Friday, January 25, 2013

The United States and Europe

Writing about David Brooks, who tries to hide tempered Republican partisanship behind a facade of punditry, usually strikes me as about as exciting as shooting a few fish in a barrel, but he said something so spectacularly wrong last week in response to President Obama's inaugural address that I think I'll spend today's post on it. He was trying to do what I do here--using history to make his point--but since he started with the point, rather than the history, his facts were. . .debatable. Brooks's remarks drew on a favorite Republican idea, "American Exceptionalism," which amounts to saying that the United States is somehow destined to turn its back on western civilization's finest achievements because of our unique heritage. Here is the key passage in his column.

"I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley. I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.

"When Europeans nationalized their religions, we decentralized and produced a great flowering of entrepreneurial denominations. When Europe organized state universities, our diverse communities organized private universities. When Europeans invested in national welfare states, American localities invested in human capital.

"America’s greatest innovations and commercial blessings were unforeseen by those at the national headquarters. They emerged, bottom up, from tinkerers and business outsiders who could never have attracted the attention of a president or some public-private investment commission."

To begin with, I'm sorry to have to point this out, but what David Brooks knows about European history could apparently fit on the head of a pin. With the exception of England (not Great Britain), no major European nation has had a state church for over a century--and even England allowed different religions to flourish well before the United States became a nation. United Germany never had a state Church, the French government severed its ties with the Catholic Church over 100 years ago, and the Italian state was formed in defiance of the Papacy. What distinguishes the US and Europe today is the vastly greater degree of religious faith in the United States--a faith which openly impinges upon public policy and education in much of the country. If that makes him feel better it's his right under the First Amendment, but I'm not inspired.

But Mr Brooks also needs some help with America history. Our free enterprise system gave us the assembly line automobiles, railroads (far more than we ever needed, actually), and electrical appliances, but unregulated financial markets led us to disaster again and again, most notably in 1929. The whole New Deal was about planning: economic planning, transportation planning, and environmental planning. The TVA brought electric power to hundreds of thousands of customers whom the electric companies did not find it profitable to serve, and the Rural Electrification Administration did the same in other parts of the country. Just a few weeks ago PBS did a documentary about the Dust Bowl showing how federal soil conservation experts taught farmers to restore their land through contour plowing. Boulder/Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and many others stored up the water that allowed us to populate the southwest. And who, Mr. Brooks, gave us the Interstate Highway System? The Eisenhower Administration and a Democratic Congress, that's who. His point about higher education is equally weird: American states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created public universities that were the equal of any on earth, places like Berkeley and Michigan and Wisconsin. Yes, the Republican budget-cutting frenzy of the last thirty years has betrayed the purpose of those universities, which now provide a much inferior product at a much higher cost--but they were giants in their time.

And that leads me to my final, saddest point. The modern welfare state did not begin in Europe: it began right here under Franklin Roosevelt. The only major European country that undertook a broad-based response to the Depression was Nazi Germany, which built roads and housing projects as well as weapons, planned the Volkswagen, and got its people back to work, even though it could never feed them satisfactorily. The British, French and Italians took no major steps against the Depression at all. Franklin Roosevelt already embodied the hopes of the peoples of the world before the United States entered the Second World War for that very reason. And when that war was over, the western Europeans in many ways copied us. Germany picked up the kind of labor-management cooperation that had gotten us through the war and ran with it, Britain had its own New Deal (including national health care) under the Labor Government from 1945 to 1950, and France eventually followed suit under de Gaulle.

The Republican project of which Mr. Brooks is an acolyte is designed to undo modern government. This has already gone more than far enough, and the results are all around us: crumbling infrastructure, overcrowded schools, and a counterproductive austerity drive in state after state during the worst recession since the 1930s. President Obama in his address stoutly defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, but he did not dare propose much more of a role for the government than that. The United States and the major European nations have been experimenting with modernity now for nearly three centuries. We took the lead in promoting democracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we developed the democratic welfare state in the twentieth. Now, evidently, it is their turn to keep the hopes of modern society alive. I hope to live to see the day when an American politician can urge us to follow some of their examples, just as they have followed ours.

10 comments:

Guy Carleton said...

I think Kaiser has got it mostly right, and I am most grateful that he has zeroed in on American exceptionalism. As a Canadian I hate to point it out, but there is another version of Americans living not far away, and some, like my wife, still visit the old homesteads that were confiscated by the revolutionaries in 1783. The points of resemblance between citizens of the two North American countries far outweigh the points of difference. To take up Kaiser's point about railroads, there were also canals and roads, built and financed the same way, north and south of the border -- which means either directly by government or through heavy government subsidies. The Union Pacific, no more than the Canadian Pacific, did not spring unaided from the loins of private enterprise. These points were made about state-business connections and public works -- by Oscar Handlin, sixty years ago, and age has not dimmed their veracity.

