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July 21, 2010

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Perhaps the rallying cry should be "what great works have you left for posterity."

We were left with many. I can't think of much in my lifetime that count as great works we are leaving to our kids.

There are no utopias.

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now that's Utopian America !

Haven't you noticed that (almost) *everyone* is middle class here in the 'States? From Bill Gates to the poor child in community college. How can you tell? Everyone wears jeans and has cellphones.

But seriously, class problems (e.g. unfair tax code) are, in a sense, harder to deal with here in the US because of the pretense that we don't *have* classes. The demise of the actual middle class - opposed to the nostalgic idea of it - makes it that much more difficult, since aspiration is much narrowed to 'being rich or not'.

Anybody in the mood for a hot dog supper?

There are no utopias.

Except for the one with Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton et al., which was awesome.

Meh. What's posterity ever done for me?

I love those old travelogues.

The meandering incidental music in the background kills me. The colors are stunning --- oranges and greens have an intensity they no longer seen to possess to my washed out cones and rods.

That orange train with the diesel engine - I had a Lionel set almost exactly like that. The front of the engine always looked like the face of a lion to me.

Jacob Davies -- our own budding de Tocqueville it looks like -- these images remind me of how I use to imagine my parents and aunts and uncles (one uncle became Marshall Field's chief counsel) meeting, getting married, and starting their careers at that time -- smiling into the camera in the old photographs -- full of hope and with no visible sign of the misery of World War II.

Of course, Korea was looming.

My Dad had a white Pontiac convertible. He was just about to meet my mother in 1948.

The funny thing is, Jacob, that I can get the same sense of nostalgia from looking at travel docs of that time from England too or maybe street scenes in those old Ealing Studio movies. I suppose there wasn't quite the sense of bustle and straight-ahead .. something .. as in the American versions ... well, until the Beatles hit in 1963 and suddenly the world turned to color (in my imagination)in England too.

But look a little closer at that film.

Don't you see what MacT (may I use you as a prop for a sec MAC) and others see? The top marginal tax rate was 91% in 1948 for those making over $200,000. It was 38% for those making between $10,000 and $12,000.

38%. On the Laffer napkin in today's rotten, that's just to the left of Pol Pot.

Can't you detect the near Soviet rot in that Chicago doc? Those smiling people must have been threatened (look happy and industrious, or else!). Those edifices couldn't possible have existed with tax rates that high. Did they have photoshop back then? Why would anyone invent and build a cool train like that when a tax man of that size cometh?

Did you see all of those people fishing in the middle of the day - some in suits? Those were all of the people in Chicago making $200,000 and not cent more if they could help it, taking some time off, going Galt.

Think of the oppression.

Are we sure that wasn't a travelogue of Moscow?

Was my prosperous childhood an illusion?


Tangentially related, I hope: I remember reading a really good piece in the Village Voice some time in the late 80s or early 90s, in which one of their staff writers wrote about growing up as a working-class Jewish kid in 1950s-60s New York City. No utopia there: just a city where people paid (relatively) high taxes and enjoyed good public services in exchange. In the writer's case, that included decent public housing, an excellent free education all the way through college (via the CUNY system), as well as libraries, public parks, recreation centers and pools, cultural institutions, transportation infrastructure...

Like I said, not a utopia by any stretch, but the closest this country has ever come (and likely ever will come) to the social democratic ideal in action. And while the city has in many ways stepped back from the precipice of the 70s, from the perspective of today's NYC, where private affluence and public squalor have long been accepted as the natural and inevitable way of things, those days sound like a whole 'nother planet.

Bravo, Jacob, bravo.

The main reason I went back to school for engineering, as opposed to just "get a job not selling cheap plastic crap to other people", was to do exactly those things. Build beautiful buildings, cities, etc, for the future, 100 years, not the next quarter. Rebuild the great cities we have, and restore the buildings left behind. We really don't build them like that any more, for good and bad reasons.

