Great Society - Book Review - New York Times

Post Reply
Posts: 1968
Joined: Fri Jun 29, 2007 8:43 pm

Great Society - Book Review - New York Times

Post by johnkarls »

. ... hlaes.html

An Argument That Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Wasn’t So Great

By Binyamin Appelbaum - author of “The Economists’ Hour” and a member of the New York Times editorial board.

Dec. 3, 2019

Amity Shlaes made her name as a conservative historian by narrating the Great Depression as a tragedy of the best intentions: The Roosevelt administration tried to lift Americans from misery, but succeeded only in making things worse.

In her latest book, “Great Society: A New History,” Shlaes shifts her focus forward by about a quarter-century, offering an account of the 1960s centered on President Johnson’s campaign to eliminate poverty by expanding the social safety net. Despite the change in scenery, Shlaes’s conclusions remain unchanged. She writes that Johnson’s effort to build what he called a Great Society came “close enough to socialism to cause economic tragedy.” That failure, she says, should serve as a warning to the new generation of bleeding hearts who are again advocating for more government spending: “May this book serve as a cautionary tale of lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved.”

Shlaes’s book is part of a broader shift in the focus of popular historical narratives. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves increasingly begin in the 1960s and, for the perpetual debate about the role of government in society, the shift from the Depression to more recent facts and anecdotes is a welcome development.

“Great Society,” however, is a deeply flawed contribution to that discourse.

Shlaes relies on her talents as a narrator to make the case that, as she puts it, “the government lost the war on poverty.” The book is well written; it goes down easy. But Shlaes’s evidence is highly selective: Medicare and Medicaid, the largest antipoverty programs created by the Johnson administration, are barely mentioned. Other major Great Society initiatives, including the Head Start preschool program, food stamps for hungry families and increased federal funding for public schools in low-income communities, also largely escape Shlaes’s notice.

Instead she chooses to treat the first of the major Great Society bills, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, as representative of the broader legislative program. This choice serves her purposes as a polemicist, because the government failed for the most part in its efforts to promote job creation. But it is indefensible as a matter of scholarship to completely omit the success of other Great Society programs.

Shlaes also devotes a chapter to public housing projects, which expanded under Johnson. She tells a compelling if familiar story of the infuriating arrogance of government planners, who repeatedly destroyed poor communities in the belief that they could build better places. Shlaes, who has a good eye for quotes, picks a beauty from a court decision allowing the destruction of a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. “If those who govern the District of Columbia decide that the nation’s capital shall be beautiful as well as sanitary, there is nothing in the Fifth Amendment that stands in the way,” the court wrote. Public housing in the United States, sadly, has rarely been beautiful or sanitary. Shlaes catalogs some of the low points: the efforts of government social workers to ensure that fathers did not visit their children; the decision to increase rents with income, eliminating any incentive to work; the insistence that even the owners of modest homes would be better off in government apartments. “To be housed, it turned out, was not what people wanted,” she writes. “They wanted to house themselves.”

Curiously, Shlaes also narrates at some length the story of a welfare program that never happened: a Nixon administration proposal, designed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to guarantee a basic income to working adults. Congress rejected the idea, underscoring the limited success of proponents of a stronger safety net.

Shlaes’s conclusion that the expansion of welfare programs failed to improve public welfare is a staple of conservative rhetoric. In 2014, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin marked the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s speech declaring war on poverty by declaring the war had “failed.” The usual evidence for this claim is that the share of Americans living in poverty, as measured by the official federal standard, has remained relatively constant in recent decades.

The reality is more complicated. The Great Society programs have not eliminated poverty, and the problem is not merely a failure of implementation or funding. Most Western democracies maintain welfare states far more generous than anything proposed by Johnson, and there are still poor people in Europe. But the Great Society programs have produced broad and lasting benefits. The official measure of poverty is widely regarded as deeply flawed because, like Shlaes, it ignores some of the successes of the War on Poverty. For example, the government does not count food stamps as income. A 2014 analysis concluded the remaining Great Society programs “have played an important and growing role in reducing poverty.” Other experts on poverty have reached similar conclusions.

One of the strengths of Shlaes’s book is her narration of the broader context in which the Great Society programs were created. She captures the nuanced relationship between the war on poverty and the war on Vietnam, which sometimes constrained social spending and sometimes created an imperative for bread and circuses. She also offers an account, through the lens of classical economics, of the broader forces that made it possible to expand social spending during the 1960s, and then began to constrain that spending during the 1970s.

But the narrative is warped by Shlaes’s determination to establish that the expansion of federal spending amounted to an embrace of socialism, which leads to long digressions about peripheral figures like Tom Hayden, a student activist whose interest in socialism left no apparent fingerprints on public policy. Shlaes also elides the useful distinction between the belief that government should control the means of production — the classic definition of socialism — and the belief that government should redistribute output, which is more accurately described as support for a welfare state. For Shlaes, as for many conservatives, socialism has come to describe the redistribution of wealth by any means whatsoever. This is what the industrialist Sherman Fairchild had in mind when he decried employees’ demands for stock options as “creeping socialism.”

The purpose of this capacious definition of socialism, of course, is to tar the welfare state with the deservedly compromised reputation of central planning regimes. To call the Great Society a socialist enterprise is to foreshadow its inevitable failure.

And Shlaes goes further, arguing that the government’s effort to end poverty drove federal spending to unsustainable heights. “America,” she writes, “morphed into a country that could afford nothing.” It is more accurate to describe the United States, which collected a significantly smaller share of income in taxes than most developed democracies, as a nation unwilling to pay for Johnson’s dreams. The result was the stagflation of the 1970s.

Shlaes ends her narrative with the first stirrings of a counterrevolution: the rise of a California politician named Ronald Reagan and the demolition of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis. What was the alternative to public housing? Shlaes offers a standard list: respect for property rights, devolution of power and resources to local authorities and a dollop of self-reliance for good measure. “How might neighborhoods like this one have turned out,” she writes, “if local companies, local authorities and local individuals had led in the 1950s and 1960s, building their own Great Society?”

Half a century later, in the midst of a revival of interest in ideas like Moynihan’s basic income proposal, readers may find themselves wondering whether the nation’s problem is really too much government — or, perhaps, not enough.

Post Reply

Return to “Reference Materials - Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes - Dec 9”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest