Read Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History Online
Authors: Kurt Andersen
America also decided in the early 1900s that it would be fairer and more sensible to fund the federal government mainly by a new direct tax on the incomes of the affluent, with progressively higher taxation percentages on higher incomes. Which meant that a quarter-century later, in the 1930s, we could afford to decide that in this country becoming old should no longer mean becoming poor. In 1940, the year Social Security benefits started,
of Americans sixty-five and older lived in poverty; by 1980 the average retiree was getting the equivalent of $14,000 a year from the federal government, a universal basic income for the old.
The countervailing powers that we built into our free-market political economy from 1880 until 1980 did not amount to an
capitalist conversion. Rather, it was really the opposite, essential to the system’s evolution and renewal, making our version of capitalism more fair, less harsh, and politically sustainable, a robust foundation for a growing middle class whose spending fueled more economic growth and a society that made most of its citizens reasonably content and proud. “The economic philosophy of American liberals had been rooted in the idea of growth,” the influential sociologist Daniel Bell wrote in the 1970s, around the time he taught a seminar I took in college. “One forgets that in the late 1940s and 1950s,” it was labor leaders “and other liberals [who] had attacked the steel companies and much of American industry for being unwilling to expand capacity. The idea of growth has become so fully absorbed as an economic ideology that one realizes no longer how much of a liberal innovation it was.” Even as Democratic president Harry Truman was launching the Cold War in 1950 to protect capitalist America from foreign Communists, he emphasized in his State of the Union speech that the country needed an even tougher antitrust law to protect our system from falling “under the control of a few dominant economic groups whose powers will be so great that they will be a challenge to democratic institutions.” Restraining excessive business power was a bipartisan consensus. A decade later President Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate Republican, boasted in his final State of the Union address about his eight years of “vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws.”
Citizens also created hundreds of other important nodes of countervailing power outside government and the labor movement. In many places—such as Nebraska, where I grew up—citizens chose to own and operate their own local electric and gas systems, and farmers formed cooperatives that gave them leverage in the marketplace. Blue Cross (1929) and Blue Shield (1939) were founded as national nonprofit associations to provide inexpensive medical insurance at one rate for anybody who wanted to sign up, regardless of their age or health or how they earned a living.
Later on, philanthropic foundations created out of the spare profits of old industrial fortunes became countervailing forces: with karmic perfection, for instance, the foundation created by the son of the founder of the Ford Motor Company began funding environmental organizations in the late 1960s.
All the new laws and formal codes and institutionalized arrangements we enacted to increase fairness and security and to look out for the common good also had the effect of reinforcing the norms from which they emerged, the American attitudes and informal codes concerning fairness and mutual social obligation. It was a virtuous cycle. In 1965 the CEOs of the largest U.S. corporations were paid twenty times as much as their average employees not because it would’ve been
to pay them one hundred times as much, but because to do so would’ve struck everyone as unacceptably unfair. Yes, government started providing Social Security and then, in the 1960s, Medicare and Medicaid, but during the same period more and more companies
provided more and more generous health insurance plans and pensions. In 1939 barely 5 percent of Americans were covered by insurance for hospitalization, but by the mid-1950s it was 60 percent. Over the same brief period, the fraction of American workers set to get fixed pensions from their companies went from just 7 percent to one-fourth of them, on its way to a majority by the 1970s.
In short, the main players in the political economy, business and employees and customers and citizens, worked out a rough power equilibrium that felt more or less fair, which helped keep the economy prospering and growing. This balancing act, and all the new social safety nets and cushions and backups we created, allowed the American economy to evolve quickly and momentously during the 1900s as technology kept improving productivity and putting people in new kinds of jobs—by and large better jobs until the 1980s. In 1900 four in ten working Americans were farmers, but in the 1950s fewer than one in ten had anything to do with agriculture, and by 1970 it was 3 percent. Similarly, between the end of World War II and 1970, the fraction of workers in manufacturing shrank from almost half to a quarter—because by 1970 half the workforce, all those tens of millions of would’ve-been farmers and factory workers, were earning their livings in offices and stores. In other words, before the twentieth century was over, agriculture and manufacturing between them had gone from employing 76 percent of all workers to just 10 percent.
