history


This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.

barter

Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

A couple good books I’ve read lately:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman.  The first third of the book is the best; it’s a demolition of the idea that we run our brains.  That is, there’s this thing we call us, the conscious mind, and like a bad manager, it takes credit for its underlings’ hard work.   This is not a novelty in philosophy, but Eagleman is a neuroscientist, so his examples of how the conscious mind isn’t in control are based in neurology and psychology, and they’re fascinating.

One of his examples: you know how to change lanes, correct?  Can you explain it, as a short sequence of instructions for a smart (and English-speaking) robot?  Give it a try.

Most people say something like “Turn the wheel right; when you’ve moved over, straighten it out.”  If the robot tried that, it would steer off the road.  The thing is, after turning the wheel right, you have to turn the wheel an equal amount left in order to get back to your original direction.  Your brain knows this, but you probably don’t.  Any skilled behavior like this has been shuffled off to unconscious routines which manage all the details (and far more fluidly than the conscious mind could do them).

After this he reviews some theories of mind; he like Minsky’s Society of Mind, but extends it to include a multitude of competing sub-units– what he calls a “team of rivals”.  Another of his metaphors is an electoral system.  This broadly makes sense, though I think Eagleman overestimates how revolutionary it is: it’s an updated version of the theory of mind put forth in medieval allegories.

Then he gets into issues of responsibility, including legal responsibility.  We used to blame the person for everything; now we think that some things, like mental illness, are ‘not the person’s fault’.  He suggests that we go all the way and just admit that nothing is anyone’s fault. This doesn’t mean that we don’t punish anyone; it means that we take a scientific view of what it takes to prevent bad behavior from recurring.  This last part of the book is the least convincing, as by now he’s gone far beyond our actual knowledge.

The Secrets of Alchemy, by Lawrence M. Principe.   This is a history of alchemy, from its origins in Hellenistic Egypt, through the Arab period, and then to medieval and Renaissance Europe.  I read a lot about alchemy while researching substances– the history of alchemy is basically the history of chemistry.  And it’s fun stuff, especially for the beautiful names– orpiment, realgar, the Green Lion, calx of lead, spirit of hartshorn…

Alchemy has a bad rap because, of course, the alchemists were mostly pursuing an impossibility: the transmutation of metals by chemical methods.  Principe answers the obvious question– why didn’t they notice it was impossible?– by analyzing their methods, their principles, and their idea of authority.  Briefly:

  • with (by modern standards) inconstant heating methods and no good tests for purity, it was hard to replicate results and thus easy to think that someone else had done better
  • the best physical theories, going back to the ancients, said that metals were compounds
  • people claimed to have succeeded, and the whole medieval mindset was to trust written sources attributed to known experts.

So the alchemists thought they had good evidence, and their critics (and there were many) had the same limitations, and couldn’t actually disprove the claims.  (There was a lot of fraud, to the point that alchemists in literature are almost always comic figures.)

The most interesting bits are where Principe digs out the retorts and Bunsen burners and attempts to follow old recipes.  His conclusion is that the old alchemists were often careful observers– though they were wont to disguise their knowledge as what sounded like insane mystical ramblings:

Take the ravenous grey wolf that on account of his name is subjected to bellicose Mars, but by birth is a child of old Saturn, and that lives in the valleys and mountains of the world and is possessed of great hunger.  Throw the king’s body before him that he may have his nourishment from it. And when he was devoured the king, then make a great fire and throw the wolf into it so that he burns up entirely; thus will the king be redeemed.

That’s some instructions by Basil Valentine, from 1602.  Principe explains that this is a real experiment: the king is gold; the wolf is melted stibnite, or antimony ore.  A 14-karat gold ring is 58% gold, 42% copper.  Throw it in melted stibnite and it dissolves. The copper turns into a sulfide, while the gold and antimony meld together and sink to the bottom, where they can be easily retrieved.  Roast this mixture and the antimony evaporates, leaving you with pure gold.  So this is an obfuscated but correct recipe for purifying gold.

Why did the alchemists write this way?  Well, they didn’t always; there are examples of very straightforward books.   But it’s clear that the writers were masters of PR.  You didn’t want to give all your secrets away; and if your early steps could be puzzled out, it added authority to the more fanciful steps describing the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.  Principe describes and reproduces a few quite striking experiments– not transmutation, of course, but chemical tricks that could wow a rich patron.

In the 1900s, a lot of this mystical-sounding obfuscation was reinterpreted as actual mysticism– that is, it was taken as a spiritual rather than a chemical process.  This was a wrong turn; much better to think of alchemy as early chemistry, with a commendable interest in hands-on experimentation.

