Resetting America: A Q&A With Author Kurt Andersen

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Kurt Andersen sees the economic recession as a one-time opportunity for America to “get back on track.” In his new book, Reset, he explains how he thinks Americans can use the crisis to “reset” and reinvent old systems and ideas and “focus more on the things that make us authentically happy.”

Andersen is the author of the best-selling novels Heyday and Turn of the Century, and is host and co-creator of public radio’s Studio 360. He is a Vanity Fair contributor and blogs here. He also co-founded Spy magazine.

Andersen has agreed to answer our questions about his book and how he believes the financial crisis can change America for the better.

Q.

In the book, you recommend a seven-step program you think will get the U.S. back on track. Which step do you think would be the hardest for America to take?

A.

Well, my Seven-Step Program is half tongue-in-cheek (but only half). I guess the last step is by definition the hardest, i.e. “having had an awakening … try[ing] to carry this message and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Not just talking the talk but walking the walk.

Q.

As the crisis fades, you write, we can’t “lose our freshly, painfully acquired ability to think the unthinkable.” But throughout history, we seem to have lost that ability after other major crises (The Depression, the Panic of 1837) and, despite warning signs, not acted until the next crisis was already upon us. Are we destined to keep repeating this pattern, or will the current crisis finally reset our ways of thinking?

A.

My reading of American history tells me that yes, as a country and people we swing back and forth between wild-and-craziness and sober prudence. For better and worse, that’s how we roll. And as I say in the book, although this most recent wild-and-crazy era lasted an exceptionally long time, the last year’s sobering effects probably won’t last long; I fully expect the 2020′s to be a new Roaring 1920′s. But what we have now (as we did in 1930 and 1980) is an expansive correction opportunity — culturally, politically, and psychologically as well as in the economic and financial senses. And if we fail now to swing with history’s pendulum and return too quickly to a magical-thinking era of the heedless spree, I think we’ll be setting ourselves on a course of national decline sooner rather than later.

Q.

In your Bloggingheads interview with Will Wilkinson, Wilkinson said that, despite the financial crisis, he think the incentives of Republicans and the Democrats will stay largely the same, creating more of “the same old crap.” Do you agree with him?

A.

I think he’s right — that in Congress and in the political media most professional Democrats and (by the nature of their current highly ideological coalition and because they’re out of power) nearly all professional Republicans are deeply invested in business as usual. Partly he’s referring to the nature of post-19th-century American electoral politics, which are rigidly and sclerotically two-partisan, now with the “bases” of ideologues in each party having much more influence than they should. In an electoral world that reflected American political realities, we’d have a leftist party representing the views of 20 to 25 percent of the electorate, a rightist party representing the views of 25 to 30 percent of the electorate, and a centrist party representing the views of about half the electorate. This country “wants” to be governed from the center, but we’ve developed a party system that makes that difficult.

I think the recent and rapid growth of the moderate wing of Congressional Democrats, created in large part by the coming of the crisis (in 2006) and the crisis itself (in 2008), is a case study of how the shift can happen. For it to continue, voters need to be dissatisfied enough with autopilot partisanship that they vote out party-line congresspeople and replace them with relative free-thinkers and moderates.

Q.

You mention how the crisis will force some industries to die and others to bloom; what do you think will happen to the struggling newspaper/magazine industry and to journalism in general?

A.

I believe enough in the invisible hand to think that the fraction of Americans who really want quality journalism will — thanks to various kinds of media impresarios, some old and some new — continue to get it. And more specifically, I think local media is the place where the opportunities are greatest for nimble new digital news enterprises to bloom as newspapers die.

Q.

How do you think the recession will affect major societal issues, like, say, the U.S. obesity epidemic?

A.

Well, the average American of a given age is 20 pounds heavier today than he or she was 30 years ago. If the average American is another 20 pounds heavier 30 years from now, then we can pretty much write off America as a great (let alone attractive) nation. Obesity is partly a cause (in the ways it makes health care more expensive) but mainly a symptom of a larger unsustainable mindset. In the aggregate, I think America’s relative fatness amounts to a pretty fair metric of good sense and living sustainably: if our average weight starts to level off now, we are resetting. We don’t need to become tedious zero-body-fat ascetics, but I do think we need to relearn, in every realm of our lives and society, the old habits of delayed gratification and moderation.

