Bildung, Billionaires and the 2020 election

Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms — not something we are emphasizing in the US…

This Is How Scandinavia Got Great: The power of educating the whole person.

By David Brooks, NYTimes, Feb. 13, 2020

People admiring the annual cherry tree blossoms in Stockholm.
People admiring the annual cherry tree blossoms in Stockholm.Credit…Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Almost everybody admires the Nordic model. Countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have high economic productivity, high social equality, high social trust and high levels of personal happiness.

Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.

But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.

The 19th-century Nordic elites did something we haven’t been able to do in this country recently. They realized that if their countries were to prosper they had to create truly successful “folk schools” for the least educated among them. They realized that they were going to have to make lifelong learning a part of the natural fabric of society.

They look at education differently than we do. The German word they used to describe their approach, bildung, doesn’t even have an English equivalent. It means the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person. It was based on the idea that if people were going to be able to handle and contribute to an emerging industrial society, they would need more complex inner lives.

Today, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets — can the student read, do math, recite the facts of biology. Bildung is devised to change the way students see the world. It is devised to help them understand complex systems and see the relations between things — between self and society, between a community of relationships in a family and a town.

As Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman put it in their book “The Nordic Secret,” “Bildung is the way that the individual matures and takes upon him or herself ever bigger personal responsibility towards family, friends, fellow citizens, society, humanity, our globe, and the global heritage of our species, while enjoying ever bigger personal, moral and existential freedoms.”

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A classroom in northern Sweden.
A classroom in northern Sweden.Credit…David Ramos/Getty Images

The Nordic educators worked hard to cultivate each student’s sense of connection to the nation. Before the 19th century, most Europeans identified themselves in local and not national terms. But the Nordic curriculum instilled in students a pride in, say, their Danish history, folklore and heritage.

“That which a person did not burn for in his young days, he will not easily work for as a man,” Christopher Arndt Bruun wrote. The idea was to create in the mind of the student a sense of wider circles of belonging — from family to town to nation — and an eagerness to assume shared responsibility for the whole.

The Nordic educators also worked hard to develop the student’s internal awareness. That is to say, they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires. If you could see those forces and their interplay, as if from the outside, you could be their master and not their slave.

Their intuition was that as people grow, they have the ability to go through developmental phases, to see themselves and the world through ever more complex lenses. A young child may blindly obey authority — Mom, Dad, teacher. Then she internalizes and conforms to the norms of the group. Then she learns to create her own norms based on her own values. Then she learns to see herself as a node in a network of selves and thus learns mutuality and holistic thinking.

The purpose of bildung is to help people move through the uncomfortable transitions between each way of seeing.

That educational push seems to have had a lasting influence on the culture. Whether in Stockholm or Minneapolis, Scandinavians have a tendency to joke about the way their sense of responsibility is always nagging at them. They have the lowest rates of corruption in the world. They have a distinctive sense of the relationship between personal freedom and communal responsibility.

High social trust doesn’t just happen. It results when people are spontaneously responsible for one another in the daily interactions of life, when the institutions of society function well.

In the U.S., social trust has been on the decline for decades. If the children of privilege get to go to the best schools, there’s not going to be much social mutuality. If those schools do not instill a love of nation, there’s not going to be much shared responsibility.

If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.

When you look at the Nordic bildung model, you realize our problem is not only that we don’t train people with the right job skills. It’s that we don’t have the right lifelong development model to instill the mode of consciousness people need to thrive in a complex pluralistic society.

By Anand Giridharadas, NYTimes. Mr. Giridharadas is the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” Feb. 21, 2020

Bernie Sanders wants to get rid of them. Amy Klobuchar is fine with them, but wants them to pay somewhat higher taxes. Joe Biden promises them that under him, “nothing would fundamentally change.” Tom Steyer is one of them and wouldn’t be in the race if he wasn’t but seems slightly embarrassed about it. Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the companies that made many of them in the first place. Michael Bloomberg is trying to become president largely on the basis of being one. It would take Pete Buttigieg thousands of years to become one at his past rate of adult wealth creation, and yet he seems to be their top choice.

And waiting across the aisle, Donald Trump claims he’s one of them, which, because he’s Trump, means he probably isn’t.

I’m talking about billionaires, of course.

