ask me if I wanted to change money.
I hadn’t expected to feel in a place like Prague that there were folks that had this constant, immediate East-West line. Having created eastern Europe as a playground for western Europeans. But I was mistaken as a German all the time.
On age segregation in education
COWEN: You’re an opponent of what you call age segregation in education, and I think, more generally in life. Tell us why.
SASSE: If you brought people from 300 years ago or 3,000 years ago to live among us now, if you dropped them out of a time machine, I think the first thing that would stun them is just simply our material abundance and our tools, and especially our digital tools. We have more built stuff than anybody in human history by huge magnitudes. I don’t think you could possibly arrive here and not first be surprised by our material abundance.
But if those folks stayed with us for a while, 30 days later, that would wear off, and the thing that would be most striking to people from other times and places living among us is how age-segregated we live. It is a really, really weird thing to allow our 17-year-olds to believe that the world is mostly made up of 17-year-olds. It’s strange, it’s not healthy, and it’s not true, and that’s the way we raise our kids. They are hyper, hyper age-segregated.
If you brought people from 300 years ago or 3,000 years ago to live among us now, if you dropped them out of a time machine, I think the first thing that would stun them is just simply our material abundance and our tools, and especially our digital tools…
But if those folks stayed with us for a while, 30 days later, that would wear off, and the thing that would be most striking to people from other times and places living among us is how age-segregated we live.
As the father of 15- and 13-year-old girls, I get that the pure slight of a 13- or 15-year-old girl really hurts. But it’s not really enduring if you have any wisdom. Right? If your 13-year-old knows 60-year-olds and 75-year-olds, and they’ve been through a lot of life experience, another 13- or 15-year-old girl saying something trite and mean to you, it’s water off a duck’s back if you have any perspective.
I don’t think we’re serving our kids very well by allowing them to live these hyper age-segregated lives. And that’s closely connected to the core driver of our perpetual adolescence category, which is that our kids don’t know the distinction in their belly, they don’t feel the distinction between production and consumption. They know aging through grades in school as their productive work time, and then the rest of life is just different forms of consumption. That’s really unsatisfying and it’s really unfair to them.
Again, this book is not a blame-laying book, but if I were laying blame in this book —
COWEN: And he’s not. [laughs]
SASSE: — I would not be blaming millennials. I would be blaming we parents and grandparents that we’re not helping think with our kids about the fact that we’re not celebrating scar tissue with them. Scar tissue is the foundation of future character, and they are able to persevere, and they need to develop a work ethic. They just happened to live at the richest time and place in human history, and so they live a life that’s almost entirely separated from productive work environments. That’s never been the case of anybody who’s ever grown up before, that they didn’t grow up around work.
One of the most basic things that makes you happy in life is thinking that you’re needed. My work, our work is needed. Not “Does my back hurt at the end of the day?” or not “Do I think I get paid enough money?” or not “Is there some annoying person three cubicles away who talks too loudly on his or her phone?” But when I leave home on Monday morning or whatever day you begin your workday or workweek, “Do I think anybody needs me?” If you think that, if your work matters to somebody, if you have a meaningful way to contribute to your neighbor, you’re basically going to be happy.
And if you don’t have that, you’re almost certainly not going to be happy. And right now, we’re raising our teens segregated from work, and therefore, segregated from any clear sense that they’re needed now or going to be needed in the future, and that ends up feeling a lot like cotton candy. It’s pretty Peter Pan–like and pretty miserable.
COWEN: I’m actually a fan of the older 19th-century British Lancasterian system, where when possible, you have these somewhat older children teach the younger children, and the older children also learn through teaching — not just by being students — and you mix roles that way because you have a natural way to mix ages where there’s some rationale for it. I worry also with people aging and going more into nursing homes, we will become more of an age-segregated society.
There’s a lot of worry about racial segregation, gender segregation; but age segregation is hardly mentioned. But if you think about it, how old you are is a pretty fundamental fact about your life and I’m very glad to see your book is drawing attention to this issue. I hope that gains some traction.
SASSE: Thanks, and it isn’t just the older. I want to underscore your point, Tyler. It isn’t just 13-year-olds being around 60- and 75-year-olds, though it should be that because the pattern of life is, you start needing diapers, and you end up needing diapers. We ultimately become dependent again, and that means there are a whole bunch of people that need us, that they need our help.
