Book: The Way We Never Were

dimanche 05 février 2017

Hearing about how Donald Trump wants to "make America great again" for the last year and a half made me think when was America great? Since the 80s, conservatives have loved to talk about the decline in "family values" and how all social and economic problems stem from the lack of "traditional" families, usually referencing the 1950s Leave it to Beaver sitcom-style family as their model of what a good, decent traditional family should be. I suspected that such a family never really existed other than on TV, and I decided to read this book, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz to get another opinion on this issue.

The book basically concludes that the "traditional nuclear family" consisting of a working father and a stay at home mother was a relatively recent invention, only really existing in the years after WWII, and that contrary to popular nostalgia of the 1950s as a period of good, decent, family values the rates of poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence and marital dissatisfaction were significantly higher than they were in the early 1990s, when the book was written. In the 1950s wife beating was not even considering a "real" crime and battered wives who saw psychiatrists were often counseled to stop provoking their husbands. 

During the Reagan era you would often hear that social and economic problems were due to the end of the traditional family - as seen in rising divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and the rise of out-of-wedlock births. In fact the rates of teenager girls having children was higher in the 1950s than in the 1990s, although back then many teenage girls who got pregnant would either be forced to marry or live with their parents, in which case their children would not be counted as being raised in a single parent home.

Ms. Coontz makes a case that the social and economic issues of the 1980s were in fact directly related to rising income inequality and poverty caused by the deregulation and privatization of the Reagan years, which tie in to the idea of a nuclear family as the basic unit of society. In the past extended familes were much more common and communities and social ties were stronger. It was really only in the post-war years that the self-contained nuclear family which only cares about itself became prevalent, and the idea was really promulgated, largely by advertisers, who wanted to sell goods to housewives, and mass media, which wanted to have the least objectionable programming to appeal to the widest possible audience and thus appeal to advertisers. She argues that the privatization of the family was just part of a wider trend of the economic privatization of everything which is still ongoing. Divorcing families from their communities and their wider social ties was just a manifestation of the emerging neoliberal economic agenda where profit is the driving force behind and measure of everything. 

In this analysis "traditional" family values were just another piece of the commodification of everything and the shift of priorities from concern for wider social issues to everyone being obsessed with making as much money as possible for themselves. Ironically, this implies that the "traditional" family, by shifting the focus from the community to the individual, was involved in the destruction of the "traditional" family values which are often tied to the family. In fact, neither the "traditional" family nor the "traditional" values associated with that family ever really existed in reality, so the whole issue becomes largely moot.

One story I found very interesting in the book was about how different cultures have different approaches to things like family. When the Europeans arrived in America many of them were aghast as the way the Native Americans viewed family and marriage and women. The Native American women were free to do as they wanted whereas the Europeans were the property of their husbands or fathers and were very tightly controlled. The Europeans were taken aback by the fact that the women could make their own decisions and sleep with whomever they wanted. They asked the Native American men how they could know if their children were biologically theirs if they didn't enforce monogamy. The Native Americans replied that while the Europeans only loved their biological children the Native Americans loved all the children of their tribe. I would argue that, as Hillary Clinton said in the 1990s, "it takes a village" to raise a child, and Ms. Coontz provides evidence that this is in fact true, and that children who are part of a wider family than just their parents often turn out better than those raised in isolation with only their biological family.

The bottom line of the book is that the yearning for the "traditional" family of the 1950s is a trap, and distracts people from thinking about real problems and solutions, by imposing an unthinking nostalgia for a past that never really existed while ignoring the numerous problems that existed in that past. To answer my original question, the America that some people so desperately want to go back to only existed on TV and in their imaginations. 

Libellés: books, politics, economics
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Added Ability to Reply to Comments

mercredi 01 février 2017

I just added the ability to reply to comments to the code I use for the blog here. So if you want to reply to a comment just make sure you are logged in and you should be able to do so, as well as delete your comments. I tested this by leaving a comment to this post and replying to it.

I am using my own Larablog package for Laravel for the blog here, it is available on Packagist and my GitHub page

Libellés: coding
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Fareed Zakaria and Nick Hanauer

samedi 21 janvier 2017

Fareed Zakaria wrote an article in the Washington Post a few days ago about globalization. The article argues against Trump-style protectionism, saying that globalization and free trade are not the problem, but national policies are the problem. As an example he asks what if instead of the US spending $14.2 trillion on multiple wars over the last three decades that money had been invested in American industry and infrastructure. He also mentions that most of the profits from globalization have ended up on Wall Street (or in the pockets of a small number of billionaires) as opposed to benefiting the general population. 

After having read several books recently about the problems with globalization I was struggling to reconcile the very valid points made in those books with my personal sense that removing borders and barriers can't possibly be bad. After having read an article by Nick Hanauer called The Pitchforks Are Coming... For Us Plutocrats I was finally able to reconcile the confusion in my head.

Mr. Hanauer says that the growing income inequality is destroying the capitalist system. As an example he uses himself - he says he makes about 1,000 times the average American income, but he doesn't buy 1,000 times as many products. I imagine it would be very difficult to spend that much money. When the corporations move their production offshore they reduce their costs, but they keep the profit and distribute it to their officers and investors instead of distributing it to their labor force. While Henry Ford used to believe that each of his workers should earn enough to buy one of his cars, today the offshore laborers producing goods are lucky to earn enough to be able to feed their families. So where does the extra money go? It goes into the hands of the CEOs who pay themselves outrageous salaries (331 times the average worker's salary), and into the hands of investors and into Wall Street banks.

