Friday, November 01, 2019

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Meaning of "Economic Mobility"

High-level college admissions are in the news this week thanks to an infuriating scandal. They were in the news last fall thanks to the lawsuit against Harvard and how it selects its freshman class.  I followed that case very closely and have been planning to write something about it for quite a while, but I have not yet done so.  The new controversy has provoked a lot of revealing discussion about how people see the role of our top institutions in our society, and one remark, from an article this morning in the New York Times, especially caught my eye.

The article asks, essentially, whether the very rich parents who bribed their kids into Yale, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown got their money's worth with respect to their children's economic future.  (Whether they got their money's worth with respect to bragging rights among their friends, or their parental self-esteem, would of course be harder to measure, although I suspect those motives were equally important.)  The answer, according to some studies that researchers have done, is probably no.  The children of very rich parents are likely (though not certain) to wind up well-off themselves whether they attend an elite school or not.  The article cites evidence, however, that for low-income students, top institutions can have a dramatic effect.  This paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:

"At the same time, research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20 percent of the income distribution from the bottom 20 percent, moving to the top 1 percent from the bottom 20 percent almost always requires a highly selective institution. If you’re at all concerned about economic mobility, this underscores the waste of unfairly displacing qualified low-income students from top colleges and universities."

I have two comments here.  To begin with, I honestly believe that that this paragraph captures the real motivation for affirmative action programs for poorer minorities at Harvard and other elite schools.  They understand perfectly well that they are admitting (or retaining) young people into, or in, the topmost ranks of our society, and they want those top strata to be integrated, or, to use the current term, "diverse."  And they are succeeding.  There isn't any evidence that Barack Obama needed affirmative action to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard Law School.  Attending the elite Punaho school in Hawaii was enough to get him onto the top track, and his own achievements kept him there. But his accession to the White House represented the ultimate success of the strategy these schools are pursuing.

Yet that paragraph--and the pride top institutions take in their affirmative action programs--disturbs me a great deal, because it expresses a remarkably obtuse vision of what "economic mobility" means.  Yes, it's inspiring when some one moves from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to the top 1%, and those who managed to do so have been the stuff of American legend from the beginning of the Republic onward.  But a view that measures mobility by the ability of people to move into the top 1% is rather narrow, insofar as it totally ignores the fate of the 99% who will never get there. And these policies are doing nothing for most of them.

Yes, a diverse elite is better than a narrow one, but neither is much good to the bulk of the population within an economy that is trending steadily towards more and more inequality. They can only benefit by returning to the kind of income distribution and society that we enjoyed half a century ago, in which top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91% to 70%, workers' wages were still rising in absolute terms, and executive salaries were a fraction of what they are today.  Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the huge expansion in their own personnel, universities today need the much richer 1% of 2019 much more than they did in the 1950s.  Their admission strategies, we have learned, put a high priority on cultivating the wealthiest donors on whom they must rely for their economic future.  And with respect to income inequality--to use a phrase from half a century ago--that makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no matter how many disadvantaged people they manage to funnel into the top 1%.

The excellent book Winners Take All, which I reviewed here a few months ago, analyzed the moral dilemma of the new superrich: how to feel progressive while remaining solidly within the 1%.  Affirmative action as it is practiced today by elite schools is one "solution" to that problem.  I have thought a lot about who is benefiting and who isn't from the Harvard admissions policies that were laid bare last fall, and I will eventually getting around to sharing my views about that.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The space program and its era

Over the years I have made a number of posts here about the misrepresentation of the world of my childhood.  Today's writers and producers have a lot of trouble grasping how different the 1950s-early 1960s were--how there were so many issues in life that people simply didn't talk about, and how generally accepted the norms of those era really were.  I have noticed that the post, Truth, Fiction and Masters and Johnson draws a dozen or two hits almost every week.   About a year ago I posted about The Shape of Water, which caricatured 1962 to a remarkable extent.  This week I discovered not only another symptom of this disease, but an antidote.  The subject was another iconic aspect of that era, the space program.

First Man, focusing on Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling, clearly had big aspirations for box office success and rewards, but sank like a stone.  It closed before I could see it in theaters and I just watched it on DVD.  It was the third major motion picture about the space program in the last 35-40 years.  The first, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's best-seller, came out in 1983, only 14 years after the Apollo moon landing, and dealt with the original Mercury program.  Its writer/director, Philip Kaufman, came from the same generation as many of the astronauts.  The second and by far the best was Apollo 13, the dramatic story of a nearly disastrous 1970 mission, appeared in 1995, and its director, Ron Howard, had seen the space program from the beginning as a small child and was already a national icon himself at the same time that the astronauts were.  Now, a full 24 years later, comes First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle,  who was born in 1985 and is therefore much too young to remember the Challenger disaster, much less any of the moon shots--or, more significantly, to have any real sense of what that era was like.

