Extravagance, Debt, and Social Cohesion

Sunday: Catiline’s War   Tomorrow: Ten Greatest Histories

Twitter: @GreatBooksDude

Website: http://goetzeducation.wordpress.com/our-mission/ (specializing in online Great Books programs!)

Book: The Bubble Boys: How Mistaken Educational Ideals and Practices are Causing a Warped Social Fabric

For most of my blogs I’ve been writing about the classic works, both of fiction and nonfiction, that thinking men have processed for the last few millennia.  I find them not only compelling intellectually but most of them I find valid philosophically and extraordinarily relevant to life in every age, including the present, due to their approaches to human nature and other issues of concern to men.  Today, however, I want to take the time, as I will do every so often, to make the leap and write a commentary on the present era, using these books as a lens.  While to a limited degree I have done so in the past, noting the failures of universities to teach these things, the fading capacity of our films, the conduct of International Relations, and our political discourse, in various places, and as relevant to specific pieces of literature, here I would like to do this more explicitly and more thoroughly.

The topic for the day is extravagance–I know you as readers could not figure this out, so I had to mention it a fifteenth time (hahahaha)!  If my last two posts were on The Theory of the Leisure Class and Catiline’s War, the former of which explicitly calls the wealthy primitive savages and the latter of which laments the decline in virtues of thrift and voluntary economy among Roman nobles in the wake of their conquest of Asia Minor, then it seems that this makes a natural next step.

Western Europe, particularly Holland, some parts of Germany, and England, was notable for the first joint stock companies and insurance corporations–these operations required diligent work over long periods of time, limited risks to individuals by spreading them among a group, and protected assets against liabilities.  The habits inculcated to support an economic system made on this foundation were striking: on an individual level those whose business was to flourish must “waste not, want not”, and on a political level new opposition to monarchical levies and taxation forced monarchs and nobles to cede their powers.  Thrift was, then, the backbone of rising republicanism, and it was a social value that connected men into a coherent society.  Along with industry, thrift was the single most important factor in the dominance of English and Western European institutions–not violence, deceit, or an unnatural lust for conquest by whites.

The early colonial ventures and the formation of the United States were the product of this trend.  Jamestown was first and foremost a business venture (as had been the failed colonization of Roanoke).  Thrifty, industrious men such as Ben Franklin, John Hancock, and John Adams rose to prominence in the colonies and, when the British Empire fell into extravagance–notably in its support of the East India Company–they led a small-scale revolt against the decline of values.  While they enlisted the support of plantation owners from the colonies of Virginia and its neighbors, those magnates were themselves a heavy debtor class, short on their own industry and long on large expenditures.  When the revolt turned into a full revolution and eventually succeeded, the two groups formed political union, but their coexistence was never easy and, within less than a century, as the southern magnates exhausted their land and ran out of resources with which to pay their debts, open conflict erupted between them.  Even grabbing Texas and attempting to grab Cuba did not solve the problem.  In the conflict, the thriftier, more industrious Union triumphed over the Confederacy, which, in its implosion, fell victim to an absurd inflation and a loss of much of its involuntary production base.

Values of thrift in the Union included the structure for (and resistance to) the imposition of taxation, the neglect of a standing army during times of peace, the choices of individuals and families as to how to educate themselves, and the localization of anything that did not demand a more expansive governmental scope.  The principle of “subsidiarity”–that anything best done by individuals should be left to them, anything best done by local boards be left to them, anything best done by states be done by them, and the federal government be a last resort, was one embodiment of these values.  These persisted even in the aftermath of the Civil War–the Whig and later Republican economic policy, which was in favor of governmental action in support of big business, was beginning to change them, but to a small degree.

In the aftermath of the Union reconquest of its own southern states, a new class of thrifty, industrious men rose to prominence, accumulating unheard-of amounts of wealth and providing with it jobs and opportunities for the lower classes.  The Rockefellers, Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Goulds, and Morgans were in fact such a blessing to their society that it is hard to conceive of any more important factor in the general affluence of the United States than them.  The problem with them as robber-barons was not that they did not provide great economic benefits to the society around them, but that in forming exclusionary blocks of industry they were putting American industry at the risk of being left in the hands of complacency and stagnation, which is how monopolies ruin themselves.  But they were extremely thrifty.  Rockefeller was notorious for not spending a whole lot even on his own kids, who remained largely unaware of the fortune he had accumulated well into their teenage years.

In this age a university education was rare, nowhere near considered a requirement for employment, and in many ways considered something of a waste.  Rockefeller had none; ditto for Vanderbilt.  Nor did the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant (Westpoint was not a university in the modern sense), nor his heroic predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.  They went straight to work, put in their time, built themselves careers.

Many of these men came from backgrounds of bare subsistence.  They were not born to plenty.

But when they became rich, they sponsored a change in culture, and even if they retained some elements of their thrift, as I noted Rockefeller did, they began to support a change in values that eventually lent itself to extravagance.  Rockefeller sponsored theaters and universities (notably the University of Chicago).  Vanderbilt put his name to a university.  Ditto for Carnegie.