For most Americans, it didn’t play out too badly, especially during the excellent third economic quarter of the century. If you were lucky enough to be a thirty-year-old in 1970, you were 92 percent certain of having a higher standard of living than your parents had had when they were your age. From the 1940s through the ’70s—when our richest citizens were paying rates of 70 and 80 and 90 percent on the millionth dollars they earned each year—U.S. productivity and GDP per person
median household income after inflation all
“Productivity isn’t everything,” the Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman has written, “but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to raise its standard of living depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.” A country’s willingness to raise the majority of its people’s standard of living in sync with increasing productivity and growth—to
the good fortune fairly—depends, of course, on politics.
Jefferson did include this boilerplate disclaimer near the end of his letter to Monroe about Whitney: “I know nothing of his moral character.”
A note on averages: a few times I’ve been in rooms with a hundred ordinary people and my acquaintance Warren Buffett, which meant the average person’s net worth in those rooms was nearly $1 billion.
Charles Dickens’s fantasy of a capitalist’s redemption and Engels’s chronicle of real-life Scrooges indifferent to their employees’ misery are a matched pair: Engels was writing
The Condition of the Working Class in England
in Manchester at the end of 1843, just as Dickens wrote and published
A Christmas Carol
The year I was born, my parents had a Blue Cross insurance policy for which they paid, to cover themselves and my three siblings and me—in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation—the equivalent of $700 a year.
It’s true, there was no Internet yet.
But nobody young or even youngish today has lived in an America where almost
seemed constantly, excitingly new, where celebrating newness in every realm was a kind of giddy, overriding national passion. In the early 1960s the United States was still taking its post–World War II victory laps, which seemed to be spiraling upward toward an ever better, shinier future. Vaccines for crippling and deadly childhood diseases were new. Suburbs were still new, television was still pretty new, color television and live transatlantic television (beamed by the Telstar satellite) were
Rock music was new, and couples dancing without touching was newer. Driving our Mustangs and Vista Cruisers on interstate highways (and wearing seatbelts) was new. Steel-and-glass high-rises were new. Shopping malls were new, as were credit cards and plastic everything else, along with Dacron, Spandex, fast food, frozen food, instant food, and ubiquitous artificially colored food. We even had two new states, the first since olden times.
Air travel was new, and only a lucky minority of Americans had ever flown. The space program was an apotheosis of newness, as well as a genuine national obsession. We had a new president, the youngest ever, who’d prebranded his administration as the New Frontier, and in a famous speech about “the new frontier of science and space” right after the first U.S. astronaut had orbited the Earth, he promised we’d “go to the moon in this decade.”
A week later a TV series set one hundred years in the future,
premiered in prime time, and three months after that the president spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the U.S. pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, which he said would show the world “what America is going to be in the future.” And so it did. My most vivid memory of my tenth year was a trip to Chicago, my first to a big city, and the afternoon we spent at the Museum of Science and Industry, where I had a long-distance Picturephone conversation with a stranger at the Bell System’s World’s Fair pavilion in New York City. General Motors’ fair pavilion was called Futurama. General Electric’s, called Progressland, had been designed by the Disney Company, and Walt was at that moment dreaming up his masterwork in Florida, the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, EPCOT.
A majority of American women making themselves
new by coloring their hair (and a small minority by surgically enhancing their faces and bodies) was a new phenomenon. This midcentury mania for the new had its downsides, particularly when combined with Establishment hubris. Among the unfortunate effects was the national consensus that the way to deal with urban neighborhoods full of old buildings (and black people) in older cities was wholesale demolition and replacing them with massive new buildings and highways. In 1963 New York City began demolishing one of its two grand railway terminals, Pennsylvania Station, just fifty-three years old—mainly because it was not new. Federally funded “urban renewal,” as its promoters had just rebranded it, wrecked and maimed many more neighborhoods than it renewed or revived. Just before the policies of the best and brightest in Washington started destroying villages in Vietnam in order to save them, a kind of nonlethal dress rehearsal had taken place in American cities.
