The Vanishing American Adult

interview with Ben Sasse
via Uncommon Knowledge
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
Senator Ben Sasse

Recorded on June 2, 2017

Senator Benjamin Sasse joins Peter Robinson to discuss his book The Vanishing American Adult and the growing crisis in America of prolonged adolescence. Senator Sasse argues that children are growing up, entering adolescence, and becoming stuck in the transitional stage to adulthood as they fail to become financially independent from their parents. He argues that because this generation of children is growing up during a time of relative peace and prosperity, it has allowed millennials to grow up without the issues of previous generations that were raised in war time. In this era of consumption and material surplus, he argues that adolescents are leading age-segregated lives and not developing a work ethic and that both their parents have an obligation to teach their children to grow up. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of intergenerational learning by allowing children to be raised around their grandparents and other adults to help them learn that the trivial trials of youth don’t matter in the long run.

Senator Sasse believes that there are certain virtues that American children have to learn  to become productive and happy adults. Part of that is by teaching children the distinction between production and consumption and how to find happiness and self-worth through jobs that make one feel like a necessary part of the company/society. This, he argues, will help raise peoples’ self-worth and lead them to happiness and fulfillment in their everyday.

Senator Sasse finishes by stressing the importance of building children’s identities as readers to help foster the growth of ideas and active learning over the passive activities of sitting in front of screens. He notes that sedentary life is not fulfilling and that by encouraging people to participate in production over consumption will lead to more fulfilling lives. He ends on the optimistic note, that while our youth may still need guidance, overall America’s best days still lie ahead.

Full transcript below:

Peter Robinson: Millennials, have we gone from the greatest generation to the softest? With us today, a member of the United States Senate who knows how to turn millennials into adults, Ben Sasse of Nebraska on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. A fifth-generation Nebraskan and the son on a football coach, Ben Sasse attended public schools in Fremont, Nebraska, spending his summer working in cornfields. He holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. He spent five years as president of Midland University. Ben Sasse was elected to the United States Senate in 2014. Unlike most members of the Senate who leave their families behind in their home states, Senator Sasse takes his family back and forth with him from Nebraska to Washington, helping his wife home-school their three children. Senator Sasse is the author this spring of the Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. Senator Sasse, welcome back to Uncommon Knowledge.

Ben Sasse: Good to be here.

Peter Robinson: Shooting today from Stanford University. Welcome to Stanford.

Ben Sasse: Beautiful place.

Peter Robinson: Tell us the story of the Midland University Christmas tree.

Ben Sasse: I was 37 when I became a college president. I'm a business turn around guy and I live in this town where this special 130 year old college is in danger of going bankrupt. Nobody thinks they're hiring me to run this college because I know anything about student affairs or student culture. Yet, that's the thing that's keeping me up at night my first six, 12 months, 18 months at this school. I knew we were going to get the debt restructured and we were going to raise new money and we were going to try to buy another college. We were going to be able to solve the business problems but I was worried about what was happening in student life. One event crystallized it more than anything else. It's the anecdote doesn't make the world but it sort of captured an angst I had. We had a big athletic arena. There was a 20 foot Christmas tree to be erected the day before or day after Thanksgiving. I don't remember when it was. We had a bunch of students who were employed by the athletic department or the advancement and development office. These are good jobs. These are the best of the best students.

Peter Robinson: They're being paid.

Ben Sasse: They're being paid and it's desirable to work in the development office or work in the athletic department. These are hearty and healthy vital young, 19, 20, 21 year olds. They were supposed to decorate the Christmas tree. It's 20 feet tall. The tree was there and all the decorations were there and they decorated all the bottom eight feet of the tree with twice as many decorations as you would probably need because they spent all their decorations in the bottom eight feet and then they're packing up to leave. The tree is naked from foot eight to 20. The vice president for development happens by and she's like, "Hey, what are you guys doing?" They said, "Yeah, we used all the decorations. We're done." She said, "What about the top half of the tree?" They said, "We didn't know how to get up there." She said, "Did maintenance refuse to bring you a ladder?" It turned out that nobody had really thought to ask. There was no real problem solving in the group. It was, we've been given a task and we're going to leave when the task is done.

Peter Robinson: Bright kids. Healthy kids.

Ben Sasse: Able kids.

Peter Robinson: Able kids but passive.

Ben Sasse: Passive is the right adjective.

