Why Don’t We Learn From History?

“History is economics in action.”  Karl Marx

Requiem for The American Deam

Recently, I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary: “Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power” (available on Netflix and Amazon streaming video). The film is a series of interviews of Chomsky conducted over four years and released in 2015.  Chomsky’s focus in the film is economic inequality and its corrosive effects on society and democracy.

The interviews are structured around 10 economic and political principles associated with the concentration of wealth and power.  I am aware that Chomsky is widely considered a radical leftist by some, but I do believe he is right about the necessity and role of activism, especially now.  In Requiem, Chomsky articulates his views on the concentration of wealth and power in a manner that is coherent and accessible to the economics-challenged like myself.

He begins with Principle No. 1: Reduce Democracy. He discusses James Madison’s views and efforts in framing the Constitution.  Madison was a true believer in democracy, but he also worried about “an excess of democracy.” He felt that our system should be designed so that power resides in the hands of the wealthy, because they “are the more responsible set of men.”

In the constitutional debates of 1787, Madison stated that “The major concern of the society has to be to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”  In other words, if everybody has an equal vote, the majority of the poor will naturally come together to take away the property of the rich minority.  This concern, says Chomsky, goes all the way back to Aristotle, who believed democracy to be the superior system of government, but who pointed out the same “flaw” as Madison, that on an equal footing, the poor majority would seek to take away the wealth of the rich minority.  But Madison and Aristotle had opposite solutions: Aristotle proposed trying to reduce inequality; Madison proposed reducing democracy.  In the end, the founding fathers placed the most power in the hands of the Senate – which was not an elected body in those times.  Senators were selected from the wealthy by state legislatures.

From that beginning, Chomsky walks us through U.S. history, the cycles of progress and regression, and the constant tension between the Aristotlean and Madisonian tendencies.  It is fascinating stuff.  At one point while watching the film, I was struck by Chomsky’s comment that we should not be at all surprised by the current political and economic landscape.  That comment reminded me of the observations of two historians, B.H. Liddell Hart and Will Durant.

Liddell Hart was primarily a military historian, but in his book Why Don’t We Learn From History?, he contemplates broader themes as well as “the familiar string of political confidence tricks, repeated all down the ages – yet they rarely fail to take in a fresh generation.”

Truth is a spiral staircase. What looks true on one level may not be true on the next higher level. A complete vision must extend vertically as well as horizontally – not only seeing the parts in relation to one another but embracing the different planes.

History provides that complete vision.

Durant is more specific. He devotes an entire chapter to Economics and History in his 1968 book The Lessons of History and shows us how concentration of wealth is a recurring and natural cycle.

“Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men.  The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability.”  The freedoms of democracy accelerate the rate of concentration.  In 1968, Durant wrote “the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome.”  I wonder what he would say today.

According to Durant, when the disparity widens to a point of critical instability, pressure is relieved in one of two ways: by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.  He provides historical examples: Solon’s redistribution of wealth in 597 B.C. Athens (one of Solon’s methods was establishing an income tax whereby the rich paid taxes twelve times that of the poor),  Rome’s hundred years of class and civil war, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and Durant’s final example (which Chomsky also discusses in “Requiem”):

“The government of the United States, in 1933-52 and 1960-65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution. Perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.”

Gods and Monsters: Reading for an Election Year

The SpeechwriterIn 2007, Barton Swaim joined the staff of Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina, as a speechwriter and communications officer. Yes – the same governor whose six-day disappearance in June of 2009 inspired the delightful addition of “hiking the Appalachian Trail” to the lexicon of sexual scandals of our elected officials.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In 2007, Barton Swaim had a PhD in English, a wife and two children, and a strong desire to quit his minimum-wage day job and begin earning a living by writing.  Governor Sanford was a rising star in the Republican party, gaining the attention of influential commentators and talked about as a potential presidential candidate.   The Speechwriter, A Brief Education in Politics is Swaim’s memoir of the three years and ten months he spent “working for the governor of a southern state.”

