The Genius of America
The "genius" that I am writing about is the postwar vitality that is evident in all the fine arts, many of the sciences, throughout technology and is visible in the broad range of culture: our music, food, style and Hollywood movies. The genius is grounded in commerce.
Before W.W.II, America was justifiably considered just a larger version of Australia, vast, resource rich, boredom from horizon to vast horizon; a poor cousin of Germany, France and Britain. What created this change, was not solely the wartime destruction of Europe. If it had been, then Europe might have recovered its First Place status, and I might not be asking this question. But Europe hasn't, so the American triumph over five decades can not be ignored.
I have chosen to consider this triumph based on my own personal experience. I am one of the contributors to this genius; commercial, artistic, intellectual and otherwise.
I find no single factor nor even a small list of factors to identify with the emergence of America's genius. What I find are a half a dozen or more independent and fortuitous elements, that converge to create the milieu that gave rise to our recent genius.
Fortuitous is not a word that I use here lightly. As a statistician I recognize it as the secular word for the mathematical concept "random". There is also a slight tinge of "good fortune" to the secular word. The positive tinge occurs most often when a series of random events has a positive outcome as they have in the case of American Genius.
The leading source of American Genius is our willingness to fail. I owe this insight to Dick Raymond, a long time close friend of mine, who at the peak of the Hippy Era loudly proclaimed the need to "fail young". Dick advocated failure as the best form of learning. His idea is ultimately derived from Charles Pierce and John Dewey because it conceives of a world that is wholly empiric, not subject to logic, analysis or dissection. Only by direct interaction with the world, principally through failure, one can encounter and be immersed in the world. Failure makes you learn, even reluctantly. It was B.F.. Skinner who pointed out that punishment is confusing, rewards are reinforcing. That makes unpunished "failure" the ideal teaching tool, because it is neither confusing like punishment nor reinforcing of irrelevant experience, which rewards often do.
In America, as maybe nowhere else on the planet, there is very little punishment inherent in failure. People fall down, they get up and do the next thing, without much opprobrium. Often with some encouragement. This is marvelous. This allows learning to occur. This allows success to happen more frequently because more people are willing to live their lives at risk. Fall down, get up and do something else.
Don't try to guess ahead. You'll get it wrong.
I think that American public education is atrocious. I don't know about private schools. I went to public schools (except for the University of Chicago. I will say more about that later).
What do I think is so beneficial about having an atrocious public school system? How does this nightmare contribute to the American Genius?
Speaking for myself, I hated school from a very early age and recognized that the school curriculum was meaningless to my life. I could see clearly that it didn't provide any useful information, even though the schools promised that in the next higher grade I would learn something. The schools made that promise every year for every grade and never delivered. At ten years old I wanted to know about sex, why people were so mean to each other and how the world of power worked. So I, like many others who are forced to do the same thing, decided to learn about the world for myself, my way, any way. Had the schools been even modestly good, I might have been deceived into the promise of education and been more attentive. Fortunately they weren't. That is what I'm saying about the benefits of atrocious schools. The right people, the people who have created our American genius, recognized the inadequacy of their future education and set out to learn for themselves.
Please don't think I am not grateful to the many wonderful, caring teachers in America. I am grateful. But they are not the educational system. When I encountered the wonderful teachers, their exceptional qualities were vivid against the background of the larger institutional gray terror.
I was personally able to leave high school at age fifteen and go to the University of Chicago. While private, U of C was an exception among private Universities. It was intellectually stimulating and the locus of America's intellectual students. I loved it. I later went to State University at San Francisco and the celebrated University of California at Berkeley. These last two were terrible in comparison to Chicago as well as in absolute terms. S.F. State and U.C Berkeley were no different than my first decade of public schools.
In other countries, with better school systems, students are led to believe that school offers positive material for life. This may be true. But this is probably only true for ordinary people who want ordinary lives. The world is empiric, hardly understood by anyone at all. Certainly commerce is not understood by anyone, so schools are inherently misleading in their self importance and consequently have no real value; they probably have a negative value.
"Class" is a word that we derive from a model of European social structure. It exists in outline form in America. I've written about it elsewhere (class.html). We have a small elite, two percent; a small bottom group, a few percent and an outcast class that is under two percent. That leaves most Americans in the vast middle-class, vast being more than 90% of the population. Once again this is an uncommon social economic structure on the planet and historically. It is positive for American Genius because it is not negative.
What? "Positive because it is not negative". What?