Mr. Hanauer says that this model is unsustainable because if this trend continues soon the only people who will be able to afford to buy products are the very wealthy, and they don't need to buy enough products to sustain the whole economy. He believes that if it continues soon the people will have no choice but to rise against the plutocrats with pitchforks.

In 2015 the wealthiest 62 people on the planet had the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. This year that number has gone down to the wealthiest 8 people, meaning that those 8 people have as much money as the poorest 3.5 billion combined. If you give one of the poorest 3.5 billion people an extra couple dollars each they would likely spend it on essentials like food, clothing, housing, healthcare, so that money gets recirculated back into the economy. The wealthiest 8 people probably don't really need anything that they can't already afford, so if you give them a couple million dollars each (as Trump plans to do with tax cuts) are they going to spend that money back into the economy or are they going to put it in the bank with the billions they already have there?


Libellés: politics, economics
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The Shock Doctrine - Book Review

vendredi 13 janvier 2017

I just finished reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. This book picked up right where Acid Dreams left off - discussing the CIA's research into brainwashing and torture. It starts off with the story of a Candian woman who went into a psychiatric hospital for depression and how her psychiatrist, who was on the CIA's payroll, proceeded to test his new theories on her about how to cure mental illness by trying to destroy her personality and then rebuild a new one. In this case his methods included medically induced comas, constant electro-shock therapy, sensory deprivation followed by sensory overload, as well as cocktails of many unknown and dangerous drugs. After he had subjected her to sufficient stress to regress her to a child-like state he then tried to rebuild her personality by playing tape loops with messages like "I am a good and caring mother." Not surprisingly, this treatment failed, and when she was discharged she was in a far worse state than she had been when she arrived.

This story is a metaphor for what the book talks about - how the United States tries to impose free-market economies on unwilling countries by using what Ms. Klein calls "The Shock Doctrine." The Shock Doctrine basically involves taking countries that are in a state of crisis and using the panic and shock felt by the populace to push through radical free-market "reforms."

During the Cold War the US made a practice of supporting ruthless dictators so long as they were against communism or socialism, and supported numerous military coups of South American countries where the democratically elected governments were leaning towards socialist policies. These countries were no where close to the type of authoritarian communism of the USSR, but maybe had slightly socialist policies like a strong social safety net or some nationalized industries. And invariably, the effect of the free-market reforms and free trade regulations were what we still see today - huge income inequality, social stratification and the rise of powerful multinational corporations. In other words in these countries the regular people were probably doing fine with jobs at state owned factories that paid enough for them to purchase the essentials, which may have been price controlled. Then the US comes in and privatizes industry and eliminates tariffs and opens up free trade, which results in the cost of living going up, many jobs being eliminated, and the resources of the country being sold off to foreign corporations. The new governments in many cases had to give themselves dictatorial powers in order to push through these unpopular economic programs, and the end result was that the multinational corporations and the wealthy got more wealthy and the rest of the people were driven into poverty.

We see this in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Yeltstin dismantled the parliament and gave himself complete control over the country so he could push through his economic "reforms." The Western press mostly reported that he had to do this to prevent the government from being taken back by hard-line communists, so I don't know what the truth of the situation was, but when viewed through the history of economic "reforms" forced by the IMF and the US, this interpretation certainly seems more plausible. While Yeltsin had dictatorial powers, he pushed through the economic policies which resulted in the rise of the Russian oligarchs, and led to the state of the country now - where you have a small number of incredibly wealthy billionaires and the majority of the population is close to or in poverty.

These radical free-market policies were largely conceived of and popularized by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics, who believe that completely free markets are completely efficient, and the less government interference in the markets, the more efficient they are and the better off everyone will be. This philosophy states that the role of the government should essentially be limited to having a police force and a military to ensure law and order and protect the country, and everything else should be done by private enterprise. I learned about this theory in Business school, and at the time it made perfect sense. It took me a good few years of gathering evidence from the real world and thinking on my own to come to the conclusion that in reality this theory doesn't work. In reality this leads to exactly what we are seeing in the US, and the rest of the world, today: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I have some thoughts as to the flaws in the theory, but those are for another day.

The book describes numerous occassions where the Shock Doctrine has been put into place - starting with South American military coups, going through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the response to the 90's Asian economic crisis, the response to the tsunami in Asia, 9/11, and leading through into Iraq and even the response to Hurricane Katrina. The pattern is always the same - a crisis puts the people into a state of shock, the US government, along with the IMF and the World Bank, takes advantage of the crisis to push through deeply unpopular economic policies. By the time the people regain their senses it is too late to do anything about the new economic policies. And the end result is that the general population ends up doing significantly worse while a small number of new billionaires are made and billions flow out of the country into the pockets of the multinationals.

Unfortunately, now that the threat of communism is long gone, it seems that neo-liberal free-market capitalism is the only game in town and I suspect that things will get much worse before they get better. I think it is going to be very difficult to try to make any significant changes when any such changes will be opposed by the people who profit from the current system and thus have all the money and power. If nothing else, this book was a wake-up call.

Libellés: books, politics, economics
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