The Democratic debate on Wednesday made it clearer than ever that November’s election has become the billionaire referendum, in which it will be impossible to vote without taking a stand on extreme wealth in a democracy. The word “billionaire” came up more often than “China,” America’s leading geopolitical competitor; “immigration,” among its most contentious issues; and “climate,” its gravest existential threat.

Ms. Warren dominated the night by framing Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign as a bid to “substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” When Mr. Sanders later confirmed his view that billionaires should not exist, one of the moderators, Chuck Todd, asked, “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?” Mr. Bloomberg replied, “I worked very hard for it, and I’m giving it away.”

With the debate careening between billionaire loathing and billionaire self-love, Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters “choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”

As the veteran Washington watchers Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, of Axios, have observed, billionaires are less a major topic of this race than the total atmosphere of it. It’s not just the politicians. From Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch, billionaires are the captains of an economy whose cruelties have given this year its populist verve, the boogeypeople for some candidates, the bankrollers of others, and the owners of the platforms of persuasion.

So what should we do about them? Voters are being treated to a vast range of answers to that question — from “Let’s tax them down to mere millionaire status” to “Let’s put them in charge of everything A.S.A.P.”

The debate is testing abiding American assumptions. A country more ardently capitalist than most is asking itself, as seriously as at any time in the modern era, whether the ultrarich, just because they are ultrarich, endanger democracy. And a country just as committed, contrarily, to its founding ideal of equality is asking whether to resign itself to a gilded revolving door in which you unseat billionaire leaders you hate by electing billionaires you don’t mind.

These conditions make it at once utterly remarkable, and totally explicable, that Mr. Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont and a democratic socialist, has become the front-runner for the Democratic nomination — and that Ms. Warren’s debate performance this week resonated as much as it did. You wouldn’t know it from watching cable news, where pundits are often aghast at the tastes of regular people who think green rooms are just rooms that are green, but in recent years, anger at billionaires has risen to a boil. This is thanks to the financial crisis, to endless wars cheered on by corporate and media elites and to yawning inequality. There is a growing sense that billionaires are not people who just happen to have drifted up from our midst, that in fact they are up there because they are standing on our backs, pinning us down.

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, have some meaningful differences of policy and personality. But the thread that connects their campaigns is their insistence that the “left behind” in America are not actually being left behind so much as stood on. They each seek to take the passive voice out of the grammar of American hardship: Your health insurance hasn’t somehow, mysteriously been made too expensive; your brick-and-mortar store hasn’t somehow, mysteriously been undercut. Someone did those things to you, probably by rigging the system to secure an undeserved advantage. And that person was probably a billionaire.

The degree of support for these ideas in 2020 is astonishing in a center-right country where, as John Steinbeck once wrote, explaining socialism’s limited growth in America: “We didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” It is a reflection of how fed up many Americans are with the old narratives about how, with a little pluck and patience, they too will rise. And it is a sign of a generational changing of the guard. As the (millennial) journalist Charlotte Alter, author of the new book “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” told me, “Socialism is a generational Rorschach test: Boomers think of Soviet gulags and bad shoes, millennials think of Swedish health care and free education.”

In the mainstream of the Democratic Party, it has long been said that billionaires should pay more of their “fair share.” But, until recently, few would have questioned that you’d want more billionaires on the Forbes list, not fewer. Today a vocal chunk of the Democratic electorate is gravitating to a strikingly different conclusion: that America would actually be better off reducing its billionaire population through taxes and profit-trimming regulations.

(In fact, if I could ask one debate question, it would be this: Raise your hand if you would want there to be more billionaires at the end of your presidency than the start; raise your hand if you’d want fewer billionaires. Then, same question, but applied to millionaires. I think it would be revealing.)

Ballooning anti-billionaire sentiment is galvanizing billionaires. Some have been motivated to go on television to cast their critics as naïve and un-American. Others donate to centrist candidates like Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who serve a cocktail of down-home incrementalism shaken with wealth defense. But it took a special billionaire — Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York — to find a more direct way to thwart ascendant progressives. He is seeking to buy the election.

Just when the accountants thought they knew every tax-avoidance trick, here is the ultimate: become the leader of the free world. Of course, Mr. Bloomberg would say that he is running for an entirely different reason, which also happens to be very billionairey: He thinks he’s the only one with the wits and war chest to pull it off. “I alone can fix it,” as Mr. Trump once put it. It is something of a mantra for the billionaires.