Our elite is too small to set our agenda. Certainly in the second half of the 20th Century it has been irrelevant. It is too unimportant for most people to pay attention to or aspire to. That "negative" is what is positive for creative people. They can and do ignore class issues that would be a burdensome waste of time elsewhere.
The same is true for the concept of class as it applies to the bottom categories. The people at the bottom of America are few, often with self inflicted problems, who do not provide a genuine scare story that would induce other better-off Americans to conform to social norms. Maybe a few people behave "properly" out of fear that they will end up as "poor wretches". Most people are not motivated by this fear. Certainly not in postwar America.
We can do pretty much what we want, without the glimmering false promises of climbing the ladder to join the elite nor running terrified of the potential disaster of falling off the ladder. Forget the ladder in America.
Those who know my writing about business already know the positive role I ascribe to immigrants as a source of our commercial genius. The whole notion of "trade" is built on the diversity of people. Diversity is created by, fostered with and encouraging to immigrants. People with distinct trade cultures create commerce, the Overseas Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Gujurati, Senegalese, Scots and many more. They are the immigrants who create commerce. They also bring their friends and relatives to join them. America has plundered the world of its commercial elite.
Immigrants provide even more. Their presence anywhere acknowledges the tolerance of their hosts. Their secure presence induces more immigrants to come. Immigrants are inherently the shit kickers, rebels and outcasts of other societies and therefore, the potential innovators in their new society. Certainly they are ambitious and hard working.
Witness Miami after Castro created a communist command-and-control society. Miami, with its new immigrants from Cuba became the rich luxuriant capital of Latin America in two decades. Cuba, without the same people, became a sleepy backwater, a nearly starving nowhere land.
Lastly and maybe most importantly, to see the value of immigrants, a look at the telephone directory of the 1965 Bell Laboratories reveals much. Bell Labs, the source of much of American technology, if not just the most important, reads like a list of international names.: Wu, Kim, Watanabe, Smollen, Al Mousaf, Kumar... Which it was. The same is true of any scientific or technical society. Our immigrants have been our most vital creative resource. Much of modern physics came directly in the form of immigrants escaping from Germany and Communism. A close inspection of the fine arts reveals the same thing vis a vie Germany and East Europe from 1935 to 1955.
As was the case with public schools, our government is atrocious. This unfortunate circumstance redounds to the benefit of American Genius. Bad government generates commercial initiative.
Few of America's elite university graduates go into government. Virtually none have done so in the second half of the 20th Century. This is unlike most other industrial countries that siphon off the meritocratic elite for government service.
How bad is our government, really? People often point out that many governments have terrifying internal spy organizations and America doesn't.
That is more a commentary on the incompetence of our government. The FBI was run for forty years by a megalomaniac who was paranoid and still was able to do very little harm. The worst that we know of was having the FBI fabricate letters from Martin Luther King, and forcing Universities to deny him honorary doctorates. The CIA spent thirty years infiltrated to the very top by outside spies, so that true Russian defectors were punished while phonies were treated lavishly. In addition the CIA's economic estimates of the USSR were 300% wrong. The INS, our immigration agency, is so ineffective that five times as many people come to the U.S. illegally as legally every year. The Anti drug enforcement agencies get larger budgets every year while stopping a smaller percent of the drug trade. Our government, measured in effectiveness is atrocious.
All of this is fine with me. Drug money is a great source of outlaw capital and new business, illegal immigrants are a commercial blessing. The CIA funded the entire computer world and the military created the internet, because their "human resources" (spies) were so inadequate.
One of the greatest disgraces of our government is a great bonus. Our legislatures and our courts are openly more responsive to business campaign donations than in Japan or in any European nation. Our courts, when measured by independent analysts reveal overwhelming bias towards commercial interests when commercial interests are in conflict with social or political interests.
Tough luck for all of our moralists. All of this is great for commerce, the ultimate source of the American Genius. Our bad government, "bad" meaning incompetent, bloated and openly corrupted by commerce is a wonderful source of America's commercial, technological, scientific and cultural genius.
I have not ignored the work of Mancur Olsen. Olsen is one of our geniuses who pointed out that commerce depends on the legal protection of property rights and on judicial stability. We have both. Many banana Republics only have corruption without the protection of property rights and judicial stability.
I wish to apologize for what I have just written to the many fine, competent, diligent and caring government employees and public office holders. Fortunately, you probably agree with me from the perspective of your own agency or institution.
