Friday, January 18, 2019

What Hath 80 Years Wrought

No one, it seems to me, who found their way here now, would disagree that the United States is struggling with a very serious political crisis.  Regular readers know that I, influenced by William Strauss and Neil Howe, see this crisis as one in a series of crises, recurring every 80 years or so, that began with the era of the American Revolution and the Constitution (1774-1794 or so), continued with the Civil War (1860-68 approximately), and climaxed with the Depression and Second World War (1929-45.)  Each crisis marked the death of an old order and the birth of a new one, and each established new institutions and new beliefs that shaped political and economic life for at least 50 years to come.  All of us over 60--that is, all Boomers, Silents, and surviving GIs--lived most of our lives in the world created by the great crisis of the 1930s and 1940s.  I have found it useful, from time to time, to compare the nature of our current crisis with the last one by comparing today's New York Times front page--January 18, 2019--with its counterpart from 80 years ago, on January 18, 1939.  These were in at least one respect similar moments in history.  Franklin Roosevelt was in the middle of his second term, just as Donald Trump is in the middle of his first, and both faced new and far more hostile Congresses.  Roosevelt's Democratic Party still had majorities in early 1939, but it had lost heavily in the midterms, and conservative Democrats were starting to align with Republicans to block any further progress for the New Deal.  Trump's Republicans have lost the House of representatives. Those wishing to look at the 1939 front page themselves can do so here.  Today's is here.

The first thing that will strike any observer is how much more there was on the earlier page.  It has 14 different stories (two of them brief sidebars); today's has only six.   The shrinkage of the layout from eight columns to six obviously explains only part of that.  Five of the 13 1939 stories, four on the left side of the page, are foreign news. Three of them come from Mexico. The first tells of the dispatch of a Mexican general on a diplomatic mission to Berlin, where, it is thought, he may conclude new agreements bartering Mexican oil for German machinery.  The second recounts the expulsion of an American journalist from Mexico, and the third brief one talks about the resignation of three generals who are contenders for the Mexican presidency.  The fourth is a military update from the Spanish Civil War, which was then entering its final stages.  A brief but chilling sidebar reports that a British official has warned housewives to begin storing emergency food.  Three other stories involve local and state politics. In the first, District Attorney (and future presidential candidate) Thomas Dewey is feuding with the chairman of the Board of Transportation over the extent of thefts of subway fares from turnstiles.  The second speculates about a rift between Police Commissioner Valentine and Mayor LaGuardia, and the third reports progress for a housing program in Albany.  The remaining six stories deal with national news.

The lead, in column 8, reports that President Roosevelt and both factions of organized labor--the A.F. of L. and the CIO--are attempting to restore a $150,000,000 cut from the appropriation of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, one of two public works agencies that had been providing jobs for unemployed Americans during the Depression, which had worsened again in the last two years. In a second story, FDR has asked for an end to tax exemptions for income on federal, state and local municipal bonds, which had emerged as a popular tax dodge for wealthy people trying to avoid very high marginal tax rates.  A third story prints a letter the President had written to a key Congressman, asking for the construction of a Florida ship canal, and another project to harness power from the extraordinary tides of Passamaquoddy Bay on the Maine-Canada border, where, as it happens, FDR had his summer home.  Neither of those projects, clearly, ever came to much.  A fourth story quotes an Assistant Secretary of War to the effect that the US can produce 7000 war planes a year, enough to protect the nation in an increasingly dangerous world.  The bottom of the page reports a half-million dollar fraud case against certain contractors for the WPA, and another story,based on documents revealed in Vienna, seems to confirm that German agents during the First World War blew up a number of munitions factories inside the United States.  All these stories are about things that the government is doing, or might be doing, to employ Americans, raise more money for the government, improve our infrastructure, or make necessary improvements in our national defense. 

Today's front page tells a very different story.

The lead story, of course, deals with Donald Trump's childish cancellation of Nancy Pelosi's foreign trip.  That leads in turn to the "Washington memo" just below it, entitled, "A Sandbox Where the Adults Need to Be Given a Timeout," dealing with a very different Washington atmosphere.  A third story tells about economic help being given by private citizens to furloughed employees.  A fourth story reveals that the children separated from their parents at the border were undercounted, a fifth is about the acquittal of cops accused of covering up a police murder in Chicago, and the last is about the teachers' strike in Los Angeles and what it reveals about the economic divide in the city.  The contrast provides considerable food for thought.

In one way or another, four of the stories on the front page, including the three growing out of the shutdown, relate to immigration, which was absent not only from the January 18, 1939 front page, but from political controversy in the 1930s generally.  The reason was that nativist feeling had been growing against immigration from southern and Eastern Europe since the late 19th century, culminating in 1924 in a very restrictive immigration act that had essentially taken the issue off ot he table before the great crisis began.  Freezing our national community in place at that time, I am convinced, made it much easier for Roosevelt to cope with the national emergency he inherited in 1933 and to pull the country together for the Second World War.  Donald Trump swept both the major parties before him in 2016 largely because they had failed to heed popular resentment over immigration, and it is quite possible that our nation needs another freeze to regain its political sanity now--while meanwhile fully assimilating the immigrants who are already settled here.

The lack of foreign news on today's front page is also interesting.  Now as then, major European nations are in crisis, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but the Times and other newspapers maintain far fewer permanent foreign correspondents overseas.  Their readers know much less about what is happening and what it means to the US than they did then.

The specific problems we face today are less serious, I still think, than they were then.  Neither in Europe nor in Asia do we find militant powers fighting, or planning to fight, vast wars of expansion. Unemployment, well over 10% in 1939, is at historic lows now.  But as the front pages illustrate, our political system--very robust and effective in 1939, at federal, state and local levels, in most of the country at least--is in tatters, and the citizenry is far less informed.  The question remaining to be answered in the current crisis is, how long can our society continue without a functioning political system?




