Friday, July 27, 2012

How the market changes civilization

In around 1954 or 1955, when I was only seven or eight years old, I began reading Sport magazine every month. Like so many monthlies in those days, it ran very long articles, and it featured an outstanding group of writers including Ed Linn, Roger Kahn, Al Stump, and Ed Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald particularly caught my eye for some reason--his pieces had a quiet calm about them--but in 1960, he disappeared from the sporting scene, and I had no idea what had happened to him.

I found out in the mid-1990s when I happened on his autobiography, A Nickel an Inch. Earlier, I had gotten ahold of one of his first efforts as a ghostwriter, a book he had done with Lou Boudreau about the 1948 Indians, about whom I had already written (but not yet published) a book of my own. He had gone on to much bigger things: an editor at Doubleday, the head of the Literary Guild in the mid-1960s, and eventually the chairman of the Book of the Month Club. What I did not know the first time I met him was that he was an alcoholic. Like many other Second World War veterans, he had collapsed in retirement and wound up in a rehab facility in Minneapolis called St. Mary's. Typically, he had turned that into a wonderful book called That Place in Minnesota, which I have read more than once. Alas, heart problems caught up with him, and he died in his late 70s in the late 1990s.

I got to see him several times, and he discussed what had happened to publishing. He was very upset by the influence of MBAs. His own philosophy, stated in A Nickel an Inch,, was simple: one could, he said, make more money than anyone really needed publishing books that intelligent people wanted to read. But the MBAs thought one could make more money publishing books less intelligent people would want to read, and that was already affecting the quality of what was published. Another important trend was segmented marketing. In the middle of the century the Book-of-the-Month club turned a great many writers into national figures, but once they gave up their monthly Main Selection they lost their power. "It doesn't take as much as it used to be to make a best-seller," an agent commented to me recently.

Publishers and movie studios used to combine their concern for profits with a concern for art and culture. They published undistinguished money-makers and made films for the masses, but they also promoted more distinguished writers and, after the late 1960s, made remarkably creative films. That continued through the 1990s, but it is much less true now. The teen audience rules most multiplexes. (I am fortunate now to have moved back to the Boston area, centrally located among three different art houses. Very few Americans can say as much.) "Adult drama" is now poison at the box office. Cable TV, as I have mentioned, has filled some of the gap with series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland. Gen Xers and Millennials do not go to many movies as adults, except with their kids. They have also lost touch with our film legacy.

The rebirth of western culture that began in the renaissance, led to the Enlightenment, and peaked, apparently, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not come out of nowhere. High educational ideals created both its achievements and its audience. It is moribund now in the United States because no cultural values compete with market values, and we are very much poorer for it. These are large topics, and the change has taken place with such terrifying speed that it we are already taking it for granted. That is a fascinating commentary on human nature, whose attitude towards the past varies enormously from century to century.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Newsroom and the collapse of civilization

To those of you (the vast majority) who don't know me, I have moved to Watertown, Massachusetts. Posting those pictures on the blog was the quickest way to make them available to friends and family. I did not mean to cause a distraction. Now back to business.

I just watched what was, I believe, the fourth episode of The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin-created HBO series in which Jeff Daniels plays anchorman Will McAvoy, who with his boss Sam Waterston and producer Emily Mortimer decides to revive the Ed Murrow/Walter Cronkhite tradition on cable news in 2010. The best moments of the show are the actual broadcasts, which move quickly and entertainingly. The content is dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and McAvoy has spent the last few episodes taking on the Tea Party and Fox News. Tonight we saw Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Bachmann repeating an unsourced lie about the cost of a presidential trip to India, one piece of right wing claptrap that I had missed. Yet the show is, alas, part of the problem as well as part of the solution, and thus proof, I am sorry to say, that the general approach and values it claims to be promoting are going nowhere anytime soon, and maybe not for decades or even centuries.

The show, oddly, enough, reminds me of Marx Brothers movies. Nearly all of them--the exception being the funniest one, Duck Soup--featured a crooning, star-crossed young couple whose problems had nothing to do with the plot and who contributed nothing to the humor. Groucho, Chico and Harpo apparently resented them, but the studio said they helped at the box office, and they came back again and again. Even then, appealing to the young demographic was important--and it's even more important now. So, each week about 20 minutes are devoted to the love lives of the producers and assistant producers of the newscast. Not only that, the role of Margaret Dumont is played by Emily Mortimer, who we have learned was the great love of Will's life some years ago before she cheated on him, and their non-relationship is taking up even more air time, as are their other love interests. I know there was some of this on West Wing, which I never watched religiously, but it seems to me it was kept far more tightly under control then. In short, HBO does not trust the drama of reporting the news to carry the series. The irony cannot be lost on Sorkin and the rest of his staff, since one of tonight's running jokes was about the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Their own show could be subtitled Real Singles of New York.

