Monday, May 21, 2012

How American Culture has changed (or not)

So we live in an age where you can stream live kitten play around the world.

But it is possible to exaggerate how much society has changed - or at least how much American society has changed. That is the conclusion of a fascinating history of American culture, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Claude S. Fischer. It is serious social history, an attempt to draw together immense amounts of research into letters and diaries and archives from the past. The footnotes alone run to 102 pages, almost half the length of the text itself.

He attempts to grapple with how Americans think and feel and group together over the last few centuries. And he says much of what we tend to believe is wrong. America has not become a more transitory, impersonal, selfish society. Toqueville still has a contemporary ring, after all.

Modernization theory, the story of transformation of feudal , rural intimate communities into impersonal industrial societies, does not really fit the United States. In many important respects, American character and culture has changed surprisingly little since colonial times.

Americans do not move residence more than they did in the late 1700s, he says. They have not turned away from religion. They have not become more violent (rather the opposite). They have not become more indifferent to the needy. The most fundamental difference, he says, is we have more of everything.


Americans today may be entranced by consumer glitter, he notes, but so were Americans centuries ago. They may have been obsessed with ribbons or tea services and china instead of iPads and Prada, but the psychology was much the same.

In 1774, at least 42% of poor householders' estates included tea services. Americans consuming urges seem mo more compelling and their materialism no more acute now, compared to then. What mainly changed was the massive scaling up - the democratization of luxury. There were more goods and more Americans who could desire or acquire them.

Nor is a tendency to get overstreched on debt a new development. In the past, households turned to payday lenders to make it through the gaps to the next paycheck.

In 1890, the average household owed, including mortgage and consumer debts, about double the average household income; in 2007, even though credit was far easier to get, average debt was realtively lower, about 1.75 times average income. p82

Surely Americans are working more hours than they used to, because they want more material goods? Not true, he says. Americans work far fewer hours than their forebears did, especially if you count early retirement. Hours increased after 1970, but

.. a fair summary of the research is this: in the last few decades, individual American workers did not work more hours, but more American couples did. .. Changes in work time thus had much more to do with changing gender roles and with the economic insecurities of the era than with consumer desires. p84

It was not because of a more materialistic outlook in postwar years.

We do have more of eveything. And we underestimate how much life has improved, especially in terms of health. In the eighteenth century, Americans like George Washington were often in acute pain because of rotting teeth and other ailments. Parents saw many of their children die in infancy.

The life expectancy of an American newborn lengthened by about thirty years over the twentieth century - for white women, from dying at about fifity to dying at about eighty. p25

And our fiscal problems because of medicaid and medicare need to be seen in this light:

in 1900, Americans spent about twice as much on funerals as on medicine; by 1990, they spent about ten times as much on medicine as on funerals. p27

Driving, smoking and underexercising became the new health problems;

Illnesses of abundance had replaced illnesses of scarcity. p27

As I often argue, we have got so used to thinking of problems of scarcity that we find it hard as a society to think about problems of abundance.

All the same, Fischer doubts the Easterlin paradox is real: that wealth has grown in recent decades but happiness has not.

For all this debate, there is probably no paradox at all: in the last decades of the century, unlike generations before, average Americans did not really get much wealthier. National wealth grew, but the gains largely went to a top few. So why would we expect average Americans to get much happier? p238

He thinks that wealth on balance probably does make people happier. But there may be another paradox. Even as feelings of security and the predictability of life have increased in many ways, we may have become fixated on more abstract anxieties.

Some scholars contend that modern Americans have arrived at a "postmaterialist age". Secure in body, they now focus on the soul - on higher personal goals, such as self-improvement, and higher social goals, such as saving the environment.

.. There is a yet more pessimistic view of American's sense of security. The "age of anxiety" was a popular catchphrase in the years after World War II... Perhaps reducing the mundane risks of life made the remaining risks or emerging ones more fearsome. Will the stock market fall? Will the plane crash? Will the glaciers melt? Mass media may exacerbated worries... Material security, then, may have ironically produced an age of anxiety. p56-7

This is an interesting counterargument to some of the things I say on this blog - that our major challenge is to re-orient the economy towards more specific purposes that encourage human flourishing. What if we just become more and more worried instead about things outside our control? People think in many strange ways about risk. Perhaps we will over-demand insurance and security.

Instead of rising up the hierarchy of needs to "self-actualization", as Maslow thinks, making the most of our talents, we will get stuck and fixated on irrational fears.

I think there is a genuine cautionary warning here. We may not use abundance to our best advantage. Right back at the beginning of this blog, we saw Keynes had doubts about how society would cope once the economic problem was solved, as well. He thought society in general might have a nervous breakdown, like bored upper-class housewives in his own era.

One thing Keynes said is not a worry, however. He condemned the over-purposive man who lived too much in the future.

He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom.

He never had a kitten cam.


The biggest theme of Fischer's book, however, is he sees what he calls voluntarism as the central feature of American culture and character.

The first key element of voluntarism is believing and behaving as if each person is a sovereign indiviudal: unique, independent, self-reliant, self-governing and ultimately self-responsible. Free men of early America stressed the importance of attaining what they called "competency" or "virtue," the independence that came with having enough property to support a household on one's own. The second key element of voluntarism is believing and behaving as if individuals succeed through fellowship - not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities.

Americans have the freedom to choose what communities they belong to. We expect to conform to community norms or organizational purposes while we are members. But we can also freely exit and join a different community. Easy to enter and easy to leave explains many American institutions, from the labor market to religious affiliation to the inclination towards contractualism.

Individuals make this implicit contract by joining the group: I am free to stay or leave, but while I belong I owe fealty to the group. One might also call this the "love it or leave it" rule. (p99)

This is very different to old world organic communities of blood and soil. And the story of American social history is how more and more groups have been brought into this voluntarist culture.

Where does that leave us? Human nature and human psychology don't change that quickly. But the circumstances of life have been transformed since colonial times. We have astonishing materialist abundance now. But we still have the same hopes and fears.






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