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What Kind of Country Do We Want?

Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 2017
Magnum Photos
Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 2017; photograph by Matt Black

In my odd solitude I stream the America of recent memory. The pretext for drama, in the foreground, seems always to be a homicide, but around and beyond the forensic stichomythia that introduces character and circumstance there is a magnificent country, a virtual heaven. In a dystopian future, children would surely ask what it was like to live in such a country. Candid memory would say, By no means as wonderful as it should have been, even granting the broad streaks of pain in its history. Before there was a viral crisis whose reality forced itself on our notice, there were reports of declines of life expectancy in America, rising rates of suicide, and other “deaths of despair.” This is surely evidence of another crisis, though it was rarely described as such. The novel coronavirus has the potential for mitigation, treatment, and ultimately prevention. But a decline in hope and purpose is a crisis of civilization requiring reflection and generous care for the good of the whole society and its place in the world. We have been given the grounds and opportunity to do some very basic thinking.

Without an acknowledgment of the grief brought into the whole world by the coronavirus, which is very much the effect of sorrows that plagued the world before this crisis came down on us, it might seem like blindness or denial to say that the hiatus prompted by the crisis may offer us an opportunity for a great emancipation, one that would do the whole world good. The snare in which humanity has been caught is an economics—great industry and commerce in service to great markets, with ethical restraint and respect for the distinctiveness of cultures, including our own, having fallen away in eager deference to profitability. This is not new, except for the way an unembarrassed opportunism has been enshrined among the laws of nature and has flourished destructively in the near absence of resistance or criticism. Options now suddenly open to us would have been unthinkable six months ago. The prestige of what was until very lately the world economic order lingers on despite the fact that the system itself is now revealed as a tenuous set of arrangements that have been highly profitable for some people but gravely damaging to the world. These arrangements have been exposed as not really a system at all—insofar as that word implies stable, rational, intentional, defensible design.

Here is the first question that must be asked: What have we done with America? Over the decades we have consented, passively for the most part, to a kind of change that has made this country a disappointment to itself, an imaginary prison with real prisoners in it. Now those imaginary walls have fallen, if we choose to notice. We can consider what kind of habitation, what kind of home, we want this country to be.

No theoretical language I know of serves me in describing or interpreting this era of American unhappiness, the drift away from the purpose and optimism that generally led the development of the society from its beginnings. This can be oversimplified and overstated, but the United States did attract immigrants by the tens of millions. It did create great cities and institutions as well as a distinctive culture that has been highly influential throughout the world. Until recently it sustained a generally equitable, decent government that gave it plausible claims to answering to the ideals of democracy. This is a modest statement of the energies that moved the generations. Optimism is always the primary justification for its own existence. It can seem naive until it is gone. The assumption that things can get better, with the expectation that they should, creates the kind of social ferment that yields progress. If we want to avoid the word “progress,” then call it the creative unrest that made 2019 an advance on 1919.

In recent decades, which have been marked by continuous, disruptive change and by technological innovation that has reached assertively into every area of life, a particular economics has become a Theory of Everything, subordinating all other considerations to some form of cost-benefit analysis that silently insinuates special definitions of both cost and benefit. If neither of these is precisely monetizable—calories might have to stand in for currency in primordial transactions—personal advantage, again subject to a highly special definition, is seen as the one thing at stake in human relations. The profit motive has been implanted in our deepest history as a species, in our very DNA.

This kind of thinking has discredited ideals like selflessness and generosity as hypocritical or self-deceived, or in any case as inefficiencies that impede the natural economy of self-interest—somehow persisting through all the millennia that might have been expected to winnow out inefficiencies, if the pervasiveness of this one motive is granted. I consider the American university to be among the highest achievements of Western civilization. And I know at the same time that varieties of nonsense that would not last ten minutes if history or experience were consulted can flourish there, and propagate, since our entire professional class, notably teachers, go to university. There has always been learned nonsense, of course. But when angels danced on the heads of pins, at least the aesthetic imagination was brought into play.

Much American unhappiness has arisen from the cordoning-off of low-income workers from the reasonable hope that they and their children will be fairly compensated for their work, their contribution to the vast wealth that is rather inexactly associated with this country, as if everyone had a share in it. Their earnings should be sufficient to allow them to be adequate providers and to shape some part of their lives around their interests. Yet workers’ real wages have fallen for decades in America. This is rationalized by the notion that their wages are a burden on the economy, a burden in our supposed competition with China, which was previously our competition with Japan. The latter country has gone into economic and demographic eclipse, and more or less the same anxieties that drove American opinion were then transferred to China, and with good reason, because there was also a transfer of American investment to China.