Our kids shouldn’t live the narcissistic 13-year-old consumer experience of thinking there’s this fountain of youth and if only they could consume more, they’ll be happy. All the data shows that that doesn’t actually make you happy. There are older people who need us, but there are also younger people who need us, and there’s a really good way to get outside your own education, to think about how you pass along education. I do think there’s a benefit to our family structure: providentially just happens to be 15-year-old girl, 13-year-old girl, big gap, providential surprise son.
SASSE: It is a gift for my daughters that they have to help teach my son, as it pulls them out of the narcissistic experience of being 13 or 15. He needs them. They matter, and they learn about their own learning by doing that.
One last point: When I was a college president, we used to host these dinners for donors at our house. We would do these rolling salons of 8 and 10 and 12 people all the time. And one of the questions that my wife and I started to ask people, and it was fun if you were talking to a 45-year-old or an 85-year-old: “How do you recognize whether or not a kid or a grandkid is mature?”
And one time we were hosting this party, and this woman said, “Oh, that’s easy. For a boy I know for sure. If a boy is old enough that I would trust him to be alone with my baby for 90 minutes, such that he might have to change a diaper during the time he’s there, he’s a man. And if he’s not, he’s still a child.” And all these 30-year-old guys around the table started squirming in their seats . . .
SASSE: “Yes, I guess my man cave really is a place that I escape to be a little kid again.” But it was amazing. Immediately every mom around the table said, “Oh yeah, that’s it.” If there’s an 11- or a 13- or a 15- or a 17- or a 19-year-old boy, and you’d think he could take care of a one-year-old for 90 minutes and not have the kid die, he’s mature; if not, he’s immature.
And one time we were hosting this party, and this woman said, “…If a boy is old enough that I would trust him to be alone with my baby for 90 minutes, such that he might have to change a diaper during the time he’s there, he’s a man. And if he’s not, he’s still a child.” And all these 30-year-old guys around the table started squirming in their seats . . .
COWEN: Before we get to the questions of others, two final questions from me. When you’re hiring staffers or hiring in other capacities, such as the university, obviously, we look for people who are smart, people with good values, people who work hard. But what is it you look for in particular that maybe other employers or other senators or other people don’t think carefully enough about?
SASSE: I think the only two talents I have from a work standpoint are, I’m pretty good at sussing out when a strategic vision is missing and building a menu of choices about what strategic choices we should be making. What do we need to decide for this corporation, this small business, this not-for-profit, this college? And the second is, I’m decent at team building, and the reason for that is, I only hire people who are big cause, low ego. And that pairing is hard to find. Yeah, great to be smart, and of course, there’s a minimum threshold of how smart people need to be.
But fundamentally, what I want is people who want to be a part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves and they want to do something that matters. They’re always asking that deathbed-like question, “If I get the cancer diagnosis at 50 or in my old age at 85, when I look back at my life, will I think I spent my 30th year well?” Well, it depends on whether or not I was pulling on oars for some cause that’s bigger than me and doing it in a way that I didn’t care who got the credit.
And I want people on a team who, in that Aristotelian sense, distinguish between deliberation, decision, and action, such that you have a team of people who want to fight really hard when you’re deliberating among strategic choices. You want people who really are not bashful about trying to lay out pros and cons of both their position and everybody else’s position in the room and fight really, really hard.
But then finally, when you pull the trigger and make a decision, I want people on a team who don’t remember what side they fought for because this was the decision we made. And once we made this decision, we’re going this way, and nobody’s going to get credit because it was originally their idea or get blamed because it wasn’t their idea. We want it to succeed because we’re on a team. And that big-cause, low-ego impulse, those are the people that are fun to work with, too.
COWEN: And what’s the most — final question — the most underrated part of American government?
SASSE: Just the American idea. Fundamentally, we are blessed to live in an extraordinary nation where in 1787, there was a near-miraculous stew of ideas that came together to clarify, in the drafting of the Constitution, this belief in universal human dignity. We actually believe that 320 million Americans — well, we actually believe 7.2 billion people on the globe — but our primary responsibility as a government is to these 320 million people. We believe that people are created with dignity and their rights don’t come to them from government.
It isn’t the benevolence of government that grants you the right to free speech, assembly, religion, press, protest, or redress of grievances. We believe that these rights are inalienable — that’s an unbelievable idea. Then from that, we build a government that exists to secure those rights. But government’s just a tool. The animating principle is this idea of universal human dignity, and it’s intoxicating and we don’t celebrate it enough.