We ought to have beautiful cities. We ought to have buildings that can last. We ought to be doing things to the best of our abilities, not the cheapest. We can do better. And we should.

More to the point, what country did John Boehner grow up in?

what country did John Boehner grow up in?

Orange County?

OK, I'm going.

I'm also reminded that Saul Bellow was finishing up "The Adventures of Augie March" about the time that Chicago travelogue was made.

He'd of written "Henderson the Rain King", "Herzog", "Mr Sammler's Planet" and numerous other works as well, but the tax regime got to him and he gave it up.

He ended up selling watches out of the trunk of a Plymouth down near Lake Michigan.

Shame.

CharlesWT: There are no utopias.

No. But there are closer and further approximations. And there are societies that aspire to be utopias and societies that do not.

Chicago in 1948 was not a utopia. It was part of a country that had segregation written into law. White Chicago-dwellers moved out en masse when blacks started to move in over the next few decades. Not a utopia. But a place that dreamed of being a utopia.

Utah was started as a utopia. Massachussetts was too, as was Georgia. The Amana Colonies in Iowa were utopias and so are the Amish communities.

Massachussetts is a poster boy for what can go wrong with a utopia - they tend to turn into the totalitarian nanny states that their pet ideologies require for realization of their ideal. Arthur Koestler wrote the book on this one, although it was Americans who pioneered the dystopia story.

If you want a classless society it's not enough to legislate it. Classes develop naturally in societies, and if you don't want that, you have to build structural mechanisms to tear them down continually, and that is itself is a continual process, because they co-evolve with your fixes.

Massachussetts is a poster boy for what can go wrong with a utopia - they tend to turn into the totalitarian nanny states that their pet ideologies require for realization of their ideal.

You're arguing that the current liberal government of Massachusetts is causally related to the Puritans? That the "pet ideology" of the Puritans is still the driving ideology of the current residents?
And, incidentally, that Massachusetts is a totalitarian state?

I have always thought that the Puritan villages were much more different than an organized state.

They are the inverse of a totalitarian state, that is to say they are the example of small scale and localized communities demanding to control their inhabitants. They were still part of the British Empire, and in many cases had much more oppressive control than local communities in the United Kingdom.

The colony/Puritans were forced to “pluralize” (ie, the Quakers, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans) by the King. (I know…ironic).

If you want a classless society it's not enough to legislate it. Classes develop naturally in societies

Oh balls. You would have to stretch the meaning of 'naturally' to a ridiculous degree to support that statement. There is very little that's inevitable - that is to say 'natural' - about how classes develop.

And I don't know that anyone here (certainly not Jacob) was pining for a 'classless society'. He said that the US 'aspires to an achievable perfection, a middle-class egalitarian meritocratic democracy with no kings, no pharoahs, no rulers by inheritance or divine right.'

I liked this post a lot, and mean no offense to Jacob, but it makes me a bit sick that it needs an expat to remind us of our own values. We, in the pre-80s (or so) US used commonly to gauge the advancement of other countries by whether they had a middle class or not, and how big it was. Too bad we don't care about our own anymore. There's nothing 'natural' about its disintegration, anymore than was its creation.

Massachussetts is a poster boy for what can go wrong with a utopia

I live in Massachusetts. It's got it's problems for sure, but it's not a bad place to live.

In general, I do pretty much whatever the hell I want. Granted, I'm not that much of a wild and crazy guy, but I'm also pretty much un-bugged by anything resembling an oppressive state apparatus.

I don't know the hell you're on about.

I think the Massachussetts reference concerns the problems that Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams in the 1600's

And on the question of class, I found this Paul Campos blog post to be very interesting

The relative ease with which Elena Kagan is being confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court illustrates the extent to which Establishment America believes that a member of the club in good standing – someone who has gone to the right schools, and gotten the right kinds of jobs, and befriended the right sorts of people – can be counted on to do the right thing, even though her own legal and political views remain largely unknown. Naturally, from the establishment’s perspective, the right thing is to do nothing that might seriously disturb any of the social arrangements that continue to serve its interests so well.