The terrible joke is that American workers have been competing against expatriated American capital, a flow that has influenced, and has been influenced by, the supposed deficiencies of American labor. New factories are always more efficient than those they displace, and new factories tend to be built elsewhere. And as the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney remarked, workers in China sleep in factory dormitories. Employing them in preference to American workers would sidestep the old expectation that a working man or woman would be able to rent a house or buy a car. The message being communicated to our workers is that we need poverty in order to compete with countries for whom poverty is a major competitive asset. The global economic order has meant that the poor will remain poor. There will be enough flashy architecture and middle-class affluence to appear to justify the word “developing” in other parts of the world, a designation that suggests that the tide of modernization and industrialization is lifting all boats, as they did in Europe after World War II.

In the recent environment, I was hesitant to criticize the universities because they are under assault now, as humanist institutions with antique loyalties to learning and to freedom of thought. But the universities have in general bent the knee to the devaluation of humane studies, perhaps because the rationale for that devaluation has come from their own economics departments and business schools. For decades scholars have read American history in these and related terms, excluding those movements and traditions that would challenge this worldview. Freedom of thought has valorized criticism, necessarily and appropriately. But surely freedom of thought is meant to encourage diversity of thinking, not a settling into ideological postures characteristic of countries where thought is not free. If the universities lose their souls to a model of human nature and motivation that they themselves have sponsored, there will be some justice in this and also great loss, since they are positioned to resist this decline in the name of every one of the higher values.

Any reader of early economics will recognize the thinking that has recently become predominant, that the share of national wealth distributed as wages must be kept as low as possible to prevent the cost of labor from reducing national wealth. This rationale lies behind the depression of wages, which has persisted long enough to have become settled policy, a major structural element of American society and a desolating reality for the millions it defrauds. Polarization is no fluke, no accident. It is a virtual institutionalization in America of the ancient practice of denying working people the real or potential value of their work.

Institutionalization may be less a factor here than inculcation. Long before the pandemic struck, the protections of the poor and marginalized that largely defined the modern Western state had been receding, sacrificed to the kind of policy that presents itself as necessity, discipline, even justice tendentiously defined. Wealth can be broadly shared prosperity, or it can be closely held, private, effectively underwritten by the cheapening of the labor of the nonrich, which reduces their demand for goods and services. When schools and hospitals close, the value of everything that is dependent on them falls. Austerity toward some is a tax cut for others, a privatization of social wealth. The economics of opportunism is obvious at every stage in this great shift. And yet Americans have reacted to the drove of presumptive, quasi, and faux billionaires as if preternatural wealth were a credential of some kind.

All the talk of national wealth, which is presented as the meaning and vindication of America, has been simultaneous with a coercive atmosphere of scarcity. America is the most powerful economy in history and at the same time so threatened by global competition that it must dismantle its own institutions, the educational system, the post office. The national parks are increasingly abandoned to neglect in service to fiscal restraint. We cannot maintain our infrastructure. And, of course, we cannot raise the minimum wage. The belief has been general and urgent that the mass of people and their children can look forward to a future in which they must scramble for employment, a life-engrossing struggle in which success will depend on their making themselves useful to whatever industries emerge, contingent on their being competitive in the global labor market. Polarization is the inevitable consequence of all this.

The great error of any conspiracy theory is the assumption that blame can be placed on particular persons and interests. A chord is struck, a predisposition is awakened. America as a whole has embraced, under the name of conservatism and also patriotism, a radical departure from its own history. This richest country has been overtaken with a deep and general conviction of scarcity, a conviction that has become an expectation, then a kind of discipline, even an ethic. The sense of scarcity instantiates itself. It reinforces an anxiety that makes scarcity feel real and encroaching, and generosity, even investment, an imprudent risk.

Lately, higher education has been much on the minds of journalists and legislators and, presumably, potential students and their families, who are given to understand that higher education is crucial to their financial prospects and also that the costs and debts involved may be financially ruinous. Worse, the press speaks of elite universities as if there were only a dozen or so institutions in the country where an excellent education can be had. In fact there are literally hundreds of colleges and universities in this country that educate richly and ambitiously. Many of the greatest of them are public, a word that now carries the suggestion that the thing described is down-market, a little deficient in quality. Anyone who notices where research and publishing are done knows that these schools are an immense resource, of global importance. In the midst of this great wealth of possibility, an imaginary dearth is created, and legislators—out of an association between political courage and parsimony—respond with budget cuts that curtail the functioning of these magnificent, prosperity-generating institutions. It should be noted that elite schools are also embracing the joylessly vocational emphasis that is the essence of these panicky reforms.