COWEN: These are the rules for questions. Just to be clear, they are my rules, they are not the senator’s rules. First, no speeches; I will cut you off. Second, no partisan questions or statements. And third, no questions on pending legislation. If you ask, we will simply pass over you again. Those are my restrictions, not the senator’s.
SASSE: I’m so glad I came.
SASSE: I didn’t know we got those rules, but can we get some whiskey? Let’s stay for a while.
COWEN: All the guests have those rules. I’ll also take a few questions from the iPad. I will alternate the two mics. Feel free to introduce yourself if you wish. First person here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is, you talk a lot about the removal of millennials from the means of production. Joseph Schumpeter thought that it was going to be the cause of socialism, that young people just saw the benefits of capitalism, they didn’t see the actual production of it. Do you think that vision is coming to pass now that socialism is more popular with millennials than it’s been in generations?
SASSE: Yeah, thanks, important question. The Sanders moment obviously led a lot of people to start doing some new analysis about this, and it’s amazing. Don’t quote me on this precise stat because I’m doing it from memory here, and it’s not something I’ve cited in public before. But I have a reference to something related to it in the book, I think it’s something like 42 percent of millennials think that socialism is the most just economic system, and yet only 14 percent of millennials can identify what socialism is as an economic structure. So roughly three times as many think they’re pro-socialism as have any real idea what it means.
Some of it, of course, sounds great about egalitarian economics, and there’s lots of that that we could debate and find ourselves on a continuum, not a truly binary choice on some aspects of who owns what tools in a civilization. But some of it is just not understanding that that means prohibiting a lot of private transactions that the two individuals involved in the transaction would like to make, seemingly, not necessarily with huge externalities.
I’m not sure how closely connected that is to the experience of growing up divorced from labor, but I do think we need to recognize how unique it is to live at a time where the vast majority of our teens are growing up without having any meaningful work experience, and that has never happened before in human history.
Hunter-gatherers and farmers — again, I mean historic farming from 10,000 years ago until industrialization, not the modern high-tech ag economics of today — but historic agriculture was like being a hunter-gatherer in that you just inherited the calling of mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. You didn’t make a choice; there was no job choice.
Some people were called to the clergy and law emerged as a formal profession about 200 years ago, and there were a few traveling salesmen and some witch doctors as early medicine, but by and large, it isn’t until industrialization 150-ish years ago that you have job choice. That’s new. But it was a one-time thing. You left the farm, you moved to the city, or you graduated high school, and you went to the factory. You picked a job one time and you had it until death or retirement.
What’s happening now is, we’re going to have job change again and again and again and again for your whole life. There’s lots of things in Tyler’s book that, at a data level, he probably wants to teach me some lessons about the complacency and passivity of certain kinds of job change today.
But at the macro level, what’s happening is, we have people who are teens who have to make a job choice, and they kind of know intuitively that it’s not the one job choice forever. It’s just the first one, and we don’t know how to think about a multicareer life. We don’t have institutions and intellectual categories for thinking about that. So it creates lots of very understandable anxiety, and our policy discussions are decades behind in thinking about what needs to come next. Some of this move toward socialism might just be a security-seeking that’s an understandable response to the uncertainty of what it’s going to mean to be disrupted at 40 and 45 and 50.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Senator, you’ve been at both sides of the bridge in our logo “bridging academic ideas with policymakers.” What do we do well in building that bridge and what do we do poorly? Where can we improve?
SASSE: Well, I taught at the Lyndon Johnson Public Policy School at the University of Texas for a handful of years, and I think one of the things that policy schools, business schools, law schools are trying to do well but aren’t as good at it, as, say, med schools are, is integrate the fact that there’s both theoretical and classroom learning, and there’s experiential learning.
We haven’t figured out in most professional schools how to create apprenticeship models where you cycle through different aspects of what doing this kind of work will actually look like. There are ways that there are tighter feedback loops at a med school than there are going to be at a policy school. There are things that I don’t think we’ve thought nearly enough about ways that professional school models should diverge from traditional, theoretical, academic disciplines or humanities, for example. But I really can’t blame the policy schools for that, fundamentally, because I think the bigger problem is that we don’t know how to have a big agenda-setting conversation about what policies we should be fighting over.