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  1. AC says:

    Isn’t it amazing that the solution to the recession happens to be the ideology you held beforehand?

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  2. Kurt Andersen says:

    And what ideology is that, exactly?

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  3. frankenduf says:

    careful what you wish for- wanting to be “governed by the center” leads to watered down fiscal stimulus and corrupted health care reform- Anderson should remember his own referents- the reforms of the 30s and 80s weren’t centrist- they were led by bully pulpit leadership in realigning public policy- unfortunately, Obama aint no FDR

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  4. Gerber says:

    The Obama Administration blowing the health care reform debate is a great example of the “same old crap.” Ted Kennedy should be on TV stating in 60 seconds or less that he’d get the same health care in England that he’s getting here, at less cost, and in a society with a higher life expectancy than in the U.S. A similar spot should be made that compares U.S. health care with Canada’s. At any “town meeting,” the President and members of Congress should begin by asking everyone in the room to stand up, then:

    - telling a portion of the standing audience to sit to reflect the number of Americans without health insurance

    - telling a portion of those still standing to sit to reflect the number of Americans who have health insurance now but who will lose it in the next year due to unemployment or because their employers will drop health insurance benefits

    - asking those still standing to sit if they think they cannot afford paying the current national average cost for employer-based coverage (the average annual amount that gets deducted from a person’s paycheck, but which people don’t pay attention to, plus the average amount that employers pay that employees don’t see). And so forth. Eventually you ask “are you willing to gamble on being one of those here who is still standing? That’s what you’re doing if you don’t fight the status quo.”

    In the sclerotic two-party system, not only are new ideas rarely generated, but when they are, few know how to communicate them effectively.

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  5. TonyW says:

    I haven’t read the book, so I’ll keep an open mind, but I’m skeptical about the generalization that the country “wants” to be governed from the center.

    Elections have become “vote auctions”.

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  6. assumo says:

    Kurt-
    Your assertion that we may experience a “roaring 20′s” like that of the 20th cetury is comforting in the sense that we may rebound economically, but it is also alarming. I have not read Reset, but I fear that if we return to a state of reckless pursuit of pleasure and personal fulfillment, we will be ignoring some very sobering truths about the capacity of our planet to sustain human inefficiency. We are only very slowly embracing technology that lessens our impact on the earth, and even then, the 1st world is what, 20% of earth’s population? How much of resetting our ideology involves taking a holistic view of ourselves on the planet? I’ve seen the prius commercials, but we need strong insitutional measures to keep our rivers flowing and potable, our mountains intact, our air cleaner, and our landfills . . . less filled. This is not a leftist fantasy, but a logistical reality. It has been largely written off because there has been such a bandwagon effect surrounding the “green movement”. To what extent do you see an actual paradigmatic reversal on this front beyond what is marketable for corporations? I have begun to fear at the prediction of an unprecedented era of American prosperity actually forbodes disaster.

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  7. Matthew says:

    I truly fail to understand how it is possible to “reset” anything.

    I only have a BA in Econ so my worldview may be limited but I see life in general as a competition for resources. Under whatever methodology one acquires resources (run faster, hit harder, write better software, more acutely disern profitable investments) there will always be those more able to collect more than they consume and the sense to do so. As soon as disparity emerges there will be people who complain that they are unhappy they don’t have what the better collectors/consumers have. A government will then be instituted by the more populous “have less” who will pass laws to subsidize themselves through expropriation of the assets or income of the “have mores” who will come to some middle ground of questionable stability. At some point reality will raise its head and make the system crash to be replaced by something else or the mix of private/public interests will continue to vascilate around a middle ground with occasional localized instances of reality intervening in poor policy.

    This is life under indivudal freedom of opportunity. Anything else is dictatorship of guns, God or guilt. Make your choice and act accordingly.

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  8. Susan says:

    True reset would dump Democratic and Republican parties in favor of a new party that is not a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street and corporate America. Until we get the money out of politics, nothing will change. Rally Round the New Common Sense Party.

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