Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flourish or Perish

I have been feeling a little blue since the midterm election, or, more accurately, a little black and blue, so I decided to give myself a break from staring at screens for almost anything political.  I pulled on my running clothes, and, instead of heading to Central Park, I jogged down to Strand. 

I had a mission—find an in-stock copy of the economist Edmund Phelps’ Mass Flourishing and otherwise poke around in that absurdly appealing dog-pile of dusty obscure books.

I located the Phelps, in a “review copy, not for resale” version (which heightened its outlaw appeal) and devoured it. It’s not a perfect book, not always cleanly laid out, but Phelps is a polymath, and Mass Flourishing isn’t just about economics, it’s also a bit of a ramble about human achievement and drive and artistic expression, about music, and trading routes, and painting, and philosophy.  It led me all over the place, some times with false starts, sometimes down alleyways that I found unconvincing, but I found it had an inner drive that pulled me along. When I finished it, I had this odd hunger for conversation, but it being a weekend, the apartment emptied out, I turned instead to the NPR website, where you can hear the whispery narration merely by reading the text.  I deliberately skipped over the “Cromnibus” swamp, to a little story, “Congress Says Goodbye to its Last WWII Vets”.

When this 113th Congress finally, and blessedly, calls it a wrap, it will note the retirements of Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, and Republican Ralph Hall of Texas.

These two were the last—in Dingell’s words, “the last leaves on the tree.”  Literally hundreds came before them.  The incoming class of 1946 had 70 vets, including JFK and Nixon.  Their tenure (it reached its peak from the late 40’s to the 1970’s) was marked by a lot of good old push and shove (these weren’t shrinking violets) and a surprising amount of bipartisanship. They did a lot together.

Not everyone mourns their passing—in fact, many think this is a good thing, because our connection to their shared experience and sense of community has been fraying for some time. In many cultures, the old are venerated for their wisdom.  Not ours. We don’t think they have anything of value—rather they represent a drain on us—spending our inheritances, taking up booths in the diners as they nurse their coffees, causing the bus to kneel and wait when we have to get someplace.  We go through the motions of honoring them, but really, they annoy us and, in moments of quiet reflection, they scare us—they represent a future we fear we cannot escape.

But the Greatest Generation is different, regardless of what lens you choose to look through.  Not merely because they fought and won the war against Germany and Japan, but also because they are the last of the Depression generation—the last group to have first-hand memories of a sustained failure of capitalism, and its slow, but powerful recovery.   

Imagine 25% unemployment.  Imagine a stock market where the Dow Jones Industrial Average went from 381.17 to 41.22—89 cent loss on the dollar.  Imagine going to the bank where you had painstakingly put together your savings and finding it out of cash, or with its doors closed.

That was reality for many who later served in Congress. It was reality for my parents.  My maternal grandfather had a tailor shop, and no customers for nice suits and coats.  My mother remembered not being able to go to the 1939 World’s Fair, because the carfare (round trip subway tokens for four) was too much.  My father’s Dad had a candy store on the Upper West Side and lived above it in a small room six days a week, then went home to the Bronx on the seventh day. 

It marked my parents, just as it marked many of their generation.  They ran a drugstore for more than thirty years—my Mom did the billing, and when some of their customers got in a bit of trouble, like the loss of a job, and fell behind, she’d ask my Dad, who, more often then not, would screw up his face, wave his hand, and mutter something that translated it to “don’t send it, not the right thing to do.”  My parents were exceptionally generous people, but they were not the exception for their time or their community.  Everyone helped out a little.  And, also like many of their generation, they were planners. You always kept a little money in the house.  And in a jacket pocket.  And the linen drawer.  And, maybe in a brown night deposit bag.  And in the lower left drawer of the desk.  Because, you never know when you are going to need a few dollars. 

This type of thinking, a peculiar combination of self-reliance, a sense of a social obligation, and a willingness to work hard, helped shaped their generation and gave it vitality and drive. If you made it through the Depression, if you came back from the war in one piece, you knew—just knew, that if you stuck to it, you could make a place for yourself in America.

What people learned were two things that to contemporary ears seem contradictory, but made perfect sense then.  The first was that some big problems (Hitler, Tojo, Dust Bowl, rural electrification) needed top-down directed mass efforts to solve.  The second was that individual effort led to creativity, innovation, and rewards—the very essence of Calvinist-inspired capitalism.  In short, there was a feeling that success was both achievable and scalable—I might build a better mousetrap and make a million, and we could put a man on the moon.     

I found some of this optimism in Phelps’ book, along with deep concern that the growing corporatism that marks both our economic and political lives is stifling the ability and even the urge to be a risk-taker, to be creative, to find meaningful work.  Phelps believes in the individual: both the monumental thinkers and achievers like Einstein or Henry Ford, and the ordinary people like the plumber who designs a new wrench and the small businessman who throws every bit of money and energy he has into his bodega. Their work becomes meaningful, and from it comes a sense of personal pride, a place in the community earned and not just given, and perhaps, a chance to be a pair of shoulders for others to stand on to achieve even more.  It is quintessentially American. 

Unfortunately, this dynamism, which lasted from the 1830s to the 1960s, has begun to ebb with growth of the super-state.  Phelps points to the thicket of rules and regulations, of safety nets that shield people and big business from the worst of it, and of legislatively enacted barriers to entry, whether they be monopoly control of an industry, or unionized labor’s control of the bargaining process. In his view, these all have created a rent-seeker class of politicians and technocrats who understand neither economics nor business, but have a keen sense of how to market access and favorable treatment.

Where to lay blame? Well, Phelps is clearly a low-regulation free market kind of guy who holds socialism and corporatism in rather low esteem. But he also inspires you, just a bit, with two somewhat unexpected traits.  The first is, he’s not an ideologue—he approaches the data with integrity and reaches his conclusions without a political agenda. The second is his generosity of spirit.  He really is searching for an answer to benefit the maximum number of people. 

That’s what Mass Flourishing is about: an effort to “revive the modern values that stirred people to go boldly forth toward lives of richness.”

Lives of richness.  Flourishing instead of perishing.  Professor Phelps turned 81 this last summer, but that sounds like a pretty young idea to me.   

December 18, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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