In 1948, FDR had been dead for 4 years after leading the nation for sixteen.

In 1948, high school curriculum was about the equivalent of today's liberal arts colleges, so just about everyone had read Thoreau, Walden, Emerson; and had at least some knowledge of the ideas they espoused. They'd read, or at least studied, the Federalist Papers, too; and maybe DeTocqueville - so they had a better than surface knowledge of America's formation.

In 1948, unions were strong, and not yet so corrupted by greed and organized crime. The idea of unions was also strong: the idea that working people had a right to organize in order to level the field between labor and management.

In 1948, memories of WWII were still fresh. People knew what the war had been for, and what it cost to win it. The war, moreover, had involved everyone; everyone therefore had a stake in the victory.

There were still a lot of serious problems in post-War America, some of which were or would become cancerous. But at the same time, the FDR era and the war years had created a deep, strong foundation of progressivism and a national consensus that the country owed its existence to "the common man," whose interests should come first.

I think that's why the various civil rights movements, which really started in the mid-19th Century, caught fire in the 50s and 60s. People took for granted the correctness and inevitability of progressivism, and decided it was time to make the promise real.

That's nice, but I've got to point out, from a couple years later, Nelson Algren's Chicago, City on the Make.

"Like loving a woman with a broken nose: you may find lovelies more lovely, but never a lovely so real."

I miss the hell out of the Big Onion.

The war, moreover, had involved everyone; everyone therefore had a stake in the victory.

A very important point, I think. I'd add that the war taught "the greatest generation" a sense of proportion. Having faced mortal danger, they were less likely to be politically cowed. Having seen generals screw up, and individual heroics sometimes win the battle, they were more likely to take an egalitarian view of humanity. But what do I know? I've only seen that era in the movies.

Speaking of movies: in 1947, Miracle on 34th Street was a popular movie. It's interesting to compare the original with the 1994 remake. The plot revolves around a man who calls himself Kris Kringle and believes himself to be Santa Claus. The climax is a courtroom scene in which his lawyer, defending him against involuntary commitment for insanity, undertakes to "prove" that Mr. Kringle is indeed Santa Claus. Look at how the lawyer does it in the 1947 original, versus the 1994 remake.

In the 1947 version, the judge gets persuaded when the lawyer produces bags and bags of mail addressed simply to "Santa Claus" that the Post Office ("an official department of the government of the United States") has delivered to his client at the courthouse.

In the 1994 version, the judge gets persuaded by a Christmas card handed to him by a little girl, in which the adorable but sly little vixen has enclosed a one-dollar bill with the words "In God We Trust" circled in red crayon.

Now, I claim you can tell something about the general public by paying attention to small things like this in the movies intended to appeal to the general public. And you seldom get quite so direct a comparison of general public attitudes across the decades. And it seems to me that the general public attitude must have been healthier in 1947.

There are other small but telling differences between the 1947 and 1994 versions of Miracle on 34th Street from which I glean unfavorable comparisons between the 1947 and 1994 versions of the American public. The most blatant one, of course, is that the movie, however schmaltzy and whimsical, was at least original in 1947.

--TP

thulen: "I'm also reminded that Saul Bellow was finishing up "The Adventures of Augie March" about the time that Chicago travelogue was made."

At the top it says the travelogue was made in 1948. Bellows was teaching at Univ of Minnesota part of that year, then moved to Paris. He didn't finish Augie March until around 1953 or 1954. Then he moved to New York City, where I knew him.

