May 16, 2013
The end of the First American Republic and the rise of the gradocracy
By Sam Smith
Progressive Review, May 16, 2013
About sixty years ago, America was just a decade past the last war it would ever win. The length of the average work week was down significantly from the 1930s but real income had been soaring and would continue do so through the 1970s. We had a positive trade balance and the share of total income gained by the top 1% of the country was only around 8%, down from 24% in the 1930s.
As Jermie D. Cullip describes it:
“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite
“The decade of the fifties was a decade of major breakthroughs in technology. James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for decoding the molecular structure of DNA. Tuberculosis had all but disappeared, and Jonas Salk’s vaccine was wiping out polio in the United States. . .
“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings.
“Savings and Loan Association holdings of mortgage loans during the decade clearly demonstrate the boom in construction at this time. In 1950 $13.6 billion was held rising to $60.1 billion in 1960. Another important growth in the 1950s capital markets was in pension funds. This industry grew from $11 billion in 1950 to $44 billion in 1960.
“By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year’s recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. The boom was so great that the budget for 1956 predicted a surplus of $4.1 billion. With the surges in production and the economy, the 1950s is often recognized as the decade that eliminated poverty for the great majority of Americans. Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent’”
All in all not a bad decade to be in if you were running a business. So much so, in fact, that some began griping about it all in books like The Organization Man and plays like Death of a Salesman.
But here is the truly amazing part – given all we have been taught in recent years: America did it even as its universities were turning out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.
By 2005 these schools graduated 142,000 MBAs in one year.
There are plenty of worthy arguments to be made correlating the rise of business school culture with the decline of our economy and our country. A cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product has become wasted energy. And not just the physical sort Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, tax advising, marketing, consulting or defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout and the rise of the killer hedge fund.
And it was not just business school graduates that were the problem.In 2009, the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in Washington.
The law has always been a favored profession for the Congress. Even Thomas Jefferson complained, “If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?”
But the interesting thing about lawyers in Washington, is that the percent in Congress actually declined in recent years. Using the Washingtonian’s estimates, about a third of the attorneys are in the government bureaucracy and a large part of the other two thirds are paid to influence them.
In short, instead of having lawyers just writing laws, we have them administering government and lobbying those who do.
As for our presidents, while 40% in the past century have had law degrees, Barack Obama and William Howard Taft are bookends in the sense that they were far more into the law than almost all their colleagues, many of whom seem to have used the law as an early way station on their road to something important.
Taft was an assistant prosecutor, superior court judge, solicitor general and and a federal court of appeals judge.
On the other hand, Gerald Ford opened a law firm and one year later was an ensign in the World War II Navy. Coolidge was a country lawyer. Bill Clinton had his eye on bigger things, serving as a law professor for just a year before running for Congress. FDR was in the state house within two years of his law degree.
In fact, the commitment to law was so weak that Richard Nixon could declare that he was, in the words of Wikipedia, “the only modern president to have worked as a practicing attorney,” He had risen to full partner.
It was a given until recent times, that from a political point of view, understanding law or economics or business was a valuable asset but one that fell far behind social intelligence upon which successful politics relied. As my father, a lawyer who worked in the New Deal, would tell my buddies, “Go to law school, then do something else.” Roosevelt wasn’t as gracious towards the academic elites: “I took economics courses in college for four years, and everything I was taught was wrong.”
Obama thus represents a new era in American politics: the ultimate triumph of the gradocracy. Here is Wikipedia’s summary of his early career:
“In late 1988, Obama entered Harvard Law School. He was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and president of the journal in his second year. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 andHopkins & Sutter in 1990. After graduating with a J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991, he returned to Chicago.
“In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School to work on his first book. He then taught at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years—as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004—teaching constitutional law.
“In 1993, he joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development, where he was an associate for three years from 1993 to 1996, then of counselfrom 1996 to 2004. His law license became inactive in 2007.
Key to such a career is intense attention to process, regulations, the manipulation of language and data. Applied to politics, this means the human factor can start to bring up the rear. Politics is then no longer like music in which soul and skill are melded; instead it becomes another bureaucracy. Good evidence of this in the Obama years would be Obamacare, a two thousand page hard to decipher collection of virtue, uncertain results, payoffs to the health industry, and excessive paper work. A good politician of another time would have led with something that everyone understood, such as lowering the age of Medicare, and then adding on their favorite sweetheart deals.
Another example of gradocracy is what has happened to public education. A two hundred year old hallmark of American democracy is now being dismantled for a combination of corrupt profit and distorted theory. Data collection – i.e. standardized tests – has taken time previously used for history, civics, and other things that gave mere facts some context. And taken time away from sports or theater, things that forced one to apply skill and knowledge in a cooperative manner.
Theory – subject to no testing at all – has replaced empirical wisdom. And teachers have been reduced to minor bureaucrats dutifully fulfilling procedures of dubious or destructive value. Add to this the corrupt goals of the education industry that is driving the war on public education and you have one of the most profound examples of child abuse that we have known.