Chazelle's film focuses almost obsessively on Armstrong the man, and I must apologize for not having looked at the biography that he claims to have relied on, to see how it described his personality.  Gosling's Armstrong appears to be--there is no other way to put it--clinically depressed.  The film focuses on his loss of a baby daughter to cancer, and portrays a man who even by the standards of the 1950s-1960s is almost entirely without emotion, speaks as rarely and briefly as possible, and has a great deal of difficulty showing any emotional connection with anyone.  The film showed him flying what I took to be an X-15  in the 1950s but spent no time explaining that Armstrong, unlike nearly all the other astronauts, was not a military man, but a civilian test pilot.  I did, however, find a BBC interview on youtube which Armstrong did in 1970, if either Gosling or Chazelle saw it, they didn't allow it to influence them very much.  Armstrong clearly is quiet and reserved, but he shows plenty of emotion, and he also shows a quick intelligence and a very observant, engaged mind, responding in detail and without hesitation to all his interviewers' questions, confident that he is part of a great enterprise which will continue, and expand, throughout the rest of his life--in ways that it did not.

The bigger historical problem with First Man, however, is that it extends the image of Armstrong the loner to the entire program and the environment of all the astronauts.  They are portrayed, astonishingly to those of us who remember those times, as an isolated group who don't seem to enjoy much public support, who cope alone with terrible dangers, and who have to beg the public and the authorities to even keep their program going.  The opposite was true.  The whole program was a national drama from 1961, when Alan Shephard made the first suborbital flight, through the first Apollo landing in 1969, and most of the classroom instruction in the United States came to a halt whenever a launch took place during the day.  I don't think Chazelle can imagine what a world with just 3 tv channels, all of whom would tune in to major events like NASA mentions, was like.  There is nothing today--literally nothing--that commands the kind of attention that those launches did as it happens, not even, probably, the annual Super Bowl.  Our media, like our politics, are now fragmented and tribal, and we don't experience things as a nation the way that we did then.

A central episode in the movie led me to the primary source I was looking for to put the film in perspective.  That was the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, when the three astronauts who had bee assigned to the first Apollo launch--Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee--burned to death in their capsule after an electrical malfunction created a spark and set the oxygen atmosphere of the capsule on fire.  The accident took place around dinner time, but I remember that I didn't hear about it, for some reason, and learned it when I saw the front page of the New York Times that was delivered to me dormitory room the next morning.  It was a terrible shock because no astronaut had died before; despite some problems (including one that figures earlier in the film) the Mercury and Gemini programs had been completed without any catastrophes.  But I found on youtube what I missed then: a CBS special report, hosted by Mike Wallace, that probably ran about 11:30 PM that night.  It should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand what masculinity really meant 50  years ago. It was not toxic.

Wallace and the other correspondents--including both Walter Cronkite, whose involvement in the whole program was particularly intense, and Dan Rather, who reports from Washington--are obviously deeply affected by the tragedy, but they speak calmly, factually, and in full grammatical sentences.  So does Gus Grissom, the oldest and most experienced of the three dead men, in a previously taped interview in which he is asked whether, preparing for his third trip into space, he fears that the "law of averages" might catch up to him.  "There's always the possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, it can happen as well on the last one as on the first one," he says, but one can't do anything but prepare as well as possible.  "You have to understand the feeling.  .that a test pilot has," Ed White says, "that I look forward a great deal to a first flight, there's a great deal of pride involved in making a first flight."  "Our business," said Roger Chaffee, "is to find our if this thing will work for us."  Like the nation they represented, they had confidence, and like professionals who deal with life and death in any era, they accepted the risks they faced as part of their job.  In another moving clip, White suggests that the example of the moon program will inspire young people to set, and achieve, difficult goals."I think if a civilization, if our country, becomes so obsessed with making our country easy to live in, and making our surroundings so comfortable, that we are in an ever-descending spiraling-in spiral right within ourselves, and if we don't look out and continue to expand ourselves and expand our horizons. . .we're not going to progress as a nation."  The even keel with which he delivers those words makes it quite clear that he was not in any way posturing; he believed every word.  In another clip, John Glenn, our first orbiter, had stated in response to a question that "we" fully expected to lose a man sooner or later.

I am often struck as I listen to NPR nowadays that broadcasts are based on emotions, that they are the basis of the "stories" the reporters chose to tell.  The CBS broadcast reeks with tragedy, but it is secondary to the inexorable march of the facts, of what had  happened, of how the men had died, and of what was known and not known about why the disaster had taken place.  NASA, including its chief scientist Werner von Braun, spoke very frankly even that evening.  Another astronaut, Walter Schirra, speculated that the mission would be delayed for only a few months. As it turned out, it took longer than that, but the program, of course, met John F. Kennedy's original goal of reaching the moon during the decade of the 1960s.

