American Growth: Economic Savior or Illusory Chains

“Is American Growth Over?” What a provocative question. In America, at least anecdotally, any limitation whatsoever is seen as against the principles we hold dear. This feeling is magnified when considering some limitation on growth for that would imply a limitation on opportunity. Professor Robert Gordon lays out a remarkable claim in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” that shows that American growth – an idea completely intertwined with the illusory notion of the “American Dream” – is dwindling if not over. Gordon’s main claim is refreshingly accurate primarily because it takes into account an understanding of growth in a practical register. More powerfully, Gordon’s claim has very serious implications for how we go about handling pressing issues because if it is true then that would imply that we cannot (and should not) look to potential technological or economic growth to cure us of our social, political, and economic ails.

Firstly, Gordon is absolutely correct in his understanding of what technological growth actually is. For Gordon, technological growth is not infinite progress marching towards some utopia – there exists a ceiling of what we can achieve in bursts of time. Gordon shows this clearly when he states that “we don’t drive any faster than we did in 1965 or 1975.” For example, there was room to grow in terms of transportation and various factors worked to produce faster and more efficient modes of transportation in rapid succession; however, there has not been much change to transportation since the advent of the interstate system. This is because the amount of technological growth that would need to take place to make a system substantially better than the interstate system is exponentially harder to produce than what was needed to move from before the interstate system to our present system. Ultimately the problem with the idea of an infinite stream of growth seems to naively deny the practical necessities involved in going about the actual growing.

Secondly, the notion of sustainable American growth is intimately connected to the broader conception of the American Dream. The American Dream drives optimism into our hearts, indeed it compels us to look ahead and see the opportunity of the future rather than dwell on the pains of the present. McAfee’s optimism about American growth is dangerous for just this reason – it tells us that happiness through the fulfillment of the American Dream operates on an economic register. For McAfee, any limitation that stifles American growth necessarily stifles American opportunity which is integral to the American Dream; further, the way to secure the American Dream is through this opportunity which is entirely economic in nature. This is so potent, and so dangerous, because it neglects certain solutions to the problems we face today by answering it with a shallow “we’ll get better someday through our American spirit and growth.” For Gordon, an appropriate understanding of American growth as existing in specific pockets of time rather than as a continuous stream allows him to fully grasp the problems we face today and look to solutions immediately present to solve them – for little aid will come from the technological growth that McAfee prophesized.

The issue that Gordon broaches has many consequences that I’m not sure Gordon himself realizes. If he is correct that American growth is over, then he is essentially calling for a revolution in the way we understand ourselves as technologically limitless and in the way we understand our problems and the prudent solutions to those problems. The debate he raises is one of the most important discussions to be had in the next few years.

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War for the Soul of American Capitalism: Ray Kroc and McDonald’s

John Lee Hancock’s brilliant biopic, The Founder, details Ray Kroc’s takeover of McDonald’s. McDonald’s is not only the biggest fast food chain today, but it is also one of the most recognizable symbols of American capitalism. Thus the story of its beginnings and development can speak volumes about the nature of American capitalism, the time period of post-WWII that became fertile soil for this fast food giant, as well as the economic climate today.

The Founder is principally about one question: what does it mean to be an American business? Kroc tries unsuccessfully to pitch a partnership with the McDonald’s brothers but the final pitch that made them capitulate was Kroc’s emphatic “Do it for America…” From the onset, Kroc and the McDonald’s brothers have two antagonistic interpretations of the word success: Kroc believes it is “having McDonald’s from sea to shining sea” whereas the McDonald’s brothers are perfectly content with serving good food to the local community. From this primary distinction of scope it is evident then that Kroc is focused on the larger, national picture (and even expresses as such when he pleas to “franchise it!” repeatedly) whereas the McDonald’s brothers are focused only on small communities. For America at large, the question of scope is intimately connected to the question of the heart of American capitalism, for business on a national scale is not the same as business locally. National corporations are more calculative, they are more focused on profits, they are more focused on growth whereas local businesses are more focused on sustainability, and they are more focused on quality. These are blanket generalizations but there exists a change of soul when a business moves up in scale and it is precisely this soul that Kroc and the McDonald’s brothers fought over. This tension is but a synecdoche of the question facing American capitalists in the early post-WWII years: can small business thrive in the face of larger corporations that now have the means to roll out large franchises? The Founder answers with a resounding NO.