How is it that we can be told, and believe, that we are the richest country in history, and at the same time that we cannot share benefits our grandparents enjoyed? When did we become too poor to welcome immigrants? The psychology of scarcity encourages resentment, a zero-sum notion that all real wealth is private and is diminished by the claims of community. The entire phenomenon is reinforced by the fact that much of the capital that accumulates in these conditions disappears, into Mexico or China or those luridly discreet banks offshore.

The minimum wage has become the amount an employer can get away with paying. It is neither the amount a worker needs to sustain a reasonable life nor, crucially, to be important enough as a consumer for his or her interests to align with other interests. Because workers are underpaid, they are often treated as dependents, as a burden on the “safety net,” which is actually a public subsidy of the practice of underpayment. Workers often do not fall into the category of “taxpayer,” a word now laden with implication and consequence. It implies respectability, a more robust participation in citizenship, and, fairly or not, an extreme sensitivity to demands made on his or her assets for the public benefit. Equitable policies are often precluded in the name of the taxpayer so forcibly that the taxpayer—that is, a fair percentage of the public—is never really consulted. In this time of polarization, such language reflects an ugly, alienating division in our society, with bad faith at the root of it. Proud people are insulted, those same people we now call “essential” because they work steadily at jobs that are suddenly recognized as absolutely necessary.

Behind all this there is a scarcely articulated variant of an old model, once prevalent throughout the West, that invoked national wealth as the summum bonum of collective life. For the purposes of the theory in its present iteration, the absurd wealth that has accumulated at the top end of polarization is reckoned as part of the national wealth no matter how solidly it is based in poverty. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, great engines of wealth built global empires that filled the world with colonialism, militarism, and racialism, as well as monuments and marching bands. These trappings of power generated the excited identification of the masses with the nation no matter how hostile the system was to their own interests.

As adapted for what was recently the present, this wealth is still a product of national policies—favorable taxation, imaginative banking regulations, and low production costs, including depressed wages and lowered safety and environmental standards. The cinch that tightens such slack as remains in the lives of the underpaid is called “austerity” or “fiscal discipline.” Austerity has not touched the beneficiaries of these arrangements, nor has fiscal discipline. These policies amount to continuous downward pressure on the accommodations made to the fact that wages are not sufficient to meet basic needs. “Austerity” and “discipline” retain their brisk, morally coercive force, amazingly. The work ethic persists through impoverishment, unemployment, deindustrialization driven by pools of cheap labor elsewhere, and the de-skilling that is the effect of all these declines.

This is to say that the kind of shame suffered most sharply by proud people has been put to use to sustain this ugly economic and social configuration, too opportunistic and unstable to be called a system. It offers no vision beyond its effects. Obviously the depletions of public life, the decay of infrastructure, the erosions of standards affecting general health are not intended to make America great again. They are, in the experience of the vast majority of Americans, dispossessions, a cheapening of life.

The theory that supports all this is taught in the universities. Its terminology is economic but its influence is broadly felt across disciplines because it is in fact an anthropology, a theory of human nature and motivation. It comes down to the idea that the profit motive applies in literally every circumstance, inevitably, because it is genetic in its origins and its operations. “Selfishness,” its exponents call it, sometimes arguing that the word in this context has a special meaning, though the specifics of the sanitizing are unclear. Behind every act or choice is a cost-benefit analysis engaged in subrationally. This is to say that thinking itself is the product of this constant appraisal of circumstance, which is prior to thinking, therefore not subject to culture, moral scruples, and so on, which are merely a scheme of evolution to hide this one universal intention from the billions of us who, in our endless diversity, make up the human species. Greed is good, or at least good enough to have brought us this far. For an important part of any population, these would be glad tidings—moral considerations not only suspended but invalidated, moralists revealed as hypocrites and fools as well, since they have no idea that the genius and force of evolution are against them. By its nature, this worldview is based in the moment, in any new occasion to seek advantage.

This view of things is radically individualistic, indifferent to any narrative of identity or purpose. It takes a cynical view of people as such, since no one’s true motives are different from those of the consciously selfish. Because there is only one motive—to realize a maximum of benefit at a minimum of cost—those who do not flourish are losers in an invidious, Darwinian sense. Winners are exempt from moral or ethical scrutiny since advance of any sort is the good to be valued. “Progress” is likewise exempt from the kind of scrutiny that would raise questions about the real value this process generates, reckoned against other value that is precluded or destroyed.