Peter Robinson: Okay. This book lays out the figures. Millennials and those coming up behind them do they have a name yet? Does this next generation ... Let's call it millennials. Kids. They marry later, they live with their parents longer, they know less about American history, they demonstrate less initiative and more passivity, they participate less in religious organizations. They're softer not just psychologically but physically. You know that whereas in the 1960s only one teen in 20 was obese. Today, one teen in five is obese. That is a quintupling. Soft. Passive. This despite having grown up during a period of peace and by and large economic expansion in the richest and most powerful nation in human history. What has gone wrong?

Ben Sasse: You said in spite of. Maybe it's because of. I want to be clear. This book is a constructive book. It's two-thirds program for how to think about habit formation for 13 year olds and 15 year olds and 17 year olds. The part we're going to talk about first it sounds like is the one-third stage setting about the problem. This book is not a blame laying book. It is not a beat up on millennials book. It is a, "Wow, what is this category perpetual adolescence" book. That's a new thing in human history. I want to be clear. Adolescence is a pretty special concept. It's only about two millennia old. We came up with this idea that you go from the dependent state of childhood to the independent state of adulthood and you don't have to, boom, transition from one to the other instantaneously when you become physically an adult. Two millennia ago people came up with this concept that when you biologically transition from childhood to adulthood at puberty that doesn't mean you have to immediately be fully independently financially, emotionally, morally, in terms of school even or household structure. We have this idea that for 18 months to four years you can have a greenhouse phase of intentional transition from one to the other. That's great as long as we remember that adolescence is meant to be a means to an end. It is not the destination. Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. It is not a utopia as Disney has tried to remake it. Peter Pan is a character who becomes physically an adult and yet he has no historical awareness. He has no moral awareness. He kills people and he doesn't even remember their names. That's a bad thing. We don't want to be man babies. We want our kids to go from a stage of necessary dependence to more and more independence when they can.

Peter Robinson: The argument here is that if the children grow up in conditions of peace and prosperity, parents, the society, cannot simply leave it to reality to slap them around and shape them up. Parents have to help them grow up more intentionally.

Ben Sasse: Right. I think that though there's no blame laying in this book, if there were it would be at we, the parents, and grandparents feet to not have thought through what does it mean that our kids are growing up at the richest time and place in human history? There's a lot about that that is obviously great. To be protected from levels of violence that most people have known throughout human history, to be protected from abject poverty. We're going to need to figure out how to celebrate scar tissue with these kids because scar tissue is the foundation of future character. We need to celebrate it.

Peter Robinson: We cannot do the book justice because this is video, not print. We're going to do as well as we can. As you say, two-thirds of this book, this marvelous book, is a handbook on how to help kids grow up into real adults. Let's take a few of your maxims. Discover the body. I'm quoting. "Discover the body. Teens need to appreciate the joys of birth and growth and the tragedy of pain and decline." Discover the body. That's your first bit of instruction. Why?

Ben Sasse: Yeah, I wanted to think about as you transition from childhood to adulthood it isn't enough to just progress through grades in school. Most people, most times in human history have had rites of passage. They've had the big hunt. They've had intentional home leaving. They've had first job or first economic self-sufficiency. We've sort of muddled all these markers together. What I really care about is when you're 13 versus 15 versus 17. What are these habits? What are the affections and loves? What are the exposures you should have? Some of it is about work ethic and limited consumption, et cetera. One of them is the body is necessary ... You need to understand your body inter-generationally because you go from a state of dependence to independence but you're ultimately going to decline and become dependent again. We're raising 15 year olds that spend almost all of their time with 15 year olds. 19 year olds that spend almost all of their time with 19 year olds. That's really weird historically. No one has ever done that before. If you brought people in a time machine from 300 years ago to 3000 years ago and you dropped them in today I think the main thing they would think is weird about our life at first is just the material surplus. There's a cornucopia of produced goods that they would have known a world of nature and a couple of things that have been built. Our world is just filled with tools and instruments and consumption aids and whatnot. 30 days past that I think that people from another place, another time would think the strangest thing about us is that we live entirely age-segregated lives.

Peter Robinson: Got it. You quote, "Puritan minister Cotton Mather was severely blunt." Now you're quoting Cotton Mather in your book, "Go into Burying-Place, children; you will there see graves as short as your selves. Yea, you may be at play one hour; dead, dead the next." You quote that approvingly.

Ben Sasse: It's a winsome book, isn't it?