Principe obviously loves this stuff, and probably makes a few too many excuses for the alchemists.  It’s true that it’s not edifying to simply make fun of early thinkers for bad theories or poor methods.  One Arab alchemist, for instance, had the excellent idea of quantifying the notion of how much of the four humors were active in a substance– there were 28 degrees of hot, cold, wet, and dry.  So far so good, but how did he assign the degrees– some kind of crude measurement?  No, he took the Arabic name of the substance, letter by letter, and applied numerological rules to derive the degree.  Principe carefully explains that this is not as silly as it sounds– it was in accordance with the best Islamic thought, in which Arabic was God’s language, and could be expected to match aspects of God’s creation.  Well, that is an interesting glimpse into an earlier worldview, and you might want to incorporate things like that into your conworld.  But, well, that line of thought was ultimately sterile, and alchemy was not really medieval thought at its best.

I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it

Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.

My light reading for about a month has been An economic history of medieval Europe, by N.J.G. Pounds.  I recommend it half-heartedly.

What do we know about medieval economics?  Frustratingly little, it turns out.  Every few pages Pounds has to remind us that there just isn’t much data.  He goes over what we have, but it’s really impossible to build up the sort of overall statistics that we take for granted today.  It’s almost impossible to get estimates of production of goods, or even to definitively answer questions like when the moldboard plow was actually adopted, or whether the 1400s were a period of depression or a time of productive improvement.

The book is from 1974, so it’s possible that nearly 30 years have produced a slightly clearer picture.  E.g. I don’t quite buy his statements that medieval technology was stagnant, not after reading Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine.  Pounds even mentions some of the same inventions, such as the blossoming of mill technology and the later focus on mining.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the first few chapters, on the late Roman Empire.  We have a picture of a flourishing, sophisticated, rich urban civilization, but in many ways this is an illusion.  Most of the Empire was at a barely subsistent level; the western half was “an uninhabited wilderness, broken by islands of cultivation”; trade was minimal; large-scale enterprises were undertaken only by the state; Rome itself basically produced nothing.  The East was of course richer and more urbanized.

The book also emphasizes that the lot of the peasant, from Roman times till well into the modern age, frankly sucked.  At the subsistence level, the peasant couldn’t afford much in the way of urban wares, so the cities remained small and trade was largely in luxury goods.  The empty spaces on the map filled in, and new towns appeared, but that just meant there were more and more peasants and on more marginal land.  The only real improvement in living conditions were a) in colonizing new lands, especially in Eastern Europe; and b) after the Black Death, when depopulation temporarily created a labor shortage.

And as Eastern Europe filled up, the feudal lords exerted more and more control and turned most of the peasants into serfs.  In Western Europe the tendency was for the king to rein in the nobles, which was a little better for the peasants.

There’s a discussion of the guilds; Pounds seems to think that they never amounted to much.  They always tried for monopoly power, which in theory could restrain the economy; but in most places it was the merchants, not the craftsmen, who really ran the economy.  (Often they supplied the raw materials and even the tools.)  In any case, when the urban cloth workers grew too expensive, the merchants simply outsourced the work to the rural areas.

One surprising assertion is that the cities had trouble feeding themselves– the northern Italian cities had to import grain from as far as Sicily.  This seems a bit odd when none of them exceeded 50,000 residents.  But perhaps the surplus of the European farmer really was that low– or perhaps the situation illustrates the price differential of wagons vs. ships.

There’s quite a bit about how the early fairs developed into permanent commercial markets, and how the early traders operated.  Currency was scarce, so things were arranged such that little money had to actually change hands.  You’d bring your alum to Bruges, take home a shipment of woolens, and payments were mostly handled by moving numbers within the bankers’ ledgers.  (The last few days of a fair were devoted to the settling of accounts.)  At first the big merchants actually traveled across the continent; later on they simply employed local agents.

Kings and other lords were constantly interfering in the market.  Landowners, including the king, were generally able stewards of their own estates.  Their powers of enforcement over the rest of society were limited, which led to interesting compromises.  Close control was impossible, but on the other hand focusses of wealth could be seized.  Thus cities were given a large measure of autonomy, but were also easily taxed.   In many countries the king had the right to all mineral resources– but as he could hardly mine everywhere, what this came down to was that anyone could mine, but owed a tax to the king.  Most states were highly in debt to the banks, but didn’t scruple at confiscating a local bank or defaulting to a foreign one.