When we talk about The Sixties, we usually mean the full-on Vietnam War era, not the first few years of the decade. The differences between 1963 and 1969 were dramatic—the clothes, the hair, the sound, the language, the
—and the changes happened insanely fast, in a couple of thousand days from shiny earnest Apollonian Progressland to crazed and furry Dionysian hordes. However, once you start thinking of America over its whole history as
the land of the new,
that abrupt segue from the square 1960s to the wild 1960s makes a lot more sense.
Having successfully survived the Depression (by means of the New Deal) and won World War II (in the end by means of a wholly new weapon), America shifted into high gear and for two decades cruised along, blithely speeding into the future. Transformative federal laws—Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the Immigration and Nationality Act, all enacted in a single year’s time, the year of the New York World’s Fair—seemed strikingly new but also the inevitable next phase of modern American progress, the planned, sensible, well-managed new. Then all of a sudden, in 1965, a warp drive kicked in and blasted the country into an uncharted galaxy of psychedelic anti-Establishment angry and ecstatic anything-goes
But nearly all the big 1960s changes, the various different varieties of new, had a common source, in addition to the deep-seated national predisposition: after twenty-plus years of exceptional prosperity and increasing economic equality that were both still going strong, a critical mass of Americans felt affluent and secure, which made their native self-confidence and high expectations for the next new thing still more intense. That run of shared affluence allowed the grown-ups in charge to decide we could afford Medicare and Medicaid and the various War on Poverty experiments, and it eased the way for more people to obey the better angels of their nature concerning equality for African Americans and women.
After a generation of Depression and world war, the thriving new political economy also inclined people to have lots more children. Those children were raised almost as if they were a special new subspecies who required more tenderness and understanding than previous humans, the new approach famously codified by Dr. Benjamin Spock’s mega-bestseller
Baby and Child Care,
published in the first year of the baby boom. Distinctly new, faintly futuristic, immensely popular toys were invented and manufactured
just for these new modern children—
when I was between three and eleven, Frisbees, Hula Hoops, Slip ’N Slides, and Super Balls all appeared. Most of that stupendous mob became teenagers during the 1960s. There were half again as many young people in America during the 1960s as there’d been just fifteen years earlier.
Adolescents by their nature can be attention seekers who feel they have a unique understanding of truth and virtue, but until the American 1960s, probably no generation anywhere ever had been the center of so much attention or had their specialness so extravagantly validated by their elders. In the 1960s
sort of distinct national teenage sensibility and culture were still new phenomena, having emerged only in the 1950s along with rock and roll. What’s more, the booming political economy also meant that more of them than ever before were gathered together on college campuses. This new concentration was ideal for maximizing the contagious spread of new cultural values and turning ecstatic-righteous-angry adolescence itself into a kind of ideology. When the parents of baby boomers had been young, 1 or 2 million attended college at any given time; in the fall of 1969,
students were in college, four out of ten of them women.
Women of no earlier generation had been able to prevent pregnancy reliably, but in 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pill, and by 1965 it was the contraceptive of choice. Among the new technologies of the last hundred years, only penicillin, television, and computers reshaped life as much. A single new pharmaceutical freed unmarried young people to have more sex more casually than had ever been possible—in other words, to create entirely new social norms almost overnight. The Pill embodies and straddles the earlier and later parts of the decade—an artifact of corporate science and the technology of convenience that enabled free-for-all grassroots social transformations, from the World’s Fair to Woodstock in a single astounding leap.
The baby boomers’ lurch into anti-Establishment sex-drugs-and-rock-and-rollism was also a result of their coming of age with a whole new underlying existential angst: the USSR acquired intercontinental nuclear missiles only in the late 1950s, and the new possibility of instant global apocalypse surely helped predispose a critical mass of American kids to become hedonists, renegades, utopians, and/or nihilists, at least temporarily. But that was only a hypothetical war. When the actual war came in 1964 and 1965, just as the oldest boomers turned eighteen and nineteen, it triggered the full-scale countercultural reaction—then kept fueling it as the U.S. deployment in Vietnam increased from a few thousand advisers to 445,000 troops in less than two years, and as the rate at which young Americans were killed increased eventually to five hundred per week.
