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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Civilization and self-restraint

Today's post is one that I have been intermittently planning for years. It goes to the heart of the issues around which most of what I have to say here revolves: issues of civic responsibility, personal freedom, rationality on the one hand and emotion on the other. It deals, I think, with the truly critical issue of the last 45 years, the issue that will decide what kind of United States, and what kind of world, our children and grandchildren are going to live in. It will also, I suspect, meet with varying reactions even from long-standing readers. But the time, in any event, has come to attempt it. I could try to define the issue in a few simple sentences, but I'm not sure they would be the most effective way to convey what I am getting at. Instead, I shall begin by contrasting the America of 45 years ago--the deceptive peak, if you will, of a particular form of American civilization that I described at the end of American Tragedy.--with the America of today. Here are two sets of facts about the America of 1965--social, political, and economic.

1. Premarital sex and homosexual sex were culturally taboo, banned by law, and, for various reasons, quite difficult to engage in. Birth control was only just becoming generally available, especially non-intrusive birth control. Divorce was much less common than it is today and much harder to obtain. Language and depictions of the human body in movies and published art, to say nothing of television, were both severely restricted. Black Americans were in the process of achieving genuine legal equality, which they had secured in part by arguing, in word and deed, that they desired only to live lives comparable to those of white Americans. School prayer had recently been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the influence of religion in American life was probably at an all-time low. Women, though increasingly well educated, were generally confined (there were always a few determined exceptions) to various kinds of low-paying work, and had essentially no recourse against sexual harassment.

2. The election of 1964 had just registered an overwhelming verdict in favor of the role of the federal government enshrined by the New Deal and increased still further in postwar America. Lyndon Johnson had won 44 states and over 60% of the vote over Barry Goldwater, sweeping huge Democratic majorities into office. True, in a fateful sign of things to come, the 91% marginal tax rates that dated from the 1930s had just been substantially cut, but income and corporate taxes were still at historically very high levels, while the payroll tax (and social security benefits) remained very low. But Johnson was about to use the election victory to complete the civil rights revolution by passing the Voting Rights Act, and to pas Medicare over Republican cries of socialized medicine and the end of American freedom. The country had run budget deficits in most years since the war but they were very low by present-day standards. Public education was probably never better, overall, or cheaper, than it was in the mid-1960s, especially at top state universities. Good private universities cost about 1/3 what they do now, even allowing for inflation. Meanwhile, the government still maintained a large, conscript-fed peacetime Army--one that was about to be radically expanded to fight the Vietnam War.

3. The unemployment rate was 4.5% and inflation for the last year was about 1%. The stock market tended to advance and decline along with the rest of the economy. It was tightly regulated--margin was limited to 50%. The Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial and investment banking. The antitrust laws were still vigorously enforced. Financial careers were not glamorous and were not the most profitable. The United States was still fundamentally a country of engineers, rather than of lawyers and MBAs.

Let us now compare each of these situations to what we face today.

1. Sexual mores are, of course, much looser in practice all over the country, while far more controversial. Abortion and homosexuality are now both legal, although neither is genuinely accepted by a significant minority of Americans. Religion has vastly increased its political role in American life, largely thanks to sexually charged issues of abortion and homosexuality. Women have achieved at least equality in many sectors of the work force. Black Americans occupy leading positions in many areas of American life. People are much freer to express their feelings and to assess the effects of their upbringing upon their emotional life. Then as now, millions rely upon drugs to get through life, although they use less nicotine, somewhat less alcohol (particularly on the coasts), far more cocaine, and far more new legal drugs that had not yet been invented. Freedom of expression in mainstream entertainment is far great than it was, although it is already on a down slope again (adults in movies and on TV are now customarily shown having sex with their underwear on.) Rates of divorce have skyrocketed, although they are stabilizing, and the illegitimacy rates which were beginning to cause concern among minority populations in the mid-1960s now characterize the whole population. At a personal level, America is a much freer nation than it was then, and on the whole I certainly believe that that is a good thing.

2. The role of federal and state governments in American life remains very large but is also far more controversial. Governments are spending far more on health care and on benefits for the elderly, both paid for by regressive taxes that barely existed forty years ago. They are spending much less on infrastructure and education (especially since states and localities are crippled by a recession that was quite unimaginable in 1965), and much, much more on prisons. (Many states, including the largest, California, now spend far more on prisons than on higher education.) The federal government is running a huge deficit. Taxes on the higest brackets are less than half what they were in 1965, while the payroll tax is more than twice as high. Income inequality is of course much greater. The percentage of private sector workers in unions has fallen by more than 50%. The education provided by universities today is--believe me--far inferior to what my contemporaries and I encountered in the mid-1960s, even though it costs much, much more.