This is beginning to seem weird. I like the atrocious institutions of education and government and now I am about to praise bigotry. Why, you may ask?
I don't praise American bigotry, I commend the way we handle bigotry. We are very open about it. That is what happens in America when bigotry reaches the stage where it is publicly acknowledged. Most societies, long after a particular form of bigotry comes to the public's attention make an effort to quietly resolve the issue. Think of the woman's movement, the sexual freedom movement and the minority rights of Africans and Mediterraneans in nearly all of the Northern European nations. The solution to this emerging recognitions of bigotry was: quiet, slow, mediated, reform and accommodation.
Not in America. In America our bigotry is trumpeted and open battles ensue. The most notorious was the anti civil rights movement. White Southerns were open, blatant, occasionally violent and full of Sturm und Drang. The anti-gay movement is the most recent example of a trumpet blowing national campaign. Plenty of debate, political battles, some violence and media coverage.
The consequences of open battles about bigotry are several. From my point of view the key value is that people move. If they want sexual freedom they move to the big coastal cities, if they want to be gay, they know where to go (S.F., West L. A., Seattle, NYCity and Atlanta). Six million blacks left the South during the civil rights days. But cities like Atlanta that were openly tolerant have become the mecca's for people from all the places where bigots have chased people away. And Atlanta is thriving evidence of American genius.
In addition, open bigotry creates innovative forms of commerce. The civil rights movement created a whole range of affirmative action efforts that generated a wide range of businesses. The reach of affirmative action was far beyond the black community reaching into woman's and Latino businesses. Gay rights created several predominantly and exuberantly gay business districts. Associated with each of these movements were cultural creations as well as, esthetic, academic and political.
Love of Commerce
America does not have a unique love of commerce. But we should be reminded that America is among the few nations that have a love of commerce. It is recent too. It wasn't until the mid-1960's that retail stores began opening for business on Sundays, the 1980's before many stayed open until 10 PM. It was only in the 1960's that the first wave of imports, fabric, furniture and Volkswagen Beetles began arriving on our shores. Only in 1960 were fair trade laws abolished, laws that had previously eliminated retail discounting. In the 1970's liquor was finally being sold outside of liquor stores and condoms were put on drug store shelves. We love commerce, but only recently.
This is a good time to give thanks to the two major historic forces that shaped the growing vitality of commerce and the rise of American genius. One was W.W.II, the other was the Cold War.
W.W.II created the first modern industry outside of the auto/steel sectors, it developed and spread modern manufacturing techniques, and raised up a vast bureaucracy to support business, such as air traffic control, the FAA to regulate air lines; the SEC, the reconstructed Federal Reserve Bank and bank insurance, to stabilize finance. The military provided the first federal support of science and technology, bringing large Universities into the realm of government research, modeling it for the commercial world. W.W.II discharged men who brought modern management to countless businesses, and provided a fresh cadre of trained technicians, professionals and management with valuable bureaucratic skills that the military teaches so effectively. Plus, W.W.II promulgated the training techniques innovated by the military (and considered essential to modern business by Peter Drucker).
The Cold War was a blessing. In 1949, a brilliant academic political economist, Joseph Schumpeter, looked at the world and decided that socialism was in imminent triumph. Most of Europe was nationalizing its major industries, socialist income distribution and welfare policies were being installed in nearly every industrial and near industrial nation. Most nations had socialist governments, many had communist governments including the home countries of 80% of the worlds population. Anti-capitalism was nearly the rule in the world with the exception of a few dictatorships and the U.S..
The cold war changed all that by polarizing the issue of free markets and centralized government planning. It polarized ideology. Year-by-year the distinction that the ideological war drew became stronger and more strongly delineated in American society. Slowly a counter-socialist ideology emerged in the mid-1960's. A crude combination of Ayn Rand, Libertarianism and Milton Friedman. This new counter-socialism became American dogma by the 1980's and was enshrined as sacred at the end of the cold war. It became de facto American gospel with the domestic economic boom of the 1990's.
The Cold War started out as America versus Russian Communism. Within five years the world divided into the Communist nations, the anti-Communist nations and the Third World. What is so fascinating in retrospect is that the polarization created a pseudo-ideology of anticommunism which we now articulate as "democratic free markets". This is a very new concept that has no historic roots nor intellectual rigor, but it is adequate for the support and encouragement of the commercial world that I have written about above and called: the American Genius.
Michael Phillips Dec. 2000