The Founder can also elucidate anxieties today for the reason it was created now rather than 10 or 20 years ago and is indeed very relevant. In an era of Trump, many Americans are deeply worried about the role that big business has in both their public and private life. The Founder is principally a biopic, but it is not impartial in its depiction of Ray Kroc. There is considerable bias against Ray Kroc – though this isn’t necessarily pejorative. Throughout the film Maurice McDonald’s health problems are alluded to and portrays the McDonald’s as two brothers who open a small hamburger stand, they are small and vulnerable. Ray Kroc is portrayed as ambitious, persistent, and devious. After the initial disagreements between the two, Kroc lays out his conception of business, “I want to take the future. I want to win – and you don’t get there by being some ‘aw shucks’ nice guy sap. There’s no place in business for people like that. Business is war. It’s dog-eat-dog, it’s rat-eat-rat. If my competitor were drowning, I’d walk over and put a hose right in his mouth. Can you say the same?” to which Maurice responds, “I can’t, nor would I want to” which prompts Maurice’s heart attack. In this climactic scene Hancock emphasizes the great gulf between these two conceptions of business and this tension resonates even today. Many Americans are worried about where their food comes from (they want it local), and they want to feel as if they’re home. Capitalism, as Kroc understood, is meant to play nationally, but act locally.

The Founder is a brilliant film and it subtly works to unearth the dormant question for many Americans about what exactly American capitalism is and even what it should be. Ray Kroc is seen as both a visionary, and sometimes a villain. It’s hard to know exactly what Hancock saw in Ray Kroc but it is evident at least that American capitalism was fundamentally altered after the birth of Kroc’s McDonald’s.

Ideology or Economics: Chattel Slavery and Capitalism

Following the resurgence of White Supremacy and calls for the removal of confederate monuments, it is easy to see that the position of slavery in American History still remains a highly controversial topic – especially when mixed with another highly controversial and intimate topic, capitalism. Following these recent trends, many Americans have come to enter a similar dialogue once more: what exactly is the relationship of capitalism and slavery? Julia Ott in Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism” offers a proactive insight into this puzzling question by proposing that slavery as a practice should not be seen as historically distinct from the evolution of capitalism.

The most intriguing implication of Ott’s proposition is that it would require slaves be seen as capital rather than people. This seems superficially obvious but I agree with Ott’s rejection of  the prominent theories of capitalism that state that “because under slavery workers do not labor for a wage” because it misunderstands that slavery plays a crucial role in the evolution of capital. This would require, if we were to recombine slavery and capitalism historically, that slavery can be seen as capital alongside that of technology, land, etc. This is intriguing because it tackles a longstanding and often difficult question: how much are people worth? Cotton Kings in their development and acquisition of land and technology answered this question by raising quotas and using physical punishment to increase the output of slaves. In this, each cotton king is, as an economic agent, reducing people down to slaves, and then further, slaves down to an output.

Another implication found in the relationship of chattel slavery to capitalism is the ideological conflict present in the American Revolution. Ott mentions that “after the American revolution, racialized chattel slavery appeared – to some – as inconsistent with the natural rights and liberties of man.” This has resounding effects in the conversation about capitalism’s relationship to slavery because it underscores a deep conflict: what is the larger motivating factor: economic gain or ideology? This is also a terribly difficult question to answer and it seems to have torn the nation apart in the Civil War. Ott implies that economics played a much larger part in determining the future of slavery as the North emancipated slaves not because of their devotion to some abstract idea of freedom or liberty, but instead that “ By the 1850s, industrial and agricultural capitalists above the Mason-Dixon line no longer needed cotton to the same extent that they once did.” Furthermore, the South’s continuation of chattel slavery was in large part because “slavery proved crucial in the emergence of American finance” and that “profits from commerce, finance, and insurance related to cotton and to slaves flowed from merchant-financiers located in New Orleans and mid-Atlantic port cities.” This is a very provocative argument as it implies that any ideological reason for supporting or banning slavery is seen as almost peripheral (or perhaps ancillary) to any reason stemming from economic benefit or loss.  This conclusion could be explored even further (in probably a much longer paper) and would provide an intriguing synecdoche for American motivations as a whole.

The question about capitalism is not one divorced from the question of slavery and its importance in the development of America. Not only does capitalism have economic implications, as seen through the industrialization and diversification of northern factories, as well as the emergence of Cotton Kings in the South, but it also has ideological implications seen through Revolutionary ideals and its conflict with economic gain. Ultimately the distinction between ideological and economic motivating factors aids in our understanding of both the conflict leading up to the Civil War and even its relation to our problems in modernity.

