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January 18, 2009

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Interesting reading hilzoy! Two thoughts:

1) One difference with 1933 is that I don't think the country is currently in the mood to question "the materialism which made dollar-chasing the accepted way of life and accumulation of riches the goal of earthly existence." I think the dominant desire now is to fix the system so that we can return to the (fantasy of) dollar chasing and accumulating riches. Perhaps that desire will change. I certainly hope that it will. Though I fear only a longer and deeper crisis of some sort is likely to make Americans again question materialism itself.

2) Here's the Kilgore comment that you recapitulate in your final parenthetical:

I think it's reasonably safe to say that the New Deal made it a lot easier to distinguish Democrats from Republicans (unless you were an African-American living in the Solid South, of course), and I think the same will be true of the two parties during the Obama administration, the talk of "bipartisanship" notwithstanding.

Kilgore's observation about the New Deal was only true in the fairly long run. For the next several decades, both parties continued to have liberal and conservative wings. And the Democratic Party's conservative wing, though concentrated in the South, was not entirely Southern. Anti-New Deal Democrats included the man FDR had succeeded both in Albany and as the Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith. And Republican ranks included some strong New Deal supporters, like NY mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

Large majorities of (what remained of) the Republican Party joined even larger majorities of Democrats in voting for the Social Security Act in both the House and the Senate in 1935. In the House, the GOP vote was 81 to 15 (with 4 not voting and 2 voting present); in the Senate it was 16 to 5 (with 4 not voting. (For the record House Democrats voted 284 to 15 in favor, with 20 not voting; in the Senate the tally was 60-1-8).

And the New Deal stalled in the late 1930s when the 76th Congress (elected in 1938), despite maintaining large Democratic majorities in both the House (252-177, with 6 from smaller parties) and the Senate (69-34, with 4 from smaller parties), began to reject many of Roosevelt's initiatives.

Certainly conservative Republicans began to define themselves against the New Deal from very early in Roosevelt's presidency. But the conservative wing of that party wouldn't completely dominate it until several decades later.

There's an important difference: the comparison is very unfair to Hoover. Hervert Hoover was the wrong President for his time, but he was an accomplished and distinguished man who did a great deal of good earlier in his career. (Read what Keynes has to say about him in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, for example.) That's far more than Bush can say.

Matt: this is true. I gather he did a lot of very good things before finding himself in absolutely the wrong job.

On the other hand, what the Nation piece does say (much of which doesn't have much to do with Hoover) seems pretty eerily apropos.

And the Democratic Party's conservative wing, though concentrated in the South, was not entirely Southern. Anti-New Deal Democrats included the man FDR had succeeded both in Albany and as the Democratic presidential nominee, Al Smith.

I think it's quite misleading to lump Al Smith in with conservative southern dems, Ben, and it undermines your conclusions. FDR succeeded Smith in Albany because Smith chose FDR to do it. And Smith's opposition to the New Deal was temporary and relatively short-lived - Smith was old, bitter, in financial trouble, and without political power or influence when he went on his anti-New Deal jag. Indeed, Smith pioneered in NY many of the reforms FDR later nationalized. Smith was a great man (maybe the greatest) of the Progressive era who was cruelly eclipsed by his pointedly ungrateful, rich dillitante, lightweight caretaker protoge. At the very least, whatever Smith's substantive objections to the New Deal, plain old resentment played a very large part in Smith's Jag. And, it didn't last anyway. Name some other powerful non-Southern anti-New Deal dems.

One difference with 1933 is that I don't think the country is currently in the mood to question "the materialism which made dollar-chasing the accepted way of life and accumulation of riches the goal of earthly existence."

I wonder about this. You and I both hope you're wrong, of course, but it's arguable that you are. Millions of Americans in the 30s seriously questioned capitalism itself, and I don't see any real chance of that happening now. But the rise of consumerism is different and recent - recent and pretty freaky: fetish-freaky.