Peter Robinson: You're very serious about this point. It's a kind of memento mori. You want children to understand ... You want children to spend time with grandparents. You want them to spend time with the declining neighbor across the street. You want them to be aware of the way this all ends even as they're beginning.

Ben Sasse: If our kids are going to be wise they need to be around people who have actually passed through some years. A 13 year old is never going to become wise spending all of their time with 13 year olds. I have two teenage daughters. My kids are 15, 13, and six. Our girls are the teenagers. It hurts when a 13 year old girl experiences the slight of another 13 year old girl. Yet, if you know 60 year olds and 75 year olds and 90 year olds, it doesn't hurt quite as much because probably this moment you're living at is not the be all and end all of your whole experience.

Peter Robinson: Ben Sasse and The Vanishing American Adult. Develop a work ethic. Tell us about your grandmother Elda Krebs Sasse.

Ben Sasse: My grandmother I don't think she ever clocked in at 100 pounds. She was about 4'11, this tiny woman, and yet had larger than life personality and charisma. When I was a kid I used to travel with my grandparents a lot in the back of their car. My grandfather came back from World War II, never went to college himself, but was the business manager of this college for 35 years. The college that I was the president of half a century later.

Peter Robinson: Oh, really? Really?

Ben Sasse: He was the business manager, ultimately kind of CFO type of role, but the athletic department reported to him so he'd travel and go to all the away sporting events and I'd ride in the back of the old Chevy Impala with my grandparents. I would ask them questions about the war and the Great Depression and Dustbowl era upbringing that they had. They never thought anything was exceptional about their upbringing. Yet, I was stunned as a kid in the early 1980s at just how much hardship they had gone through that was just like water off a duck’s back. That they didn't think anything about any of it. It was just what you did. My grandma had this great story about how my dad's older brother, about six years older than he was, he was born ... Grandma was pregnant when Grandpa left for the war and then my uncle Roger was born while Grandpa was away at the war. Grandma and Grandpa had just leased some property. They grew up on a farm. Grandpa was the hired man. They had only a year apart in age but they met as teenagers when Grandpa was the hired man on my Grandma's parent's farm.  They had leased some property and they were going to start farming and Grandma had grown up around farms but she had never driven a tractor. All of a sudden her husband is away at war, she's giving birth, they have new land, there's planting and harvesting to be done, and she had to figure out how to do it. She had this leased property and she had a borrowed tractor and she figured out a way to take my uncle's bassinet and attach it to the side of the John Deere tractor and she taught herself how to plow and harvest. I thought this was stunning as a 10 year old kid. Grandma was always amazed that I wanted her to tell me the story again and again because she just thought it was necessity is the mother of invention.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now here's what I need to ask you to do. Please persuade me that this book written by a fifth-generation Nebraskan, which is filled with stories ... Not filled with stories. There's a number of stories about your grandparents, your own upbringing, as of course there should be, about your kids de-tassling corn. You have to persuade me that this isn't in some way a lament for a lost agrarian way of life that characterized America through almost all of its history and that you, in your generation and where you grew up in Nebraska you saw the last glimmerings of this way of life, and that you, young man though you may be, are filled with nostalgia. Well, you and Thomas Jefferson, "Oh, no. We're not all farmers anymore. The country can't work." Address that critique. That thought in the back of a reader's mind.

Ben Sasse: Let's locate ourselves in economic history for a minute. Hunter gatherers, agrarianism, industrialization, the big tool economy, and whatever this thing is that we're entering now. The global economy, the digital economy, the IT economy, service economy. Sociologists are throwing in the towel. They're just calling it the post-Industrial economy. It's kind of a weird thing to name something. We don't refer to industrialization as ...

Peter Robinson: Post-agrarian.