When the Apollo I disaster took place, the greater disaster that would destroy the ethos of that era--the Vietnam War--was already in full swing.  Within just a few more years, our government and many of our other institutions would be presumed guilty by much of the citizenry whenever anything went wrong, and responsible authorities were learning to react defensively and to start spinning from the word go.  In January 1967 that was not the case, and Walter Cronkite, in his last words on the program  also emphasized, "this is a test program," that many test pilots had died in conventional aircraft, and that while this would delay the program to 1969 or 1970, it "shouldn't, in any way, damage our national resolve to press on with the program for which these men gave their lives."

That era will not come back in any of our lifetimes.  It had taken a century, I now think, to create its ethos, and for half a century we have been tearing it down.  We have made social progress in areas that that time had neglected--but politically, we have regressed in ways that Wallace, Cronkhite and the rest could never even have imagined.  One cannot, I think, watch that CBS special--as I hope many readers will take a half an hour to do--without realizing that it embodied virtues that we lack, and that we can try at least to revive in our own environment and our own lives.




Saturday, March 02, 2019

What we are missing

Since the election of Donald Trump, more and more people have come to realize that something is deeply wrong with the United States, and that the nation has indeed lost certain things that allowed the political system and society more generally to work.  Those things include a certain measure of consensus about what society should look like and what government should do, as well as the capacity to put resources to work solving important problems.  We have instead sunk rapidly into ideological, political and racial tribalism, our politicians unable to agree on even the simplest truths.  Anyone who, like me, thought that the evident parallel of an utter incompetent in the White House might draw us together got a rude shock watching the Republicans during the Cohen hearings.  A great many people still remember the America of the last High (1946-64), when economic equality was rising, we built interstate highways and went to the moon, and large bipartisan majorities passed civil rights laws.  But very few of us have any sense of how we got there, which is the real key to understanding how we might regain some lost ground.  And all sides of the political spectrum, I would argue, are making it harder, in one way or another, to get there.

I have written many times that our current crisis has three precedents in the last three centuries: the era of the Revolution and the Constitution (about 1774-1794), of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath (1860-1868), and of the Depression and the Second World War (1929-45).  28 years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe noticed that pattern and thus managed to predict that a new crisis would begin in the first 10-15 years of the 21st century.  They were right, but the new crisis has so far failed to achieve anything similar to the results of its predecessors.  Let us look for a moment at each of them.

The struggles of the years 1774-94 revolved around the questions of who would govern the British colonies in the United States and how they would do so.  Everyone in the region had to take sides on those questions, and they did.  The decision to fight for independence forced the colonies to raise and provide for armies and to issue their own currency, and to make foreign alliances and write new state Constitutions.  That led eventually to the defeat of the British and the recognition of independence in 1783.  The weak national government established by the Articles of Confederation could not however carry out the terms of the peace treaty, establish a stable currency, or defend the nation against foreign enemies, and the new Constitution was therefore written and adopted in 1787.    The states debated ratification vigorously, and it passed.  Political conflicts remained very heated during the first 12 years after the election of Washington as President, but in March 1801, after a contested election, Thomas Jefferson could declare, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."  The nation had agreed on its new form of government and was making it work, while settlers moved into the midwest--the former Northwest Territories--and began creating new states.  Slavery was generally abolished in the northern states and many hoped that it would disappear in the South.  And Jefferson's Democratic Republican party established a national hegemony that lasted, in one way or another, until 1841. 

When the slavery question first erupted on the national stage in the 1820 debates over the admission of Missouri, the aged Jefferson wrote that the younger generation was clearly going to throw away the achievements of their elders.  The new, post-revolutionary generation did not regard slavery as an unfortunate evil that would disappear with time.  Its southern members increasingly saw it as a positive good that needed to be extended, while an increasing number of northern abolitionists saw it as irredeemably evil and in need of extinction.  In 1860-1 that issue split the country and led to civil war.  Lincoln argued from the beginning that democracy, not slavery, was the critical issue in the war, which the central government had to fight to prove that it, and other governments like it, could survive.  In 1862, of course, he also turned it into a war of abolition, but it remained a conflict between northern democracy and southern aristocracy as well.   The conflict involved an utterly unprecedented mobilization of resources on both sides, and established new party loyalties that lasted for decades. Superior resources and superior stategy enabled the north to win the war.  The conflict continued in the southern states for another 12 years in an attempt to reshape their politics.  In the end the North wearied of that struggle and white southerners returned to local political power, even in the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where whites were in a minority, and only terror and intimidation could secure their rule.  Because the war was fought on political lines--Republican vs. Democratic, for the most part--as well as sectional ones, the northern victory established the Republican party as the ruling party for the next 20 years (1865-85) and 36 out of the next 44.  That party also instituted policies of high tariffs, relatively sound currency, payments on the public debt, and the unrestrained growth of corporate power.  Once again, only a new generation, the generation born after the Civil War, came forward to challenge those consensus principles of the new era.  And only when the old order had clearly broken down in the midst of the Great Depression did they get their chance actually to replace it.