Kaiser is also bang on about the model furnished, not just by the New Deal, as he notes,but by the earlier progressive enactments and enthusiasms of the age of Teddy Roosevelt.

American causes and political ideas almost always cross our border, and the borders of other Western democracies -- ideas good and bad. At present, unfortunately, the cruel and cretinous notions of the American right have found an echo in Canada, indicating that whatever the difference between the two countries it is (a) slight and (b) not genetic.

Tub-thumping by exceptionalists (including, sadly, Seymour Martin Lipset) does the United States a huge disservice -- of course by distorting its history, but also by pretending that that history is disconnected from parallel events elsewhere, and sometimes more than parallel -- directly related.

It is surely no accident that the tern "Medicare" exists on both sides of the border, to my mind indicating the common origins, intellectual and political, of the two state medical insurance schemes. Regrettably, the American part was derailed, half-complete, by the Vietnam War and its political fall out. The "Canadian model" talked about with such scorn by the US right wing is actually an American model that emigrated in the 1960s.

As always I appreciate Kaiser's insights, and especially their sense of context. We were, after all, trained at the same school and by the same professor.
Robert Bothwell

galacticsurfer said...

Being specific with your examples as opposed to the generalities made by said pundit is the most effective way of countering demagogery. We generally pay a small church tax in Germany and the kids take religious instruction for an hour a week a couple of years during their school life in public schools but that is about the limit of a "state supported church" in Germany. The funds are redistributed to the respective two main churches (lutheran and Catholic). Perhaps this ensures a moderate relgion instead of a lot of "cowboys" with bibles thumping out ever more crazy messages. The 30 years war killed half the German poplation in 1618-48 to show which church had the better God. Most people thought that was enough and the Westfalian peace was the result. I see the USA as in a stage of relgious extremism heading to some such war between secularists and relgionists. However a drift toward dysfunciton seems more likely as is currently the case. Such a large country is too unwieldy to manage as the various mind sets across the continent are virtually as disparate as those between Norway and Greece, Portugal and Finland, Ireland and Rumania. Keeeping it all together demands a central government of such proprtions that demands massive intervention in every part of everday life. Why should the supreme court say what happens in all the USA? If californians believe in abortion and gun control and high taxes and Texans don't then let them divorce. Perhaps a loose confederation would work better in a future where the planes and cars and even electricity are rare after economic and population contraction later in the century. The "Peak" resources and population concept will show that massive centralized continent wide experiments like Rome, USA, Brtiish Empire and EU are necessarily short lived due to their dependence on imported energy supluses(Chinese now trying the same and Japan collpasing on the margins). This is often neglected in historical analyses. One concentrates on politicqal ideologies and not on the third law of thermodynamics. We see the collapse coming in all forms nowadays globally. If Europe has an answer perhaps it is in devolution as in the recent symbolic vote in the Catalonian parliament for independence and the planned referendum in Scotland to leave the UK and for the Brits to leave the EU. I suspect a similar move for a Texas referendum would be met with violence from Washington until perhaps Washington resembles more current Baghdad corruption and powerlessness. Maybe when the dollar loses its reserve status and the nukes and aircraft carriers are all rusted this will be easier to break away from a dying state. Democracy is sometimes making local choices and those mustn'T neccessarily be the same with someone living thousands of miles away in another climate and culture. Let the Arabs have Sharia and in Kansas they can have their own Bible creationism as state law and in NYC and LA atheists can rule the roost. The UN charter extolls universal human rights but only theWest with their guns can enforce it. This will disappear when the East like China and India and Arabs rise from obscurity of 3 centuries of Western domninance. Perhaps they will then impose their ideals upon us.

Author said...

Right on David - especially yr point about Brooks tricking out his faux understanding of history with his latest reading of sociological reports. Not sure how he sleeps at night, given his endless maneuvering to keep his job(s) as a Republican commentator, knowing as he must how shallow is his knowledge, and how lacking in courage he is in telling the truth.

Unknown said...

Wonderful post, wish it could be spread far and wide. Mr. Brooks does come up with strange ideas and thank you for posting this in response. I've been reading your blog for a long time, it's never a waste of time. Thank you.

tructor man said...

Excellent piece! David Brooks is usually a moderate Republican with some degree of reason, and occasionally goes off the rails. That said, he is also an aopoligist for the GOP/Tea Party drive to gut the Federal government.
Two recent movies show the excess of capitalism and right-wing thinking: "Too Big To Fail" with Wm Hurt as Paulson, and "Margin Call" with Jeremy Irons as John Fuld.
Regards,

PJ Cats said...

