JCL Blog

Book Review: Social Animal by David Brooks

I like David Brooks when he appears on the News Hour every week with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields.  He regularly delivers insights I would not have on my own and in a way that is kind and even handed.  I also enjoy reading his column in the NY Times.  He has a writing style that draws me in and delivers a payload of quality analysis.

Somehow all of the things I like about David Brooks just don't make it into his books.  I thought the idea for his 2007 book, Bobos in Paradise, was great:  to describe the elites of the generation after the yuppies in a way that the generation before the yuppies would understand.  Unfortunately the satirical tone was thick enough that I just could not make it all of the way through.

I thought I would give him another try and recently read Social Animal.  Contrary to many of the not so flattering reviews, I did find it interesting and well presented.  My divergent opionion from that of the reviews in the NY Times, Forbes, and Salon, could be the result of my thinking of the book as an innovative way to present the mountains of research done for the book so that the reader could grasp the ideas.  As a work of non-fiction, the narrative of the two invented characters is much more bearable.

Here are the main themes I want to remember from the book:


  • There is plenty of research supporting the idea that there is something in between nature and nurture -- that in early life, the brain is being wired in a way that later will seem like hardwiring (nature), but in fact came from the environment (nurture).
  • The 90 percent of the brain that we don't use, as the saying goes, could be in charge of the show.
  • The crowning American achievement is upward social mobility -- and we have no idea how we achieve it.
  • Our culture has no idea what happiness is.


I still like David Brooks and I am glad I read the book.  It did give me some insights I would not have had otherwise.  It was a little sterile, so if you are looking for a real life counterbalance, here is my review of Life, Keith Richards autobiography.  I highly recommend it.

Looking up in 2011

I have had the chance to catch up on some reading this week and overall my sentiment about our prospects in the US has turned a corner.  Over the past couple of months I have been finding more and more reasons to be bullish on America and some of those thoughts seemed to have crystallized in the last week.  Here is my attempt at a list:

Attention on Education:  I have been involved in non profit initiatives to improve education in the US for 20 years and I have never seen the kind of focus and awareness on the education problem as we saw in 2010.  There were always a few high profile people working on this -- now there are dozens.  2011 is the year we will start our climb back up.  We have a long way to go, but not going down further is a great victory.  

Realism in the White House:  We may not like the state of things, but just accurately assessing the problems is a big victory.  In the past we had leaders that just made things up -- it is hard to address issues when no one wants to talk about them.

International Humility:  We have said it over and again enough times that the world community is starting to believe that we are not going to solve everyone's problems.  We said we would get out of Iraq and we are actually starting to do that.  There was a great line I heard the other day (not sure of the source):  Saudi Arabia is willing to fight Iran to the last dead American.  We don't seem likely to get sucked into that game.

No Need for a New War:  Yes Assange should have been on the cover of Time Magazine.  I am glad he was not because that one event has jinxed many other people, and the WikiLeaks story is just getting started.  Here is a great post on The New Republic about how WikiLeaks could end big business and big government.  I don't know if that is true, but we do need a way to reduce the influence of big organizations before they drive us into a new war.  Uncontrolled power always gets diffused somehow, and quite often it is a war that does it.  Perpetually bad economic times also promotes war.  We have very powerful big organizations and bad economic times -- a tough combo.  WikiLeaks, or something like it, could be just the thing to pull the rug out from under the oil companies, bankers and the warmongers, and just in time too.

In America we know that we have the most adaptable form of governance on the planet.  I know that once we wake up and view our problems in the light of day -- we will prevail.  I think 2010 could have been the year we accurately assessed things, and 2011 could be the year we start doing something about it.

If you have some time this week and want to read some great background material, check out David Brook's Sydney awards for best essays of 2010.  

Waste Wipes Out Stimulus

David Brooks has a good post in the NY Times yesterday where he compares the strategies of the US (big stimulus) and Germany (small stimulus) and the outcome: US not recovering and Germany growing big time.  I would add one thing:  stimulus spent in a wasteful way doesn't do any good.  In fact it does harm because it increases the deficit and debt load.

Germany spent its money and energy stimulating the production of products other countries want like machine tools.  We spend our money and energy propping up failed banks and expanding benefits for the unemployed.  While the comparison of the size of the stimulus is one data point, how it is invested is the other.  

We all should be watching the trade deficit as the most important measure of our success.  It measures how successful we are as a country producing products and services that other countries value enough to buy.  Right now our trade deficit is increasing -- so whatever stimulus money is making it past the bankers is being spent to buy products made elsewhere.

Crowd Vindicated

A couple of days ago I posted that the most emailed article on the NY times was about dishwasher detergent -- and how that disqualified the crowd from picking the most valuable stories. Well today the pendulum swung back towards the crowd as David Brook's column hit the top of the list.

It is quite a good column by the way.  I know I am not alone thinking that our country is in a bad way, and I would argue that one of our biggest problems is that we are still a considerable distance from rock bottom.  

We are smart and creative problem solvers.  We just don't think the problem is big enough yet.