Thursday, August 16, 2012

Historical Apples and Oranges Served Over Vacuous Argumentum ad Misericordiam

Historical Apples and Oranges Served Over Vacuous Argumentum ad Misericordiam

Now that presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has named his choice for the Vice-Presidential nomination—seven-term Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan—the long knives are out all across the punditry class, competing to see who first pierces the armor of the shiny new knight entering the lists. Some of these efforts are extremely silly. Take, for example, Katrina Vanden Heuvel’s Washington Post op-ed from August 14, where she condemns the “audacity” of announcing Ryan “on a ship named for the birthplace of progressivism, to Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.’” Of course, the battleship USS Wisconsin was apropos for Congressman Ryan because he is from Wisconsin (duh) and the Republican Party was founded there well before the intellectual poison known as Progressivism sprung from the land of badgers. As for Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man,’ since when has that piece of now classic American music from, perhaps, America’s greatest composer been owned by one group of partisans? Only Democrats can play it and appreciate it? Balderdash! Talk about small ball. Vanden Heuval has always been petty, but this is sad even by her sorry standards (which are few and far between).

But then there is Amy Davidson’s attempt in The New Yorker to make an odd historical comparison between the circumstances of a young Al Smith when his father died and the young Paul Ryan, similarly circumstanced, nearly a century later. The comparison, one is led to believe, illustrates how far the country has come because Al Smith had to drop out of school to support his family while Paul Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits that he saved and used to finance his education, support his family, and launch his political career. Also, Ryan’s great-grandfather founded a construction business that built roads, railroads, and airports, thus achieving success, says Davidson, due “to a multi-generation commitment, on the part of this country, to investment in infrastructure.” The differences between Smith’s situation when his father died and Ryan’s, suggests Davidson, shows just how great have been the results of the hard work of the New Dealers—results that Ryan may or may not now be threatening in some way. Obviously this suggestion is meant as tragic irony. But her historical evidence is shallow—based only on the Pulitzer Prize winning historical tour de force The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro—and misleading. While Caro’s book is important and excellent, its focus is not Al Smith, but Robert Moses—and his influence on and implementation of the supposed “multi-generation investment in infrastructure” (more on this in a moment). But even her attempt to turn Caro’s description of Smith’s biography into an ad misericordiam justification of the New Deal is flawed at best. For instance, Davidson falsely claims, and pretends that it is based on Caro’s work, that Smith’s family was “destroyed financially by uninsured medical costs,” and that Smith’s childhood was lost to having to support his family. This is not only dishonest and misleading, it’s pure anachronism.

Our current exaltation of suspended adolescence lasting into the twenties certainly was not shared by the Americans of Smith’s era (or those of any era for that matter). Children going to work to supplement or provide family incomes was not unusual in rural or urban settings for many centuries. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, himself an industrious and useful worker from an early age, tried to sell the promotion of manufacturing to the congress on the grounds that it would provide useful employment for women and children: “It is worthy of particular remark, that, in general, women and Children are rendered more useful and the latter more early useful by manufacturing establishments, than they would otherwise be. Of the number of persons employed in the Cotton Manufactories of Great Britain, it is computed that 4/7 nearly are women and children; of whom the greatest proportion are children and many of them of a very tender age.”[1] As Davidson humorously points out while trying attack former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, even if Ryan had not received Social Security insurance payments, child labor laws would have prevented a young fatherless adolescent from being economically valuable and supportive of his family. The fact that Smith’s story led to a greater amount of political success than Ryan’s has so far (whose father undoubtedly paid far more in taxes generally and social security in particular than his son ever saw—thus if the government had merely left the man alone, he could have used that money to protect himself and his family against accidental hardships) Davidson brushes off since, allegedly and without any attempt to prove the statement, “the attrition rate in such circumstances [Smith’s situation in the late 19th century] is a whole lot higher.” Smith was the Governor of New York and twice the Democratic nominee for the Presidency in 1924 and 1928. But, Davidson assures us, Smith’s situation was truly very desperate and, despite his great success, we should take this 19th century example as if it were the opposite of what it actually is; that is, a great and inspiring story of hard work and perseverance in a time and economic climate of easy mobility and opportunity. We are, instead, supposed to treat it as a heart-breaking tragic failure of a society too callous for a proper “social compact.”