I’m happy that we’re not talking about the president at all tonight — that’s not one of the purposes of our discussion. But one of the things that I find strange from a whole bunch of folks on the Left who are really critical of me is, they say, “You’re worried about declining norms and you’re worried about X, Y, and Z, and you’ve been critical of the president about this, that, or the other thing, or you’re concerned about declining public trust, but look at your voting record. You end up voting with Trump 95 percent of the time,” or whatever they say. What’s weird about that critique is, it just assumes that we’re voting on important things. And that’s not true.
SASSE: Right? We’re not having legislative discussions about big things. Obviously there are some on the horizon, and I’m not trying to lead us down a path of going there, but by and large, in the last four or five months, we’re having policy discussions that have a Right-to-Left continuum, but they’re about really, really small things.
We’re not having any conversation about what it looks like to have a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad. Getting 28 years past the end of the Cold War, and we still think about national security primarily as nation-state actors and primarily by traditional war-making means when lots of the targets of cyber attacks in the future are going to be civil society, not governmental. And a lot of the attacking entities are going to be nonstate actors, not just state actors.
We’re not having any honest discussions about the entitlement crisis. We’re not having any discussions about what it looks like to think about a world where 40- and 45- and 50-year-olds are disrupted from their jobs. So we’re not talking about big policy. We’re not talking about anything that’s 5 and 10 years future oriented.
How can we blame academics for not knowing how to help us facilitate those kinds of conversations? Because it would be stupid for academic programs in the university setting and professional schools to try to remake themselves, to come deal with the legislative small-ball issue of next Tuesday. And that’s really all we’re dealing with most of the time right now.
COWEN: A question from the iPad: Why is there so little in your book about sex? And I would add as moderator, books four and five of Rousseau’s Emile, they’re drenched in sex in an 18th-century kind of way. [laughs]
SASSE: Turned out sex was really similar in most centuries.
COWEN: We don’t know, do we? [laughs] Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.
SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.
COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.
COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.
SASSE: Right now, you’re kind of creeping me out.
SASSE: Again, the five constructive chapters are about self-consciously developing a work ethic. They’re about limited consumption — it’s a soft apology for stoicism. They’re about intergenerationalism. They’re about learning to travel, and they’re about becoming actually literate — not just functionally literate, but appetitively literate, habitually literate.
I think it was Twain, I can’t remember for certain, but I think it was Twain who said, “The man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” And right now, we live in a society of people who are decreasingly, appetitively literate. The average American reads 19 minutes a day, and it’s age correlated. Older folks are reading quite a bit more than 19 minutes and younger folks much less than 19 minutes. I think Gutenberg is the true father of America. I think the sine qua non of America is mass literacy, which led to competitive ideas, healthy challenges to authority, a plural marketplace after the printing press, that then creates a First Amendment culture of free speech, press, assembly, etc.
So those are the five chapters. The intergenerational chapter for a while I framed as “discover the body.” What I mean by that is that kind of dependency of youth and then ultimately the dependency again of your declining years, and an awareness and honesty about mortality. So much of unhealthy utopian status projects in the world are driven by a denial of mortality. We are mortal. You are going to die. You have limited options with your life. And you want to think a lot about redeeming the time. Healthy people think about, “How can I get more of the crap out of my life, that I’m never going to look back and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad I wasted time trying to consume that frivolous fad for a time’?” No commentary on fidget spinners here.
SASSE: Overrated. But if you think of the distinction between childhood and adulthood as dependency and then ultimately becoming independent. Why adolescence is a glorious gift — again, it’s a concept that’s only about two millennia old — is that we came to believe that you could hit puberty, you could become biologically an adult, and you don’t have to be fully independent immediately. You don’t have to be emotionally, morally, financially, in terms of household structure or school leaving. You don’t have to be an adult and independent all on your own immediately.
It’s a pretty glorious thing to get this kind of 18-months to four-year greenhouse phase as you transition from dependent childhood to independent adulthood. But it’s impossible to not understand — and Rousseau obviously clearly understands — that a whole bunch of the anxiety of this moment is the fact that your body goes from being a kid to being somebody who’s able to reproduce.