Maybe consumerism itself is, in part, a kind of bubble. It's based to a large extent on people buying things they don't need, or paying-up for things they do need (eg designer labels). A year or two on a tight budget re-shuffles needs and wants in an astonishingly efficient way. OK, you simply must have the Wii or the new computer (and well you should), but you find that you don't really miss eating out 4 times a week, or the Netflix account you rarely use, or the ChemLawn service, or the new car every 2-3 years, or etc. etc.

I am not a neo-Hooverite, but I think being on a budget might have a positive spiritual effect on some people. Another basic feature of consumerism is that it's an itch which can never be entirely soothed - the spending of money itself becomes a hobby. Break the cycle, and perhaps some people will look back and wonder what the hell they were thinking... Not good news for lots of companies which have relied on 'bubble-spending', but probably better for everyone in the long term. I hope there will always be cool, non-essential stuff people want to buy, but 'wanting' and 'feeling compelled' aren't exactly the same thing.

I'd also say that there's a difference between a regular working person striving to survive and build up a little wealth over the years, and people for whom the 'accumulation of riches [is] the goal of earthly existence'. In practice, the latter are a very few, and mostly people in Finance and already-rich people. The attitude this tries to identify is indeed debilitating, but it's something different. It's the doctrine of all against all. It's the dark side of the Reagan Revolution: fear. An average working person in the last 25 years may have had a worshipful (and therefore potentially resentful, BTW) attitude towards wealth and its Lifestyles, but that's mostly an entertainment: in their real world, they deal with middle class-*survival*, for themselves and their kids. For most people, the Reagan Revolution was the Raw Deal, a deal which had a one-two-three punch: all-against-all (politicians pitting groups against one another, zero-sum style), consumerism, and stagnant or falling incomes. Fear and resentment loom larger than worshiping wealth, IMO. After all, the person who has $100 million and wants more isn't really worshiping wealth thereby - he's worshiping himself. The Republican revolution was about divide-and-conquer; aspirations of wealth was just a carrot. The antidote is to not be so divided.

So, Democrats really are THAT much better than Republicans? Pelosi, Reid, Murtha, Hastings? Really?

What I like about Obama, since his election, is that he avoids a common vice of both parties: comparative, self-declared moral and competency superiority.

I remember the Republican crowing--and buying into a lot more of it than I should have--after Reagan was elected and then again, 4 and 8 years ago.

I hope you're right, Hilzoy, but if the past is any guide, I'd give it a while before actually saying so.

Thanks for that, mckinneytexas. I agree.

OT: Am I the only person for whom Hilzoy's — and only Hilzoy's — posts are appearing in Helvetica instead of the usual, more readable Obsidian Wings font?

jonnybutter,

You're right, of course, about Al Smith being a peculiar case. But anti-New Deal Northern Democrats were, in fact, pretty few in number. There were certainly many more liberal Republicans. In fact, the stronger case to be made against Kilgore's claim, at least insofar as it concerns Democrats, is that conservative Southern Democrats were not conservative merely on issues of race.

You also make an excellent point in distinguishing between questioning capitalism and questioning consumerism (though in practice a critique of the latter that doesn't entail a critique of the former would likely be somewhat shallow). I agree that public questioning of consumerism is much more likely than public questioning of capitalism. But I still don't yet see it on the horizon.

Am I the only person for whom Hilzoy's — and only Hilzoy's — posts are appearing in Helvetica instead of the usual, more readable Obsidian Wings font?

No.

So, Democrats really are THAT much better than Republicans? Pelosi, Reid, Murtha, Hastings? Really?

What I like about Obama, since his election, is that he avoids a common vice of both parties: comparative, self-declared moral and competency superiority.

What does this have to do with Hilzoy's post? Or any comment in this thread? Not criticizing what you're saying, just wondering how this is a response.

Hilzoy's text comes out for me in Times (with serifs), not Helvetica (sans serif). Also somewhat weird spacing. Comments are sans serif.

It's odd -- view source says "span style='font family: Arial'" but I'm seeing Times. I'm in Firefox 2.0.0.20.

