Saturday, July 28, 2018

The death of a generation--and its values

This morning's New York Times  includes two very interesting items which, in my opinion, are quite closely linked.  The first is an emotional op-ed by an author named Doug Stanton, about the annual reunion of the surviving sailors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. That cruiser was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the last days of July 1945, and by the time rescuers found the survivors several days later, there were only 316 survivors out of 1195 officers and crew. Now there are only 14 left.  That, Stanton points out, is now simple demography.  Less than half a million of the 16 million men who served in the Second World War are still alive today, and 400 more of them die every day. I personally know only two of those survivors.

The second piece is a front page story about the housing crisis in our urban areas and the response to it of the Trump Administration, and specifically of Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  Since 2001, the story reports, rents have increased 30% on average around the country while wages remain flat. During that period the number of high-end apartments rose by 36% while low-income units shrank by 10%.  There are only about 20 counties in the whole country where the minimum wage would allow a worker to afford a one-bedroom apartment.  Dr. Carson, who thinks federal assistance to the poor encourages dependency, wants to raise rents in subsidized housing and leave this problem largely to local authorities.

What is the between these two stories?

The 16 million men (equivalent proportionally to twice that number today) who served in the Second World War were fighting for democracy, as defined by Franklin Roosevelt.  Such democracy included the right to a decent home and a living wage for every  American, and the nation's leadership--in both parties-truly believed, when the war was over, that the veterans had earned those things by their sacrifices.  Government policies encouraged the construction of millions of homes in the suburbs and made sure that even blue-collar workers could afford them.  Even the black Americans who in various ways were denied access to these homes benefited, because everyone benefits when the housing stock increases that much.  The whole nation--including minorities that faced discrimination--believed it was part of a common enterprise that included giving every American a chance at a decent life.  The richest Americans paid 91% marginal tax rates on a certain portion of their income, which kept executive compensation much lower than it is today.  The middle third of the twentieth century, as Thomas Piketty has shown, was the one period in modern western history in which inequality decreased.  That was the real goal for which our 400,000 dead in the Second World War gave their lives.  And those of you who think I'm painting a fantasy picture might want to check out this video from that time, which coincidentally was brought to my attention this morning.

In 1992, after 32 years, the presidential and political leadership of the GI generation gave way to the leadership of my own Boom generation.  By 2021 it will have held power for 20 out of 28 years (Barack Obama is not a Boomer) and it is not clear that its reign will be over then.  It developed different values.  The Boomers grew up in relative affluence and many did not feel they needed the federal government.  The Vietnam War turned many of them--especially in the upper half of society--against the idea of sacrifice for the common good and gave them a lifelong distrust of institutions.  They have undone the regulation of the economy the New Deal had given us (a trend that, to be fair, had begun before 1992, but accelerated thereafter), and under George W. Bush and Donald Trump they have cut taxes on the highest earners again and again.  Even in the coastal cities which Democrats dominate, the shortage of affordable housing has become critical, and no city seems to be doing very much about it.  Nothing seems to stand in the way of more and more gentrification, and an exploding housing market that makes it harder and harder for young people to own their first home.

Liberal Boomers naturally assumed that their legacy--their parents' and grandparents' achievements--would continue indefinitely, and liberal activists focused on new issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  Conservative Boomers meanwhile pursued long-term strategies to destroy the post-Second World War world--and they succeeded.  The whole story raises a very deep question about human history and progress.  The Second World War was a terrible conflict, killing tens of millions of people around the world and more than 400,000 Americans--the equivalent of close to a million young Americans today.  Yet it did create a better world--not so much because Fascism was defeated, but because that sacrifice forged a real bond between the government and the people.  We are in such a mess today largely because we have not discovered another way in which to forge such a bond.

6 comments:

Ed Boyle said...

The far left could take over the democratic party. Ocasio Cortes, Sanders are signs of this. If reagan democrats flock to Trump due to fairness issues of rents, exported facrptory jobs, illegal immigrant labour pushing down wages then the consensus is upset that the 2 parties had for post war prosperity. Trump took waknesses of current bipartisan system and exploited it. If there is only one party rule towards middle and lower classes then Trump just needs to exploit this attention gap by corrupt politicians and press. Wal mart, Apple, nike all profit from cheap non USA manufacture. Managerial, stock owners benefit from this but not 90%of population in terms of wages, rents. Cheap stuff hardly offsets low wages. Essentially Trump is riding a dumptruck through the huge politicl hole of interests ignored by the bipartisan consensus paid for by big business lobbies. Attack imports from abroad and immigration. A peace dividend would be good but the lobby is so strong for perpetual warfare. The dem repubs can accept trade bashing of freign nations but the dems are pro minority immigrants due to their coastal/metropolitan base. So immigration freeze for a generation and massive tariffs could be a compromise. It is well known that the low unemployment rate misses 100 million not counted. Waitering jobs grow most. The security state can be convinced by Trump that china finances military technology advances through their massiv trade surplus. So this surplus is a security risk. Japan, Germany, Mexico, Canada are allies so free trade could continue from this view point. However from POV of ex factory workers job exports to mexico, etc. are same as to China. So Trump is reweighing fundamental American interests. Billionaires park money offshore, have multiple passports, domiciles. Little of earned money paves street, builds schools. The oloigach clas globally is parasitic on the body public. Marx perhaps foresaw this as 'the end of history'. Global miltary race is just as insane as pre WWI or during cold war. We could have folded china/Russia peacefully into new world order with proper diplomacy but we mesed it up through neo con paranoia. Excessive military sending will bankrupt America. Our permanent dominance, like British Empire's, must be abandoned for a multilateral system. SDR currency basket will replace USD based on gold, petroleum, other precious metals perhaps in a complicated calculation changing daily. Spheres of interest for great powers in south china sea, middle East, Eastern Europe, Indian Ocean will be renogotiated after American withdrawal similar to Soviet withdrawal. Trailer trash in kansas could care less about foreign domination and billionaires can switch allegiance to 2nd passport country so without middle clas which is decimated, empire(bases abroad) makes no sense.