Ben Sasse: Yeah, the de-agriculturalization of America. It's not just the push from the farm that was technological substitution for labor that made it more efficient. It was also the pull of factories and cities. Mass urbanization, mass immigration. We're going through a transition that is pretty unique in human history. We didn't have alphabets when hunter gatherers settled down and began to farm. I think the only analog for the economic disruption we're going through, and frankly what I care about even more than the economic disruption, is the social network and human capital implications for neighborliness of this moment. I think the only analog we have to this moment is the progressive era where people are leaving the farm, moving to the city, and there is bipartisan panic in America that America can't long endure. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican Teddy Roosevelt, this won't work because you won't have transparency and virtue and neighborliness. They were wrong. We ended up recreating a kind of human capital in the cities. Urban, ethnic neighborhoods were every bit as neighborly and accountable as the Tocquevillian village had been. That was a massive disruption in root to figuring out what human capital looked like in the cities again. I think we're going through an analogous disruption in the nature of work now but probably even more than what they went through. We're going to have a shrinking of the average duration at a job that probably accelerates forever more. Hunter gatherers and farmers they didn't choose jobs. They just became eight or 10 or 12 and they did more of what their parents and grandparents did. When you went from the farm to the city you had a massive disruption. 15 to 25 year old males went to the city and they had to get a job. It was hugely unsettling for everybody's social structure. Once you got a job you tended to keep it until death or retirement. What we're going through now is what they panicked we were going through back then, which is ever more rapid disintermediation. Not just of jobs but of firms and of industries. This is not agrarian romanticism. It is an awareness that if you separate work from the household, as we've done, and so kids come of age with lots of material surplus and very little exposure to production. You're going to have to create something that's going to feel a little bit artificial but that is a structured way of habit-forming, that build a work ethic, even when necessity didn't mandate it.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Tell me then. We've got changed economic circumstances we're going through. The country has been through something like this once before. We're going through a huge something again. Your argument is that there are certain virtues that children need to learn, that American children in particular, need to learn that remain the same from the founding ...Thomas Jefferson would recognize what you're talking about in this book, although he believed in an agrarian America. We've been in an industrial America. Now we're entering some third kind. Why do you argue in particular that there are certain virtues that Americans need to learn to make this republic work? Explain that line of thought, which runs through the whole book.

Ben Sasse: America is prefaced on a few ideas. One is universal human dignity. We believe that people are created with dignity and that those natural rights are things that government exists to secure. Government is not the author or the source of those rights. We believe government is limited because we think rights are prior to government. We believe a whole bunch of pre-political things. We believe that happiness is something that people have the right to pursue and frankly that can't be secured by compulsion. We believe that production is ...

Peter Robinson: That people have the right to pursue happiness and that is the only way to achieve it by pursuing it on your own? Go ahead.

Ben Sasse: Yeah, I don't think we think that ... Here, I'll blend a little bit of American ideas stuff with I think some moderate sociology. Let's just sociology for a minute. I am solidly Aristotelian. One argument in this book is some slight anti-Platonism. I don't want to scare people away with no philosophical interests. I think social science is now bearing out a lot of what Aristotle understood about the sort of way that nouns and verbs get wrapped up together in habit formation. You can't decide who you want to be in the long-term and your time is often occupied in the short-term. You make decisions about the medium-term and the medium-term decisions you make about what to pursue end up creating short-term task and duties and time expenditures in your life. Those things end up becoming habits and those habits define your long-term character. I think modern social science shows us that production makes people happy. Consumption doesn't. Right now our kids are not being raised with an instinctive, in the belly exposure to a distinction between production and consumption. We're occupying our kids time with schooling and progression through grades as if that's their work and then when they're not in school it's just different types of consumption. We don't burden them with having to understand the distinction between needs and wants. Well, that burdening with them is a real serious love. If you help your kids understand that one of the things that defines whether or not you're happy in life is earned success, it's a numerator of needs met over a denominator of perceived needs, one way to be happy in life is to get more stuff into the numerator but it's not a very fruitful path. It's not very reliable. A much more reliable way to be happy in life is to guard against expanding the denominator of your perceived needs very far. It turns out healthy people tend to know the difference between the word need and the word want. We're raising a lot of kids right now with appetites that feel fairly limitless because we're teaching them that more and more consumption might fulfill them but it's not true. It doesn't bear out in wise lives of older people or in any of the literature we have.

Peter Robinson: I'd like to stay with the nature of the American republic for just a moment longer. The Vanishing American Adult, "Material abundance can make us freer and less dependent" obviously, "But simultaneously more lonely and isolated." Here is one of the most striking sentences in the book, "It is very difficult for a rich republic to remain virtuous." Here is this strange ... It seems to me you're almost setting up ... Well, you mentioned Aristotle. You're almost setting up a tragic view of American history here where the greatest generation endures the Depression, your grandparents, they endure the Depression, your grandfather goes off to the Second World War and through the sacrifices that they made, their grandchildren get just the kind of life they wanted for them and their great-grandchildren. You and your children they get a period of peace, they get prosperity, and it ruins them. When America gets what it doesn't want, war, Depression, Americans are great people. We produce the greatest generation. When we get what we want we're unimpressive as citizens. Talk me out of it.