Ral,

"Have these captains and kings departed -- not to return? The epoch of their wanton and repulsive leadership is ending. Their incompetence and their betrayal are manifest. But much of the evil they have done lives after them. The coming years will see the struggle to purge America, to reassert the promise of American life, to validate, in consonance with the changed times and conditions, the high aspirations of the founders of the nation."

Implicit in this quote and Hilzoy's comment about telling Republicans from Democrats is that Republicans are all things bad and Democrats, being the opposite of Republicans, are all things good.

Maybe so, but if I were a Dem in these times, I'd let things play out a bit.

mckinneytexas, did you mean your comment to be addressed to someone else (johnnybutter, for example)?

Hilzoy’s title reminded me that Mircea Eliade wrote a book called 'The Myth of the Eternal Return,' which I read in my misspent youth. I didn’t think that was more than a coincidence until I looked up the book on Amazon to see if it was still in print. Here is what I found:

“From review of Princeton's original edition: ‘A luminous, profound, and extremely stimulating work. . . . This is an essay which anyone interested in the history of religion and the mentality of ancient man will have to read.’ (Review of Religion )”

All you have to do is substitute “mentality of ancient man” with “mentality of Post-Reagan GOPer wingnuts” and you have a direct hit.

LOL

Ral, yes. My bad.

Ben
You...make an excellent point in distinguishing between questioning capitalism and questioning consumerism (though in practice a critique of the latter that doesn't entail a critique of the former would likely be somewhat shallow)

Is it really very complicated, though? The critique of capitalism in the critique of consumerism is: capitalism can't be unfettered, has to be regulated so as not to destroy either itself or the country it's operating in; in that stable atmosphere, the culture at least has a chance to be decent/excellent (or not). Marx didn't think that was adequate, and you may not either, but I think whole lots of people in this country right now find that perfectly reasonable and practical. Regardless, it's where we are.

I didn't understand what you meant about northern anti-new deal dems. It seems like we're agreeing now, but I have been known to be obtuse.

mckinney:

Implicit in this quote and Hilzoy's comment about telling Republicans from Democrats is that Republicans are all things bad and Democrats, being the opposite of Republicans, are all things good.

Hilzoy didn't write that. It's a piece from The Nation in 1933. She said that it's remarkably appropriate to this moment, and I agree with her. The piece is about policy (broadly speaking), and you are talking about attitude of individuals (Murtha, et. al.). Attitude does matter, but long term policy matters much much more - trancendently more.

Hilzoy doesn't write like the Nation in 1933, and she is, as you know, way too smart to pretend that Dems are all good and Republicans are all bad. Straw man there. No matter who you are or who you've voted for in the past, it's time for all of us to assess long term policy and ethos of the past decades. 'Moderation' doesn't mean 'no opinions'.

mckinney cont:

the stuff about telling the difference between dems and reps is straightforward, I think. The two parties have very different conceptions of governance. The blurring of the two will probably fade somewhat in coming years (I hope). What's objectionable about that? If you're looking for perfection, you're in the wrong bidnis (politics)!

jonnybutter:

The critique of capitalism in the critique of consumerism is: capitalism can't be unfettered, has to be regulated so as not to destroy either itself or the country it's operating in; in that stable atmosphere, the culture at least has a chance to be decent/excellent (or not).

I would have thought a critique of consumerism would concern not the regulation of markets (which is often justified in terms of consumer protection, after all), but rather the tendency of people to define themselves in terms of what they consume, a tendency upon which capitalism is arguably dependent.

I do think that we'll see the neoliberal consensus against the regulation of markets dialed back a bit in the next few years. But that may or may not be accompanied by a critique of consumerism.

I didn't understand what you meant about northern anti-new deal dems. It seems like we're agreeing now, but I have been known to be obtuse.

Yes. We're basically agreeing now.