We used to hang out together and schvitz at a Turkish Bath on the Lower East Side, and afterward nosh at the 2nd Avenue Deli, on 10th Street. There he would order a hot pastrami sandwich with coleslaw on top! Who puts coleslaw on pastrami, I would tell him. That's like putting ketchup into borscht! He would laugh and shake his head and say, don't get yourself in a state... it's not like we're Hasids, eating ham, and he would gobble the sandwich down, in big chomps, two or three at most per half. If you've ever had a pastrami sandwich at a Kosher Deli this you know is not an easy feat. He had a big appetite, for food, books, people. In the restaurant he would strike up conversations with customers at the tables next to us, with the waiters, with walk-ins at the take-out counter. He would get them talking about things, it didn't matter what: where they bought the shoes they were wearing, or what newspaper they read and why. He would listen and nod his head with interest. And then years later I would read one or another of his new books, and some lines of the conversations would pop out at me in dialog or description.

Anyway, he went back to live in Chicago, and became famous and rich -- and far as I know he never had to peddle watches, unless that happened way earlier in his life. So, if you read that in a biography somewhere, let me know, so I can look it up.

I've heard it argued from time to time that the Conservative movement wishes to return America to the 1950s; this seems powerful evidence to the contrary-- only the negative aspects of our past seem to have any appeal to them.

it took years to really appreciate the ways in which the aspiration to that Utopian ideal has been made futile for a large section of the population. "We can't afford it" is the litany heard in the wealthiest country that has ever existed.

For which large sections of the population has the aspiration to the Utopian ideal (which I take to mean the American Dream, which is different in my mind, but that would be a digression) been made futile?

Second question: what did we afford back then that we are not affording today, such that if we were to bring it back, the presently denied large sections of society could then legitimately aspire to the Utopian ideal?

I've heard it argued from time to time that the Conservative movement wishes to return America to the 1950s; this seems powerful evidence to the contrary..

The conservative argument is variations - like Jim's above - on this theme: you can't foster (not to say 'mandate') social justice or meritocracy except, perhaps, on a personal, individual level, and if you try it will always backfire, so you shouldn't try. In fact, human beings can't do *anything* on a collective scale, so we shouldn't try. We can only pray - and, by the way, keep taxes very low on wealthy people.

I wonder how many of them have sufficient courage of their convictions to follow that theory to its logical, practical conclusions? It means: no American Revolution and no liberal democracy, among other things. That this neo-conservative point of view can purport to be more-patriotic-than-thou is remarkable, considering its complete hostility to basic American values.

I'm not questioning the right of people with these views to hold them. I just don't see why they want to meddle with a system they fundamentally hate. I'm sorry Franco's dead, but surely there are other countries in which they would feel more comfortable.
Why not go get involved in politics there?

McKinney: For which large sections of the population has the aspiration to the Utopian ideal (which I take to mean the American Dream, which is different in my mind, but that would be a digression) been made futile?

I assume this question is rhetorical?

It is has already been pointed out to you, more than once, that your own achievements were based on a tax-funded infrastructure that has systematically been dismantled.

Second question: what did we afford back then that we are not affording today, such that if we were to bring it back, the presently denied large sections of society could then legitimately aspire to the Utopian ideal?

Again, this question has already been answered, several times over that I'm aware of. Not by me - by others who patiently responded to you with considerable historical detail.

Apparently you just ignored them. Can you explain why you now think people should answer your questions, given your track record of paying no attention whatsoever to the answers?

In fact, human beings can't do *anything* on a collective scale, so we shouldn't try. We can only pray - and, by the way, keep taxes very low on wealthy people.

I think that's more (g)libertarian than conservative, jonnybutter. Self-described conservatives in the US today think all kinds of things can be done on a grand collective scale: working together, "we" can pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business; "we" can bomb and occupy countries we know nothing about in order to remake them in our image; and of course, "we" can legislate morality by consigning people whose lives we disapprove of to second-class citizenship.

What "we" can't do is work together to make a better society for all of us, because that's utopian. Besides, everyone knows there's no such thing as "society" -- there are only winners and losers.

"For which large sections of the population has the aspiration to the Utopian ideal (which I take to mean the American Dream, which is different in my mind, but that would be a digression) been made futile?"

A decent job where they can support a family without having to work two or more other jobs. Or have both parents working. Affording a decent house not in a car-locked suburb. Attending college without graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Working their way up through the ranks of a company. Expecting their kids to be better off than they are. We've gone through many of these before.