Ben Sasse: Well, if you look at inherited wealth around the world people who figure out how to manage that inherited wealth without growing their kids appetites, turning it into actual investments, it can work out well. If you become consumers in the next generation there's danger in that. It's natural that there should be a cycle of production, wealth creation, and then recreation or leisure. By the way, there's an important historical debate about why the word recreation is more virtuous than the word leisure because it's cyclically driving you back to productivity again. I want to be revivified but to get back to work, to live a life of gratitude by serving my neighbor again. It's natural that inside any family or any individual of maybe any generation that production leads to wealth leads to recreation. If it slides across generations and people in the second or third generation are just living off on inherited wealth from production past there's something lacking in their lives that is unsatisfying for them. There's tons of data that shows that one of the highest correlates to happiness in life is whether or not you do work that you think anybody needs. Not at the end of the day, "Do my knees hurt?" Or my ankles or my back or do I think I made enough money or was there some annoying jack wagon three cubicles over who talks loudly. Do I think somebody needs me? If Monday morning, or whatever day of the week you go and start your work, there's a place that you need to go because someone needs your work you have worth and you have dignity and you have self-esteem. Just consuming more can't replace that. I do think there is a danger in becoming so wealthy that we forget to inculcate those habits of productivity that lead to happiness.

Peter Robinson: All right. One of the other maxims here, "Learn how to read and decide what to read. Reading done well is not a passive activity like sitting in front of a screen." Senator, senator, kids these days, smartphones, computer screens, 75 inch flat panel televisions, and you want them to turn off the screens and pick up books? Now lost causes can be noble. I'd really love to hear you persuade me that this isn't a lost cause. I'll grant you the nobility. Prove that it’s not a lost cause.

Ben Sasse: History for a minute. I think if you have one true founder of America, if there's a sine qua non that if you didn't have this guy or gal, you couldn't get America, I think it's Gutenberg. Our founders believed that the habits of mass literacy produce a world where you've got competing printing presses and it's competing printing presses that get to healthy skepticism of authority, that leads to cultural pluralism, that leads to a freedom of the press. Speech, assembly, religion, protest. America is predicated on the habits of mind, of decentralized power, where individuals who were created with dignity, where families are making lots of decisions for themselves, and there is a difference between the deliberative consumption, the deliberation that comes from reading and reflecting upon a task, the dispassionate nature of deliberation and reflection and choice, there's something different there than the repetitive dopamine feedback loop of shorter and shorter digital addictions. Now I am a celebrate of a lot in the digital economy. I run my own Twitter account.

Peter Robinson: I was about to say. I was about to charge you and you'd have no choice but to plead guilty. You're one of the Tweeting-est members of the United States Senate going.

Ben Sasse: Tweeting-est sounds almost dirty. @BenSasse is really me. There's an @SenSasse, which is my press office. @Ben Sasse ...

Peter Robinson: Formal, dignified decoratives but the one that's really you ...

Ben Sasse: Yeah. Commuting dad. 15 year old, 13 year old, six year old kids, lots of fishing and snake spearing in our lives out in the country in Nebraska, and we just have a great time commuting. As I'm a dad, educating my kids, and that's who @BenSasse is. I think there's a lot about the digital moment, economically, and even the subset of the digital moment, which is digital media that has real potential. Only if it's paired with a certain kind of habit formation that recognizes that constant digital consumption and digital addiction is really dangerous. There's a time for deliberation, there's a time for choice, there's a time for action, but you need to ultimately be able to get back to a place where you can wrestle with long thinking and bigger arguments and your own mortality.

Peter Robinson: Your kids read?

Ben Sasse: They do.

Peter Robinson: Because you make them read? How do you get them love it?