3. The United States has largely de-industrialized and runs a huge long-term trade deficit. The financial sector occupies far more of our resources and dominates the economy, largely because regulations have been stripped away over the last 30 years. The religion of the market--which was at least as uninspiring in 1965 as religion in general--has become so generally accepted that businessmen and financiers no longer seem to feel the slightest responsibility even to consider the broader implications of any decisions they make--such as the successive decisions by Goldman Sachs about which we learned last week, to both help the Greek government hide its debt, and then, more recently, to start selling bets on a possible Greek government default. Despite the worst financial collapse since 1929 we have been unable to pass any meaningful reforms.

The changes reflected in paragraph one have been, in my opinion, beneficial; the changes in paragraphs 2 and 3 have been catastrophic. The question that I have been intermittently asking myself for years is whether it would have been possible to have adopted new personal mores without at the same time destroying the political and economic achievements of earlier generations. It is a question that could be the subject of many long books, ones which I do not at the moment intend to write myself, and which involves very profound questions of human nature which we generally prefer to avoid. At bottom the question boils down to the extent of the connection between self-restraint and civilization.

I don't think any reasonable person can deny that there is some such relationship. Obedience to law is not natural, but must be learned. (The United States military is now engaged in honor-based societies like Iraq and Afghanistan where established legal procedures have never supplanted vendettas and extreme family discipline as a means of settling disputes.) Modern economies emerged along with new rules of commercial behavior, and gradually, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, society became convinced that economic behavior had to be tightly regulated to prevent abuses of economic power. And political liberty, of course, was achieved only in the course of struggles lasting centuries. Another important aspect of the development of modern life was the restriction of religion to the private sphere.

Today many of us recognize many of the restraints of earlier times as unnecessary or even cruel. Society, we have found, can function more than adequately in a much freer sexual climate. Although many Americans still resist this conclusion, homosexuality obviously is not a threat to the foundations of our civilization. We have also discovered that the industrialized world can not only survive, but prosper, without large standing armies. The power of parents over their offspring has gradually ebbed over the last few centuries, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

Yet the other restraints which civilization had built up more recently, including restraints upon economic activity and political power, seem to me to be at least as necessary as they ever were--and they have been overthrown at least as thoroughly. Few of our politicians seem to recognize any obligation beyond doing what they find necessary to rally their "base" and secure re-election. So far President Obama's attempts to get the whole nation to focus on very real problems have not been very effective. The nation, both nationally and locally, has become ungovernable. Our higher educational system has become so anarchic as to make itself largely irrelevant to society's real needs.

Now that I have formally broached this topic, I'm sure I'll be returning to it frequently in months and years ahead. Looking around the world, I do think that it is possible to combine greater personal freedom with civic and economic discipline. That in large measure is what the Western Europeans have managed to do, at least so far. Why the United States, which did so much to create the modern interventionist state, has gone so violently in the other direction in the last 40 years is a complex question, but the European example suggests that it need not have done so. In any case, for the moment we must face the facts: we have loosened all these restraints drastically, and the general relaxation has probably been part of a single process. We need more civic and economic discipline, and it is not yet clear where it will come from. It is indeed ironic, in fact, that conservative Republicans, who are so anxious to restore some of the old restrictions upon personal behavior, have so totally embraced the loosening of economic restraints and the weakening of political institutions. The Democratic Party could do a lot worse than to explicitly endorse an opposite combination of freedom in the private sphere, and more cooperation and regulation in the public and economic ones.


Anonymous said...

Majority says government a threat to citizens' rights
February 26, 2010

A majority of Americans think the
federal government poses a threat
to rights of Americans, according
to a new national poll.

Fifty-six percent of people
questioned in a CNN/Opinion
Research Corporation survey
released Friday say they think
the federal government's become
so large and powerful that it
poses an immediate threat to the
rights and freedoms of ordinary
Forty-four percent of
those polled disagree.

Perhaps if the current - "we know
everything what's best for you"
administration would stop meddling
into every aspect of people's life
the sentiment wouldn't be such?

What do you think Dr. Kaiser?

Rob Zacny said...

The problem I see is that civic and economic discipline must have roots in a widely-accepted belief system that promotes those values, and we do not have one. Tragically, the social dysfunctions with which we are wrestling make it unlikely that one will arise.