Another lesson is just how miscellaneous Europe was.  Generalizations at the national level are almost useless; you have to look at each region and even each town.  The Elder Scrolls continent of Tamriel, with its ragged multiplicity of races and regions, is actually not a bad model, certainly much better than the usual fantasy expedient of one uniform country with perhaps one exotic neighbor.

A couple more pages relevant to my page on why plutocracy sucks.

First, this fascinating NYT article about Venice, one of the first capitalist states.  The basics, in case you’re run down your free NYT quota: Venice created the biggest trade network in the medieval Mediterranean.  The trading expeditions were handled by colleganze, essentially one-off joint-stock enterprises.  They were open to anyone who had the money to invest.

Until 1315, when Venice’s upper class– its 1%– instituted a change known as La Serrata, the closing.  Desiring to preserve their privileges, they created a formal list of who was in the oligarchy and banned new additions.  The power monopoly was soon extended to economic matters; the colleganze were banned.

The result was economic decline.  By 1500 the city was smaller than it had been in 1330, and it continued to shrink.  Meanwhile other cities overtook it in economic influence.  What the 1% think is good for them is usually a lousy idea for the general population, and ultimately even for themselves.

The other article is David Stockman’s devastating takedown of Mitt Romney’s “business experience”.

Except Mitt Romney was not a businessman; he was a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped, and stripped businesses. He did not build enterprises the old-fashioned way—out of inspiration, perspiration, and a long slog in the free market fostering a new product, service, or process of production. Instead, he spent his 15 years raising debt in prodigious amounts on Wall Street so that Bain could purchase the pots and pans and castoffs of corporate America, leverage them to the hilt, gussy them up as reborn “roll-ups,” and then deliver them back to Wall Street for resale—the faster the better.

That is the modus operandi of the leveraged-buyout business, and in an honest free-market economy, there wouldn’t be much scope for it because it creates little of economic value. But we have a rigged system—a regime of crony capitalism—where the tax code heavily favors debt and capital gains, and the central bank purposefully enables rampant speculation by propping up the price of financial assets and battering down the cost of leveraged finance….

In truth, LBOs are capitalism’s natural undertakers—vulture investors who feed on failing businesses. Due to bad policy, however, they have now become monsters of the financial midway that strip-mine cash from healthy businesses and recycle it mostly to the top 1 percent.

I wonder how the Randians convince themselves that Romney’s way of making money– mining companies, firing workers, leaving them highly indebted and letting them go bankrupt– is “making” rather than “taking”.

My liberalism page has generated some good feedback, including interesting stuff to read.  I’ll highlight some of these, starting with this essay by James Livingston: “How the Left has Won.”  Also see this exchange between Livingston and Tim Barker in which the idea is clarified.

His basic idea: capitalism was a 400-year-long transition which had highlights (and setbacks), but no coordinating committee, no mass movement, no cabal or group behind it.  It was a messy, long, organic process, and kept going largely because it was a more efficient way of doing things.  Events had a capitalistic bias, you could say.

And, he says, socialism works the same way.  It doesn’t need a socialist party, or a revolution.  It isn’t incompatible with capitalism– it’ll be thoroughly mixed up with it just as capitalism coexisted with aristocracy.  It doesn’t disappear when socialist parties or countries have a setback.  Any socialization of a society or economy or institution is part of socialism.  (He has some provocative paragraphs on how the US Army is a bastion of socialist practice amid a capitalist landscape.)

Now, I think some of you are going to be just infuriated by the piece.  Maybe especially his targets– socialists who lament the lack of a proper socialist party in the US.  You can picture him as the smug, calm, extremely smart guy at the cocktail party where you can’t decide if he’s pulling your leg or talking bullshit or being brilliant.

But, well, people often say they want to hear new ideas, and this is what new ideas feel like.  The right mindset is that this is a really interesting way of looking at things.  I feel like my mind is expanded… I don’t know if he’s right, and I’m sure he’s wrong on some of it (psychoanalysis, ugh).  But I’m glad I read it, and I think there’s something to his broader perspective.

 

 

Since Yesterday is Frederick Lewis Allen’s sequel to Only Yesterday, and deals with the ’30s in the same way. 

It’s a better and a worse book, due to its subject matter.  The first book had a lightness of tone (even when dealing with scandals and gangsters) that had to be abandoned facing the enormity of the Depression.  A quarter to a third of the population out of work, the farms of the Great Plains blown away as dust, heads of corporations bewildered as to what to do next, fascism marching in Europe– it wasn’t a cheery time.  The events give the book greater depth than its predecessor; but then they refuse to provide a nice coda.  He concludes with Britain’s declaration of war; the problem is that his story is only half told. 