But how desperate was it really? There is no doubt that after Smith’s father died, according to Caro, the family was in a real financial pickle. But let’s travel through the story—the entire story—as Caro tells it, and keep in mind the economic realities of today. As many historians, such as David Beito, remind us, mutual aid was the norm in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Voluntary association and civic cooperation had a long pedigree in the United States and American lore. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, for instance, inspired countless volunteer fire brigades, libraries, hospitals, colleges, reading clubs, mutual aid societies, and innumerable other civic and charitable organizations. Al Smith’s family, it turns out, is unexceptionable in this regard.

We are also all at least vaguely familiar with the fact that the economy of the late 19th century and early 20th century was not hampered by onerous and encyclopedic regulations and taxes—thus creating a far freer market for every commodity, including labor. Smith and his family were, again, no exceptions in this regard. Their friends generously made sure “that funeral expenses were paid.” Then, the very night of the funeral, Smith’s widowed mother marched “to an umbrella factory and got a job that she could start the next morning.” When she found her earnings were not enough to support her family “she asked for piecework that she could do at home” which she received. She performed these jobs until her own health began to wane and then, with “the help of friends, she opened a tiny grocery and candy store in the basement of the building in which the Smiths lived, but it quickly became obvious that the store would never provide enough to support the family.”[2]

At this point, Al Smith, a few months past 13 and few more shy of completing the eighth grade at the catholic school he attended, went to work. First he worked at a trucking firm for two years at $3 a week. Next he became a shipping clerk for two years at $8 a week. Next he found employ at the Fulton Fish Market for $12 a week. After four years at the Fish Market, he found a job “carrying heavy pipes at a pump works,” for $15 a week. Soon thereafter Smith was noticed as a potential recruit by New York’s Democratic Tammany machine and the rest, as they say, is history. Given the nearly non-existent inflation of the period (in fact the late 1890s were a deflationary period in most respects, and contrary to goofball Keynesian economics of the 21st century, deflation was not perceived as a big problem—and, indeed, it was not a problem), Smith’s rise through the ranks of unskilled laborers—not to mention his meteoric rise to the very top levels of political power and prestige in the State of New York and the country—is remarkable, but hardly unique. Others may not have made it to the top of a major party’s national ticket, but getting ahead was not an impossible task for people in dire straits like Al Smith. In the span of eight years, from the age of thirteen to twenty-one, he increased his earnings 500% and was able to support his family on his own through hard work and an ease of entry into new jobs that the modern economy sorely lacks—and that was before he became a Tammany man and began developing connections to advance his economic fortunes. He did not complete a college education. And what of it? That had no impact on his fortune anymore than it did any number of other American success stories before or after. Davidson’s choice of Smith is bizarre. Conceivably the only reason he was chosen was that his father died before he reached the age of maturity, as did Mr. Ryan’s father. But Smith did better without Social Security than Ryan has done with it, so far anyway.

Unable to merely leave it at an extremely inapt and dis-analogous comparison, Davidson then makes this dubious argument: “It is possible that Ryan’s father, who was fifty-five and a high earner, paid more in than his son got out; but the point is that the social insurance—the social compact—was there whether he did or not.” So it’s morally justifiable to expropriate Paul Ryan’s father for three or more decades, hampering his ability to provide for his family in good times and bad, in order so that, should a tragic accident occur, his son can collect a fraction of the money his father lost over the years? Had Ryan’s father not died, his money would have been entirely lost and of no use to the people he valued most in his own life. Instead, at the point of a gun, it would have gone to complete strangers, both those in duress and the bureaucrats collecting and distributing the money. The “social compact,” aside from being philosophically dubious, is morally perverse. It also has nothing whatever to do with any American principles and ideals at the time of the Revolution or the Founding. In fact, it’s quite antithetical to them.

The other dig at Ryan in Davidson’s piece is that his family helped build roads and other civic engineering projects, like O’Hare Airport—part of the “multi-generation commitment, on the part of this country, to investment in infrastructure.” Supposedly this is meant to function as a mild jab at Ryan’s “hypocrisy;” since he allegedly is hostile to funding the very projects his family sought to build as a livelihood for generations. Here, curiously, Davidson decides that Robert Caro’s book is no longer useful. That’s odd given the subject matter of The Power Broker—New York’s sickeningly powerful unelected emperor of public works projects, Robert Moses. For instance, had Davidson read Chapters 37 & 38, carefully, it would be almost unfathomable that she could so glibly and foolishly pretend that the “investment in infrastructure” was some unalloyed venture in greatness.

