COWEN: Before we get to the questions of others, two final questions from me. When you’re hiring staffers or hiring in other capacities, such as the university, obviously, we look for people who are smart, people with good values, people who work hard. But what is it you look for in particular that maybe other employers or other senators or other people don’t think carefully enough about?
SASSE: I think the only two talents I have from a work standpoint are, I’m pretty good at sussing out when a strategic vision is missing and building a menu of choices about what strategic choices we should be making. What do we need to decide for this corporation, this small business, this not-for-profit, this college? And the second is, I’m decent at team building, and the reason for that is, I only hire people who are big cause, low ego. And that pairing is hard to find. Yeah, great to be smart, and of course, there’s a minimum threshold of how smart people need to be.
But fundamentally, what I want is people who want to be a part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves and they want to do something that matters. They’re always asking that deathbed-like question, “If I get the cancer diagnosis at 50 or in my old age at 85, when I look back at my life, will I think I spent my 30th year well?” Well, it depends on whether or not I was pulling on oars for some cause that’s bigger than me and doing it in a way that I didn’t care who got the credit.
And I want people on a team who, in that Aristotelian sense, distinguish between deliberation, decision, and action, such that you have a team of people who want to fight really hard when you’re deliberating among strategic choices. You want people who really are not bashful about trying to lay out pros and cons of both their position and everybody else’s position in the room and fight really, really hard.
But then finally, when you pull the trigger and make a decision, I want people on a team who don’t remember what side they fought for because this was the decision we made. And once we made this decision, we’re going this way, and nobody’s going to get credit because it was originally their idea or get blamed because it wasn’t their idea. We want it to succeed because we’re on a team. And that big-cause, low-ego impulse, those are the people that are fun to work with, too.
COWEN: And what’s the most — final question — the most underrated part of American government?
SASSE: Just the American idea. Fundamentally, we are blessed to live in an extraordinary nation where in 1787, there was a near-miraculous stew of ideas that came together to clarify, in the drafting of the Constitution, this belief in universal human dignity. We actually believe that 320 million Americans — well, we actually believe 7.2 billion people on the globe — but our primary responsibility as a government is to these 320 million people. We believe that people are created with dignity and their rights don’t come to them from government.
It isn’t the benevolence of government that grants you the right to free speech, assembly, religion, press, protest, or redress of grievances. We believe that these rights are inalienable — that’s an unbelievable idea. Then from that, we build a government that exists to secure those rights. But government’s just a tool. The animating principle is this idea of universal human dignity, and it’s intoxicating and we don’t celebrate it enough.
COWEN: These are the rules for questions. Just to be clear, they are my rules, they are not the senator’s rules. First, no speeches; I will cut you off. Second, no partisan questions or statements. And third, no questions on pending legislation. If you ask, we will simply pass over you again. Those are my restrictions, not the senator’s.
SASSE: I’m so glad I came.
SASSE: I didn’t know we got those rules, but can we get some whiskey? Let’s stay for a while.
COWEN: All the guests have those rules. I’ll also take a few questions from the iPad. I will alternate the two mics. Feel free to introduce yourself if you wish. First person here.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is, you talk a lot about the removal of millennials from the means of production. Joseph Schumpeter thought that it was going to be the cause of socialism, that young people just saw the benefits of capitalism, they didn’t see the actual production of it. Do you think that vision is coming to pass now that socialism is more popular with millennials than it’s been in generations?
SASSE: Yeah, thanks, important question. The Sanders moment obviously led a lot of people to start doing some new analysis about this, and it’s amazing. Don’t quote me on this precise stat because I’m doing it from memory here, and it’s not something I’ve cited in public before. But I have a reference to something related to it in the book, I think it’s something like 42 percent of millennials think that socialism is the most just economic system, and yet only 14 percent of millennials can identify what socialism is as an economic structure. So roughly three times as many think they’re pro-socialism as have any real idea what it means.
