Pandemic increases the wealth, power, and prestige of doctors and public health officials even when their remedies are ineffective

I recently finished After the Plague, a lecture series by Simon Doubleday, a professor at Hofstra. The pandemic of the lectures is the Black Death of the 14th century. As with the physicians of spring 2020 who harmed COVID-19 patients by putting them on ventilators (today we realize that most would have done better if they’d stayed home with an oxygen bottle), doctors in 1349 often made plague patients worse and certainly had no effective treatment to offer. As with the fanatical sanitizers of today, public health officials back then tried to stop the pandemic by cleaning up the filthy streets. Ultimately, just as with SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen killed nearly everyone that could be killed despite the best efforts of the doctors and officials.

Professor Doubleday relates that the lack of effective remedies did not reduce public confidence in the experts. In fact, physicians made more money, officials got more power, and both classes of health experts got more prestige even as 50 percent of the population was being felled by Yersinia pestis.

In common with other scholars, Professor Doubleday relates that the reduction in population resulted in a tremendous increase in wages for the survivors (see Immigration is the Reverse Black Death?) due to the reduced supply of labor.

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Happy Patriots’ Day

If you’re in Boston enjoying healing legal cannabis today, you can thank the traitors who rebelled against legitimate British rule in 1775 (marijuana is strictly illegal in the U.K.).

How did George III see the “patriots”? The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Andrew Roberts) quotes the King writing in 1782:

I cannot conclude without mentioning how sensibly* I feel the dismemberment of America from this empire, and that I should feel miserable indeed if I did not feel that no blame on that account can be laid at my door, and did not also know that knavery seems to be so much the striking feature of its inhabitants that it may not in the end be an evil that they become aliens to this kingdom.

Good riddance to bad traitors, in other words!

Just 15 years before the Revolutionary War started, folks in Boston loved George III.

The widespread celebrations of George’s accession [in 1760] were particularly strong in Boston, capital of the King’s loyal Massachusetts Bay Colony. As the proclamation was read in which Boston acknowledged ‘all faith and constant obedience’ to the new King ‘with all hearty and humble affection’, the crowd shouted ‘Huzzah!’, militiamen fired three volleys, cannon from the harbour fort boomed and the town was illuminated in the traditional celebratory manner by placing candles in the windows of houses. The exertions Britain was making in blood and treasure to protect her American imperial brethren from incursions over the previous six years of what was then known as the French and Indian War were greatly appreciated. ‘I have been here about sixteen years,’ a Bostonian noted, ‘and I don’t know of one single man but would risk his life and property to serve King George the Third.’

Aside from marijuana laws, how has the U.S. diverged from the U.K. since 1775?

The U.S. has borrowed much more, as a percentage of GDP, than the British. What did George III have to say about that?

In one respect, however, George was not exaggerating: Britain’s ‘present load of debts’ amounted to over £74 million in 1753, to £77.8 million in 1758 and to £82.8 million in 1759, prompting a deep concern in Parliament over the nation’s creditworthiness, and reaffirming those fears in George that had been planted by Bute’s teachings and his father’s political testament. George wrote several essays on the subject in the second half of the 1750s, which in total covered no fewer than 557 pages. For the young Prince, revenue and expenditure profoundly affected national power and prosperity, and ‘to know this is the true essential business of a king’. The seriousness with which he and Bute approached this subject was no mere intellectual exercise; it was a blueprint for what they believed needed to be done about the economy once George became king and Bute his Prime Minister.

George’s conception of economics was staunchly conservative. He dreamed not of conquering great territories such as Canada and India, but rather of redeeming the National Debt and leading a great, unleveraged trading nation which would be ‘the residence of true piety and virtue’. His essays articulate his belief that the establishment of the Debt, in the reign of William III and Mary, had emerged from the cowardice of politicians in borrowing for William’s wars rather than incurring unpopularity by increasing taxation, which he characterized as a willingness ‘to live and die without the least regard to posterity, a way of thinking now become fatally prevalent’. As he wrote elsewhere, ‘The world ever produces wrong-headed individuals who would rather pay £10 imperceptibly than £4 out of their pockets at once.’ If there was a specific period when George conceived his low opinion of politicians for their short-termism, factiousness and pusillanimity – a general view that was to last throughout his reign and cause him a good deal of trouble – it was when he studied in detail the way the National Debt had ballooned in the six decades after the 1690s.