"Second question: what did we afford back then that we are not affording today, such that if we were to bring it back, the presently denied large sections of society could then legitimately aspire to the Utopian ideal?"

Decent college education, widely available, without huge debt. Unions that gave the workers some say in negotiations with the employers. Tax rates that discouraged the executives from "extracting value" from the company at the expense of the long term growth of the company. Public transportation that let people get around without cars. New and repaired infrastructure, that allowed current and new businesses to flourish. A financial sector that made money by investing in companies, rather than "innovating" ways to pretend junk investments weren't junk.

The 40s and 50s were far from perfect socially, especially in the Deep South, and especially if you weren't a white guy. It was pretty far from perfect for white guys too. And there were factors beyond just taxes and union presence that contributed to the flourishing wealth of America, but the fact we had those, and still had flourishing wealth, stands as evidence against the common claims of economic doom from regulation, or taxes on the rich, or whatever else.

But the biggest thing back then is what Jacob Davies pointed out, back then we were trying to be better, we aspired to be great. Maybe it's because we'd defeated the Nazis, who actually DID want to take over (most) of the world. But now we shout about how great and brave we are, while we cower in fear of guys in caves, and cling to the ladder where we are and kick at the people below us, rather than trying to haul the ladder, and everybody on it, up.

One thing to clarify: I don't think 1948 was "better" than today. Nostalgia is fun, but you wouldn't want to go back. What I was struck by was the way in which that movie showed a continuing Utopian strain of American thinking.

McKt: For which large sections of the population has the aspiration to the Utopian ideal (which I take to mean the American Dream, which is different in my mind, but that would be a digression) been made futile?

I'd say it's the same as it ever was: the poor, racial minorities but especially blacks, the sick. In 1948 at least in Northern industrial cities blacks without a great education were able to reasonably aspire to middle-class status through industrial labor. That is no longer the case. In general access to economic opportunity for the less-educated is more limited than it was, thanks to free trade policy, tax policy, and the supremacy of laissez-faire thinking over nationalist thinking among industrial leaders.

Second question: what did we afford back then that we are not affording today, such that if we were to bring it back, the presently denied large sections of society could then legitimately aspire to the Utopian ideal?

Full employment, by which I mean unemployment around 3% rather than the 5% that is commonly taken as "full" today. But in particular, full employment for people without high school diplomas or college degrees - the top-line unemployment number is deceptive because college graduates have unemployment rates far below those with less education.

As to what they would be employed to do, I gave some suggestions before, but construction & maintenance of civic buildings and facilities is still a big one. Schools are in pretty sorry shape around the country from what I can tell (for instance from the prevalence of pre-fab buildings in parking lots). I'd start there.

I'm not particularly interested in direct redistributive programs. Provide a guarantee of access to work even at minimal wage levels, and all else falls into place. You also get useful stuff done, increased consumer demand, and strong economic growth (in part because businesses can spend less time worrying about when the next burst of mass unemployment will arrive). The costs are fairly small - 10 million people employed at $30k is just $300 billion a year or 2% of GDP. All it would take is a couple of years of an extra percentage point of growth for that to pay off. And the program would likely shrink in size rapidly as the private economy grew and provided better opportunities to workers. (People didn't stay with the WPA by choice when better jobs came along.)

I've heard it argued from time to time that the Conservative movement wishes to return America to the 1950s

1885 is more like it.

My thought is that the post-war period, with all of its optimism and confidence, was actually kind of an anomaly in American history.

It's the America I grew up in, and in which I personally thrived in spite of my many limitations and idiocies. Even a disorganized scatter-brained dope like me could get an education, learn some useful skills, make a living, and live a pretty freaking good life.

I have a great affection for it, an affection which is rapidly turning into nostalgia as the post-war era falls further and further into the past.

