Grandmasters of Self-Promotion
By Arnold Kling
- In all the fields touched by the six boomers profiled here—technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law—what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited.
- Helen Andrews, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, p. 196.1
Helen Andrews passes her verdict on the Baby Boom generation after presenting essays about several prominent figures who were born between 1946 and 1964. She argues that in middle age, the boomers were saved from the worst consequences of their excesses by the very institutions that they were rebelling against. She worries that the Millennial generation has the same iconoclastic mentality in an environment that is less institutionally robust.
One of the institutions that has decayed is journalism. Media scholar Andrey Mir says that we are in an era of “post-journalism,” in which the attempt to pursue truth wherever it leads has been replaced by the activist goal of dictating a narrative, even if that requires distorting the facts.
In an essay devoted to Mir’s thesis, Martin Gurri tells the story of how the New York Times descended into post-journalism in response to business needs and pressure from Millennials on its staff and on social media. Gurri recounts
- a melodrama over standards at the Times, featuring a conflict between radical young reporters and befuddled middle-aged editors. In a crucible of proclamations, disputes, and meetings, the requirements of the newspaper as an institution collided with the post-journalistic call for an explicit struggle against injustice.2
Gurri and others lament the absence of any authoritative source for truth. In fact, trust in the authority of mainstream news sources has fallen so low that polls showed that at the end of 2020, millions of Americans agreed with former President Donald Trump that November’s Presidential election was “stolen.”
Our political divisions are accentuated by different perceptions of reality. During the Trump era, readers of the New York Times or the Washington Post were fed the story that Donald Trump as a candidate and President conspired with Russia’s Vladimir Putin against American interests. At the same time, listeners of conservative talk radio were fed the story that the FBI and the CIA conspired with mainstream media to take down Mr. Trump against American interests.
We used to rely on journalism and academia to paint a realistic picture of our world. As these institutions have eroded and our trust in them has declined, what will replace them? One thought that occurred to me is that public intellectuals could compete for rankings, the way that chess players do. The highest ranking for a chess player is “grandmaster.” In my scheme, the best public intellectuals would be grandmasters of wisdom.
Helen Andrews portrays the prominent boomers as anything but wise. The talent they share is a talent for gaining attention and recognition. They are grandmasters of self-promotion.
Her first essay discusses Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple. Apple’s products had an image of attractive design. Jobs himself had an image of being a hippie CEO.
Many Silicon Valley origin stories are made up by publicists, and there was an element of that to the legend of the garage. The PR maven Regis McKenna, who signed Apple as a client in 1976 before the articles of incorporation were even filed, knew from the moment the two Steves [Jobs and Wozniak] walked into his office that their story could make the company. (21)
Andrews credits Jobs with being relatively true to his hippie image. But she contrasts the humanitarian, anti-establishment rhetorical stance of Silicon Valley with its actual economic effects.
- All of America’s coastal cities have become playgrounds for well-credentialed meritocrats and the casual workers who serve them…
- … The fastest-growing jobs in America are in “wealth work,” that is, the servant class for the metropolitan elite. (30)
Another essay looks at Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent economist who styles himself an expert on economic development. Andrews writes,
- Sachs, like most other Americans working in what we have learned diplomatically to call the underdeveloped world, believes that his work is like the nasty old imperialists’ but with the bad bits thrown out. The first half of that is true; the second half is almost the opposite of the truth.
From Eastern Europe to Africa, Sachs has talked leaders into attempting grandiose schemes for development. Critics see him as having left a trail of disastrous failures in his wake.
Many economists have served as advisers to leaders of underdeveloped countries, usually with mixed results. What is unique about Sachs is his cultivation of a superstar aura. When he launched an African development initiative called the Millennium Villages project, Andrews writes,
- He introduced his project to the wider world with the MTV documentary The Diary of Angelina Jolie and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa. He campaigned for donations with Hollywood stars like Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Madonna, who gave $1.5 million of her own money, some of it earmarked to build a school in Malawi that would teach, among other classes, Kabbalah spirituality. Other aid projects claim to alleviate poverty. Sachs claimed that the Millennium Villages model would quite literally end extreme poverty within the present generation. (85)
Andrews selected Al Sharpton as representative of political leaders of the boomer era. She distinguishes between two approaches to leadership. Transactional leaders engage in the mundane give-and-take of everyday politics. Transformational leaders promise to “change the course of history,” in Sharpton’s words. Andrews writes,
- Sometimes transactional leadership can be the more noble type. The transformational mentality looks at opposition and sees nothing but reactionary holdouts who don’t deserve to be accommodated, only defeated. A transactional leader sees potential allies whose cooperation could be gained if their concerns were placated. (127)
Sharpton’s stance as a transformational leader comes across as a pose. The same appears to hold for many of the leading political figures of the Boomer generation. Again, the pattern is one of self-promotion in lieu of achievement. Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump all were the center of attention while in office, and yet they made little impact on the direction of the country and were unable to achieve results comparable to building the Interstate Highway system or passing Civil Rights legislation.
As the availability of information rises exponentially, the competition for attention becomes increasingly intense. To succeed in this environment, boomers mastered the art of self-promotion. Andrews effectively contrasts triumphant boomer self-hype with dismal boomer results. We need to find a cultural adaptation that works in the other direction.
 Helen Andrews, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. Sentinel, 2021.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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