Some of it, of course, sounds great about egalitarian economics, and there’s lots of that that we could debate and find ourselves on a continuum, not a truly binary choice on some aspects of who owns what tools in a civilization. But some of it is just not understanding that that means prohibiting a lot of private transactions that the two individuals involved in the transaction would like to make, seemingly, not necessarily with huge externalities.
I’m not sure how closely connected that is to the experience of growing up divorced from labor, but I do think we need to recognize how unique it is to live at a time where the vast majority of our teens are growing up without having any meaningful work experience, and that has never happened before in human history.
Hunter-gatherers and farmers — again, I mean historic farming from 10,000 years ago until industrialization, not the modern high-tech ag economics of today — but historic agriculture was like being a hunter-gatherer in that you just inherited the calling of mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. You didn’t make a choice; there was no job choice.
Some people were called to the clergy and law emerged as a formal profession about 200 years ago, and there were a few traveling salesmen and some witch doctors as early medicine, but by and large, it isn’t until industrialization 150-ish years ago that you have job choice. That’s new. But it was a one-time thing. You left the farm, you moved to the city, or you graduated high school, and you went to the factory. You picked a job one time and you had it until death or retirement.
What’s happening now is, we’re going to have job change again and again and again and again for your whole life. There’s lots of things in Tyler’s book that, at a data level, he probably wants to teach me some lessons about the complacency and passivity of certain kinds of job change today.
But at the macro level, what’s happening is, we have people who are teens who have to make a job choice, and they kind of know intuitively that it’s not the one job choice forever. It’s just the first one, and we don’t know how to think about a multicareer life. We don’t have institutions and intellectual categories for thinking about that. So it creates lots of very understandable anxiety, and our policy discussions are decades behind in thinking about what needs to come next. Some of this move toward socialism might just be a security-seeking that’s an understandable response to the uncertainty of what it’s going to mean to be disrupted at 40 and 45 and 50.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Senator, you’ve been at both sides of the bridge in our logo “bridging academic ideas with policymakers.” What do we do well in building that bridge and what do we do poorly? Where can we improve?
SASSE: Well, I taught at the Lyndon Johnson Public Policy School at the University of Texas for a handful of years, and I think one of the things that policy schools, business schools, law schools are trying to do well but aren’t as good at it, as, say, med schools are, is integrate the fact that there’s both theoretical and classroom learning, and there’s experiential learning.
We haven’t figured out in most professional schools how to create apprenticeship models where you cycle through different aspects of what doing this kind of work will actually look like. There are ways that there are tighter feedback loops at a med school than there are going to be at a policy school. There are things that I don’t think we’ve thought nearly enough about ways that professional school models should diverge from traditional, theoretical, academic disciplines or humanities, for example. But I really can’t blame the policy schools for that, fundamentally, because I think the bigger problem is that we don’t know how to have a big agenda-setting conversation about what policies we should be fighting over.
I’m happy that we’re not talking about the president at all tonight — that’s not one of the purposes of our discussion. But one of the things that I find strange from a whole bunch of folks on the Left who are really critical of me is, they say, “You’re worried about declining norms and you’re worried about X, Y, and Z, and you’ve been critical of the president about this, that, or the other thing, or you’re concerned about declining public trust, but look at your voting record. You end up voting with Trump 95 percent of the time,” or whatever they say. What’s weird about that critique is, it just assumes that we’re voting on important things. And that’s not true.
SASSE: Right? We’re not having legislative discussions about big things. Obviously there are some on the horizon, and I’m not trying to lead us down a path of going there, but by and large, in the last four or five months, we’re having policy discussions that have a Right-to-Left continuum, but they’re about really, really small things.
We’re not having any conversation about what it looks like to have a national security strategy for the age of cyber and jihad. Getting 28 years past the end of the Cold War, and we still think about national security primarily as nation-state actors and primarily by traditional war-making means when lots of the targets of cyber attacks in the future are going to be civil society, not governmental. And a lot of the attacking entities are going to be nonstate actors, not just state actors.