JB--Not looking for perfection at all, I just think the end zone dance should be put off until the final score is posted. And, before assuming the high moral ground, I think it's a good idea to clean house first. Since that isn't going to happen, the humility that Bush said he would--but did not--bring to office is a good default position. To repeat myself, I think Obama strikes the right note. It's the gloating and fawning I see elsewhere that perhaps might be a bit more muted.

I would have thought a critique of consumerism would concern not the regulation of markets (which is often justified in terms of consumer protection, after all), but rather the tendency of people to define themselves in terms of what they consume, a tendency upon which capitalism is arguably dependent.

Key word is 'arguably'! I do understand that theory very well, but in practice, regulating the economy - admitting, first of all, that all modern economies are mixed, just mixed different ways - to the benefit of a broad range of people, thereby giving said people the basic breathing room to fashion their own culture, is probably the most practical. Lots of people don't define themselves by what they own. The ones who do tend to own too much or too little.

I think Obama strikes the right note. It's the gloating and fawning I see elsewhere that perhaps might be a bit more muted.

Fair enough. But I don't think this post is gloating and fawning. The language of the Nation piece may be romantic or dated, but the substance is remarkably appropriate to 2009, because of the policies and ethos which were then, and are now, passing. Again, moderation is not having-no-opinion, or even having absolutely no passion. Moderation is about rational judgment.

the tendency of people to define themselves in terms of what they consume, a tendency upon which capitalism is arguably dependent.

I'm with johnnybutter, I think this goes too far. To the point where, I think, you're really talking about different things.

I'm neither an economist nor a political theorist, but it seems (to me) that capitalism is a matter of how the human behavior of making, buying, and selling is *structured*.

Consumerism, in the specific sense of defining yourself by your possessions, seems (again, to me) to more about social relations, and/or even personal issues of identity and value.

Capitalism seems kind of value-neutral to me. Consumerism -- defining yourself by your possessions -- seems inherently dysfunctional.

They seem, to me, to be orthogonal. Consumerism, as we've defined it here, predates capitalism. Think of sumptuary laws.

Certainly they are not absolutely unrelated, but IMO they are distinct.

I also think there's more you can do at a public policy level to tweak capitalism than consumerism.

"A Farewell To Republicans"

Any talk of the death of the Republican Party is not just premature, but foolish.

Depending how the winds of change are blowing, there's no telling how quickly the GOP could come back in fashion.

How many times have we heard about the death of the Democratic Party or its irrelevance?

FWIW, I agree with mckinneytexas: Obama's lack of my-party-is-better-than-yours 'tood is one of his smart qualities and should serve him well.

russell:

Trying to define "capitalism" is generally opening a hornet's nest, but I think that we might be able to agree that it is a statement about the primacy of property rights over other sorts of rights. That is hardly value-neutral.

I'm not convinced about the definition of consumerism as "defining yourself by your possessions". I'd say that the identity comes first; consumerism is about demonstrating your identity (to others) by your possessions (or your choices about what possessions to flaunt). And how is that different from defining/identifying yourself by your conspicuous ecological (non-)consumption? It's natural to want to make a good impression.

In any event, I agree that it predates capitalism, and I don't think modern consumerism is significantly different from the earlier version(s). While Thorstein Veblen may seem pretty dated after a century, his basic observations about conspicuous consumption probably stand the test of time.

I also agree with johnnybutter that right now there are unlikely to be millions of Americans questioning capitalism. If the current depression drags on for years, and I truly hope it does not, then I think we'll see a lot more questioning, some of it pretty emotionally charged. I'm no standard-bearer for capitalism -- rather the reverse -- but I'm not particularly optimistic about the sort of questioning that might happen today. Compared to the 1930s, I fear that autocratic corporatism would have (even) more appeal.

"Any talk of the death of the Republican Party is not just premature, but foolish."

Um, it's as true now as it was in 1933. I kinda thought that was the point.

I think that we might be able to agree that it is a statement about the primacy of property rights over other sorts of rights. That is hardly value-neutral.

By that definition, I agree, it is not value neutral, and by that definition I would more than question it.

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