It is not that it is wrong to study or practice the law, economics, business or education. But to usurp other skills, behavior, empirical knowledge and types of wisdom makes no more sense than for a dentist to attempt to instruct an attorney on how to address the court because he’s an expert on teeth.
Finally, at times, it seems that there are no governments anymore, only budget offices. As the numerologists have risen in power, programs increasingly became transformed into line items. Numbers began serving as adjectives, ideas were reduced to figures and policy became a matter of where one placed the decimal point.
We have been taken over by legal lemmings, process perverts, and data drones.
But then, as Peter Hennessy Whitehall, former head of the British Civil Service put it: “The business of the civil service is the orderly management of decline.”
This concludes the sad part of the story, overwhelming evidence that America’s first republic has been wrecked and that its culture is but a bad imitation of what it once was. This evidence has come from politics, education, business, the arts, and the media.
Even what is perhaps the best exception is also a highly ironic one: remarkable advances in cyber technology have encouraged us to be more isolated from communities and more defined by our niche interests than the common values that create a functioning society.
About the most important job of a democracy — next to serving its people — is to make sure it stays a democracy. Forms of government don’t have tenure, and governments that rely on the consent of the governed — rather than, say, on tanks and prisons — require constant tending. As things now stand, we could easily become the first people in history to lose democracy and its constitutional freedoms simply because we have forgotten what they are about.
The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.
Today almost every principle upon which this country was founded is being turned on its head. Instead of liberty we are being taught to prefer order, instead of democracy we are taught to be follow directions, instead of debate we are inundated with propaganda. Most profoundly, American citizens are no longer considered by their elites to be members or even worker drones of society, but rather as targets – targets of opportunity by corporations and of suspicion and control by government.
So what the hell do we do about it?
In Washington there is a neighborhood known as Shaw that until the modern civil rights movement and desegregation, was an African-American community shut out without a vote, without economic power, without access, and without any real hope that any of this would change.
Its response was remarkable. For example, in 1886 there were only about 15 black businesses in the area. By 1920, with segregation in full fury, there were more than 300.
Every aspect of the community followed suit. Among the institutions created within these few square miles was a building and loan association, a savings bank, the only good hotel in the Washington where blacks could stay, the first full-service black YMCA in the country, the Howard Theatre (opened with black capital twenty years before Harlem’s Apollo became a black stage) and two first rate movie palaces.
There were the Odd Fellows, the True Reformers, and the Prince Hall Lodge. There were churches and religious organizations, a summer camp, a photography club, settlement houses, and the Washington Urban League.
Denied access to white schools, the community created a self-sufficient educational system good enough to attract suburban African-Americans students as well as teachers with advanced degrees from all over the country. And just to the north, Howard University became the intellectual center of black America. You might have run into Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, or Duke Ellington, all of whom made the U Street area their home before moving to New York.
All this occurred while black Washingtonians were being subjected to extraordinary economic obstacles and being socially and politically ostracized. If there ever was a culture entitled to despair and apathy it was black America under segregation.
Yet not only did these African-Americans develop self-sufficiency, they did so without taking their eyes off the prize. Among the other people you might have found on U Street were Thurgood Marshall and Charles Houston, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
Older residents would remember the former neighborhood with a mixture of pain and pride — not unlike the ambivalence found in veterans recalling a war. None would voluntarily return to either segregation or the battlefield but many would know that some of their own best moments of courage, skill, and heart had come when the times were at their worst.
Another example is Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history, where even the homes and whole villages seem to grow like native plants out of the rural earth rather than being placed there by human effort. Yet the Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade organization. Umbria is a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.
Or consider the increasingly cited novel, 1984. Orwell saw it coming, only his timing was off. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn’t live in it. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest numbering some 100 million were the proles.
Orwell’s division of labor and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.
As we move towards – and even surpass – the fictional bad dreams of Orwell and the in many ways more prescient Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World,’, it is helpful to remember that these nightmares were actually the curse of the elites and not of those who lived in the quaint primitive manner of humans rather than joining the living dead at the zenith of illusionary power.
This bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite that is alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today – an elite willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with minimal weapons.
Strange as it may seem, it is in this dismal dichotomy between countryside and the political and economic capitals that the hope for saving America’s soul resides. The geographical and conceptual parochialism of those who have made this mess leaves vast acres of our land still free in which to nurture hopes, dreams, and perhaps even to foster the eventual eviction of those who have done us such wrong.
Successfully confronting the present disaster will require far more than attempting to serially blockade its serial evils, necessary as this is. There must also be a guerilla democracy that defends, fosters, and celebrates our better selves – not only to provide an alternative but to create physical space for decent Americans to enjoy their lives while waiting for things to get better. It may, after all, take the rest of their lifetimes. We must not only condemn the worst, but offer witness for the better. And create places in which to live it.