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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


In a previous post, I suggested that the anti-tax move in the Sunbelt reflects, in part, white unwillingness to provide services for black fellow citizens. Two old friends of mine, both Deep South natives, immediately told me that should have been obvious.
The Washington Post has just run a story--http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16443-2004Nov27.html?referrer=emailarticle--on the narrow defeat of an Alabama ballot initiative that would have removed two provisions in the state constitution that dated fromt the 1950s. The first provision guaranteed that the public school system would be segregated, and the second one rejected any right to public education, laying the foundation for closing the whole school system if the Federal Government insisted upon integrating it. The vote was very close, but the initiative did fail, and those provisions remain in the constitution. Opponents cited the danger that removing it might allow courts to force the state to spend more money on poor districts.


In a previous post, I suggested that the anti-tax move in the Sunbelt reflects, in part, white unwillingness to provide services for black fellow citizens. Two old friends of mine, both Deep South natives, immediately told me that should have been obvious.
The Washington Post has just run a story--http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A16443-2004Nov27.html?referrer=emailarticle--on the narrow defeat of an Alabama ballot initiative that would have removed two provisions in the state constitution that dated fromt the 1950s. The first provision guaranteed that the public school system would be segregated, and the second one rejected any right to public education, laying the foundation for closing the whole school system if the Federal Government insisted upon integrating it. The vote was very close, but the initiative did fail, and those provisions remain in the constitution. Opponents cited the danger that removing it might allow courts to force the state to spend more money on poor districts.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Things fall apart