Doris Gazda said...

Bonds of all types are few. I think that one of the reasons this is so is that change has become so rapid. Just as you think you have caught on to an idea or way of handling your life affairs, it all changes. Continuity has lost meaning. Perhaps it takes catastrophe to bring people together. And then it takes mature minds not trying to promote change to give people a chance to focus on promoting a good life for all.

Gloucon X said...

You emphasize the importance of FDR and WW2 as essential to the formation of a bond between the government and the people, and to a commitment to the idea of “the right to a decent home and a living wage for every American." But both the FDR presidency and WW2 were one time events whose influence was bound to fade, and their impact appears to have been shallower than you seem to assume. What happened was Americans reverted to the values that dominated before FDR. These were the values of rugged individualism, Social Darwinism, and unregulated capitalism--anti-social and anti-government values with no commitment to maintaining a middle class. America is on track to resemble Mexico both demographically and economically, and there isn’t going to be any heroic generation that will magically come along and reestablish the quaint values of the New Deal. We're just a banana republic with nukes now.

Anthony Mugan said...


I agree

One aspect of all this that is quite striking is how, as societies in general, we have largely forgotten the lessons of the history of the first half of the 20th Century and, as has been mentioned above, we seem to reverting to a way of looking at the world more akin to the period from the late nineteenth century to the 1920s etc than to the post WWII period...and that all went really well last time of course...

Presumably the generation that grew up through the Depression and WWII also didn't know much about the history of the nineteenth century (as a society as a whole) but not understanding the implications of the Congress of Vienna or of Bismarck's foreign policy was perhaps less significant to making sound judgements than the history of the previous 50 years (back then) than is the case today, if we roll these time periods forward 80 years to the present.

There is an oft misquoted saying from the 19th Century British politician, Robert Lowe, who opposed the Great Reform Act of 1867. It is usually given as 'now we must educate our masters' although, if I understand it correctly he actually said that it was necessary ' to induce our future masters to learn their letters', which to my ear doesn't have quite the same meaning. As societies we have taught our masters (ourselves) our letters but too few of us have been genuinely educated to have a capacity for critical thinking and to have developed an intellectual curiosity necessary to try to become informed citizens on topics of significance to the day. Without informed citizens, democracy is vulnerable to rabble rousers seeking to exploit base instincts and emotions, whatever the wider risks.

That said we can hardly blame Trump et al for the current situation in it's totality. The neo-liberal philosophy that took hold from the 1980's onwards proved very effective at generating economic growth (as a long term trend) but absolutely terrible at distributing the proceeds of that growth remotely fairly or dealing with any issue not easily reduced to a market. Many people may not be thinking through the implications of that very clearly and may be voting for politicians who are basically playing them along, but we can hardly be surprised that this situation generated a backlash. My concern is that, both in the USA and here in the UK and in Europe the main political parties are, for the most part, not fit for purpose in tackling the issues of the day. Sooner or later another major crises, economic or otherwise, will occur and our societies are so brittle at the moment that one more major shock may lead to some extreme political outcomes. The challenge is to re-invigorate the legacy of FDR, updated for our time and circumstances, but I fear the political tools to do that, in the form of political parties that are not in hock to vested interests, are few and far between.

Now I've managed to depress myself...there seems to be many people thinking along broadly similar lines and hopefully opportunities for moving things forward will emerge.

Thanks for the interesting article

Wade Snyder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bozon said...

Professor
Interesting thought provoking post.
You paint a picture of a last century in which certain good things were built up, state and people bonding, etc, and then those things were torn down later. Good boomer bad boomer.
it makes a good, simple story.

You agonize in this paragraph:

Liberal Boomers naturally assumed that their legacy--their parents' and grandparents' achievements--would continue indefinitely, and liberal activists focused on new issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Conservative Boomers meanwhile pursued long-term strategies to destroy the post-Second World War world--and they succeeded. The whole story raises a very deep question about human history and progress. The Second World War was a terrible conflict, killing tens of millions of people around the world and more than 400,000 Americans--the equivalent of close to a million young Americans today. Yet it did create a better world--not so much because Fascism was defeated, but because that sacrifice forged a real bond between the government and the people. We are in such a mess today largely because we have not discovered another way in which to forge such a bond.

I think of the 20th century not as one of relentless progress, that great shibboleth of Enlightenment so called thought, still dragging forward into the 20th Century, but rather as one of late Western Civ convulsion.

That we here had a period of conjunction, you call it a bond, between state and people, was mainly an accident, it seems to me. Politically, it certainly had not at all been meant to be, under our system.

All the best