Ben Sasse: We've now been successful in getting them to love it. By the way, this book is not only not old man screaming get off my lawn, this book is not in any way us holding out our family as a model. We stumble and fall every day. My wife and I have a shared theory of what we're doing. One of the motivators behind this book is I have a broad belief that as we're hollowing out local community and mediating institutions and we're politicizing national conversation, we're left with this huge vacuum of space where people don't have the chance to deliberate around a dinner table with their neighbors about how to raise their kids well. I think a lot of people want to do that. I wrote this book and Melissa and I deliberated long and hard about this book as we were leaving the college. This idea predates the Senate campaign. To just think aloud about the theory of what we're trying to accomplish. We fail in the execution but we've got a shared theory of what training wheels removal looks like. It's kind of how we think about parenting a teenager. We have in the literacy chapter a quantity and a quality theory of what we're up to. Wherever possible, we want to parent with the grain. I've got a theory of human fallen-ness. One of my kids is named after Augustan. This is theologically heavy for a six year old so we call him Brack. I definitely believe in a fallen human nature. Yet, when you can parent with the grain I want to do it. When we could get our kids to be interested in reading at four or five, six years old, we want to just go with it at first, even if it had a cotton candy like feel. Hardy Boys, Magic Treehouse, Encyclopedia Brown.

Peter Robinson: Hardy Boys.

Ben Sasse: Whatever it was. We would just do more of that. When they liked it, reward them. Praise them, help build an identity that they are readers. Give them stuff occasionally. We're not big into material consumption but try to figure out how to reward them with experiences that they wanted when they were reading more. Then we'd substitute more quality into the flow of their quantity. We tried to do both at once. Tevi Troy, who I think you know, has a game called The Century Club, which he used to play when he worked for President Bush. Bush and Rove and Tevi would have a competition to see if they could read 100 books in a year. My kids have never succeeded yet but we play The Century Club at our house. A lot of people can read two books some week on vacation in August or over a Christmas holiday. To try to hit two books a week, 50 weeks in a row, to get 100 in a year that's saying something.  We got our kids on this pathway of start reading stuff that's pretty shallow and cotton candy-ish and then you read instead of five of those in a row, you'll read two and then we'll substitute them and you have options of spinach versus asparagus versus broccoli and you pick among these three really good books and then we'll let you go back to reading some cotton candy for a while.

Peter Robinson: Okay. A couple of last questions here. Two presidents. Both of whom you write about in The Vanishing American Adult. "At the beginning of President Obama's administration, a reporter asked him if he believed in American exceptionalism. After a pause, he strangely replied, 'I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Why was his reply strange?

Ben Sasse: Yeah, honestly, it hurts me that President Obama said that. One of the jobs of a President of the United States is to hold forth big and ... I'm going to have a Gorsuch joke here by accident. I almost said bigly. To hold forth loudly an understanding of what the American idea is about. The American idea is that we believe 320 million Americans and seven billion people across the globe, we've got approximate governance responsibility for these 320 million, we believe they're created with dignity and we believe that that is a pre-political thing that you affirm creedily as an American.

Peter Robinson: That makes this country exceptional?

Ben Sasse: Well, America is not exceptional in that we think we're better than other people. It's not an ethnic claim, it's not a tribal claim. It's a historical understanding of how unique Philadelphia in 1787 was, which was our founders said something incredibly arrogant in Philadelphia. Most people, most places, in all of human history have been wrong, our founders said. Government isn't the author or source of your rights. Rights come by nature and government is our shared secular tool to secure those rights. When you flip that ... I teach civics to a lot of Nebraska high school kids and I draw an island surrounded by an ocean on one side of the white board. Then I draw the same picture on the other side. I say the pre-American view is that the island is your rights and the ocean is the government's power. The American view is that the island is the government's power and the ocean are your rights.

Peter Robinson: Second president, again I'm quoting The Vanishing American Adult, "We need to go back to Reagan ... Not because you did or did not, or would or would not have voted for him, but because he was presiding at the last moment when we talked seriously about what America means for all Americans. The Cold War against expansionistic Soviet communism forced us to explain who we were and why we differed." Back to Reagan. Can you get kids to think seriously about the Cold War, about Reagan's speeches? You don't really mean back to Reagan. You mean back to an understanding of a historical understanding of America.