Falling Apart

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

This week the New York Times ran a Thanksgiving Day op-ed on the consequences of the European settlement of North America on both human and animal populations. The article gently suggested that the Europeans had done at least as much harm as good, because the Indian tribes had taken better care of the landscape, both by using fire to thin out forests and by remaining in balance with animal populations like passenger pigeons. While I cannot evaluate that specific claim, the article struck me as a relatively low-key illustration of a current academic trend: the tendency to blame the world’s ills on the spread of western civilization. That position struck me, as it always does, as a vast oversimplification—but it also made me think once again about whether any civilization has really discovered a lasting defense against the war and hatred that periodically devastate humankind.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on Nazi expansionism, and discussed Hitler’s belief that history was, at bottom, nothing but a struggle for space among different peoples. Fifteen years ago, in Politics and War, I described all the major European nationality conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, and had to conclude that Hitler had identified (and of course accelerated) a powerful and destructive current in European history. The passion for self-rule had broken up the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman and German Empires during the First World War, and led to both the deaths of more than ten million Jews, Poles, and Soviets at the hands of the Nazis and the forced transfer—or, as we would now say, the ethnic cleansing—of more than ten million Germans at the end of that war. In Asia the Japanese took millions of lives in their futile attempt to subjugate China, and after the end of the war the independence of India and Pakistan led to perhaps the largest recent exercise of ethnic cleansing of all. The establishment of the state of Israel had a similar impact on the Palestinian population, albeit on a far smaller scale. The formation of the United Nations and the attempt to codify international law and the rights of citizens—a project that had failed spectacularly during the interwar period—was of course a reaction to all these catastrophes.
Such conflicts, while relatively rare in Europe at least since the first half of the seventeenth century, had of course intermittently occurred for as long as history has been recorded. More importantly, there seems in fact to be little evidence that things were very different in other continents. The pre-Colombian population of North and South America was not made up of pacifists. Tribes seem to have been in a more or less constant state of war, and archeology has turned up whole civilizations, such as the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley, who somehow disappeared in the millennia before European contact. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were prevalent in Mexico. Africa and Asia, also, were the scene of frequent imperial conflicts and population movements. What has distinguished European civilization—which in the second half of the twentieth century became world civilization—was the attempt to regulate international conflict and establish agreed, universal principles of human rights. Any successes that such efforts have had, however, have been periodically interrupted by more or less catastrophic failures.
It was not until the mid-1990s, when I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that I first began to understand how temporary the achievements of my own lifetime might be. The relatively long periods of peace that the Atlantic world has enjoyed in the last two centuries—1815-1854, 1871-1914, and 1945 until the present—were each made possible by wars—in two cases, by prolonged and extremely costly wars, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts in the 1792-1815 period and the two world wars in the twentieth century. They not only redrew the map, but either secured or enforced the allegiance of the peoples involved to the victorious authorities. In every case, however, their effects lasted only as long as the lives of the people who actually remembered those conflicts, even as children. The order they had lived under died with them, destroyed by generations who did not remember the previous conflicts and, paradoxically, felt no stake in the world in which they had grown up. And the life of any new social and political order, as Strauss and Howe argued with respect to the United States, tended to be about eighty years. It was 83 years ago that William Butler Yeats published the poem I quoted at the beginning of this essay.
The process they described as been playing itself out in Eastern Europe for about fifteen years. Three major states created by the First World War—Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union—have ceased to exist. Tens of thousands have died or been uprooted in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and other parts of the former Soviet Union as a result. Another even more serious conflict now threatens in Ukraine, because Ukraine is really two nations, not one—a majority Ukrainian nation in its central and western regions, with a very large Russian enclave in the East. The new Russian government does not seem at all reconciled to the eclipse of its power and the Russian populations of other states are a temptation to further expansionism.
The same dynamic is at work in the Middle East. Although the region’s history is too varied and complex to make too many facile generalizations, some things are clear. The conflict that created Israel, which lasted from about 1919 until 1948, has been in a new and more intense phase for two decades, and fewer and fewer Palestinians or Israelis show any commitment to maintaining the settlement that was arrived at in 1948 and lasted until 1967. Sunni-dominated Iraq, a creation of the First World War, has been consigned to oblivion with a big push from the United States, although it was already cracking even before the invasion in 2003. This may create a civil war in Iraq, one in which Turkey is threatening to intervene to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. In Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where independence in the 1940s and 1950s led to relatively secular military rule, the postwar elites seem to have lost the allegiance of a much more religious younger generation—a process that has already played itself out in Iran, which seems to have been on a somewhat earlier cycle. Further east, the India-Pakistani conflict has been exacerbated by increased religious nationalism and the acquisition of nuclear weapons on both sides. In Africa, collapsing post-independence states range from the Congo to the Ivory Coast—the latter, until quite recently, a major success story.
Here in the United States, the Bush administration, as I have already noted, has been abandoning the domestic and international principles that have governed policy since 1945—and in so doing it has accelerated the progress of international anarchy in the Middle East, confident that we can put something much better in its place Europe, where the last crisis had far more devastating effects and lasted about ten years longer, remains committed to international institutions and the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the low European birth rate has led to the immigration of large Muslim minorities whose allegiance is inevitably suspect, and we cannot yet say what political consequences this will have during the next thirty years. Europe seems likely to continue to diverge from the United States, however, as a new generation of European leaders takes over—one whose memories of the United States begin, not with the aftermath the Second World War and the formation of NATO, but with the war in Vietnam.
The last time the world fell apart, from 1931 through 1945, the United States entered the fray relatively late and had a decisive impact both in Europe and in Asia. We created a new order, however, only by expanding, wittingly or unwittingly, the reach of Communism as well. (Within twenty years we may even be nostalgic for Communism; it was a far more western ideology, and in many ways an easier one to deal with, than the movements that oppose western values today.) Now, as other, but as yet less important parts of the world disintegrate, we must keep in mind, I would argue, that our population is relatively much smaller than it was then, and that the spread of anarchy, so far, has not reached the areas we have traditionally and rightly identified as vital interests, such as Europe and Japan. As in 1930-45, we will have to accept limitations on our power to shape outcomes to our own liking. In one hundred years Islamic fundamentalism may appear rather like Communism does today—a powerful ideological current that began as a revolutionary movement, secured control of several states, and eventually changed as a result of its internal contradictions. It was not necessary, and probably not possible, to stamp out Communism in 1918, and it is probably neither necessary nor possible to eliminate our new enemy, either.
“Globalization” will not put an end to history either, any more than the collapse of Communism did. Globalization is a complex, recurring process—one that characterized the 1850s and the 1900s, as well as the 1990s—which creates winners and losers and sharpens clashes between states and civilizations. The autarkic economic policies of Japan and Germany in the 1930s were responses to its failures. Globalization emphasizes interests, and civic consensus can only be built around values—whether they are Lincoln’s, Roosevelt’s, or Osama Bin Laden’s. The world as we have known it is disintegrating. Our task is to preserve our own values, to try to keep western civilization intact and at peace within its own borders, and to limit the scope and destructiveness of changes which, in large measure, we will not be able to prevent.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Two Americas