Looking at the landscape of American life today, I can't help but feel that encourages us to take everything we possible can, or risk being suckers. Because someone else will do the things that decency and conscience would otherwise forbid. If "the market" works to fill every void (and in the religion that has grown up around it, that is exactly what the market exists to do) then ethics and restraint become meaningless. The options you refuse to exercise will be taken by someone else, who will profit or receive satisfaction from them. The impact of the individual is negated by the power and reach of the market. So the people raised in this environment are encouraged to grab at every possible advantage, because doing otherwise is for suckers.

And many Americans feel they have been played for suckers. Every single time the financial markets have pushed themselves to the brink of collapse, the government has come to the rescue. The rich can be ruined and yet somehow get richer.

Perhaps the ship could be righted by increased civic participation by people of good conscience and character, but haven't the grotesque excesses of modern politics made participation less attractive? We are daily confronted by evidence that politics is the domain of influence-peddlers and carnival barkers who seem immune from shame or censure. How, then, are we ever to convince Mr. Smith that it is time to go to Washington? Or that he could ever hope to make a difference there?

The picture only gets sadder at the local level, where the corrupt and the incompetent positively thrive in the shade of their own seeming irrelevance.

My fear is that the combination of increased personal freedoms and the reduced condition of our public life gives people ample reason to pull up the draw bridge, as it were. We have more means to find personal happiness and satisfaction with our loved ones and our private interests, and less incentive than ever to dilute that happiness by engaging in our uncivil civic life.

Only if we believe that it is important that we make decent choices, and that decency can bring about positive change, will we ever see the kind of re-engagement necessary to impose some ethical order on economics and politics. I am open to suggestions on how one might arrive at those beliefs.

Anonymous said...

It is fashionable these days to demonize Goldman Sachs, especially
in connection with Greece and financial troubles there. Let's examine some pertinent facts.

In the article Greece Credit Swaps ‘Cabal’ May Be Just Sideshow: Chart of Day By Shannon D. Harrington, the author shares the following facts:

The CHART OF THE DAY shows the net national value of credit swaps on 10 European countries including Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, as reported by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. The $108 billion figure, which is the maximum amount on the line if all of the countries were to default, is 0.98 percent of the $11 trillion in outstanding debt of those countries. In Greece, where the heaviest complaints about credit-swaps trading have been leveled, bets of $9 billion compare with $267 billion of debt.

I guess it's irrelevant for thinking of the author of this blog, that those the debt of those
10 european states approach the US debt, give or take a trillion.

Naturally, all of that is caused by
the demonic deeds of Goldman Sachs!!!

In particular case of Greece, the unions, of course, had nothing to do with it.

Brian said...

Re: Anonymous post. 56% of Americans have not defined or understood what their "rights" are or what constitutes a "threat" to those rights. Was total financial meltdown and the fiscal ruin of all Americans at the hands of the "market" the threat? Or was the true threat the government's acting to avoid it? Was the collapse of the American auto industry due to decades of making crappy products the threat? Or was the government's acting to rescue it the actual threat? Had the government allowed those two things to happen, people would now agree what constitutes the threat (unbridled, unregulated, unprincipled free market action over an extended period of time), and what constitutes the mitigation of that threat. Alas, now we have 56% of Americans believing wrong is right, and good is bad.

So can we have a an unrestrained populace while enjoying economic and political restraint? I think not. Economic and political restraint requires collective action. Personal restraint requires the opposite--personal action (or inaction).

Unfortunately, a smart, good looking president talking sensibly and rationally cannot create collective action (obviously). Collective action requires collective values and collective tolerance. And the only way a large group of people form collective values and collective tolerance is to share collective experience.

The last Hero generation had collective experience in spades, with the Great Depression followed by WWII. Each event provided the necessity for large groups of people to put aside their differences, help each other out--even it may have not served their personal interests or social conscience--and recognize that everyone has to give something to address the problems they faced; whether it be paying higher taxes, passing landmark legislation without the wacky guns-in-national parks or anti-abortion riders, or looking past the marital status of your neighbor who's children are hungry.

While similar, I don't think 9/11, Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial meltdown have yet created the same necessity for collective action and collective value-forming that WWI and the 1930's did. And that's probably good. It avoids a lot of human suffering. But without it, changes in our economic and civil institutions, and the people who serve in them will take . . . a generation. And those changes won't be as decisive or radical as those formed in the aftermath of a giant collective event.

Anonymous said...

56% of Americans have not defined or understood what their "rights" are or what constitutes a "threat" to those rights.

Yes they have. BIG GOVERNMENT constitutes the THREAT to ordinary citizens.

When the current administration goes from administering 20%+ of GDP to over 24%+ of GDP that is a THREAT to ordinary citizens.

When 56% of people do not want Obamacare and they are absolutely ignored, that's a THREAT to
ordinary citizens.

... Unfortunately, a smart, good looking president talking sensibly and rationally cannot create collective action (obviously).

The president, I thought, is there to be judged on deeds and campaign
promises, NOT good looks etc.

That is exactly what prompted us in Massachusetts, to ensure that
Senator Brown was elected to keep in check the deeds of the current administration.

More of the same will come in november, 2010.

Hence the rush by administration to
pass all sorts of laws that the people are clearly saying they are against.

That kind of behaviour Brian, is a CLEAR THREAT to ordinary
citizens. The people know it and express it. It still is
"We the people... and not
"We the state ...

I strongly believe that "We the
will do something about
the administration's behaviour in november, 2010,
by electing representatives who will represent
the voters' and not someone else's

Hopefully it will not be too late.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

We and our leaders were asleep at switch at several major junctions, starting with the unnecessary show-trials of US lefties in the 50’s and extreme Minuteman commies-under-your-bed propaganda, followed by pursuing the hopeless Viet-Nam war, killing of tens of thousands of our young men and hundreds of Vietnamese for no good reason for more than a decade, the false promises of LBJ to the end war, followed by the series of assassinations by rogue security cabals, the pernicious Barry Goldwater, the nefarious Richard Nixon, the inept Zbignew Brezhinski, the embrace of radical Islam in Central Asia just because it was anti-communist, winking at Karachi’s nuclear ambitions to get even with India, the misguided Kissinger and reprehensible deeds of the US in Latin America, the White House streetgang of ex-Navy personnel (Bush Sr+Rumsfeld, among others), the brain-dead Reagan fronted by a directory, Supply Side Economics, Newt Gingritch, and recently the Office of Special Operations, the lopsided influence of Israel, the unchallenged, self-serving influence of Wall Street, the Supreme Court of Opus Dei, Fox and the New Millennium Nullifiers of the GOP. This barely scratches the surface. We have created such a knot of special interests, irresponsible Congress, voodoo, laughably incompetent Supreme Court Justices and eternal warfare that one cannot imagine how it would be cut.

So many woeful wrong turns, we are in the wilderness now. At least we have educated bloggers such as Prof. Kaiser with sympathy for the rest of us who if nothing else provide a light of hope.

Anonymous said...

And I guess you think this is the RIGHT turn?

Pelosi to Dems: Support health
bill, even if it kills career


56% of the voters who are against this kind of governing don't matter? Right?

I guess 56% of the voters will have to put up with this kind of behaviour until november, 2010.

Then it will be over !!!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Kaiser,

Thanks for your thoughtful perpective. Your theme, that freedom is for the individual and regulation is appropriate for corporate power, is so important. This is the over-ridng issue of our time for the future of America. Two scholars have best addressed it: Sheldon Wolin, and Chalmers Johnson. (Perhaps it is just a coincidence that both taught at Berkeley in the 60's.)

And condolences on that viral email that so mis-states your views. I have just received a forwarded copy from a relative who is a nut case. I don't mean her views are crazy, though they are. I mean she is a schizophrenic who cannot stay on her medication. Any similarity between her and the far right in this country is -- well -- all too real.


Anonymous said...

I think you are seeing the symptoms of a deeper disease.

The USA is having the same problem that destroyed other Empires: over-reach.

The Vietnam War broke the US economy, and that is fact because when President Richard Nixon in 1971 unilaterally cancelled the direct convertibility of the US dollar to gold (essentially ending the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange) what was actually happening was a US default.

With the oil crisis coming soon after(because the Texas oil fields peaked at 1970), the economic problems just get bigger and the US public service was sacrified. So, the US education standards get lower because US don't had money for mantain it, making Democracy an easy target for demagogy.

From 1972 to today we watched a US slow fall, but the last years that fall just accelerated.


Sorry the bad english, my native language is portuguese

João Carlos

Anonymous said...

Warren Buffett would scrap health care bill

Aunt Katie said...

I wrote a 'confession' of an old scalawag, under the pseudonym Thurston Howell alias Robert Macaire, outlining in footnotes actual nonfictional references to political, economic, and military history works. I thought you might like to see it. I consider the footnotes fair use, but there may be those who disagree, so I am inquiring rather than posting it. all the best.
Gerald Meaders
Love Politcs and War so far.

Bozon said...

Only recently read Three Billion New Capitalists. Have added it in a fn to Thurston's rant, which had included Trading Places, etc.
All the best,

Bozon said...

Just a note re the first 3 above, where previously more engineers, turned later unfortunately into more lawyers and MBAs.

Although I admit to have both of the latter, I agree; nevertheless, the joys of representing civil and transportation engineers can be overrated.

all the best,