One of the ideas underlying this book is that until recently the look and feel of American life dramatically changed every couple of decades, making the world seem continuously new. During the 1960s, the decade of maximum American new, everything dramatically changed every couple of
The whole society was suddenly geared to run on the time frame of youth, when two years is a large fraction of one’s life.
In the summer of 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., the avatar of nonviolent civil rights protest, led the marvelously peaceful March on Washington. Just two years later, in the summer of 1965, the Watts riot was the first of the mega-uprisings by African Americans, and in 1966 the Black Panthers and the rest of the non-nonviolent black power movement emerged.
At the end of 1963, the
ran a long front-page article with the headline
GROWTH OF OVERT HOMOSEXUALITY IN CITY PROVOKES WIDE CONCERN
. But after the 1969 riot during a police bust of the LGBTQ patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, a long front-page
article was headlined
HOMOSEXUALS IN REVOLT
In 1963 the journalist (and suburban housewife) Betty Friedan published
The Feminine Mystique,
shocking America with her declaration that this was “a country and…a time when women can be free, finally, to move on to something more” than housewifery. Even though her book was a
bestseller for weeks, the first article referring to Freidan at length apparently wasn’t published in the paper of record until 1965—about a female ad executive ridiculing Friedan in a speech at an advertising convention. But then in the spring of 1968, the
ran a long, approving article by a woman referring to Friedan’s new National Organization for Women (NOW) and reporting that “feminism, which one might have supposed as dead as the Polish Question, is again an issue.” Not many weeks later, after a feminist anarchist shot Andy Warhol (and a journalist), the president of the New York NOW chapter appeared in court on her behalf.
“We must back Lyndon Johnson in 1964,” instructed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS),
1960s organization for young leftists, “not only for what he could be, but because he is at least a responsive politician with a certain amount of freedom to move in a positive direction.” Five years later, after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the teargassing and beating by Chicago police of antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention, SDS declared “the need for armed struggle as the only road to revolution” in the United States.
In 1965 fewer than a million Americans had ever smoked marijuana, not even one-half of 1 percent. By the end of the decade, a majority of college students had smoked, and more than 24 million Americans in all, one in six citizens of smoking age.
In early 1965 the big hit singles were “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, and the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week.” In the fall of 1966 the Beatles recorded the psychedelic
Strawberry Fields Forever,” and three months after its release came the simultaneous holy-moly newness of
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
and Jimi Hendrix’s
Are You Experienced.
In 1964 long hair on men meant just over their ears and foreheads; by 1966 it meant down to their shoulders and beyond. In 1964 the shortest hemlines were just above the knee. In 1966, according to a female writer for
New York Times,
“the Today girl, the With-it, the In girl…the new girl in fashion” wore skirts “at least 4 inches above the knee,” which was “a flag of protest, an emblem of morals and mores in transition.” In 1964 an adult wearing blue jeans in a city was eccentric, but in 1968 a
story reported that “on five continents,” blue jeans had become “the lingua franca of young male fashion.”
A new fashion for longer hair, shorter skirts, and jeans? Those seem trivial in retrospect, but at the time they struck serious middle-aged adults as deeply, meaningfully new. Short skirts, the photographer Irving Penn said in a 1966 newspaper story, are “spitting in the eye, protesting against bourgeois values and generations past, against the Establishment. It’s real protest. Much of the news isn’t fit to print. Things are happening, and that’s what the young are lifting their skirts about.” Four years later, in his huge bestseller
The Greening of America
—“There is a revolution coming…the revolution of the new generation”—the Yale professor Charles Reich devoted thousands of words to such revolutionary signifiers. The “choice of a life-style is not peripheral, it is the heart of the new awakening,” because wearing “wrinkled jeans and jackets made of coarse material” was “a deliberate rejection of the…look of the affluent society.” And “the violence with which some older people have reacted to long hair [on young men] shows that they feel a threat to the whole reality that they have constructed and lived by.” And “marijuana is a maker of revolution, a truth-serum.”