We’re not having any honest discussions about the entitlement crisis. We’re not having any discussions about what it looks like to think about a world where 40- and 45- and 50-year-olds are disrupted from their jobs. So we’re not talking about big policy. We’re not talking about anything that’s 5 and 10 years future oriented.
How can we blame academics for not knowing how to help us facilitate those kinds of conversations? Because it would be stupid for academic programs in the university setting and professional schools to try to remake themselves, to come deal with the legislative small-ball issue of next Tuesday. And that’s really all we’re dealing with most of the time right now.
COWEN: A question from the iPad: Why is there so little in your book about sex? And I would add as moderator, books four and five of Rousseau’s Emile, they’re drenched in sex in an 18th-century kind of way. [laughs]
SASSE: Turned out sex was really similar in most centuries.
COWEN: We don’t know, do we? [laughs] Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.
SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.
COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.
COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.
SASSE: Right now, you’re kind of creeping me out.
SASSE: Again, the five constructive chapters are about self-consciously developing a work ethic. They’re about limited consumption — it’s a soft apology for stoicism. They’re about intergenerationalism. They’re about learning to travel, and they’re about becoming actually literate — not just functionally literate, but appetitively literate, habitually literate.
I think it was Twain, I can’t remember for certain, but I think it was Twain who said, “The man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” And right now, we live in a society of people who are decreasingly, appetitively literate. The average American reads 19 minutes a day, and it’s age correlated. Older folks are reading quite a bit more than 19 minutes and younger folks much less than 19 minutes. I think Gutenberg is the true father of America. I think the sine qua non of America is mass literacy, which led to competitive ideas, healthy challenges to authority, a plural marketplace after the printing press, that then creates a First Amendment culture of free speech, press, assembly, etc.
So those are the five chapters. The intergenerational chapter for a while I framed as “discover the body.” What I mean by that is that kind of dependency of youth and then ultimately the dependency again of your declining years, and an awareness and honesty about mortality. So much of unhealthy utopian status projects in the world are driven by a denial of mortality. We are mortal. You are going to die. You have limited options with your life. And you want to think a lot about redeeming the time. Healthy people think about, “How can I get more of the crap out of my life, that I’m never going to look back and say, ‘Oh, I’m glad I wasted time trying to consume that frivolous fad for a time’?” No commentary on fidget spinners here.
SASSE: Overrated. But if you think of the distinction between childhood and adulthood as dependency and then ultimately becoming independent. Why adolescence is a glorious gift — again, it’s a concept that’s only about two millennia old — is that we came to believe that you could hit puberty, you could become biologically an adult, and you don’t have to be fully independent immediately. You don’t have to be emotionally, morally, financially, in terms of household structure or school leaving. You don’t have to be an adult and independent all on your own immediately.
It’s a pretty glorious thing to get this kind of 18-months to four-year greenhouse phase as you transition from dependent childhood to independent adulthood. But it’s impossible to not understand — and Rousseau obviously clearly understands — that a whole bunch of the anxiety of this moment is the fact that your body goes from being a kid to being somebody who’s able to reproduce.
You’ve got to have, not just the apron strings moment of your six-year-old, where you realize you can be away from mom for 6 or 10 or 12 hours a day and not die, but you actually have an emotional cutting of the strings with your parents that you can go from your family of origin to a family of your creation and choice and procreation. That adolescent transition stage is highly wrapped up in sexuality. And I don’t think you can think meaningfully about generations without thinking a little bit about procreation. So, even though I 100 percent wanted to avoid sex because I think we don’t have enough commonality, and I didn’t want to be drawn into culture wars anywhere in this book. Ken Burns has the great phrase that right now we have a whole lot of pluribus and very, very little unum.
SASSE: And if you think of what Ken Burns’s work is about: Jazz, and baseball, and Civil War, and Lewis and Clark, and the Dust Bowl, and his new project about to come out on Vietnam — one of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon. He’s trying to give us some shared experiences, the things we can agree on before we get to policy fights. Because policy and legislative fights, they just aren’t big enough to form your tribe around. It’s really, really lame to think that these parties are that interesting. I want more things that we can unite around as a people before we get to meaningful and often important policy fights.