Note: This post has been updated November 21 with some additional data

As everyone now knows, the election on November 2 revealed a stark political contrast between two Americas. New England and the mid-Atlantic states voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry, and the Great Lakes region and the Far West did so by somewhat smaller, but still significant, margins. (The most anomalous result occurred, as we shall see, in Iowa, where President Bush eked out a narrow win.) Meanwhile, the old Confederacy, the Ohio Valley and the plains and mountain states voted overwhelmingly Republican, largely, it would seem, out of concern for cultural issues such as gay marriage, divorce, and the role of religion in education and American life generally. The major media usually rely upon anecdotal evidence and pithy quotes to get the difference between Red and Blue America across, but the magic of the web and the logic of readily available statistics actually reveals that the differences between Bush and Kerry states are both very definitely measurable and ironically significant. These figures do not, however, inspire a great deal of confidence about the direction in which the nation seems to be heading, or about the likely significance of Red-state domination of the national government.

Beginning with the most controversial social issues, we find that divorce, teen pregnancy, and alcohol are actually far more serious problems in Red America than in Blue. American divorce rates in 2002 range from about 2.5 per thousand population in Delaware, Massachusetts, and Georgia (where the rate has been cut almost in half in the last 14 years), to over 6 per 1000 in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. 9 of the 13 states with the lowest divorce rates voted for Kerry, and 2 of the other 4 were Iowa and New Mexico, which Bush carried by the narrowest of margins. At the other extreme, the states with the 13 highest divorce rates all voted for the President--and no figures are available for two other Bush states, Indiana and Louisiana. The percentage of enduring marriages, in short, seems to be much higher on the eastern, northern and western periphery of the country than in the center.

Teen pregnancy, an even hotter-button issue, shows the same pattern. Teen pregnancy is more than twice as common in some states than in others, and the nine leaders are the District of Colombia, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia--all but one in the Red zone. 14 of the 17 leading states in this category voted for Bush, and 17 out of the top 25. At the other end of the spectrum, 8 of the 9 states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates went for Kerry (North Dakota being the exception). Looking at the table, one cannot escape the conclusion that the states in which sex education (as opposed to abstinence education) is under attack are those with the highest teen pregnancy rates. The Blue-Red divide in this table is less striking than in some others because high teen pregnancies still correlate with large urban populations, but it is quite observable nonetheless.

Alcohol consumption in the United States has presented a surprising regional pattern over the last four decades. Remarkably, consumption in the northeast and on the west coast has dropped--particularly with respect to hard liquor, as white whine has replaced martinis as the drink of choice--while it has remained high in the upper Midwest and skyrocketed in the South. These trends are reflected in two other statistics, traffic accident fatalities and alcohol-related fatalities. The top 20 states in traffic fatalities per population, and 24 of the top 25, are Red states; 15 of the bottom 16 are Blue states. Nor are these differences trivial, either--there are three or four times as many traffic deaths per capita in Wyoming, Mississippi and Montana as there are in Massachusetts, New York, or the state of Washington. The rankings for alcohol-related traffic deaths track those for total fatalities quite closely, although alcohol is actually to blame for a higher percentage of traffic deaths in the Blue states than in the red. Blue drivers are safer drivers drunk or sober, but their lead is larger when sober. (These statistics are not the result of the lower population density and longer driving distances in Red States. Even controlling for million miles driven, Bush took the top 22 states in traffic fatalities.)

Violent crime shows a less clear, but still discernible pattern because it is apparently quite heavily correlated with large urban populations. Even so, President Bush carried 22 of the top 31 states in violent crime, while John Kerry took 9 of the 17 least violent states.

To judge from these figures, a concern for declining moral values in the United States seems to be a reaction to high teen pregnancy, violent crime, alcohol consumption, and divorce, rather than an effective cure. A real skeptic like the author might suggest that Calvinist theology increases these problems by inculcating so much shame among believers--but this is only an hypothesis. What is undeniable from another set of statistics, however, is the extreme correlation between greater wealth and better public services on the one hand, and lower rates of social pathology on the other.