George likened the Whig governments’ behaviour in allowing this to happen to ‘a young spendthrift who eagerly compounds for a present convenience at the expense of any future encumbrance, however burdensome or reproachful’. Economics, for George, was profoundly moral. He denounced the first national lottery, of 1694, as ‘a most pernicious precedent, too often made use of since, as it serves not only to excite, but even authorize, a spirit of gaming in every man who is able to raise a few pounds, though perhaps at the expense of his morals, credit and character’.

(regarding this last point against state-sponsored gambling, see also If inequality is bad, why does the government run Powerball?)

The British thought that Europeans had stolen enough land from the Native Americans. The Patriots disagreed.

On 7 October 1763, possibly in part as a result of the Cherokee embassy the previous year, the British government made a decision that was to become one of the major causes of the loss of the North American colonies. Severely rattled by the still-ongoing Pontiac uprising in the Ohio Valley, and conscious of the promises made to Native American tribes that had supported Britain in the Seven Years War, Lord Halifax (who for thirteen years had been First Lord of Trade and Plantations) issued a proclamation to prevent the American colonists’ westward settlement. The whole continent to the west of a Proclamation Line, running from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico and along the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, would be one gigantic Native American reserve where no American colonial settlement would be permitted. There was even an order for settlers then on the western side of the Line ‘forthwith to remove themselves’. This was a major obstacle to the expansion of American wealth and growth. Now, far from viewing the twenty battalions of British troops as being for their own protection, the colonists saw them as enforcing a new policy of boxing them into the seaboard colonies and preventing expansion from ocean to ocean.

George had distributed large silver friendship ‘peace medals’ to the chiefs of Native American allies and trading partners during the Seven Years War and was not willing to betray them. Yet the exponential population growth of the thirteen colonies meant that Americans were looking to move westwards across the continent. In the almost inevitable struggle between the American colonists and the Indigenous Nations on the other side of the Appalachians, Britain had attached herself to what would be the losing side for the short-term gain of the fur trade. It was now very much in American colonists’ interests that the taxes to pay for the British troops should not be raised, so that the Proclamation Line could not be policed. The first and most obvious losers from the Proclamation were those speculators who had intended to develop the land between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi, among whom were Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, the Lee family and George Washington. In September 1763, Washington and nine other speculators had launched the Mississippi Land Company, with the intention of claiming 2.5 million acres in the Ohio Valley, covering what is today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.

(See George Washington, Mules, and Donald Trump: “the author reminds us that real estate speculator-to-president is not an entirely new path”)

Slavery was a substantial difference between England and what became the U.S.

Forty-one of the fifty-six signatories to the Declaration owned slaves at one point in their lives, and Thomas Hutchinson wrote that he ‘could wish to ask the delegates of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas how their constituents justify the depriving more than an hundred thousand Africans of their right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

So… we fought for the rights to smoke dope, keep slaves, borrow and spend wildly, and steal land from the Native Americans.

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A young child killed by a new vaccine

Averros may find this of particular interest… The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Andrew Roberts):

On 20 August 1782, the King and Queen were devastated to lose their youngest son, ‘dear little Alfred’, who died at Windsor Castle shortly before his second birthday. He had been taken to Deal by the royal governess Lady Charlotte Finch in the hope that he would recover from a fever through fresh sea air and bathing, but to no avail. The Court did not go into formal mourning as Alfred was not fourteen, but the royal couple were utterly grief-stricken. The Queen gave Finch an amethyst and pearl locket, and a lock of blond hair from ‘my dear little Angel Alfred’. She wrote to her brother Charles two days after Alfred’s death, ‘I am very grateful to Providence, that out of a family of fourteen children, it has never struck us except in this one instance, and so I must submit myself without a murmur.’ The cause was probably too high a dosage of the smallpox inoculation. The King and Queen were staunch advocates of this treatment, which was spearheaded by Edward Jenner, although they believed that Providence still played a large part in medicine.

When Edward Jenner finally perfected his vaccination technique in the mid-1790s, the King knighted him and became patron of the Jennerian Society which advanced the practice. In his enlightened way he did not allow personal tragedy to affect his rational appreciation of the great benefits of science.