You’ve got to have, not just the apron strings moment of your six-year-old, where you realize you can be away from mom for 6 or 10 or 12 hours a day and not die, but you actually have an emotional cutting of the strings with your parents that you can go from your family of origin to a family of your creation and choice and procreation. That adolescent transition stage is highly wrapped up in sexuality. And I don’t think you can think meaningfully about generations without thinking a little bit about procreation. So, even though I 100 percent wanted to avoid sex because I think we don’t have enough commonality, and I didn’t want to be drawn into culture wars anywhere in this book. Ken Burns has the great phrase that right now we have a whole lot of pluribus and very, very little unum.
SASSE: And if you think of what Ken Burns’s work is about: Jazz, and baseball, and Civil War, and Lewis and Clark, and the Dust Bowl, and his new project about to come out on Vietnam — one of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon. He’s trying to give us some shared experiences, the things we can agree on before we get to policy fights. Because policy and legislative fights, they just aren’t big enough to form your tribe around. It’s really, really lame to think that these parties are that interesting. I want more things that we can unite around as a people before we get to meaningful and often important policy fights.
But if you’re going to think about those things we can unite around, I don’t want to get sucked right back into 1960s echoes of the culture war, and yet I didn’t feel like I could do justice to a chapter on the body and on generations without saying that sex has purposes. And there aren’t two and there aren’t ninety-two. There are basically three purposes to sex. Sex is a covenant, initiation, and renewal ceremony. Sex gives you a different kind of knowledge of someone. You form a kind of bond with someone that’s different than just a random person on the street. Sex matters. Sex is for procreation and sex is for pleasure.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. And yet those three things should be differentiated because it’s not just another contact sport. I don’t think it’s helpful to have teenagers not know that sex matters, and yet you can understand it. When you’re old and you look back on your sexuality, I bet most people are going to think it was basically reducible to those three kinds of categories. So I felt like I had to talk about it a little bit, but I wanted to duck the culture wars as much as possible.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you both for the great discussion. Senator, I loved your articulation of the big-cause, low-ego hiring criteria because I’m great friends with Charles Drummond and going to his wedding this week.
SASSE: Good stuff.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But my simple question was, where do you source most of the material for your humorous and witty tweets?
SASSE: So, @BenSasse is just me. It’s my personal account — it’s not a governance thing. I have a press office; that’s @SenSasse. But @BenSasse is just me. I’m a commuting dad, so my material is really the fact that I’ve usually got a 6- or a 13- or a 15-year-old traveling with me. And we’re on the road and it feels like just our version of digital-era Huck Finn.
SASSE: I think I’m the only commuting dad in the Senate. We live in Nebraska, and I come here every week, Monday to Friday. Most weeks, I bring one of my three kids with me. I get home on Friday afternoon, and my wife tells me which kid annoyed her most last week, and they become my date for the next week.
SASSE: Most of the Twitter material is just that. And again, there’s a tiny little bit of unum, I don’t have that many twitter followers, but whatever, 160,000 or something like that, and that’s small for people who are doing something big, and I’m not yet. So I’m learning how to try to have a public conversation about stuff that I think matters, but basically my audience on Twitter is just 20 buddies of mine. It’s my college roommates and it’s my dad, and I’m just telling stories about how ridiculous it is that my six-year-old just lost a shoe in the Capitol, and we’re down a shoe today. [laughter]
SASSE: And it’s going to be rough to get through the whole day with that half an inch difference between the bottom of your foot and the other shoe when you’re only this tall. It’s going to cause some disruption.
We live out in the country and we have a lot of animals. Some are ours, and some are just around our property. And there’s that great farm debate about if you put out food, and you know that some animals are recurring, they are coming back and now you’re feeding them, do you allow your kids to name the animals? Because that’s the threshold where it becomes a pet.
I don’t want to admit that I own all these things, but we have these animals in our life, and they really do bring you carcasses all the time. It happened for years and years of my life, but I’m still surprised every day when I go outside, and there’s a new dead animal on the stoop, and there’s some dog or cat that brought it as a gift to me. That’s 30 percent of my Twitter.
COWEN: And how many names are there?
SASSE: We have three dogs.
COWEN: Three dogs, that’s it; so three names.
SASSE: They have names. My children sometimes speak at other animals that are around. I refuse to repeat any of those names.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This school, the Schar School at Mason, this has been an unusual experience, and it brings to me the question of reform in our political system, rationality, thinking out of the box, thinking away from ideology. Given the financial cost of running for office, do you have suggestions or do you see trends that might allow us to move toward a more rational political system?
