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Culture Books

Intriguing ideas

Books

Intriguing ideas

How and why America has changed

Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement (Simon & Schuster, 2020) is a cranky book with lots of insights into how and why America has changed since the mid-20th century. Here are seven.

1. Why the 1960s feminist revolution? Caldwell notes that between 1920 and 1958, women went from one-third of college students to one-fourth. The GI Bill worked well for men, but “women were left stranded in empty houses full of high-powered cleaning machinery. This had never been their lot before.”

2. How did President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara misunderstand the war in Vietnam? Johnson, seeing war as an anti-poverty project, launched a Mekong River Redevelopment Commission: “We’re going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.” McNamara was a suite-level numbers guy. Caldwell writes that the war, not the protests against it, was “the sister movement to the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society.” 

3. How did President Ronald Reagan succeed and fail? Caldwell says “Reagan changed the country’s political mood for a while, but left its structures untouched.”

4. Why has globalization created such a backlash? The main purpose of “global value chains … was not industrial (seeking out value in the earth’s far corners) but political (getting across the border to someplace, anyplace, where the obligations to workers that American companies had accumulated since the New Deal could be repudiated). Sneaking a manufacturing operation out the door one stage of production at a time aroused less disruption, suspicion, and controversy than moving it lock, stock, and barrel.”

5. How did the federal government contribute to the Great Recession of 2008? Under political pressure the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and its two siblings, Ginnie Mae and Freddie Mac, pushed dangerous mortgages onto borrowers who did not have the funds to handle them. By 2007 these federally backed entities were supposed to have low-income loans be 56 percent of their portfolios, and two-fifths of those were high risk. Almost half of new homeowners had no down payments: “Banks had trillions of dollars in loans on their books that would never have been made, absent government pressure.”

6. What’s one reason the number of births has declined? Philosopher Bertrand Russell even in the 1920s, despite being a “free love” advocate, forecast what would happen if the government replaced fathers as protectors and providers: “It would eliminate from their lives the only emotion equal in importance to sex love. … It would make men less active and probably cause them to retire earlier from work. … The elimination of paternity as a recognized social relation would tend to make men’s emotional life trivial and thin, causing in the end a slowly growing boredom and despair.”

7. In what field during the last 50 years have we had a big breakthrough? “Not in travels but in communications. The distance abolished was the kind that is in people’s heads. … Computers have been not so much an expression of America’s historic ingenuity as an alternative to it.”

BOOKMARKS

Christopher Caldwell’s analysis also bulwarked two of my own thoughts:

Why did school busing create such a backlash in Boston? Rich whites were pushing around poor whites without risking anything themselves. Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who lived in the wealthy, 100 percent white suburb of Wellesley and issued the decree, appointed a panel of “distinguished experts” to study the controversy. Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger said they were distinguished “only in the sense that not one of them was the parent of a child who would be affected by forced busing.” White children made up 60 percent of the Boston public school system when busing began in 1974, but only 20 percent less than a decade later.

How have the Iraq and Afghanistan wars hurt the U.S. as well as the inhabitants of those countries? Beyond deaths and injuries, George W. Bush’s administration incurred debts greater than those presided over by any other Republican president—partly to finance the war and partly to raise social spending so Democrats wouldn’t rebel. The national debt doubled during the Bush years, doubled again during the Obama years, and is rising by 1 trillion dollars per year under Donald Trump.