4 comments:

Ed Boyle said...

The lack of interest in foreign affair is incredible given US involvement abroad.

That the political system is in tatters and the citizenry is uninformed goes hand in hand. Informed citizens make for good citizens. Laziness perhaps or alternate media to read, watch compared to the 30s. Infotainment is easier to digest. TV much easier. Circense et panem was the concept in old Rome. Keep them dumb and distracted. An empire abroad has a citizenry with little knowledge of its doings so the Deep State, MIC can continue its work unhindered by opposition. Visual media has rendered people unthinking, emotionally reflexive, easily manipulable. Technology is destructive of demoracy as it is a crutch for the mind, necessary in an increasingly complicated world. Generally speaking technology has for humanity a prosthetic function which allows certain muscles to wither. These may be physical or mental. This speaks against the general understanding of progress in terms of technology. Technology could be considered ras regressive in human development. Civilizational development is cyclical. When it is at its peak we are weakest as humans due to a weakening of the individual, due to the high pont of technological providing a prosthetc function at maximum. At its low point the opposite effect is true. Human independence from nature ironically is dependence on prosthetics which weaken us to the point of failure, i.e. forcing civilizational collapse due to lack of physical capability and lowered mental awareness. This is quite apparent in current society, which, although wealthy beyond compare in technology, has the weakest of individuals on average in all areas.

Regarding immigration. I reflected recently that Chinese and Russian societies being more cohesive than the West in general would survive more handily while we struggle internally. EU collapse and Trump hysteria in face of collapsing foreign adventurism point to this clearly.

Bozon said...

Professor
Great post.

I found it informative and thought provoking throughout.

Here are just a few remarks, only on the last paragraph, with most of which I find I tend to disagree somewhat. More detailed reasons would clutter the comment too much I think, but my site can be searched by terms for those with any interest:

"...The specific problems we face today are less serious, I still think, than they were then. Neither in Europe nor in Asia do we find militant powers fighting, or planning to fight, vast wars of expansion. Unemployment, well over 10% in 1939, is at historic lows now. But as the front pages illustrate, our political system--very robust and effective in 1939, at federal, state and local levels, in most of the country at least--is in tatters, and the citizenry is far less informed. The question remaining to be answered in the current crisis is, how long can our society continue without a functioning political system?..." DK

The problems we face are not less serious, either domestically or internationally, than then, in my view, although diffferent.

In both Europe and Asia we find great powers, Russia and China, either in control or moving to take it, in the first instance, by economic means, some of which can be very powerful, but force also is just a moment away.

Unemployment here now is very misleading, because so many are not working, on assistance, on part time, or piece work, or temp, etc.

Our political system in 1939 had completely failed to overcome the depression situation during the prior 10 years, although federal programs instituted had lasting effects later. Generally speaking, the country is in a similar situation to 1939, but for very different kinds of reasons.

I agree, the citizenry is far less informed.

My question, about what you call the current crisis, is not strictly a political one as such, although it implicates political structure and decisions, but rather an economic, industrial, and commercial one: how long can our society function without a functioning national industrial and economic system?

All the best





CrocodileChuck said...

"The specific problems we face today are less serious, I still think, than they were then"

In 2008 US Federal Gov't Debt was $10 Trillion

Today? $22 Trillion

That's serious.

https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/1086022858990485504

Feryl said...

Generally speaking technology has for humanity a prosthetic function which allows certain muscles to wither. These may be physical or mental. This speaks against the general understanding of progress in terms of technology. Technology could be considered ras regressive in human development."

This a fascinating point; realize that testosterone levels have been declining in America since the early 1980's, more or less commensurate with the decision by elites to began off-shoring heavier industry, while also raising immigration levels into America, which causes the average person to do less physical labor (immigrants end up doing a lot of the house keeping, grounds keeping, construction work, agriculture work etc., whereas in the 1950's and 60's Americans were more skilled and industrious at doing this work themselves).

Time spent on manual labor, active leisure, performing physical feats to impress friends and lovers, etc. appears to have decreased for the average American since the early 1980's. What's risen dramatically, instead? Time spent watching TV, playing video games, reading/staring at screens for other purposes, staying indoors in general (often for the ostensible purpose of avoiding a crime-ridden outside world).

Jonathan Haidt says that research indicates that people born after 1994 appear to be incredibly soft and sensitive, emotionally speaking, because when they grew up adults often did not allow young children to play and interact without supervision. Normally, kids are supposed to figure out how to handle difficult and complex situations on their own, to some degree. But adults, having been frightened by the media and pop culture that the world is too dangerous for their kids to interact with safely, have attempted over and over again to monitor and regulate the childhood of Millennials and Gen Z. But Haidt says that people born after 1994 are particularly weak because they became teenagers when everyone had smart phones and social media accounts. Girls in particular are struggling with the neverending stream of information available on their phones, which makes them anxious that they aren't as pretty or popular as other people. All the screen time and omnipresent supervision by adults has made it difficult for this youngest generation to develop normal social and coping skills. Haidt likens the emotional sensitivity of the youngest generation to an allergy; what happens to people who aren't exposed to certain substances when they're young? Their bodies freak out due to allergy when they finally are exposed to something years later.

Anyway, several years ago the army began publicly acknowledging that Millennials are far more out of shape and weak than previous generations of youths, which is causing many people to fail basic military tests of physical conditioning. The armed services essentially admitted that America is in a public health crisis WRT obesity and sedentary lifestyles among the young. Of course, these modern trends have also affected older generations, but the difference is that young Boomers were trim and strong, while young Gen X-ers were doing pretty well in the 80's.