It occurs to me that HBO has run two of the greatest series in the history of television, The Sopranos and The Wire, without pandering to convention in this way. Breaking Bad on AMC, which in some ways has been the best of all, has seen no reason to do so either. (Jesse, played brilliantly by Aaron Paul, is a twenty-something, but his relationships have hardly been designed to appeal to a mass audience, to put it mildly.) Those shows, perhaps, relied on the threat of violence to hold the viewers' interest in a way that a retrospective news show cannot. The iconic images of Murrow and Cronkhite at the beginning of The Newsroom are, alas, an artifact of another time. Will McAvoy says he's on a "civilizing mission," an apt phrase indeed, but he isn't allowed to spend a whole hour on it. Sorkin has gone as far as he could, apparently, to be serious. It isn't nearly far enough.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Values again

The front page of today's New York Times tells us a lot about this moment in history. The lead story deals with Barclay's manipulation of benchmark interest rates, adding that the New York Federal Reserve was aware of the problem while it was going on but did nothing about it. Next to that story is another one on the enormous JPMorgan trading losses, now estimated at $7 billion instead of $2 billion. Sadly, the crash of 2008 was not enough to convince the powers that be--including President Obama-that destructive, risky financial practices are what our major institutions do for their very handsome living nowadays, and that drastic restructuring was necessary to get them on a different path. Another possibility would have been the return of high marginal tax rates. No one ever mentions the biggest reason for them: that people will give up scheming to make tens of billions when they know the government will take them, and perhaps think about doing something useful instead.

The headline on the left-hand side gives a clue to all how all might have happened. It is now clear that Joe Paterno, the most respected figure in American college sports at least since the retirement of John Wooden, collaborated in covering up Jerry Sandusky's serial pedophilia for more than a decade. Had Paterno not succumbed to cancer he would be in terrible legal trouble himself. Now we find that, as the scandal was beginning to break, he secured an extraordinary retirement package from the university on behalf of him and his family, one worth $3.5 million. His behavior is sadly reminiscent of that of many Wall Street tycoons.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is demanding an apology from the Obama campaign for pointing out that while he claimed to have left Bain Capital in 1999, filings with the SEC showed him as chairman of the board and sole shareholder for several years after that. His anger is revealing--the Obama campaign has clearly struck a nerve, and Romney knows he is in some trouble.

On a personal note, the past few months have been the busiest of my life, involving my retirement from the Naval War College, the purchase of new property in the Boston area, and packing up. Moving day is Monday. I am proud of not having missed a single week here. Next year, I'll be a visiting professor at Williams College once again, getting a first hand look at the state of academia. The extraordinary selfishness, the lack of any commitment to higher purpose, in so many of our institutions, is getting more and more apparent. The press, meanwhile, is getting weaker. The Newsroom, which I have been enjoying, is an interesting fantasy of what might have been. I certainly expect to live to see things begin to turn around, but that time has not yet come.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Tea Party

Some weeks ago, I read The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard Professor, and her grad student Vanessa Williamson. (It is difficult to tell exactly what the division of labor between them was: Terri Gross inteveriewed Williamson about the book. The authors did a lot of on-line research, Williamson reported to Terri Gross that she watched months of Fox News, and they attended Tea Party meetings in Arizona, Virginia, and their own Massachusetts. Their arguments are quite interesting.

The Tea Party is composed mainly of older Americans. (The authors are not interested in generations and made no distinction whatever between Silents and Boomers, who had they been given the chance would together have elected John McCain last time out.) Many of them have been economically successful and many of them are highly educated. The authors were careful not to make any blanket accusations of racism, although they repeat again and again that the average Tea Partier views the presence of Barack Obama in the White House as an almost unimaginable affront. What distinguishes them from other Americans, they believe, are their values. Sadly, however, the main emotion behind their activism seems to be resentment--resentment of millions of anonymous Americans whom they believe are getting benefits to which they are not entitled.

Essentially, Tea Partiers seem to be older white Americans who feel they have been rewarded for playing by the rules, and who feel that society now rewards people who do not. The targets of their resentment certainly include minority groups but they are hardly limited to them. The most disturbing finding, indeed, is that much of their resentment is directed against the youth of America, whom they regard as lazy, spoiled, and unwilling to work as hard as they did--none of which, in my opinion, is true. We are, sadly, at a moment of extreme generational inequality. Never have older Americans been so much better off than younger ones. This is one of many respects in which we have totally reversed the situation of half a century ago. The Tea Partiers are afraid of losing their benefits. (We shall return to this later: they are not, for obvious reasons, anxious to cut back on Social Security and Medicare.) They evidently do not want to face the idea that they might have to pay higher taxes to put younger people to work--exactly what Franklin Roosevelt forced his contemporaries and the middle-aged Lost Generation to do in the 1930s. They also resent immigrants, of course, even though immigrants are doing a great deal to make their lifestyles possible.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party has been "adopted," as it were, by leading national conservative organizations, particularly Karl Rove's FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. The authors suggest, however, that these groups have quite a different agenda, involving the drastic downsizing of government and most of all, the transformation and cutting back of Social Security and Medicare. It is not clear exactly how these voters will respond to things like the Ryan Medicare plan, which passed the House with the vote of every single Republican. Meanwhile, however, they will surely do everything they can to elect Mitt Romney, because hatred and fear of Barack Obama remains their single biggest unifying force.