What in essence followed was that while they created opportunities for the lower classes, the lower classes always wanted more.  When these men died, mostly in the 1910s (though for Vanderbilt it was earlier), the world was about to undergo its most drastic change ever.  With the outbreak of World War I the demand for fighting men forced political concessions to the populace.  The election of Senators was made direct just prior to the conflict.  When the conflict was finished, the Roaring Twenties began.  This resulted, of course, in the great crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression, but then another hideous and massive war and another demand for fighting men from the lower classes forced more economic and political concessions, notably in the GI Bill which offered free education to returning soldiers.

In the mean time, the Depression did such damage that former crimes such as unionization earned the sanction of “right”, and “Interstate Commerce” became a byword for complete legislative oversight of all aspects of trade.  So many nest eggs had been cracked that the government funded policies for old age economic security and health coverage; whereas before it was assumed that family and friends would voluntarily support the frail, and that an individual’s own hard work would give him enough to pay the doctors’ bills when necessary, now it became a matter of government expenditure–requiring taxation–and individuals did not feel the costs, which were, most of them, taken directly from their paychecks.

The educational, political, and economic structure of the United States now takes a devastating turn.  After World War II, for the first time, the United States had a standing peacetime army.  People who had served who were not necessarily the sharpest crayons in the box were going to colleges where they had no business going, and rather than failing them, which would be perceived as bad business, universities chose to pass them, then when their degrees were found to be meaningless to offer them a second one for a higher price.  Because the economies of Europe were reduced to rubble, America became the bastion of luxury, too, so that it was not frowned upon to live a much more lavish lifestyle than the ordinary.  America became the biggest waster in the world.  People completely lost touch with thrift and industry.  With it they lost their freedom and their cohesion.

Increasingly, as government appeared more and more beneficial, it was enabled to involve itself in more and more aspects of people’s lives.  Thus government was enabled to erect welfare programs for the poor, to demand “equal opportunity” employment and lending by quota rather than true opportunity, to declare certain standards of environmental preservation, to inspect food, to declare medication fit or unfit, and so on and so forth.  The ever-burgeoning government, then, has become its own extravagant operation.  It is out of touch with the population it supposedly represents, and, of course, for its own support requires $$$$.  This is on top of the programs that I’ve already mentioned and that have become a total sinkhole, quicksand for your money.

What is peculiar, though, is that government is still seen to be beneficial, and those who oppose an expansion of it into even broader areas are demonized and harassed.  They are perceived to be getting in the way of what people want to have and are “entitled” to (though where this title is, I do not have the slightest clue).  Everyone feels they have a “right” to everything.  People who are not citizens even feel they have the right to vote, and those who oppose this are considered nutjobs.  It’s ridiculous.  Given all of this, and the absurdly high quality of life we all enjoy, people are demanding more, demanding things that we can’t afford, and anyone who opposes them is treated like a dump.

I am reminded here of Thucydides’ great work, History of the Peloponnesian War, where he describes the Athenians’ attempted conquest of Sicily in the midst of their conflict with Sparta.  The Athenians were much like we are–spoiled, losing touch with their primary values, no longer thrifty, never quite industrious.  They decided they didn’t have enough–though what would be enough is a huge question–and tried to go out of their way to take Sicily, against the advice of their top living general, who they sent to command the expedition.  His reluctance influenced his military decision-making, he botched it, they lost their fleet and lost the war with Sparta in the ensuing decade.  We are the Athenians chasing after Sicily!

We have, perhaps, no bigger waste than our university system.  It is in fact such a complete and utter waste of time that a college degree no longer lands you a decent job.  It is extraordinarily costly, in terms of money, and, what’s worse, the people in them do no work.  They are supported for doing absolutely nothing!  Ask college graduates questions about how the world works, economically, politically, socially–the ignorance is disgusting, it’s mind-boggling.  We spend more time than ever before on our schooling, and learn far less.  All of this, by the way, is supported by taxation.

The schools have massive libraries, but I doubt whether three-quarters of the books in them are ever touched or are worth the price of the paper on which they’re printed.  No thrift, no industry.  And yet these are the very places that consistently advocate left-wing politics, especially Marxist economics and philosophy, which is radical, self-described as revolutionary.  In my time in college nearly every class I took other than my Independent Study classes were characterized by demands for more “rights”, more policies requiring taxation, and more resistance to authority.  For anyone who was looking, it marked a complete breakdown of any form of social cohesion.   What a shocker!  This was, of course, the topic of my first book.

I seriously wonder why and how this society intends to continue its success.  It has no shot in hell.  Within the last half-decade we’ve had an enormous wealth shock sparked by unsupportable private debts, which were then passed on to the public.  It has already begun to happen.  Most people do not realize how much of the money they earn is not really theirs because it is taken from them before they ever touch it.  And while i am not worried about the usual stuff, like China owning us, I am worried that values, hard work, and intelligence are being stunted by short-sighted, low-minded grabs at anything that appears near our reach.  (For all of my work, I make less than my mother’s housemaid, by the way.)  And I expect full well that I will get hammered for this post.

So let–the hammering–BEGIN!  NOW!


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