Podcast • September 12, 2008

An American Exception, in Danger

Chuck Collins is an analyst and agitator around the grand canyon of inequality in American incomes and property. With Bill Gates Sr., the grandfather of Microsoft, so to speak, and father, till yesterday, of the ...

Chuck Collins is an analyst and agitator around the grand canyon of inequality in American incomes and property.

With Bill Gates Sr., the grandfather of Microsoft, so to speak, and father, till yesterday, of the richest man in the world, Chuck Collins wrote the book in favor of “death” taxes: Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.

Our conversation with Chuck Collins picks up on James Q. Wilson’s view that Americans have no problem with extreme wealth as long as it’s earned — by Michael Jordan, as Wilson said, or Warren Buffett. The catch, as proud papa Gates is impelled to say, is that even the great entrepreneurial harvests are not exactly earned — certainly not earned alone:

What’s interesting about Bill Gates’ dad is: he grew up in working class Bremerton, Washington. His dad had a little furniture store. He fought in WWII, went to University of Washington and law school on the GI bill and then into law practice. He had a prosperous life. His son was fortunate, went to Harvard, almost graduated and was very successful. He would be the first person to tell you that as smart as his son is, he didn’t earn all that wealth alone. It was a function of growing up in a particular society that has a lot of common welath, a lot of public investment in research, and education, and infrastructure, and technology – and all the things we do together to make this a good soceity. So his view is: an inheritance tax is a righteous tax, a fully beautifully American tax. Which is to say: “Blessings on you, now that you’ve made all this money; but if you make this much money – over $5 million or $10 million or $50 million, you have an obligation to pay back the society that made your wealth possible… Bill Gates Sr. calls the estate tax the gratitude tax – it’s the tax you pay back as a person who’s prospered in this society so that other people can have the same opportunity.

Chuck Collins in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 9, 2008.

Our conversation is about American Exceptionalism again: about the civic DNA of the first middle-class society in the world, and evidence on all sides that we are in fact becoming Richistan (Robert Frank’s coinage) and its sullen suburbs. The rising culture (and fact) of inequality, Chuck Collins says, is one of the most important conversations America isn’t having. Comments please.

Podcast • September 4, 2008

What’s So Great About Us

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline? It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those ...

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline?

It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and a love of country that are the envy of the world — all at the same time. To do all these things at once, America must indeed be unusual. Or even, as Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago, exceptional.

Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, in their Preface to Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.

Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation is the book that the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said all the presidential candidates had to read. “What is unique about America?” Patterson asked in the New York Times Book Review this summer. “What drives its vitality in economic, cultural and social affairs? Why is it so envied and reviled in the rest of the world? Why are its politics so peculiar? Why is it so culturally fraught?”

There are giant gaps in this big book, it turns out, starting with the Iraq War as an expression of how Americans think and act outside the neighborhood. Editors James Q. Wilson and Peter H. Schuck decided to duck foreign policy altogether. It’s an odd omission especially because the unilateralism inside George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” is so clearly an extension of an “exceptionalist” premise — that old alliances, United Nations rules, even Geneva Conventions do not restrain the United States of America.

The mood of the book tends toward the celebratory. Most of the score of contributing scholars seem to agree we’re more unlike the rest of the world than like it, and better off for the difference. But counter-indications are also spelled out — on the matter of inequality and upward mobility, for example — and some gravely worrisome trends. A rising tide lifts all yachts in our economy today. “The evidence for increased inequality since the 1970s is overwhelming,” write Gary Burtless and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “The top of the distribution is pulling away from average and below-average earners, and until the early 1990s there was evidence that the bottom was falling further behind the middle of the distribution.” The gift of upward mobility in the U.S. is bestowed mainly on immigrants, the day they get here. “People born in the U.S. do not enjoy exceptional opportunities for upward mobility compared with people born in other rich countries.”

In our conversation, panjandrum James Q. Wilson voices the dismay of his generation at the corruption and commercialization of American culture for export — which in another day meant gems like Walt Whitman, Jerome Kern and Gene Kelly. In our own era it’s a long way from Louis Armstrong to the knock-offs, far and wide, of “American Idol.” This is a subject we take up next with the insatiably curious and critical Martha Bayles, a contributor to Understanding America.

Podcast • July 24, 2008

The American Exception, Again

Barack Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin just now marks another stage of “rejoining the world” and “rebranding” the American voice out there on the globe. It’s an astonishingly rapid transition in these dog ...

Barack Obama at the Victory Column in Berlin just now marks another stage of “rejoining the world” and “rebranding” the American voice out there on the globe. It’s an astonishingly rapid transition in these dog days of July, 2008. Obama on tour is becoming “the cause of all mankind,” as Thomas Paine once said of our country. What would it mean, or require, for Americans to see ourselves this way again? This is the puzzle Ted Widmer sets himself in Ark of the Liberties, whose title comes with express irony from lines that Herman Melville wrote with irony as well, in White Jacket: “And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world… We are the pioneers of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.”

Ted Widmer, curator of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown, is a connoisseur of political rhetoric — an American historian and, among other things, editor of the Library of America’s compendium of great speeches. I put it to him in conversation: who thinks we’re “the last best hope of earth” after the war in Iraq? Who looks at our pretty lowly rank in international measures of equality and life expectancy, and says: “lead on, America!” What is it that is still exceptional about this world nation of ours? Do we even want to be exceptional anymore? And would a President Obama make us feel more comfortable with the neighbors, more like them, or yet rarer, more blessedly peculiar?

The world has become a lot more like us. We are more like the world and the world is more like us. Democracy is successful on every continent, immigration exists everywhere, most countries have constitutions and very few monarchies are left on earth. One hundred years ago, it was still a relatively rare thing to have a self-sustaining democracy with its own constitution. So our model has won. We won in a million ways in the 20th century and other countries are like us. I’m hopeful that if [Obama] is elected, it will lead to the latest American renaissance and that it will inspire people again in our capacity to lead. I think that was badly damaged, but I now object to a lot of books by liberals, even though I am a democrat. There’s this huge wave of pessimism crashing over the marketplace and you can’t walk into a bookstore without seeing 20 books about how we

blew it…

Ted Widmer in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, July, 2008.

I reminded Ted Widmer, and myself, that the great William James thought we’d blown it, and exposed the fraud of “exceptionalism,” in the occupation of the Philippines a century ago. “God dam the U.S. for its vile conduct,” James fulminated (anticipating Reverend Jeremiah Wright in the taking of prophetic liberties with his language). James went to the heart of the “exceptional” question:

We used to believe… that we were of a different clay from other nations, that there was something deep in the American heart that answered to our happy birth, free from that hereditary burden which the nations of Europe bear, and which obliges them to grow by preying on their neighbors. Idle dream! pure Fourth of July fancy, scattered in five minutes by the first temptation. In every national soul there lie potentialities of the most barefaced piracy, and our own American soul is no exception to the rule. Angelic impulses and predatory lusts divide our heart exactly as they divide the hearts of other countries. It is good to rid ourselves of cant and humbug, and to know the truth about ourselves. Political virtue does not follow geographical divisions. It follows the eternal division inside of each country between the tory and the liberal tendencies, the jingoism and animal instinct that would run things by main force and brute possession, and the critical conscience that believes in educational methods and in rational rules of right.

William James, “Address on the Philippine Question” in William James: Writings 1902 – 1910, Library of America.

Ted Widmer remembered that Mark Twain, too, went volcanic about the Philippines and the imperial transformation of the American eagle. Twain’s revision of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” began, “Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword / He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored…”

Mark Twain was very angry about the Philippines. America’s most beloved writer in many ways, and yet he had a most acute political conscience… He might have had to explain to a judge in 2008 why he was writing the anti-governmental things that he was writing around the time of the Philippines insurrection, which was the ugly aftermath to the Spanish American War. Those guys are brilliant and, I think, with William James you get something closer to what the Puritans would have said, which I find a more honest message, and it’s what Lincoln was saying too, which is that if you believe that God is favoring you more highly, then you also have further to fall and you have a higher accountability. It seems to me that we’re lacking the accountability. We’re trying to take the good part of this and we’re rejecting the other part that comes with it. Lincoln, many of the Puritans and William James all felt that if we’re failing to live up to our incredible, special position in the world – we’re so lucky, we live far from all these other wars, we have so many natural resources, we have this great system of government – if we’re screwing it up, God’s going to be very angry at us. And that I just find a more honest way of looking at it. There’s a dark side of exceptionalism as well as a light side.

Ted Widmer in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, July, 2008.

Podcast • June 18, 2008

Obama-McCain: the World’s Main Event

Here’s a first conversational stab at the point that Obama vs. McCain — while it’s not the world’s election — is a world event like no US presidential campaign before it. This is partly the ...

Here’s a first conversational stab at the point that Obama vs. McCain — while it’s not the world’s election — is a world event like no US presidential campaign before it. This is partly the Web effect, which puts millions, maybe billions, of people in the churn of daily information about the campaign. And it’s even moreso the resonance of Barack Obama, who’s been dubbed “Germany’s favorite politician at the moment” (in Germany) and “definitively… the candidate of Europe” (in Portugal), as Shmuel Rosner of Ha’aretz wrote in Slate this Spring.

It’s different and remarkable, furthermore, as the young editor of openUSA, Kanishk Tharoor, remarks in our conversation, that interest abroad in US politics seems based less on calculations of US foreign policy toward nations and continents like China, say, or Africa or the Middle East. The fascination seems rather with “underlying issues like race, like generation, like globalism.” And the provocative effect of the fascination shows up, for example, in a piece written for openUSA from India that asks: “Can there be a Muslim Obama?” Or as Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy puts it in this conversation from London, Obama “unlocks possibility. He unlocks the imagination. If he could do that, what could I do? What could we do?”

Anthony Barnett

There’s a challenge here for people like Anthony Barnett (and me!) who came to flinch at “American exceptionalism” when Bush-Cheney made it stand for unilateralism and reckless war, but who must be intrigued again with the “only in America” dimensions of, yes, Barack Obama. Here’s the Barnett version:

My views are shifting slightly. I don’t think America is any longer the “indispensable nation.” What Madeline Albright was saying was about power politics: America as Numero Uno — the iron fist and the aircraft carrier behind it. Obviously America is a mightily powerful and economically influential nation, and will remain so. But this sense that it will dominate the century through a combination of wealth and force has, I think, been broken by Iraq — whatever now happens in Iraq. The world doesn’t want it; it’s contemptuous of it. And therefore an element of normalization, and of America becoming a country like other countries, is very healthy and will be very welcome.

But there’s another aspect of this, which is that there was always something about America which said: this is what it’s like to be a modern country. The world will be like us. We are the future. Progress resides here. And for the rest of the world — certainly after 1945, essentially when I grew up — the American way of life, its freedom, its wealth, its liberties, its music… this is what it was to be a modern person. This is no longer the case. For the last ten or 15 years young people have not seen America as what what it’s like to be a modern person. Obama, however, does say something like… “well, it really is an open political system in some ways. Perhaps this recreates a potential for people saying: yeah, right, we want to be like that. America means it. It talks the talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, and actually is delivering. It means it.” That does represent a potential re-lighting of the American example.

Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy in conversation with Kanishk Tharoor of openUSA and Chris Lydon of Open Source, June 18, 2008