I think the kind of root-hog-or-die, every one for themselves, I got mine ethic we see today, with all of the paranoid weirdness that comes along with it, is probably a more typical point of view over the whole history of the nation.

Lucky me to have been born when I was.

I'm not particularly interested in direct redistributive programs. Provide a guarantee of access to work even at minimal wage levels, and all else falls into place.

Couldn't have said it better.

Since the WPA was mentioned, here's a link to a post by Brad Hicks, shortly after Obama's inauguration. The most relevant part is where he talks about his grandfather's time in the WPA, and the history of the WPA, and the skills people learned working for it, and some of the people who got their start in the WPA. (Orson Welles, for example, worked doing the free plays the WPA put on) And all the infrastructure left over from the WPA, that we still use, almost 100 years later. National Guard buildings. Or hell, the writers and photographers and historians who went out and talked to people in every town across the country. Talked to ex-slaves and Civil War veterans before they died. Talked to the people who founded towns, recorded the history of small towns, big towns, and cities across the country.

I could go on, but you really should read the article, and see the results of that "wasteful" government employment program. And his mention of Ronald Reagan's "workfare" idea that died before he was elected, which was broadly the same kind of thing.

At the house I just moved from, I was reminded of what the WPA did every time I walked down the street. "WPA 1940" was stamped into the sidewalks every few houses. Sure, some of the sidewalks had since been replaced. But a lot of concrete poured in 1940 was still there.

The real waste is 10-15 million people sitting on their asses in a country where there is useful work to do.

Many movies play in American movie theaters first. right??

Many shoes envelop American footsies first, no??

There is something ironic, but appropriate about spam trying to derail this thread. It's almost metaphorical.

I think that's more (g)libertarian than conservative, jonnybutter. Self-described conservatives in the US today think all kinds of things can be done on a grand collective scale: working together, "we" can pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business;

We have a peculiar form of libertarianism in the US which is not really very libertarian at all - it's really just another form of conservatism, into which it blends pretty seamlessly. And neoconservatism too.

I'd also note that the neoconservative project would be harder to sustain if we didn't have a professional army (Americans are more genuinely libertarian than the party of that name, and will put up with only so much bs when a war affects everyone). Neoconservatives believe in militarism because it's the only thing, in their view - other than religion - which can bind us together. It doesn't matter who the enemy is, so long as we have one.

24 hours later, McKinneyTexas has - as I predicted - ignored all of the thoughtful replies made to his rhetorical questions.

This excerpt (emphasis added) from a post titled "Income or employment guarantees?" (URL below) came to mind while reading this thread. It was something that jumped out at me when I first read said post, because I felt it neatly expressed something important that often gets overlooked. (It's from billy blog, the dreaded Modern Monetary Theory outlet, which only discusses accounting identities, or so I've heard.)

Young people must be encouraged to develop skills and engage in paid work, rather than be the passive recipients of social security benefit. The failure to engage in paid work cannot be narrowly construed as an inability to generate disposable income which can be addressed through a benefit, but entails a much broader form of exclusion from economic, social and cultural life, which has highly detrimental consequences.

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=3096

[comment deleted by e-mart for nastiness in violation of commenting rules]

Pop Adelman:

Thank you for the correction on Saul Bellow. I was wrong. Partisan Review published an excerpt from "Augie" in 1948. But the novel was not published until 1953.

True, Bellow became rich and famous. But given the high marginal rates at the time, I question that history with tongue in cheek. It's against the laws of the universe, the laws of human nature, and the immutable laws of economics for a human being to behave like that under such a tax regime. Or, so I've been told all my life.

And here I declined to write and publish the six novels in me because I couldn't face the tax consequences. Damn you, McKinneyTexas!

I don't mind it when folks correct me when I'm wrong, but I hate it ;) when I have to explain the stuff I make up.

At any rate, Pop, I don't know whether you are famous or not, but you a rich man for having known Bellow.

If the high marginal tax rate on that kind of wealth rises to 39.6% next year, I hope you don't start denying you knew him.

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