President George W. Bush carried 26 of the bottom 28 states in per capita income--all of them but Maine and Oregon. (Florida ranked at the top of that group.) John Kerry took home 18 of the top 23, the exceptions being Colorado, Virginia (which appears to have an extraordinarily split demographic profile), Alaska, Wyoming, and Nevada. The President took 21 of the 24 states with the highest percentage of their population living in mobile homes, while Kerry took the bottom 13 states in that category. And because public expenditures tend to correlate with overall wealth, the President also carried 22 of the 23 states that had the lowest median salaries for primary and secondary school teachers, while Kerry took 12 of the 14 highest states in that category. (California is one of the exceptions. While still one of the richer states, its public education system is now the victim of a low-tax driven, 25-year decline.) These figures are even more interesting in light of exit poll data showing that the truly rich did vote for Bush in significantly higher numbers. Richer people voted for Bush, but richer states voted for Kerry. It’s the better-off middle class, apparently, that still believes government has a responsibility for the well-being of the average citizen. But as a proportion of the national population, that group is probably shrinking.

More important is the lesson of combining these two sets of figures: the cure for social pathology, it seems, isn't religion, but income. More income means more stable families, fewer teen pregnancies, less drunk driving, and, of course, fewer people in prison. The economic policies of the last 25 years, including lower top tax rates, higher payroll taxes, a drastic decline in unionization, the collapse of family farms, and more free trade agreements, have made a few people much richer while the bulk of the population has held steady or lost ground. And that probably has more to do with escalating social problems than R-rated movies.

A recent book, Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas, makes some related points and argues that Red state voters aren't getting much for their votes. As I have not yet had a chance to read it, I do not know whether Frank noticed another ironic consequence of the Red-Blue split--that Blue state money is doing a great deal to keep Red state economies even at the level they are at. A table provided by a Washington non-profit, the Northeast-Midwest institute, lists states by their per capita tax burden and by federal spending, per capita, within their boundaries. (Figures are from 2002). New England's three smallest states--Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island--receive more from the Federal Government than they pay in, but the three largest and richest ones, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, show the opposite pattern, and as a whole the region receives only $.89 of every dollar that it pays in to the federal treasury. The Middle Atlantic, where New Jersey gets only $.66 of every dollar back and New York just $.87, shows a similar picture although Pennsylvania shows a small profit and Maryland, not surprisingly, a huge one. In the Far West California receives just $.79 of every dollar back, and neither Oregon nor Washington makes a profit either. And of Kerry's midwestern states--Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin--not one gets more than $.90 back on every dollar.

Astonishingly, the South, the most anti-federal government region in theory, does best in practice. With two interesting exceptions--Texas, which got only $.96 of every tax dollar back, and Florida, which broke even--the old Confederacy received from $.27 (Tennessee) to $.88 (Mississippi) extra cents back for every dollar paid in. (I would welcome any explanation of exactly what kind of payments these are.) Robert Byrd's care for his home state is no legend--West Virginia is near the leaders, getting $1.88 back for every dollar. All the Red states west of the Mississippi also showed a profit, with the single exception of Nevada. Farm subsidies, apparently, are keeping many of those states alive. Were it not for the federal government--the entity Grover Norquist wants to shrink until he can drown it in a bathtup--the per capita income disparities between the Red and Blue regions would be much larger. Relatively, if not absolutely, the Republicans are taking care of their own. Perhaps Blue staters should stop feeling guilty about federal income tax cuts--if the poorer states want to get poorer to our benefit, why should we worry?

Stepping backwards for a moment to evaluate these statistics and their political consequences historically yields an interesting conclusion. Eighty years ago (there's that figure again!), the Bible Belt was also culturally on the offensive, giving the nation both Prohibition (an even more disastrous attempt to wipe out sin) and a revived Ku Klux Klan. Those movements, however, belonged more to the Democratic than the Republican Party. Now the Red states have joined in an alliance with big business--an alliance which, as more and more observers are beginning to note, has done less than nothing for the heartland, either economically or culturally. Meanwhile, the Republicans have kept alive the transfers from the richer to the poorer states that were one of the hallmarks of the new deal. The question for the country is how long this alliance can endure--and whether Blue America will become more like Red America, or vice verca.