Before he took the job, Swaim thought that the Governor was “everything a politician should be – a politician in the best sense of the word, if it has a best sense.  He did what he said he was going to do, he took his duties seriously, he behaved himself in public with charm and decorum, he did not fear criticism, and he had realistic views of what government could accomplish.”  But within a few weeks, the Governor revealed a very different persona.  With his staff, the Governor was a mercurial, tyrannical, and abusive master.  Striving to please, Swaim studied samples of the Governor’s lackluster writing, trying to find a “voice” that he could build upon.  As I read Swaim’s account of his frustration in trying to understand why the Governor was never satisfied with his work, and was unable (or unwilling) to articulate why, I was reminded of Dogberry, Shakespeare’s tiresome constable of stupefying rhetoric in Much Ado About Nothing:

Marry, sir, they have committed false report;
moreover, they have spoken untruths;
secondarily, they are slanderers;
sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady;
thirdly, they have verified unjust things;
and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.

Swaim’s wife advised him to start writing badly – “badly, like him [the Governor], with clumsy, meandering sentences and openings that seemed calculated to make you stop reading.” A senior staffer also advised Swain to do just that. He explained that Swaim’s job was “not to please the Governor with superior work, because that would never happen. The goal was to take away any reason he might have to bitch at you.”

It was then too that Nat explained that my job wasn’t to write well; it was to write like the Governor. I wasn’t hired to come up up with brilliant phrases, I was hired to write what the Governor would have written if he had had the time. ‘Um, yeah,’ Nat said. ‘Welcome to hell.’

But I couldn’t bring myself to try it.  I don’t claim that my writing was brilliant, but the objections he raised were mystifying to me and sometimes totally unreasonable.  He would quibble with a harmless phrase and, instead of saying simply that he didn’t like it and having me change it or changing it himself, he would fulminate about it and rewrite the entire piece in a fit of irritation.  It was almost as if he was afraid that if somebody started writing precisely what he wanted, he’d have no control over what was written.  Expressing constant dissatisfaction was perhaps his way of maintaining control.  Once, he stormed into the press office, paper in hand, incensed that I had written the words “towns of Lee County.”  He thought it should have been “towns in Lee County.”  He walked around to various offices – legislative, policy, law – asking staffers if they though it sounded right to say “towns of” or “towns in” Lee County.

Swaim finally got it. The Governor wanted verbiage, a lot of it, but without too much meaning or content.  If you say something meaningless often enough in different ways, it begins to take on a kind of axiomatic weight.  In the process of trying to make peace with his writer’s soul, Swaim puts up a reasonable defense for the political speak (BS) that drives us all crazy:

It’s impossible to attain much success in politics if you’re the sort of person who can’t abide disingenuousness.  This isn’t to say politics is full of lies and liars; it has no more liars that other fields do.  Actually one hears very few proper lies in politics.  Using vague, slippery, or just meaningless language is not the same as lying; it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.

You find yourself thinking, OK, maybe he has a point, as you read and laugh out loud at real life situations in the press room trenches that border on the Kafkaesque.  The Speechwriter is an entertaining look at politics from the inside, funny as hell, a wicked farce – until you remind yourself that it is reality and it’s no laughing matter.

But what is to be done?  We can’t have a democracy without politics and politicians.  And as Adlai Stevenson observed, if one does what he must do to win election, then he is not fit to hold the office.  Swaim gives us not an answer, but a caution: we must never trust our politicians, any of them.  Is he simply disillusioned by his “brief education in politics”?  Perhaps, but Swaim’s final chapter, Chapter 14: A Larger Notion, is a thought-provoking, poignant reflection on modern politics and our strange impulse to hand over our collective future to celebrities and demagogues.

Hadn’t I noticed that politicians are prone to vanity, and that vanity frequently unmakes them?  Yes, I had noticed.  But I had thought of it mainly as a joke.  Now I realized it wasn’t a joke.  It was the most important thing.  Self-regard isn’t a foible to which some politicians are vulnerable.  It is the peculiar and deadly flaw of modern democratic politics. . . When we revere a politician and give him our vote, we do so because we believe his most fervent desire is to contribute to the nation’s well-being or to make the right decisions with public money. That may be a desire, but it is not what drives him.  What drives him is the thirst for glory;  the public good, as he understands it, is a means to that end.  So when a great statesman accomplishes a laudable goal by sagacity and bravery, we’re right to give him the praise he craves.  But when we’re surprised and disgusted because the man we lauded has humiliated himself and disgraced his office, we haven’t just misjudged a man – we’ve misjudged the nature of modern politics.