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.