Ben Sasse: Yeah, I think we're living right now with two political parties that are just hungover from the 1960s. I think both of these political parties are incredibly exhausted intellectually. Neither of them know what they're for. They're both mostly just against the other party and the vast majority of the American people want to tune them both out. I want to be clear. I think I'm the third most conservative guy in the Senate by voting record but I'm not very partisan because I think both of these parties are just not interesting. I care about problems that are five and 10 and 20 years in the future. Neither of these parties is dealing with anything big. It's both Hatfield and McCoy's but it's worse than that because it's seven year olds slapping each other to say, "He started it. She started it." I think that in the Cold War you at least had a sense of an obligation to understand why expansionistic communism was bad. We got to some clariy-

Peter Robinson: The Cold War of course was bipartisan. Harry Truman starts it and Ronald Reagan finishes it well. It's bipartisan in between. Last question, one final quotation from The Vanishing American Adult, "I am an optimist and I believe that America's best days lie ahead." All right, Senator.  From the greatest generation to these soft millennials, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, from the Lincoln/Douglas debates, which is on your list of items to read, from the Lincoln/Douglas debates to whatever it was that we watched during the presidential race last year ...  You're an optimist but you named one of your children Augustan. Augustan is sitting there in northern Africa and watching Rome fall. He leads a great life, he becomes a saint, he produces an enormous volume of important literature, it's possible to lead a good life in the end of time so to speak. Do you consider yourself more in the position of Augustan or do you really believe that this country's best days lie ahead? How can you be an optimist?

Ben Sasse: Well, let's be an optimist ...

Peter Robinson: The Augustan option is very dignified. I'm giving you a good pessimist to follow if you want to.

Ben Sasse: You already set it up by saying we're at the last question. Right now we have to do a whole bunch of theology and political theory and parse the two kingdoms and do two cities and two loves and a city that has foundations. It seems too big for a parting question. I'll say I'm definitely optimistic about the net productivity, about what the global economy will produce in the next decade or two.

Peter Robinson: More stuff.

Ben Sasse: Not just stuff. More services that are quite interesting. I got here with a Waze app. I was in San Francisco this morning and coming down to Palo Alto. There are opportunities to not sit in traffic, which are not life changing but that was a nice little gift to know that taking this exit could avoid that car wreck and that half an hour delay.

Peter Robinson: In five years, you'll be running it from ... Actually, you could drive from San Francisco here. There are driverless vehicles already.

Ben Sasse: I like to drive so that sort of worries me. Now I will be a Nebraska romantic about the county road and why every kid should drive at 14 like we do in Nebraska. I think that what comes next in the digital revolution is going to be fascinating. We're going to have a layering of information and data on top of the physical world that's going to be fascinating. What I'm not sure about is that the benefits of that are going to rid down to the median worker and the median family right now. That I'm scared about because I don't think we're thinking at all about the disruption and the nature of work. Larry Summers talks about how 7.2 billion people on Earth, maybe you've got four and a half billion workers today. We're going to go to nine billion people on this planet by the year 2050. You might go to a place where you only need four billion, three and a half billion, three billion workers to more than meet the needs for all nine billion people. Guess what? Work isn't just about how you put bread on the table. Work is a fundamental anchor of human identity and service. We're meant to live a life of gratitude by doing something meaningful. We're meant to get to the evening and get some of that leisure or recreation or fun, food, and wine, and fellowship with friends looking back at the fence you built that day or the field you farmed or the factory you co-labored with or the app that you designed. You're meant to look back at that and say, "I produced something today" and right now I don't think we're thinking nearly enough about the challenges to the nature of work going forward. The potential is huge. Our political conversations and our bigger than political, it's called civic conversations, they're impoverished right now.

Peter Robinson: I'm trying to find it. The book actually ends on an up note. You just sounded more like Augustan than I was expecting you to right there. The notion is what? The notion is you need to teach your children these virtues so that they can become good Americans, so they can continue to change, so to speak, you're very conscious of American history. As you've demonstrated a couple of times here you're happy to go back to Aristotle at the slightest provocation. Also, because something big and actually a little bit alarming is coming at these kids. Is that right?

Ben Sasse: Yeah, there is a real difference between actually climbing the top of the mountain and going there on your friend's Instagram. Right now we're doing a disservice to our kids by pretending that a more sedentary, passive life might fulfill them. It's not true.  We need our crazy Uncle Teddy Roosevelt in our life and I want kids to become intoxicated with all that they can travel to through literature, across space, into other cultures, by learning to produce. There's a lot of opportunity for our kids but we need a different conversation about how to raise them and passively allowing them to be peer-segregated into a more sedentary posture is not going to be satisfying for them or for the republic.

Peter Robinson: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. America's crazy uncle in the 21st Century and the author of The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis and How to Rebuild A Culture of Self-Reliance. Thank you.

Ben Sasse: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge and the Hoover Institution I'm Peter Robinson. 

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