This is clearer on a chart.  Here’s US industrial production from the height of the stock boom (September 1929) to the end of the war (August 1945):

Allen ends at the red line.  No wonder things still looked bleak!  Though the overall trend was up, immediate memory was dominated by the 1937 recession, which had gobbled up 2/3 of the gain since the New Deal.  Production was barely at the 1929 level again; it was hard to imagine that in a few years it would double that number.  (And keep rising; the current value of the index is over 1200.)

As a history of the New Deal, I prefer Wiliam Leuchtenberg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, which goes into more detail and with more historical perspective.  Still, it’s an amazing period and there’s always something new to learn about it.  I hadn’t realized, for instance, that on the day Roosevelt took office, the banking system had ceased to function.  To prevent bank runs, governors were declaring bank holidays, and that day the rot reached the biggest banks, in Illinois and New York.

On the other hand, perhaps the lack of hindsight isn’t a vice, as Allen can convey the full frustration felt at the time.  Allen thinks the economy had a structural problem: industrialization was reducing the need for workers on farms and in factories even as unemployment soared; at the same time, the concentration of industries into megacorporations made it hard to start up new enterprises.  (He points out that the banks were sitting on plenty of credit; there just didn’t seem to be much to lend to.  The megacorporations could fund their own research and expansion.)  There’s some truth to the idea of restructuring– e.g. the share of the population engaged in agriculture went from 21.5% to 16% from 1930-1945.  But the structure hypothesis doesn’t explain why the preceding and following periods were prosperous.  It looks much more like a demand crunch.  (Moral: don’t listen to businessmen about how to end a recession.  They have no idea, and their vague notions about “confidence” and “deficits” are plumb wrong.)

Again, one of the lessons of Allen’s books is how little has changed in America’s political structure.  Hoover was not as inactive as one might think– he had some small-scale stimulus going– but the business class had about the same program as today: prop up the banks, then just wait for things to get better, forever if necessary.  There was a good deal of horror over Roosevelt going off the gold standard, establishing relief programs, dividing commercial and investment banking, supporting unions, raising taxes on the rich, and above all regulating business.  On the other hand, when Roosevelt moved toward them in 1937– scaling back the New Deal and trying to balance the budget– he was rewarded with a resounding recession.  As Allen points out, of all the things Roosevelt tried, the only things that arguably worked were stimulus spending and devaluation. 

The most striking difference in our times is the near-absence of a radical left.  Roosevelt had to deal with substantial movements (Huey Long, the Townsendites, the unions, the socialists) who thought he was moving way too slowly and actually coddling business.  Not that this prevented his critics from calling him a dictator or a communist.  In general the middle and upper classes disliked him– but the country as a whole was all for the New Deal; he won re-election in the midst of of the Depression by a 61% landslide (with broad coattails: Congress was 3/4 Democratic). 

Also striking is the regional difference: the South was then a Democratic stronghold, and Republicans were strongest in the Northeast.  (It’s also worth noting that this was well before the Civil Rights era.  Though there were some victories for blacks, they’re all symbolic– e.g. Marian Anderson singing at FDR’s inauguration, Jesse Owens winning medals in Berlin.)

Everyone knows that the war ended the Depression; people often seem to think this was some kind of fluke with no contemporary application.  But economically, what the war did was make it politically acceptable to greatly multiply the size of government stimulus.  Roosevelt’s ’30s-era stimulus was too small, and had the same effect as Obama’s: improvement but no end to the economic doldrums. 

Allen once refers to Roosevelt as a “cripple”; I had thought his handicap wasn’t general knowledge.  But some Googling tells me I was wrong; it was well known that Roosevelt had polio and used a wheelchair, but the extent of it was downplayed.

Allen does his best to indicate the temper of the times, and makes a case that the ’30s in general were more sober (though not in the literal sense: we finally got rid of Prohibition) and that the mere rebelliousness and hedonism of the ’20s was largely gone– though there was no return to Puritanism.  (He quotes a survey that found that something like 70% of couples had sex before marriage.)  The intellectuals of the day did their best to focus attention on social problems– even as Hollywood pretended that there were none.  In wider histories of art, this makes the ’30s look like a strange blip: modernism was called off for a decade!

A sobering thought for bloggers: many of the cultural figures Allen names are still known… except for the opinion columns.  You can have a whole nation hanging on your analysis of politics, but no one will want to re-read them in fifty years.