An abandoned brick factory, Ohio, 1936
Theodor Jung/Library of Congress
An abandoned brick factory, Ohio, 1936

Americans never believe that Americans are actually influenced by the education they require of themselves and one another, on which they lavish much wealth. To do so would smack of intellectualism, a trait we do not grant ourselves. The same economic model is prevalent in Britain and France, perhaps Europe in general, though it is asserted in other terms. Austerity has prevailed there for decades. The issues raised by the Yellow Vest movement in France are highly consistent with the situation in America. The retraction of policies that acknowledged the claims of the population at large on the wealth of their nation can be described, historically, as the return of the ancien régime, or as the final triumph of capitalism, or as proof of the waning of Judeo-Christianity, or as recognition of the fact that, when all is said and done, self-interest is indeed the one unvarying human motive. All these could be true simultaneously, each reinforcing the others.

This theory has all the power among us of an ideology, though it lacks any account of past or future, any vision of ultimate human well-being. It promotes itself as nationalism, though its operations are aggressively global. The supposed nationalism plays on a nostalgia for the postwar decades, when the prestige of countries and regions was measured by living standards. Perhaps it derives also from the myth of ideological conflict, the notion that if the Russians had communism, America must have an equal and opposite ideology. This would be called and in time would become capitalism, though the economy Marx critiques under that name is the highly exceptional colonial, industrial, and mercantilist Britain of the nineteenth century.

It is one of the stranger turns in modern history that, for the purposes of this epochal controversy, one man, Karl Marx, named and described both of these ideologies. This is a great concession made to someone whose thought his antagonists claimed to deplore, though it is fair to assume both that they had not read him and that they were simply content to be spared the effort of arriving at definitions of their own. Also, he had the chic of being dangerously European. The pastiche, or the motley, we are inclined to think of as American self-awareness is strange under scrutiny. If we are uniquely characterized by entrepreneurialism, for example, why is the only name we have for it a word of unassimilated French? That sort of thing is usually a signifier for pretentiousness or embarrassment. This little oddity is germane to the larger case against the status quo ante, in which many of our governing assumptions are flimsy and nonsensical, and have stood in the place of meaningful thought, especially in lofty circles, in institutions of great influence, the universities.

Because of this quaint adherence to Marxian categories a narrative has emerged over time that capitalism is the single defining trait of American civilization, the force that has propelled the country not only to unprecedented wealth but also to high levels of personal and political freedom. These assumptions are in need of scrutiny, not by comparison with other countries but of this country with itself a few generations ago. The other half of the great binary, communism, was never realized anywhere, never successful anywhere so far as it was attempted. That somehow legitimizes Marx’s schema, even though this is not at all the result he predicted.

Never mind. We are left with the certainty that a civilization can be wholly described by its economy, and that ours is exhaustively and triumphally capitalist—making anomalous the many well-established features of the culture to which the word “public” might attach: schools, lands, and, more generally, public works, public services, the public interest. If the furthest implications of the reign of “selfishness” are not yet fully actualized, no doubt custom, manners, image, shame, or the occasional laws are the obstacle, since the theory itself is so simple and natural in its operation that it should be as small an intrusion on the order of things as multiplying everything by one. It could be used to rationalize stealing the pennies from a dead man’s eyes, true, even considering the nugatory value of the contemporary penny. Judgment as to whether it has reached this extreme must await a fuller knowledge of its global impact. Closer to home, it has scuppered the old habit of measuring wealth by standard of living. Averaging helicopters, yachts, and offshore accounts against imminent eviction would not yield a meaningful result.

The cult of cost/benefit—of the profit motive made granular, cellular—not only trivializes but also attacks whatever resists its terms. Classic American education is ill-suited to its purposes and is constantly under pressure to reform—that is, to embrace as its purpose the training of workers who will be competitive in the future global economy. What this means, of course, is that universities and students themselves should absorb the cost to industry of training its workforce. Since no one knows what the industries of the future will be, a wrong guess about appropriate training could be costly, which means it would be all the smarter, from a certain point of view, to make colleges and students bear the risk. If this training produces skills that are relevant to future needs, their cost to the employer will be lowered by the fact that such skills will be widely available. In any case, the relative suitability of workers will be apparent in their school history, so industry will be spared the culling of ineffective employees. Those who fail to make the cut will be left with the pleasures of a technical education that is always less useful to them, skills that will be subject to obsolescence as industries change. Certain facts go unnoticed in all this. The great wealth that is presented as endorsing an American way of doing things was amassed over a very long period of time.

