If all you had to go on was media coverage, you’d assume that Americans were avidly following the Occupy Wall Street protests and talking about it over water coolers and backyard fences.
You would imagine wrong. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans aren’t following the protests closely at all. They are far more interested in the state of the economy, the death of Steve Jobs, and even the acquittal of Amanda Knox.
That’s not to say that there aren’t changes going on among Americans. In a recent New York Times column entitled the “Great Restoration,” David Brooks does a far better job of identifying these changes than his media colleagues. While they are focused on protest movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, Brooks’s focus is on what ordinary men and women are thinking and doing.
And ordinary men and women are trying to “restore the moral norms that undergird our economic system.” Those are Brooks’s words. And because they address real issues in ways that taking over public parks don’t, their potential impact is far greater.
Take the most basic of moral norms folks are talking about: “You shouldn’t spend more than you take in.” Americans went on a credit-fueled spending binge and are now suffering from the mother of all hangovers. They bought homes, cars and toys they couldn’t afford. While paying off these debts, what economists call “deleveraging,” is painful, it’s necessary.
It’s as necessary for government as it is for ordinary citizens. While protesters on both the right and left want to preserve their favorite entitlements, they mostly differ on what their favorite entitlements are. They want “someone else” to pay the price for setting our house in order. Ordinary people, however, understand that the status quo cannot continue – everyone has to sacrifice.
Another norm is the link between effort and reward. Brooks is right to point out that the “link that was severed on Wall Street, where so many made so much for work that served no productive purpose,” and the “people who broke the rules still got rewarded.”
It wasn’t only Wall Street: Lots of Americans fancied themselves as real estate moguls. They used cheap credit to buy houses to “flip them” for a quick profit. There were even television shows – real ones, not infomercials -- that coached them on how to do this.
People are drawing a distinction that was lost in the bubble economy: between the deserving and undeserving rich.
Of course, words like “deserving,” “rules,” and “norms” imply moral standards that are as biding in our economic life as they are everywhere else. Violate them and bad things happen, and we can see it all around us.
Now this is very good news. People may well be catching on and ready to return to the Puritan work ethic.
This is why Princeton Professor Robbie George and I created “Doing the Right Thing,” our six-part DVD series on restoring ethical behavior to American life. It’s the perfect tool to help people understand that there are such things as moral standards, that we can know them, and how following them is the only way to, in Brooks’s words, to “restore moral norms” to our economic life.