The crisis of 1933-45 began as a political response to economic collapse, based on the idea that rationality could make the economy work better, restrict greed and speculation through regulation, and secure a decent life for everyone.  Then, beginning in 1940, it involved another unprecedented mobilization to assure the survival of the nation and of democracy around the world.  The new consensus, which was not seriously challenged after the war, recognized the rights of organized labor and took many steps to promote the well-being of the GI generation that had fought the war and of their numerous children.  In the wake of the war, the renewed commitment to democracy also energized the civil rights movement and eventually put an end to legal segregation and gave everyone the right to vote.  The nation also agreed on the need for a huge peacetime military establishment, including a draft, and a system of foreign alliances to defend the world against the Communist threat. The Democratic Party became the majority party as a result of the crisis, particularly in Congress, where it ruled almost without a break from 1948 through 1980, and Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford did not challenge the postwar domestic consensus.  Barry Goldwater, the first presidential candidate explicitly to run against the new consensus, went down to a crushing defeat in 1964.  But once again, at that very moment, a new postwar generation was preparing to challenge much of the consensus that they had inherited.

The most important opposition to the postwar order came from sectors of the Republican Party that had never accepted it.  Billionaires such as the Koch brothers--whose father was in the 1950s a founding member of the fringe, far-right John Birch Society--took advantage of loopholes in the tax laws to shield their fortunes and use them for political purposes, eventually taking over most of the Republican Party and using political power to undo the mid-century regulatory state, roll back the rights of labor, and push for a series of tax cuts--including cuts in the inheritance tax, our only tax on capital--to allow their fortunes to grow at much faster rates.  The alliance of energy barons like the Kochs and the Republican party led in the early 2000s to a decision to make the United States self-sufficient in energy, and it has blocked any attempts to do something about global warming.  Meanwhile, white southerners, dismayed by the victories of the civil rights movement, moved into the Republican column.  Donald Trump in office has essentially functioned on behalf of these interests, while mobilizing the electorate in a way that traditional Republicans no longer could.  On the other side of the political spectrum, the Boomer children of GI Democrats--like the post-Civil War children of victorious Republicans--took their parents' achievements entirely for granted and focused on a new range of issues.  These included more active attempts to improve the economic lot of minorities, the opening of opportunities to women, and greater tolerance for alternative sexual behaviors, including legalized gay marriage.  While these were worthy goals which have opened up various elite sectors of our society, they have not allowed the Democrats to mount any effective resistance to our increasing economic inequality and the growth of corporate power that goes with it.  As a result, the Democrats have lost the support of much of the traditional working class. 

The two sides of our politics now have their own media outlets and their own world views.  To the Republicans the enemy remains government at all levels, which gets in the way of free enterprise and redistributes wealth from deserving "earners" and "job creators" to the undeserving poor, including millions of immigrants.  To Democratic activists the enemy, increasingly, is composed of straight white males, a majority of whom now vote Republican, and who stand in the way of oppressed groups.  The Democratic view rules academia and the mainstream media while the Republican view appears to dominate corporate America--and still will when Donald Trump has left the scene.  Every previous crisis also had to overcome great divisions within the body politic.  A minority of Tories opposed the revolution and anti-federalists fought the Constitution.  The Civil War, by definition, divided the nation into hostile camps who settled their dispute on the battlefield, at enormous cost.  A vocal minority of Republicans regarded the New Deal as the spearhead of totalitarian Communism.  But in each of those cases, one side brought together enough resources to prevail in a struggle that was both political and military, and its victory enshrined its values for decades to come.  That created enough of a consensus for the nation to move forward, solve problems, build infrastructure, and educate its citizenry.  We are failing on all those fronts now.

The kind of mobilization that led us out of our previous crises requires us to put aside our individual concerns and contribute resources for the greater good.  That, I fear, we can no longer do.  Different forms of selfishness drive both sides.  The Republicans oppose, on principle, the diversion of private resources for the public good.  The Democrats tend to stress the needs of specific groups, not those of the nation as a whole.  And critically, both sides at this moment seem to me to be doubling down on their most extreme positions rather than finding a more centrist approach that might break our deadlock.  I think that our hyperpartisan atmosphere will burn itself out within another 10 years at the most, but that in itself will still leave us divided, mistrustful, and without any unifying national identity.