If the U.S. had not traitorously rebelled, Americans might have funded a lot more scientific research during the 19th century.

Early in 1751, Frederick and Augusta settled the twelve-year-old George and eleven-year-old Edward at Savile House, adjoining Leicester House. It was the Hanoverian practice to give princes their own establishments early, and Savile House, built in the 1680s, was to become George’s London home for the next nine years. His mini-Court there consisted of a governor, preceptor (responsible for teaching), sub-governor, sub-preceptor and treasurer, with part-time teachers for languages, fencing, dancing and riding brought in from outside. He studied algebra, geometry and trigonometry. He was the first British monarch to study science, being taught basic physics and chemistry by Scott. He was receiving a good, all-round, enlightened education.

(But maybe not, since the British never taxed anyone in North America to fund government operations in England. Any taxes raised in the 13 colonies were spent in the 13 colonies. On the third hand, a British-governed North America led by a scientifically educated king might have funded local research labs.)

And we might have been spared the partisan politics that are often decried.

Contrary to the Whig imperative of minimizing royal power, The Idea of a Patriot King argued that the role of a constitutionally limited hereditary monarchy was important. Bolingbroke fully accepted that such seventeenth-century notions as the Divine Right of Kings had ‘no foundation in fact or reason’, and he believed ‘a limited monarchy the best of governments’. The limits on the power of the Crown, he maintained, should be ‘carried as far as is necessary to secure the liberties of the people’ and enough to protect the people against an arrogant (by which he meant Old Whig) aristocracy. Bolingbroke’s patriot king would revere the constitution, regard his prerogatives as a sacred trust, ‘espouse no party’ and ‘govern like the common father of his people’. A key message of the book was that government by party inevitably resulted in a factionalism disastrous to the state. ‘Party is a political evil,’ Bolingbroke wrote, ‘and faction is the worst of all parties. The king will aim at ruling a united nation, and in order to govern wisely and successfully he will put himself at the head of his people,’ so that he can deliver them ‘tranquillity, wealth, power and fame’.

Circling back to the vaccine… the situation is not directly comparable, of course. George III and Queen Charlotte were trying to vaccinated their child against a disease that regularly killed children.

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A world-class military tries to subdue a vast land (England versus the American rebels)

Portions of The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Andrew Roberts) are, unfortunately, timely.

The American rebellion surprised the experts:

One of the reasons why British politicians failed to comprehend that Americans would soon be agitating for nationhood was the paradoxical one, considering the propaganda of the independence movement twelve years later, that they were not being persecuted in any discernible way. ‘The colonists were the least oppressed of all peoples then on earth, politically, economically and nationally,’ noted Hans Kohn in his seminal book The Idea of Nationalism in 1944, written when half the world knew genuine oppression. ‘Politically the colonists were infinitely freer than any people on the European continent; they were even freer than Englishmen in Great Britain. The favourable conditions of frontier life had brought Milton’s and Locke’s teachings and English constitutional liberties to faster and fuller fruition in the colonies than in the mother country.’19 Royal governors and colonial assemblies generally ruled Americans with the lightest of touches, and the colonists certainly paid the lightest of taxes in the empire. The average American in 1770 paid a tiny fraction of what his British cousin paid in direct taxes, and crucially all of what he did pay stayed in America.

In the words of Edmund Burke’s biographer, ‘The general belief was that responsible people in the colonies accepted British sovereignty; that the disturbances in America were the work of a small minority of trouble-makers; and that American resistance would collapse if confronted with a show of force. If a war proved necessary, Britain would win it quickly and easily. Not until Appeasement in the 1930s did virtually the entire British establishment get something so important so badly wrong.

The British Army was tasked with domestic policing as well as wars with foreign nations because there was no permanent police force in England until 1829. The number of soldiers was miniscule by modern standards:

In 1775 there were only 48,000 men in the entire British Army, including the 8,000 already stationed in North America, which with its other global commitments would be nothing like enough to subdue the 2.5 million inhabitants of thirteen colonies that stretched over a thousand miles from north to south and several hundred miles inland.