Getting at the Root of Cultural Conflicts

I recently read Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars and I found it extremely illuminating in its analysis of the culture wars of the last half of the twentieth century. A War for the Soul of America is about understanding what the culture wars were and how they have changed since the 1960s. Hartman comes to the conclusion that the culture wars is a good metaphor for the cultural revolution of the twentieth century but “seems farcical” (Page 284) today which I disagree with due to the continuous use of identity politics and cultural conflict.

Hartman begins by first creating a broad definition of what the culture wars were. The culture wars is the “defining metaphor for the late twentieth century” (Page 8) which “pitted liberal, progressive, and secular Americans against their conservative, traditional, and religious counterparts.” (Page 8) It is interesting that Hartman picks out these six groups as coming into conflict with one another because political debates today are still marked by these six groups conflicting. Most discussions in different mediums (Reddit, Facebook, and the mainstream media) still use categories like these to analyze different topics.

Hartman demonstrates the paradoxical nature of the culture wars through dissecting the conservative and liberal ideologies in the 1980s and 1990s. Hartman uses the culture wars as a broad encapsulation of different issues like gay rights, feminism, and the secularizing of education. Through inspecting each of these smaller issues, Hartman elaborates on each of the paradoxes that they create. In terms of the religious attitude of America in the 1980s and 1990s, Hartman writes about the paradox of American secularization as “the perplexing fact that religious authority dwindled even as the vast majority of Americans doggedly persisted in religious belief” (Page 79). Hartman also tackles the paradoxical nature of racial inequality as “the people who invented the hierarchy of ‘race’ when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist.” (Page 133) In both of these cases I found it extremely interesting that the hotbed of controversy today, religion and race relations, were intrinsically created by paradoxes according to Hartman. Showing that these heated conflicts actually stemmed from paradoxes leads to the idea that the conflicts between the different ideologies aren’t actually substantive differences.

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Hartman ultimately comes to the conclusion that “the metaphor [of the culture wars] has run its course.” (Page 285) which I feel hesitant to accept due to the applicability of the metaphor to today. The 2016 election has shown that America is not a post racial society; America is still marked by institutional racism. America is also still dealing with a potent anti-feminist backlash. Hartman defends his dismissal of the continuing use of the culture war metaphor adequately by admitting that “cultural conflict persists, but it does so in a different register, shaped by a different logic.” (Page 285) I slightly disagree with Hartman on the metaphor of the culture war being exhausted because the idea that “identity politics had their place in an earlier historical moment.” (page 285) seems to conveniently dismiss the dramatic effect that women, minorities, and the LGBT+ community had on the 2016 election. The entire election rhetoric was swarmed with talk of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump needing a certain social group’s vote. The dominant talking points were about how specific groups were reacting to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and so I disagree with Hartman that identity politics are really an artifact of a bygone era.

The question Hartman asks at the end of the book is “Can we have both cultural revolution and social democracy?” (Page 289) and this is a difficult question to answer. While reading I sat puzzled trying to answer it because the idea of cultural revolution is one necessarily tied to upheaval and change whereas social democracy is tied to commonality and solidarity. However, cultural revolution and social democracy can peacefully coexist as the mechanism that makes social democracy work is not solidarity in specific ideologies but instead is solidarity in the desire to have a prosperous nation. What makes democracy work is not believing the same opinions on certain matters but actually respecting the idea that the divisiveness of these issues is not more important than our common identity as Americans.

In conclusion, I found Hartman’s analysis of the culture wars to be very informative as the paradoxical elements of each cultural issue helps to understand the nature of the conflict itself. A War for the Soul of America has also made me reevaluate the cultural issues facing modern society and to work to see their roots and evolution since the 1960s.

 

From Armchair to Institution: Racism as ideology and Racism as Institution

In his 2002 book, Racism: A Short HistoryGeorge Frederickson tackles the question of what racism is from a historical perspective. Important here is the lack of a rigid definition that  would appear altogether divorced from any historical context. Frederickson’s understanding of racism as something deeply historical and subjected to the differences of various cultures allows his analysis to probe deeper into both the object of racism (who it affects) and its perpetrators.

The first part that caught my attention was Frederickson’s take on the Enlightenment proper and how it affected our understanding of humanity. The Medieval theologians, following Thomas Aquinas, argued that a being can have four causes (in the Aristotelian sense of “cause” meaning ‘explanation’): the efficient cause (what brought it about), the formal cause (what type of thing it is), the material cause (what matter that thing is comprised of), and the final cause (what purpose does that thing have).