Hello Mr. Kaiser,

Incidentally, I also read this column and was annoyed by much the same things. The problem is that there is so much wrong with these points, you just don't know where to begin. It seems the neo-liberal (I mean that in the Washington Consensus way of the phrase) talking points have thoroughly ingrained themselves on to our society. Yes, here in Europe as well. They come down to three main points: government is wrong, taxes are theft and the market is perfect. Both these three are, I said it, so wrong you just don't know where to begin. But everybody talks like this! It is so tiresome. And at the same time so easy to counter. Just last week somebody said something to me about some fifty percent of his wages going to taxes and wasn't I aware of that. I said that, no, I didn't mind paying taxes, that we in Holland have the best roads in the world, good hospitals and medical service, a good social system, good schools and all kinds of support and systems for innovation and research and lots of other things. People grow older here than anywhere, they're happier and their children are the tallest in the world. No, I said, I'm happy to pay taxes in such a place. I'd like it to stay. The other guy then agreed, saying, allright, maybe it's not so bad.
People are usually not that stupid that they don't see when they are being told a simple truth. So, I do what I can in my way. And I try not to get upset by all the stupidity which is so common these days. I'm not too bright myself, actually. Beware of truth-tellers, those who know! Goodbye and thank you once again.

woodgatesview.com said...

I see you picked that up too about Brooks. I've got a piece that also reflects on this narrow perspective of his that'll be on my blog Monday morning.

Brooks' argument that attempts to distinguish between the concepts of “centralized” and “decentralized’ is yet another dichotomy that conveys a simplistic black and white comparison that those extremists on the right will interpret more along the narrower frame of reference, good vs. evil.

Rather than using the "us" against "them" argument to garner support for his premise he employs an "I" vs. "we" meme to suggest the objectivism model of Ayn Rand is still a superlative ideal that will somehow raise us above all that ails us.

It will still take the "I" and "we" to make an "us" if we are going to overcome those 20th century barriers that keep us from moving forward.

Larry said...

Nicely stated. I caught this too and will be publishing my take on Brooks' comments Monday

Bozon said...

Professor

Great stuff.

I 'walk into the wind' sometimes myself by bothering to critcize
Brooks.

His view of this as a meritocracy, for example, most recently. I used to be under that delusion. What a waste of time, but I do it too. Pavlovian really.

Re democracy, have been reading Collins' Macro History, especially the sections on medieval origins of collegial democracy....

He paints a very different, and much better, picture from the received ones in the US, re origins of democracy.

All the best,
GM

David Kaiser said...

(I am posting this on behalf of the author.)


I think Kaiser has got it mostly right, and I am most grateful that he has
zeroed in on American exceptionalism. As a Canadian I hate to point it
out, but there is another version of Americans living not far away, and
some, like my wife, still visit the old homesteads that were confiscated
by the revolutionaries in 1783. The points of resemblance between citizens
of the two North American countries far outweigh the points of difference.
To take up Kaiser's point about railroads, there were also canals and
roads, built and financed the same way, north and south of the border --
which means either directly by government or through heavy government
subsidies. The Union Pacific, no more than the Canadian Pacific, did not
spring unaided from the loins of private enterprise. These points were
made about state-business connections and public works -- by Oscar
Handlin, sixty years ago, and age has not dimmed their veracity.

Kaiser is also bang on about the model furnished, not just by the New
Deal, as he notes,but by the earlier progressive enactments and
enthusiasms of the age of Teddy Roosevelt.

American causes and political ideas almost always cross our border, and
the borders of other Western democracies -- ideas good and bad. At
present, unfortunately, the cruel and cretinous notions of the American
right have found an echo in Canada, indicating that whatever the
difference between the two countries it is (a) slight and (b) not genetic.

Tub-thumping by exceptionalists (including, sadly, Seymour Martin Lipset)
does the United States a huge disservice -- of course by distorting its
history, but also by pretending that that history is disconnected from
parallel events elsewhere, and sometimes more than parallel -- directly
related.

It is surely no accident that the tern "Medicare" exists on both sides of
the border, to my mind indicating the common origins, intellectual and
political, of the two state medical insurance schemes. Regrettably, the
American part was derailed, half-complete, by the Vietnam War and its
political fall out. The "Canadian model" talked about with such scorn by
the US right wing is actually an American model that emigrated in the
1960s.

As always I appreciate Kaiser's insights, and especially their sense of
context. We were, after all, trained at the same school and by the same
professor.
Robert Bothwell