In the summer of 1775, the British Army had 10,000 men already in America (mostly in or around Boston) and Canada, or sailing there; 7,700 in Gibraltar, Minorca and the West Indies; 7,000 in Ireland, which at half its normal peacetime establishment was dangerously low; and the remaining 23,000 in the United Kingdom, the minimum number for defence and domestic control, of whom 1,500 were unfit for duty.

The Cabinet continued to suffer under the delusion that the British Army and Royal Navy that had defeated France (with her population of more than twenty-five million) and Spain (nine million) only a decade earlier, and won a great empire in Canada and India, would, if necessary, similarly destroy the untrained and semi-organized militias of far fewer Americans. The crucial difference was of course that Britain had not needed to invade and occupy France or Spain in order to be victorious in 1763.

What were these professional soldiers up against?

As well as their proficiency with firearms, the Americans also had the advantage of numbers. According to Benjamin Franklin’s calculation in 1766, if a quarter of the remaining male population bore arms, and Loyalists, pacifists and seamen were deducted, about a quarter of a million Americans could theoretically fight against the Crown.

Supplying troops in the field wasn’t any easier then:

The logistical supply problem was immense too: because the local population tended to be hostile – with the American Loyalists providing far fewer troops than the British government had hoped for and expected – food had to be either foraged (that is, requisitioned, with all the local unpopularity that entailed) or bought (routinely at high margins), or else transported 3,000 miles over an ocean that was vulnerable to storms, colonial privateers and, later, enemy navies. Once the British armies penetrated inland, their lack of knowledge of the interior and the inescapable problems of reinforcement and supply both told against them heavily.

I recommend The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III, but you might want to skim over some of the exhaustive/exhausting explanations of 18th century English politics (at least as complex as anything we have today and political disputes quite often resulted in violent clashes).

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The New York Times explains computers circa 1967

Americans today love to read about cosmology and string theory, but you couldn’t pay most to listen to a lecture on how their beloved smartphones work. Apparently, there was a time when non-specialists were interested in “How does this computer thing work?” On Monday, January 9, 1967, the New York Times devoted a two-page spread to “The Electronic Digital Computer: How It Started, How It Works and What It Does”.

This article is preceded by a couple of softer pieces that talk about what can be done with computers. Every page includes “C++” up in the header, thus proving that the NYT can accurately predict the future.

The science writer, Henry Lieberman, is helped out by Louis Robinson, an IBMer, and they explain binary as well as mainframe core and magnetic memory:

Everything you need to know to be a TTL hero:

Source code compiled into machine language:

Universal access to computing is predicted:

And so is the Internet (sort of):

Page 139 carries a predictive article by J. C. R. Licklider about how scientists will use computers to deal with “big data” and there will be “vast information networks”. In several locations, including page 143 (out of 172; imagine a hardcopy newspaper able to sell so many ads these days to justify printing 172 pages!), journalists write breathlessly about how computers will transform education.

John Backus, who would win a Turing Award 10 years later, encourages would-be programmers on page 148:

Note the picture of high school students learning to code.

What about salaries and costs? An “Airline Clerk” is sought on page 165 and will earn $5,200 per year. On 167, a machinist can earn $6,700/year in the Bronx while a dry cleaning manager would be at $10,000/year. Page 160 shows apartments for rent in Manhattan. It looks like $100-200/month is the range for a studio or 1BR. So the clerk could easily live without roommates in the heart of the city.

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Cultural decline due to overpopulation and governing elites demanding too much from the governed

Edwin Barnhart‘s 22nd lecture in Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed explains that ancient cultures in Central America and Mexico collapsed due to overpopulation combined with governing elites demanding too much from the common people.

Teotihuacan (flourished from 100 BC through 550 AD; photographed 2003):

Also from 2003 (Mexico City), for young folks who think that they’re the first to wave the rainbow flag:

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A 1958 UNIVAC airline reservation system

I had thought that SABRE, a joint development of IBM and American Airlines, was the first computerized airline reservation system, going live in 1960. However, “The Univac Air Lines Reservations System: a special-purpose application of a general-purpose computer” was published in 1958 and talks about the system being up and running already.

Have a look at the authors’ affiliations at the bottom right. A cautionary tale that success in the computer industry can be fleeting! How powerful was the mainframe?