4causes

(The four causes as demonstrated by this wonderful graphic)

Here the Medieval theologians put a heavy emphasis on the final cause, or the directedness of that thing, the purpose. This in turn allows for a universalization of humanity since we all share the same purpose, according to Aquinas. However, with the dawn of the Enlightenment and the rationalization of science, the emphasis shifts away from the final cause and onto the efficient cause (what made that thing). This shift breaks down the universalization of humanity and makes relevant the notion of who you are in terms of your lineage. The implications of this, Frederickson argues, is that it sees humanity as nothing but animals ready to be categorized like every other thing. It strips us of our prestige among the animals and traumatically humbles us before them.

This radical shift has had earth-shaking effects in philosophy, something notoriously theoretical and often far away from the minds of the people, and I found it remarkable that Frederickson sees that it has practical effects as well. I have become accustom to the debates of philosophy being reserved to old men in their armchairs, but here Frederickson is arguing with a brilliant vigor that these shifts in the philosophy of the intellectuals disseminated to the minds and hearts of the people.

Now another point I found interesting was the necessity of an institution in order to solidify the historical racism that Frederickson is elaborating. I can distinctly recall debates with my friends about what racism is and the main disagreement was on how to properly see racism: as an ideology that people subscribe to, or as a cultural force thrust upon people through some legal and judicial apparatus. What I found interesting was that Frederickson married the ideas of an ideological separation of people and the necessity of an institution to recognize this ideology. This is an extremely potent understanding of racism because it allows for the overtly racist regimes of Nazi Germany and the post-reconstruction South to be criticized on a deeper level. This criticism is one not only of the ideology that these regimes wore but also the bastardization of the purpose of legislation, namely, right and just laws.

In conclusion, I found Racism: A Short History, to be as provocative as it is insightful. The argument for the necessity of the institution to legitimize the ideology is still pertinent today. In America, in my humble opinion, I find that we are too quick to separate racism as ideology and racism as institution. We wish to have a governing body that isn’t tainted by a history of institutionalized racism and this leaves us to sometimes be naively optimistic in our appraisal of how far we have come. However, we need to reexamine our legislation and root out racism, which as I have come to agree with Frederickson, can only be done through an honest evaluation of our institutions and the moral order that they subscribe to.

The American Dream – Flanders

In his book The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a NationJim Cullen goes into great length about what exactly the ambiguous notion of the “American Dream” is and how it evolved to its modern conception. I found interesting two key things: where the idea initially came from, and what gave it its nation-shaping gusto.

I knew, from one of my philosophy classes, that Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism told the narrative that it was from Protestantism that Capitalism arose and dominated the Western world. The mixture of hard work, dedication, and a sense of world-shaping agency gave rise to the ability for more and more people to “get rich”. Cullen goes on to state that “The Puritans wanted to get rich too, and as a number of observers pointed out,their temperament was exceptionally well suited to an emerging capitalist world order.” (Cullen, 34) However, what I found intriguing was the evolution from tying this early American Dream that was deeply intertwined with religion and the more secular American Dream that we have today. One of Cullen’s most interesting points was that it was because of the success of the Puritans that more and more non-Puritan people were coming to Boston. Thus the idea of the American Dream became secularized because of its success which is interesting because today it is entirely secularized with no talk about a divine mission. So it is from this radical shift from the American Dream coming about because of a religious movement to its divorcement from religion entirely.

The second point I found interesting was the emphasis on the Declaration of Independence. From a more anecdotal position, when I have talked to people about what America is the document that they point to is the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

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(The Declaration of Independence – a deeply philosophical work)

The Constitution has obviously shaped America, the very definition of the document is what does that. However, the Declaration of Independence has invigorated the Constitution by giving it a certain fiery element – an element that inspires people to look up to it and to honor it. Cullen presents the Declaration of Independence as a document that inspires people, a document that gives people hope and ambition. This, more than the cold structure of the Constitution, is what people care about. Thus it is no coincidence that when people talk about America they bring up the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as elaborated by the founding father and philosopher Thomas Jefferson. The Constitution tells us what procedures to follow, but the Declaration of Independence is what tells us why we follow it. In other words, the Constitution is what created the American government, but the Declaration of Independence created the American identity.

In conclusion, this book really spoke to me because of how eerily similar Cullen’s points were to actual discussions that I have had in real life. This is probably evidence that Cullen is on to something and I believe that, for the most part, he is correct in his analysis of the American Dream.