But if you’re going to think about those things we can unite around, I don’t want to get sucked right back into 1960s echoes of the culture war, and yet I didn’t feel like I could do justice to a chapter on the body and on generations without saying that sex has purposes. And there aren’t two and there aren’t ninety-two. There are basically three purposes to sex. Sex is a covenant, initiation, and renewal ceremony. Sex gives you a different kind of knowledge of someone. You form a kind of bond with someone that’s different than just a random person on the street. Sex matters. Sex is for procreation and sex is for pleasure.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. And yet those three things should be differentiated because it’s not just another contact sport. I don’t think it’s helpful to have teenagers not know that sex matters, and yet you can understand it. When you’re old and you look back on your sexuality, I bet most people are going to think it was basically reducible to those three kinds of categories. So I felt like I had to talk about it a little bit, but I wanted to duck the culture wars as much as possible.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you both for the great discussion. Senator, I loved your articulation of the big-cause, low-ego hiring criteria because I’m great friends with Charles Drummond and going to his wedding this week.
SASSE: Good stuff.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: But my simple question was, where do you source most of the material for your humorous and witty tweets?
SASSE: So, @BenSasse is just me. It’s my personal account — it’s not a governance thing. I have a press office; that’s @SenSasse. But @BenSasse is just me. I’m a commuting dad, so my material is really the fact that I’ve usually got a 6- or a 13- or a 15-year-old traveling with me. And we’re on the road and it feels like just our version of digital-era Huck Finn.
SASSE: I think I’m the only commuting dad in the Senate. We live in Nebraska, and I come here every week, Monday to Friday. Most weeks, I bring one of my three kids with me. I get home on Friday afternoon, and my wife tells me which kid annoyed her most last week, and they become my date for the next week.
SASSE: Most of the Twitter material is just that. And again, there’s a tiny little bit of unum, I don’t have that many twitter followers, but whatever, 160,000 or something like that, and that’s small for people who are doing something big, and I’m not yet. So I’m learning how to try to have a public conversation about stuff that I think matters, but basically my audience on Twitter is just 20 buddies of mine. It’s my college roommates and it’s my dad, and I’m just telling stories about how ridiculous it is that my six-year-old just lost a shoe in the Capitol, and we’re down a shoe today. [laughter]
SASSE: And it’s going to be rough to get through the whole day with that half an inch difference between the bottom of your foot and the other shoe when you’re only this tall. It’s going to cause some disruption.
We live out in the country and we have a lot of animals. Some are ours, and some are just around our property. And there’s that great farm debate about if you put out food, and you know that some animals are recurring, they are coming back and now you’re feeding them, do you allow your kids to name the animals? Because that’s the threshold where it becomes a pet.
I don’t want to admit that I own all these things, but we have these animals in our life, and they really do bring you carcasses all the time. It happened for years and years of my life, but I’m still surprised every day when I go outside, and there’s a new dead animal on the stoop, and there’s some dog or cat that brought it as a gift to me. That’s 30 percent of my Twitter.
COWEN: And how many names are there?
SASSE: We have three dogs.
COWEN: Three dogs, that’s it; so three names.
SASSE: They have names. My children sometimes speak at other animals that are around. I refuse to repeat any of those names.
COWEN: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This school, the Schar School at Mason, this has been an unusual experience, and it brings to me the question of reform in our political system, rationality, thinking out of the box, thinking away from ideology. Given the financial cost of running for office, do you have suggestions or do you see trends that might allow us to move toward a more rational political system?
COWEN: This is the last, you’ve about three minutes, so please, as you wish. Anything else you want to add is fine too; four minutes.
SASSE: Then let’s figure out a way to save the fourth minute to say something that goes back to the shared experience of parenting because this is a really important question. I don’t really want to finish on politics, so I will try not to use up all the time, and then I’ll let Tyler give us some way to close.
I can only speak about it from my experience because I’m new to this. I have not taken an academic, analytic look at the change in candidate selection over decades. I don’t really know. I would want to consult with academics who’ve actually studied it with data. But I do think that one of the things we misunderstand about our politics — maybe I’ve two things that I think we misunderstand about our politics.
One, most of our political problems are downstream from culture, and we keep acting like we’ll be able to fix our politics with politics, and I don’t really think we can because our politics are a mess because we don’t understand where we are in economic history: this transition from industrialization to whatever the digital economy looks like, and therefore shorter and shorter average duration of jobs, and therefore a transition from villages and urban ethnic neighborhoods where there was known, dense social networks to this new thing.
We’ll produce new forms of social capital, but it might take half a century or a century, and it’s going to be really painful and disruptive as we go through this time. I think there’s a fundamental crisis of loneliness in our time that we don’t know how to think about. The average American had 3.2 friends in 1990. I mean Aristotelian friends: people that when you’re happy, they feel happy, and when you’re sad, they hurt, not because they choose it, but just because they love you. The way we parent. When my daughters or my son, when they hurt, I don’t make a choice to hurt, I just hurt. I love them.
The average American who had over 3 friends 25 years ago has about 1.8 friends today, halving in 25 years. Forty percent of Americans have no confidantes. We can’t make sense of how bad that ache hurts and how much people are projecting onto politics a hope that we could solve deep crises of the soul and of local community as neighborhoods and mediating institutions are hollowed out, and I don’t think politics can fix any of that stuff. So one thing we misunderstand is that our political problems are downstream from a cultural and an economic moment.
A second thing that we misunderstand is, I don’t think we’ve fully grappled — and I mean to say this delicately or humbly, it sounds kind of harsh, especially as we’re almost wrapping up — but I think we have a massive human capital problem in our politics. I’ve worked in 9 or 10 sectors because I’ve done a lot of crisis and turn-around stuff, and I think we don’t have the right kind of people serving right now. The vast majority of people in politics are kind and well-meaning, but you wouldn’t pick them to lead lots of institutions through times of crisis.
Right now, there’s not a lot of leadership in our politics. That’s not a commentary on any specific individual, but I think the biggest long-term thought most national politicians have right now is their own reelection moment, and that’s not long enough. We need 10- and 20- and 30-year visions for the kind of disruption that we’re going through.
COWEN: Let me toss in a new final question. Then you can tie it all up. Let’s say I am 20 years old, not married, not a parent, but I expect someday I’ll be a parent. What kind of life experience should I invest in now so I will become a good parent? You can finish what you were saying and then close on that. Takeaway advice to young people who someday want to be parents.
SASSE: Yeah. How about we talk afterwards, and I’ll give you the rest of my thought that is more directly connected to our primary selection process right now because I don’t think I’ll be able to get from that more technical answer to this synthetic helpful place to close.
SASSE: I think Tyler just gave me the hook is what really happened. He did it delicately, but I think he said —
COWEN: We’ll keep you much longer.
SASSE: Shut him off, turn off the mics, we’re out of here.
SASSE: I think that you can’t possibly become a really good parent without developing empathy. I don’t know that you have to have clear, cognitive categories to do it. There are lots and lots of people who are good parents who are empathetic who maybe couldn’t reflect on it. But since you’re asking the question for people who are advice-seeking, I think you need to self-consciously think about the cultivation of empathy.
And the travel point that you asked is another way of thinking about why it’s important to become well read. Because when you go into books, and you go to different kinds of stories, and obviously, you’ve just written a really important nonfiction book, and this this a nonfiction book, but one of the reasons why it’s critically important for our teens to read fiction is, they need to be transported to other times and places. They need to actually be able to see through the lenses of other protagonists.
One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field. That’s not true, and we’re going to have to, as a people, develop the maturity and the habits of empathy-creation, and that requires going other times and places both physically and in a literary sense.