Lifetime earnings as well as longevity are adduced to demonstrate the value of university education. Obviously, these are measures of the well-being of people who were educated a generation or two ago. Otherwise, there would be no way of measuring workers’ peak earnings or their longevity. So there is clear evidence of the economic value of an education based on the humanist model that is now under siege. There is no evidence that education designed to train a workforce would be equally productive of wealth, but it would be profitable in another way, cheapening labor by diminishing the participation of the public in whatever wealth is produced. This is the embrace of inequality, accumulation on one side accelerated by deprivation on the other.

Historically, we have offered our young—though never enough of them—exposure to high thought and great art, along with chemistry and engineering. There is an opulence in all this that has no equivalent in the world. What were those earlier generations thinking when they built our great city-states of research and learning? All those arches and spires induce the belief in undergraduates that they have a dignified place in human history, something better than collaborating in the blind creep of a material culture that values only itself, that is indifferent on principle to the past, and inclined, when it considers a future, to imagine the ultimate displacement of the human worker and at the same time to develop systems of social control of which even Bentham could not dream. Why control people for whom no role or use is imagined? If these futures seem incompatible, the theory of cost/benefit does not admit of such criticism. Present trends, inevitably understood in light of emergent possibilities, are, in the nature of things, ineluctable—or they were until a few weeks ago, when the system that had become more or less coextensive with our sense of reality abruptly collapsed.

Emergencies remind us that people admire selflessness and enjoy demands on their generosity, and that the community as a whole is revivified by such demands. Great cost and greater benefit, as these things are traditionally understood. If in present circumstances we are driven back on our primitive impulses, then we should be watching our collective behavior carefully, because it will be instructive with regard to identifying an essential human nature. In more senses than one we are living through an unprecedented experiment, an opportunity it would be a world-historical shame to waste.

Its value as experiment is enhanced by the near absence of leadership from the central government. In various forms, the crisis will persist indefinitely. Over time communities will organize themselves according to their senses of decency and need. Since this crisis is as novel as the virus that has caused it, and since the lack of a helpful central government is unique in the modern period, old thinking and new thinking will emerge over time, and the calculus of cost will be reckoned against the cost of failing to sustain the things that are valued. Benefit will be realized in the fact that needs are identified and served, with all the satisfactions this will entail. Allowing for regional variations, to the degree that democratic habits persist, the country will get by.

As Americans, we should consider our freedoms—of thought, press, and religion, among others—the basic constituents of our well-being, and accept the controversies that have always arisen around them as reflecting their vitality. Not so long ago they were something new under the sun, so if there is still a certain turbulence around them this should remind us that they are gifts of our brief history. We should step away from the habit of accepting competition as the basic model of our interactions with other countries, first because it creates antagonisms the world would be better off without, and second because recent history has shown that the adversary is actually us, and for ordinary people there is no success, no benefit.

And we have to get beyond the habit of thinking in terms of scarcity. We live in the midst of great wealth prepared for us by other generations. We inherited sound roads and bridges. Our children will not be so favored. Since the value of basic investments is not realized immediately, we cannot rationalize the expenditure. We are the richest country in history, therefore richer than the generations that built it, but we cannot bring ourselves even to make repairs. Our thrift will be very costly over time. The notion or pretense that austerity is the refusal to burden our children with our debts is foolish at best. But it is persuasive to those who are injured by it as surely as to those who look at a pothole and see a tax cut. Hiding money in a hole in the ground has seemed like wisdom to some people since antiquity. And there are many who are truly straitened and insecure, and are trusting enough to assume that some economic wisdom lies behind it. Legislators all over America, duly elected, have subscribed to this kind of thinking and acted on it.

We have seen where all this leads. It creates poverty, and plagues batten on poverty, on crowding and exhaustion. If the novel coronavirus did not have its origins in the order of things now in abeyance—other possibilities are even darker—that order was certainly a huge factor in its spread.

As a culture we have spent a great deal of time in recent decades naming and deploring the crimes and injustices in our history. This is right and necessary. But the present crises have exposed crimes and injustices deeply embedded in the society we live in now. So we provide our descendants with a weighty burden of guilt to lament. This irony—too mild a word—casts grave doubt on the rigor of our self-examinations.

All this comes down to the need to recover and sharpen a functioning sense of justice based on a reverent appreciation of humankind, all together and one by one. The authenticity of our understanding must be demonstrated in our attempting to act justly even at steep cost to ourselves. We can do this as individuals and as a nation. Someday we will walk out onto a crowded street and hear that joyful noise we must hope to do nothing to darken or still, having learned so recently that humankind is fragile, and wonderful.