COWEN: This is the last, you’ve about three minutes, so please, as you wish. Anything else you want to add is fine too; four minutes.
SASSE: Then let’s figure out a way to save the fourth minute to say something that goes back to the shared experience of parenting because this is a really important question. I don’t really want to finish on politics, so I will try not to use up all the time, and then I’ll let Tyler give us some way to close.
I can only speak about it from my experience because I’m new to this. I have not taken an academic, analytic look at the change in candidate selection over decades. I don’t really know. I would want to consult with academics who’ve actually studied it with data. But I do think that one of the things we misunderstand about our politics — maybe I’ve two things that I think we misunderstand about our politics.
One, most of our political problems are downstream from culture, and we keep acting like we’ll be able to fix our politics with politics, and I don’t really think we can because our politics are a mess because we don’t understand where we are in economic history: this transition from industrialization to whatever the digital economy looks like, and therefore shorter and shorter average duration of jobs, and therefore a transition from villages and urban ethnic neighborhoods where there was known, dense social networks to this new thing.
We’ll produce new forms of social capital, but it might take half a century or a century, and it’s going to be really painful and disruptive as we go through this time. I think there’s a fundamental crisis of loneliness in our time that we don’t know how to think about. The average American had 3.2 friends in 1990. I mean Aristotelian friends: people that when you’re happy, they feel happy, and when you’re sad, they hurt, not because they choose it, but just because they love you. The way we parent. When my daughters or my son, when they hurt, I don’t make a choice to hurt, I just hurt. I love them.
The average American who had over 3 friends 25 years ago has about 1.8 friends today, halving in 25 years. Forty percent of Americans have no confidantes. We can’t make sense of how bad that ache hurts and how much people are projecting onto politics a hope that we could solve deep crises of the soul and of local community as neighborhoods and mediating institutions are hollowed out, and I don’t think politics can fix any of that stuff. So one thing we misunderstand is that our political problems are downstream from a cultural and an economic moment.
A second thing that we misunderstand is, I don’t think we’ve fully grappled — and I mean to say this delicately or humbly, it sounds kind of harsh, especially as we’re almost wrapping up — but I think we have a massive human capital problem in our politics. I’ve worked in 9 or 10 sectors because I’ve done a lot of crisis and turn-around stuff, and I think we don’t have the right kind of people serving right now. The vast majority of people in politics are kind and well-meaning, but you wouldn’t pick them to lead lots of institutions through times of crisis.
Right now, there’s not a lot of leadership in our politics. That’s not a commentary on any specific individual, but I think the biggest long-term thought most national politicians have right now is their own reelection moment, and that’s not long enough. We need 10- and 20- and 30-year visions for the kind of disruption that we’re going through.
COWEN: Let me toss in a new final question. Then you can tie it all up. Let’s say I am 20 years old, not married, not a parent, but I expect someday I’ll be a parent. What kind of life experience should I invest in now so I will become a good parent? You can finish what you were saying and then close on that. Takeaway advice to young people who someday want to be parents.
SASSE: Yeah. How about we talk afterwards, and I’ll give you the rest of my thought that is more directly connected to our primary selection process right now because I don’t think I’ll be able to get from that more technical answer to this synthetic helpful place to close.
SASSE: I think Tyler just gave me the hook is what really happened. He did it delicately, but I think he said —
COWEN: We’ll keep you much longer.
SASSE: Shut him off, turn off the mics, we’re out of here.
SASSE: I think that you can’t possibly become a really good parent without developing empathy. I don’t know that you have to have clear, cognitive categories to do it. There are lots and lots of people who are good parents who are empathetic who maybe couldn’t reflect on it. But since you’re asking the question for people who are advice-seeking, I think you need to self-consciously think about the cultivation of empathy.
And the travel point that you asked is another way of thinking about why it’s important to become well read. Because when you go into books, and you go to different kinds of stories, and obviously, you’ve just written a really important nonfiction book, and this this a nonfiction book, but one of the reasons why it’s critically important for our teens to read fiction is, they need to be transported to other times and places. They need to actually be able to see through the lenses of other protagonists.
One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field. That’s not true, and we’re going to have to, as a people, develop the maturity and the habits of empathy-creation, and that requires going other times and places both physically and in a literary sense.