In those two Chapters, Caro examines the wreckage unleashed on the residents in the way of just one mile of Moses’s 627 miles of roads in and around New York City. Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway inexplicably veered through a successful and vibrant neighborhood of more than 1,500 apartments and over 5,000 residents when it could easily have been routed two blocks south through an adjoining park. Despite efforts to publicize their situation, get engineers to examine and defend an alternate route, and exact promises from elected officials, Moses successfully threatened and cajoled anyone who got in his way (usually by promising to turn off the spigots of New York State and Federal highway funds).[3] He eventually succeeded in getting the city of New York to condemn the offending neighborhood, force out its residents one by one, and then demolish it and build his bizarrely uncharacteristic mile of curved expressway. Caro explains:

Moses angrily charge that the borough president was raising objections now only because it was an election year and there was “local opposition.” Any local hardship will be “mitigated,” if not entirely removed, “by the elaborate steps which we have taken to move tenants in an orderly way into public, quasi-public and other housing,” and should be disregarded anyway, he said. “This route will be the backbone of traffic for centuries after a few objecting tenants have disappeared from the scene.... You have from time to time remarked that I do not have to be elected to office. Perhaps that is why I am in a position to protect the really long-range public interest.” He used his old threat—“Only recently you lost a substantial amount of ... money in the Bronx” by “blocking the Bruckner Expressway”; the Cross-Bronx “will cost more than thirty million dollars additional.... Would you like to see the project, now half completed, abandoned and remaining state and federal monies spent elsewhere?”—and then escalated it by threatening to resign as Construction Coordinator (“I should not care to carry this responsibility any further if borough politics are to be injected into it”)[4]

The housing Moses pledged to help the evicted and homeless tenants move into was almost entirely non-existent. The contract from the city to assist the residents find these new homes, however, was not. It does not take much imagination to guess who was behind the company in charge of “distributing” the money:

The men who owned stock in Nassau Management [the company that won the contract to relocate residents evicted for expressway construction] thus made fortunes without risking more than a token investment. The ostensible key men behind the company—its founders of record—were two low-echelon City Housing Authority employees who quit the Authority to form the firm. But they were only front men. The key figures behind Nassau Management, men who would profit from the relocation of the East Tremont tenants, were William S. Lebwohl, counsel of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority; Samuel Brooks, assistant director of the Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee; and Housing Authority chairman Philip J. Cruise—three of Moses’ key aides.[5]

On top of the clear cronyism and conflicts of interest was the scandalous and corrupt way this organization performed the job for which it was paid millions of taxpayer dollars:

It must have been an accident that the “East Tremont” office opened by the “highly efficient” Nassau Management Company was located not in East Tremont but in West Farms, another neighborhood, inconveniently far away for the 1,530 families the office was supposed to serve. It must have been an accident that the office was open only a few hours a day, that those hours were constantly changing, that no notice was ever given of what those hours were going to be, and that inquiring about them by telephone was almost impossible since the single phone number listed for the office seemed to be always busy—so that often East Tremont housewives, having made the long trek over to West Farms, found waiting for them only a locked door. It must have been an accident that there were never enough company representatives in the office, so that the housewives waiting for help had to wait on long lines.[6]

Robert Caro is certainly no right-winger, but his honest recount of the facts for which he found evidence presents a tale of horrors that only the most callous of statist goons would ignore to propagate the myth that without government action and control we did not and would not have roads, airports, universities, or social support organizations and networks. History not only firmly and completely refutes this sophistry, it also shines the light on the horrific waste and corruption of every government usurpation of these previously private and competitive sectors of the economy.

Davidson’s use of historical analogy is not only quixotic, it is quite simply and utterly inaccurate. It disproves her point—assuming she has one—that Al Smith’s situation was worse than Paul Ryan’s; that social security insurance payments extracted from the savings, insurance, and retirements of others are the only, or best, or most ethical manner for people to confront the adversity of losing a father. Furthermore, she ignores the only evidence she presents—Robert Caro’s brilliant book, The Power Broker—when it has inconvenient things to say that undercut her public works hagiography or even Al Smith’s meteoric rise from adversity through his own hard work. Engaging in anachronism—that is, pretending that 21st century American squeamishness about child labor was a common thing a century ago anywhere on earth, and then pretending it was some manner of unusual or bad thing that a thirteen year old boy would work to supplement or support the family income. It was not. Dropping historical context may cut it at The New Yorker, but it’s a clear sign that partisan hackery is afoot.

[1] Report on the Subject of Manufactures, 5 December 1791, Alexander Hamilton: Writings, ed. Joanne B. Freeman (New York: Library of America, 2001), 661-662.
[2] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage, 1974), 114-116.
[3] Ibid, 850-894.
[4] Ibid, 866.
[5] Ibid, 878-879.
[6] Ibid, 879.

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