Transaction processing time wasn’t that different than today’s bloated servers, with their infinite layers of Java, can manage:

The system was up 99.7 percent of the time for its first six weeks and the authors envisioned a future system serving 1,200 travel agents simultaneously.

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The decline of China, explained by population boom

The Fall and Rise of China, a course by Richard Baum (late professor at UCLA), asks how it was possible for an empire that had been so successful for 1,000 years to fall apart in about 100 years. The decline of China relative to Europe was anything but predictable, in his view, and the real question is why China didn’t continue to lead the world economy.

The professor’s thesis is that population growth doomed China. The Manchus improved the control of floodwater from China’s major rivers, thus enabling more stability in agriculture. Instead of an improved standard of living, however, this lead to a huge increase in what had been a stable population size, from about 125 million to 450 million over 200 years (1700 to 1900). Agricultural productivity per acre did not improve significantly and the cultivated land per person fell, thus reducing both the standard of living for the typical citizen and tax revenues for the government (people at a Malthusian level of subsistence can’t pay tax).

(The doom was accelerated to some extent, according to Professor Baum, by the corrupt and incompetent Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled China for 47 years and obstructed efforts to modernize the military (partly by stealing money that had been appropriated for that purpose). Without her, China might have had a chance to go more in the Japanese direction.)

I’m not sure that the “overpopulation” answer is correct, but the question seems like the right one to ask. How did a country that was so far ahead of the rest of the world suddenly (when viewed through the lens of history) collapse?

Venezuela certainly didn’t thrive once its oil wealth was divided by a larger population. Chart from the World Bank:

Venezuela was producing roughly 2.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2010 at about $80 per barrel. That would have been $36,000/year in walking-around revenue for a family of 4 if total revenue were divided by the 1960 population of 8 million. Divided by 28 million, though, and revenue per family was down to $10,000 (and don’t forget that Venezuelans had to take care of the Big Guy and his family before oil revenue could be distributed more widely).

Are there lessons for the U.S.? As the U.S. population has grown (10 million in 1820, 180 million in 1960, 333 million today), Americans have gotten fatter, not thinner. We’re not running out of food like the Chinese did. On the other hand, folks who show up in the U.S. expect an endowment of land/housing. The standard of living to which Americans believe themselves entitled is now, absent taxpayer-funded subsidies, out of reach of roughly half of the people who live in the U.S. and the situation gets worse every day (see “Hundreds of Haitians arrive in Massachusetts from southern border lacking housing, health care” (Boston Globe, 10/10/2021), for example: “Advocates scramble to find homes and help for the new arrivals.” (if every Massachusetts homeowner with an “immigrants welcome” lawn sign and a spare room would host just one Haitian, a substantial fraction of the 1.1 million Haitians in the U.S. could be accommodated in just this one righteous state!).)

The NYT, 8/10/2021 says the situation is dire, but Biden’s central planners have a plan to fix this and we just need “a once-in-a-generation effort”. Harvard agrees that Biden, whose name occurs 6 times in this report, will make all of our housing dreams come true. The NYT article cites Japan favorably. Rents in Tokyo are no higher than they were 20 years ago (it looks as though the indices are adjusted for inflation because San Francisco rent is up only 150 percent and New York up only 100 percent). Not mentioned is that Japan’s population, over the last 20 years, is essentially flat (127 million down to 126 million). You shouldn’t need the world’s finest central planners to manage housing for a constant-sized population.

The Chinese, according to the professor, also suffered from insularity. They mostly stopped traveling to foreign countries (compare to our border-crossing restrictions since February 2020). They didn’t keep up with the Industrial Revolution (compare to our current dependence on Asia to fabricate semiconductors). Due to Internet, container ships, and air freight, however, it is tough to imagine the U.S. ever being truly disconnected from innovation centers around the world.

So history may not repeat itself nor even rhyme, but it is still an interesting question to ponder. Why were Michelle Faraday and Katherine Clerk Maxwell the pioneers in electromagnetism rather than physicists in Beijing? Why was it Mileva Marić who explained the photoelectric effect and figured out that gravity distorts spacetime, rather than someone in Shanghai? Why was it Louise-Hélène de Lesseps who created the Suez Canal rather than the Chinese, who had more than 2000 years of canal experience.

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The first computerized medical diagnosis systems (late 1950s)

“The Automatic Digital Computer as an Aid in Medical Diagnosis” (1959, Crumb and Rupe) is an interesting example of hope versus reality. Computers will turn medicine into a science and they’ll also save money.

The authors predicted that computers in medicine would “contribute to the good of mankind”:

What do we have, 60+ years later? Epic, whose primary function is making sure that the providers get paid!

Were these authors the pioneers? No! The references include a 1956 punched card-based diagnosis system for diseases of the cornea (TIME).

The comments on the article are interesting. Then, as now, we don’t know if computers are useful in medicine because we don’t know how often human doctors are correct:

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Great Society history lesson II

Now that at least 80 million Americans are on what used to be called “welfare” (see “Pandemic Swells Medicaid Enrollment to 80 Million People, a ‘High-Water Mark’”), perhaps it is time to revisit Great Society: A New History which describes the origin of the no-longer-called-welfare program on which nearly 25 percent of Americans now rely. (Previous post: Bitcoin has plenty of runway if we look back to the 1960s and 70s and the Great Society)

What’s the history of the program?

The costs of the previous legislation Johnson had pushed Mills into had already far outrun the projections. Budget officials had predicted that Medicaid, for example, would cost less than $ 400 million in fiscal 1967. Instead it had cost $ 1.1 billion.

Compare to $613 billion in Medicaid spending in 2019 ( which presumably is now closer to $800

Why do Californians love bigger government so much?

The value of the private sector’s relationship with the government seemed especially obvious in the Western state that Americans regarded as the land of the future, California. For many Californians, the government was their job. More active-duty military and civilian Defense Department employees were stationed in California than in any other state. The presence of Pentagon money in California wasn’t merely large, it was overwhelming. 4 In one year, 1959, the Defense Department was awarding more than $ 3 billion in contracts to four aerospace firms in Los Angeles.

The author reminds us of the good old days of computing, before we got everything from Taiwan chip fabs:

In the mid-1950s, GE was a far richer company than IBM. General Electric had the resources necessary to get into computers, the computer fans reckoned, whatever Cordiner said. A clutch of engineers did manage to land a successful contract with the Bank of America for an innovative check sorter, the first computer system for banking applications, a testimony to the gumption of GE professionals and, ironically, to Cordiner’s own culture of department autonomy. California was the home of Bank of America, and also the home of the GE group that won the contract. The machines would serve the Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego areas. But California was a state where GE could endure the same troubles with organized labor as it did out East. GE internal reports noted that the company was looking to avoid the Golden State’s “punitive labor legislation.” GE based production of the project’s computer, weight 23,000 pounds, in Phoenix.

Unions can play an important role in expanding government for all:

Building a union that could beat the automakers at the negotiation table sounded like enough work, but Reuther also, early on, decided he wanted more. Reuther was falling in love with Northern Europe’s social democracies, countries where democratic government supplied health care and good schools, and even, Reuther noticed, funded time at worker spas for workers to recover from strenuous labor. It seemed to Reuther there was no reason America could not replicate the Scandinavian model. In the 1940s, Lem Boulware spoke at a graduation at Harvard University, making an early case for Boulwarism. During the same years Reuther gave the commencement address at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington. At Howard, Reuther said that U.S. unions needed to deliver better housing and medical aid to all Americans, not just union members. Otherwise, unions weren’t worth much. “The test of democratic trade unionism in a democratic society,” Reuther said, “is its willingness to lead the fight for the welfare of the whole community.”

The unions did beat the Detroit automakers, of course, but Detroit didn’t end up quite as prosperous as President Lyndon Johnson expected.

It was Detroit in particular that was, Johnson said [in May 1964], “the herald of hope in America. Prosperity in America must begin here in Detroit.” … If labor and industry would stick by his side, the president said, “the sky is the limit, and the sky is bright today.”

In the past, presidents had striven for abundance, Johnson noted. Now the country had abundance. The challenge of the next half century was proving “whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life.” Some corners of the country were still poor. The Great Society, therefore, required, as Johnson had said before, an “end to poverty.”

See also Decline of Detroit (Wikipedia): “The population of the city has fallen from a high of 1,850,000 in 1950 to 680,000 in 2015 … Local crime rates are among the highest in the United States … and vast areas of the city are in a state of severe urban decay.” And Detroit bankruptcy (Wikipedia): “The city of Detroit, Michigan, filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. It is the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history by debt, estimated at $18–20 billion…”

The central planners didn’t do a great job after World War II, but we can rely on them today…

Harrington took a frank position on the shame of urban renewal, in which unions had been complicit. After World War II, the unions had joined the federal government in a great plan to rebuild the cities. The bulldozers obliterated the slums, but also evicted entire black communities like Paradise Valley. This was not “urban renewal,” it was “Negro removal,” as the writer James Baldwin said. Two-thirds of the families displaced by urban renewal were black. Harrington argued that when the heavy equipment, whether Dwight Eisenhower’s in the past or new presidents’ in the 1960s, arrived at so-called slum neighborhoods, it crushed untold value. Old slums hadn’t merely been slums; they had been starting points: “there was community, there was aspiration.” New communities did not come to life in the new projects. The projects were cages that became graveyards. Harrington noted that the new housing that supplanted old tenements created “a new type of slum,” which isolated black families in ghettos. Harrington had seen the new type of slum firsthand in his hometown, St. Louis, where black families had been moved out of the Mill Creek areas to one of the largest of the urban renewal public housing projects in the country, Pruitt-Igoe.

Presidents Biden and Harris might be highly successful at transforming the U.S. via legislation:

And Johnson also could count some advantages of his own. First, there was his long record in the Senate, which gave him unparalleled experience as the shepherd of legislation. Roosevelt, a mere governor with a famous name, had had nothing like that. There was also the aching advantage of tragedy: Kennedy’s death would make Congress eager to pass Kennedy’s tax law and Kennedy’s languishing civil rights bill.

What are the parallels to today? Biden was in the Senate for decades and the U.S. is only now beginning to recover from the tragedy of rule by Donald Trump. Another parallel to today:

Moynihan noticed an irony. Whether a program’s beneficiaries were black or white, its planners were white. Blacks were scarcely present in all the work undertaken for the disadvantaged. Indeed, Moynihan later wrote, “at no time did any Negro have any role of any consequence in the drafting of the poverty program.”

The Great Society programs were supposed to get cheaper over time, as Americans realized that it was far better to work than to consume entitlement benefits:

At the August 20 signing ceremony, Johnson took further pains. The president told the public that the Economic Opportunity Act did not represent a “a handout or a dole.” He continued: “We know—we learned long ago—that answer is no answer. The measure before me this morning for signature offers the answer that its title implies. The answer is opportunity.” Spending now would bring savings later. Johnson promised the voters that this law would reduce the costs of “crime, welfare, of health and of police protection.” The act would yield a new era, and “the days of the dole in our country are numbered.” America would remember the 20 percent in poverty, the “forgotten fifth.”

Even today’s haters at the WSJ loved these ideas:

The Wall Street Journal characterized the law as “an opportunity to eradicate poverty, not opiate it.”

(Can we give them credit for prescience regarding opioids?)

Was President Johnson right about increased spending on government handouts cutting the cost of the police? Urban Institute: “From 1977 to 2018, in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on police increased from $43 billion to $119 billion, an increase of 175 percent. Over the same period, real corrections expenditures increased from $18 billion to $81 billion, an increase of 350 percent.”

Ronald Reagan tried to talk Americans out of the idea that the path to salvation started with a much bigger government.

Reagan targeted the Office of Economic Opportunity. “Now do they honestly expect us to believe that if we add $ 1 billion to the $ 45 billion we’re spending . . . do they believe that poverty is suddenly going to disappear by magic?” Reagan also assailed the new camps being built for young workers. Room and board for each young person cost $ 4,700. Harvard tuition at $ 2,700 was less than that. Reagan took his jab at the college, and at Johnson’s misty affection for a humanities education: “I’m not suggesting Harvard is the answer to juvenile delinquency.” … America, Reagan said, was at a key moment—the country must choose whether it was a collectivist nation or a free one. The title of Reagan’s speech was “A Time for Choosing.” In early November the nation chose. It elected Johnson with an overwhelming majority.

We had faith then and have faith now!

To be continued…

More: Read Great Society: A New History

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