The scariest aspect of the book is that many Tea Partiers, helped by Fox News, truly live in an alternative reality. Many Tea Partiers genuinely believe that Obamacare institutes death panels and ends Medicare. They buy line, so beloved of Limbaugh and Hannity, that half the nation pays no taxes. (It is true that many less well-off Americans pay no federal income tax, but everyone with income pays payroll taxes.) Some of them think that bike paths are part of a plot to create world government--and lest this be dismissed as a harmless fantasy, may I point out that the latest Transportation budget cut funding for bike paths dramatically.

At the moment we lack any "vital center" in this country. The Supreme Court decision at least opened up the possibility that one might emerge, by allowing the law to go forward--although it also can be read vastly to cut back the federal government's power to regulate the economy. We lack a vital center because we lack an intellectual center. The Tea Party, the book makes clear, wants to prevent us from attaining one. Its members have written off everyone who does not agree with them.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Confirmation

For nearly seven years now, I have been using this space to develop the generational theories of the late Bill Strauss and Neil Howe as they relate to our current history. Perhaps the most important single post I made in all that time appeared exactly two years ago, on July 5, 2010, when I first argued that our current crisis, to begin with, had started in 2001, not 2007; that George W. Bush had been the transformative President of our era; and that we would not experience another New Deal or a significant rebirth of civic virtue. The outcome of our crisis, in short, would be similar to, albeit many times less violent than, that of the Civil War and Reconstruction. A year ago I updated that post on July 9.

Meanwhile I have been intermittently addressing a related, and even deeper issue regarding the role of the Boom generation in all this. Left-wing Boomers--a description of many of my friends--are still inordinately proud of the personal liberation brought about by the 1960s, especially as it has affected women and gays. (Some would also take credit for progress among black Americans, but as I have pointed out many times, the key steps in that process occurred before Boomers took over.) Certainly the social changes of the last four decades promoted greater emotional freedom, which I support, and greater opportunities for members of those groups, provided that they belong to the middle class. But what none of my friends want to admit is that there might be some connection between that emphasis on personal freedom in the social and sexual spheres and the untrammeled economic freedom, the relentless pursuit of profit, which, under Boomer leadership, has replaced a thriving industrial economy with an empire of finance capital that constantly looks for new ways to employ as few people--and especially as few Americans--as possible. That is, really, characteristic of Boomers--one aspect of their individualism is the belief, shared by almost all of them, that he or she personally represents the best of our generation.

When I encounter a new idea, I never waste any energy worrying about who is going to like it and who isn't. I was so stunned, and so excited, when I first began reading Generations in, I think 1995, that for several nights I had trouble sleeping. Ever since then I have been spreading the gospel, inspiring some people--especially younger ones--while making many of my elders and contemporaries scratch their heads. (I am often surprised by the negative reaction of those over 70 because it is the generational dynamic, I am sure, that has destroyed the values and the world in which they grew up.) But the theory has never come close to becoming mainstream. Today is a special day, because some one did independently get the fundamental point that I in particular have been arguing--on the op-ed page on the New York Times. Kurt Andersen doesn't seem to have read Strauss and Howe, but--he got it. And in recognition, I'm going to quote his op-ed in full.

The Downside of Liberty
By KURT ANDERSEN

THIS spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?

There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.

What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.

From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”

Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.

Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outrĂ© — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.

But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.

Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.

“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.

People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.

In that letter from 1814, Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require “correctives which are supplied by education” and by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator.”

On this Independence Day, I’m doing my small preacherly bit.


The reference to Jefferson is apt, because he belonged to the Republican generation, the Hero generation most parallel to the GIs who did so much to create the world of the 1950s and 1960s, and whose values are still very apparent in films like Twelve Angry Men, Good Night and Good Luck, and even in the Hal Holbrooke character Lou in Wall Street. Six years after the letter Andersen quotes, Jefferson in the wake of the controversy over the Missouri Compromise lamented that the work of his generation was evidently going to be cast away by impetuous youth. That drama has been replayed in our own time.

Kurt Andersen is finding this morning, I feel sure, that very few of his contemporaries want to see this on the op-ed page of the New York Times. (He's a Boomer, by the way, born in 1954.) But he is right, and if serious history can revive in the next 30 years or so, the questions that he and I have raised will provide the raw material for some remarkable new books and approaches and, perhaps, change the way that new generations view the past.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Dau tranh - it's real

Here is a remarkable story about conservative dau tranh in action. (If you want to know what that is, see the post on the topic from a month or two ago called "Struggle.")