My friend Linkless Bob recommended this book by Frederick Lewis Allen, and it’s a good read.    Somewhat cheekily, Allen decided to write a history of the ’20s in 1931.  (He also did one of the ’30s called Since Yesterday, which I’ve just started.)

Cal Coolidge

As such it’s very journalistic– it seems pretty clear that his primary research tool is the magazines and daily newspapers.  He rarely gets into very deep analysis, but on the plus side he’s lively and full of detail, and the method probably gives a good idea of what people were thinking and talking about. 

Bob noted, and I agree, that the story has an unexpected contemporary ring.  The laissez-faire libertarianism of the Republican Party turns out not to be an invention of Goldwater or Ayn Rand; it’s their default mode.  The belief in the benignity of business it there, and the feeling that government is there to serve business and for little else… except for repressing people when they complain.  Coolidge won national reknown, after all, for suppressing a police strike.  The late ’20s stock bubble was a lot like the housing bubble of the ’00s.  And the Republican response to the Crash was pretty much what the elites are agreed on now: do nothing, except perhaps make it worse with government austerity programs. 

(One partial exception: Republicans back then loved tariffs, which are now out of fashion– but that’s largely because we no longer fear foreign rival manufacturers.)

Allen does have a thesis: the postwar decade was dominated by a rebellion against prewar mores.  The country was tired of wartime sacrifice and had no intention of going back to Victorianism.  Women got the vote but mostly wanted to discard encumbrances, from unnecessary layers of clothing to hard domestic labor.   The literati were disgusted with everything except for sex and Freud.  The country was transformed by railroads, scientific management, the automobile, and radio.  (I find it fascinating that the dominant force in broadcasting, RCA, was known in financial contexts simply as “Radio”.)

It’s kind of curioius to read about the Florida land boom, in that all the locations mentioned as Future Metropoles are now, in fact, part of the metropolis of Miami.  As with many bubbles, the problem wasn’t that the development was unreasonable, but that it was premature.

From a later perspective, the ’20s can be seen as a preview– interrupted by the Depression– of prosperous midcentury America.  The mass media, the labor-saving devices, the exaltation of technology and manufacturing, the weak interest in progressivism, were all there. 

I think he’s pretty perceptive at finding what in contemporary life would be of permanent interest.  A few of the references aren’t explained… someone should put out an edition with hyperlinks.  I also wouldn’t trust him too far with cultural analysis.  I think he’s a bit simplistic on the hedonism and nihilism of ’20s intellectuals, for instance.  It was clear when he was writing what they were rejecting, not so clear perhaps what they were trying to build in its place.

(I also wouldn’t take his brief explanations of the Crash too seriously.  He may not be wrong, but in 1931 there was not really enough distance for real understanding.  Galbraith’s The Great Crash: 1929 is more informative on the economics.)

When was this written, and of what dance?

The music is sensuous, the embracing of partners– the female is only half dressed– is absolutely indecent; and the motions– they are such as may not be described, with any respect for propriety,  in a family newspaper.

(Answer: 1921; of the foxtrot.)

This posting is all over the place, but this comment in it is fascinating:

So why invent police? What are they for? In “The Institutional Revolution,” the economic historian Douglas W. Allen theorizes that their purpose was to preserve manufactured goods from theft. Before the nineteenth century, Allen writes, theft was easy to detect. If your transport was a horse, you could recognize it. (For that matter, it could recognize you.) Not only was your coat hand sewn, but a tailor looking at its fabric could probably tell who had woven it. If any of these items were stolen, they were easy to reclaim if they could be found. With the advent of the industrial revolution, handmade goods gave way to standardized commodities, which all look alike, and it ceased to be possible to know an object’s provenance just by looking at it. The phrase “possession is nine-tenths of the law” came into vogue, and it was made illegal to hold stolen goods. After all, once goods became untraceable, they were all too easy to fence.
The point about premodern goods being easy to trace is really neat, a great reminder that the past is a foreign country.  The original book sounds quite interesting as well:
The Institutional Revolution traces the dramatic shift from premodern institutions based on patronage, purchase, and personal ties toward modern institutions based on standardization, merit, and wage labor—a shift which was crucial to the explosive economic growth of the Industrial Revolution.
All this kind of throws into doubt all the thieves’ guilds of D&D and other fantasies.  It’s not that crime didn’t exist; it’s just unlikely that it was organized in a modern, quasi-corporate fashion. 
 
I should really start making a list of things that appear in fantasy novels that actually never existed in the past…

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