There was never a way for Mr. Bloomberg to run as anything but Mr. Billionaire. The pitch he landed on was incorruptibility. “I will be the only candidate in this race who isn’t corruptible,” Mr. Bloomberg told an audience in Phoenix last November, “who isn’t going to take a penny from anyone, and will work for a dollar a year.” This was the best he could do: suggest that being a billionaire would make him more honest because billionaires are so rich they don’t have to listen to other billionaires.

One problem with this approach is that it is eerily similar to that taken by Mr. Trump, whose White House Mr. Bloomberg has called “besotted by lies, chaos and corruption.” As Larry Kudlow, a Trump adviser, put it in 2016, “Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.” And Mr. Trump also said, “As far as salary is concerned, I won’t take even one dollar.”

The billionaire’s intrinsic incorruptibility is a curious pitch when you seek to run against a maybe-billionaire impeached for corruption. But even if we take Mr. Bloomberg at his word, the notion that being beholden only to your own opinions, and not those of many donors, deserves more scrutiny. Personally, I am not a fan of billionaires pumping any money at all into politics. But I would trust someone who has to juggle the different needs, moods and taboos of multiple billionaire donors over a billionaire who is accountable only to himself.

Mr. Bloomberg’s incorruptibility argument functions as a smokescreen. It can cause you to ignore that his basic enterprise — spending his personal fortune to flood the airwaves with an unprecedented deluge of ads, thereby ginning up votes and arguably purchasing the presidency — is the picture of corruption.

(When I texted my friend Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, to ask if any scholarship could shed light on Mr. Bloomberg’s method of campaigning, he answered: “Most of the work on buying votes is about the developing world, which perhaps the U.S. is joining.”)

Yet, simply by running, Mr. Bloomberg is performing a valuable public service: illustrating to the public how billionaire influence complicates any challenges to billionaire influence.

As Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish have documented in these pages, Mr. Bloomberg is a dedicated philanthropist — and has leveraged his giving to develop “a national infrastructure of influence, image-making and unspoken suasion that has helped transform a former Republican mayor of New York City into a plausible contender for the Democratic nomination.” By giving away billions of dollars to nonprofit groups that fight for the most vulnerable, Mr. Bloomberg has made allies out of people who might otherwise be vocally against him.

This, too, is what is at stake in the billionaire referendum. Do we wish to be a society in which wealth purchases fealty? Are we cool with plutocrats taking advantage of a cash-starved state to run their own private policy machinery, thus cultivating the networks required to take over the state from time to time, and run it in ways that further entrench wealth?

Just this week, Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced his creation of a $10 billion fund to fight climate change. Once, such a gift might have been greeted with unmitigated gratitude. But now, rightly, people are asking about all the taxes Amazon doesn’t pay, about its own carbon footprint, and about whether any mortal should have that much power over a shared crisis.

This, too, is on the ballot this autumn. There are candidates who would leave undisturbed the opportunity to create wealth on that scale and who encourage the private solution of public problems. (One less thing for the pols to do!) And there are candidates who want the Bezoses of the world to have way less money, and who want citizens to trust that the government having that money instead will mean better solutions.

Never in our lifetimes has it been a prerequisite to have a take on billionaires in order to do your basic civic duty and vote. But it is now. Here are some questions no voter can avoid:

Do you think we shouldn’t have billionaires or should have many more — maybe you?!

Do you think being incredibly wealthy makes you immune to corruption, or prone to it?

Do you think it’s possible to empower those Americans locked in the basement of opportunity while helping billionaires do even better — a win-win? Or do you believe we need to take away a great deal of billionaire wealth to give millions a better life?

Do you trust a news media that sells advertisements to corporations owned by billionaires, and sometimes to billionaire candidates directly, to inform you properly about the level of power billionaires have and what to do about it?

Do you believe only a billionaire is qualified to solve the problems billionaires helped create? Or are you skeptical of the deployment of arsonists as firefighters?

Let’s face it. You’re unlikely to become one of the billionaires. But you can choose whether to resign yourself to living in their country — or to remind them that they live in yours.

Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) is the author of, most recently, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

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Follow The New York Times Opinion section on FacebookTwitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 23, 2020, Section SR, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Billionaire Election. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe