Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the Wonder Years as a historical step forward and a harbinger of even more progress in the future. Indeed, until the 2008 recession, we used to hear about the Wonder Years as “the End of History”, the beginning of the spread of liberal democracy across the globe, and the beginnings of a recession proof capitalism.
In reality, the Wonder Years were not a new higher norm in a march of progress. They were an aberration. Though there are different ways to measure recessions, the history of the U. S. economy is a very long series of booms and busts. As far as modern times go, after deep recessions that started in 1857 and 1873 (also called the “Long Depression”), both caused in part by bank failures , the years 1893 to 1897 arrived as the worst time of economic distress in American history. Yet, a decade later, 1907 brought another severe economic crisis, caused by another failure of a big bank. The history of American capitalism is a series of bad economic times—often brought on by the rapacious behavior of business men—punctuated by better times, times in which people sometimes seek to rein in greed.
While we have massive inequality today, such inequality is not beyond the American norm. In 1896 social scientist Charles B. Spaur estimated that one percent of the population owned more than half the national wealth, whereas the bottom 44 percent of families owned just 1.2 percent (McDonald, The Golden Passport, 2017.pp. 23). The figures today are similar. Far from being the norm, the Wonder Years were an aberration and we have now returned to something like the norm in American economic reality, that is, we are moving back to the future of the 19th Century. Other countries are following our lead. Consider, for instance, this statement made at the Convention of American Bankers Association in 1890 by Edmund J. James, from the Wharton School of Finance and Economy (McDonald 2017, pp. 13):
Whether for weal or woe, the control of government, of society, of education, of the press, yes, even of the church is slipping more and more rapidly into the hands of the business classes, and it is this class which to an ever increasing extent will dominate our political and social life.”
In 1888, President Rutherford B. Hayes bemoaned in his diary that “[t]his is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations” (McDonald 2017, pp. 14). In 1922, in an article in The New Republic, John Dewey, in arguing against the idea that American Pragmaticism had anything to do with American commercialism, wrote of his colleague William James:
The man who wrote that “the callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature of Western Civilization,” that this callousness is a “symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS,” and that this worship “together with squalid cash interpretation put upon the word success is our national disease” was not consciously or unconsciously engaged in an intellectual formulation of the spirit he abhorred.
It all sounds familiar.
After the 1907 recession, the Progressive Movement arose in an attempt to ameliorate the excesses of the rich and of corporate greed. The Progressives believed that science, technology, systematic rational reforms, and long-term empirically-based planning could usher in a more efficient, fairer, and better world. This was also the era in which professional business schools arose. These schools stressed the need for corporate responsibility, ethics, and social amelioration.
Harvard Business School was founded in 1908 and one of its earliest reports claimed that “[i]n training a student for [a career] in business, this School has aimed to stress in all its work the responsibility of business to the community as a whole” (McDonald 2017). Harvard Business School’s first president, Edwin Gay, believed that “the economic order must be regarded as only one integral part of the entire social life and, as such, was to be evaluated from an ethical point of view” (McDonald 2017, pp. 21).
In the Wonder Years, there was a widely shared view, stemming from the Progressive Era, that different institutions had different ends, none of which was profit-making in and of itself. Each institution was meant to serve a different social good and together they were meant to make up a progressive society. Hospitals and medicine were meant to serve health. Law, courts, and prisons were meant to serve justice. Colleges and universities were meant to serve, create, and preserve knowledge. Churches were meant to serve spiritual needs. Business was meant to serve material needs by resourcing communities and societies with goods and service.
Businesses were meant to serve “stakeholders”—that is, everyone on whom they impacted—and not just stockholders. Yet, today, a great many people argue that a business’s only moral and fiduciary responsibilities are to their stockholders and not to anyone else. Indeed, some people refer to our current capitalism as “stockholder capitalism”, rather than the stakeholder capitalism of the Wonder Years.
So, I have argued that our current woes are not due to neo-liberalism and that they do not represent a new stage of history, but, rather, a return to the historically normative levels of inequality, exploitation of workers, consolidated corporate control, and the dominance of wealth in society. So, what was the real culprit?
To gain a deeper view of what caused our current malaise, we need to see that human beings have a deep—even biological—need to count and matter (Pickett & Wilkinson 2011). This need explains an important and robust finding in public health research: There is a deep connection between inequality and health. Societies that have high-levels of inequality are toxic in a great many ways (Marmot 2004; Pickett & Wilkinson 2011; Stiglitz 2013). Such societies lead to a great many people—not just poor ones, either—feeling that they do not really “matter”. This is profoundly detrimental to physical and mental health and well-being.
Why should this be so? It is because in a highly unequal society people question their self-worth, often regardless of their position in that society. They fear that what they do or think does not matter to, or contribute to, their society. When humans do not feel that they count, they get sick in mind and body. When too many people in a society feel this way, the whole society is sick.
Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belong (2016, pg. xvii) points out that:
Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
Researchers have repeatedly found that when humans face an existential crisis from wars or natural disasters, they don’t fall apart, but pull together. Their health often gets better and those suffering from mental illness improve. Again, to quote Junger:
As people come together to face an existential threat … class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that … is downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness. (pp. 53 – 54)
This all sounds very odd. But, such is the power of the human need to belong, count, and contribute.
…to be continued…