9.8.13

BEFORE THE UNIONS OR THE NEW DEAL.

Nailed to Newmark's Door is Amity Shlaes on middle-class life in the Roaring Twenties.
In 1920, 35 percent of households had electricity. By 1930, that share was 68 percent. Electricity brought appliances into homes, including electric irons and washing machines. The old drudgery was reduced; women began to enjoy free time. They could even fool around with another great innovation, the typewriter. In short, being stuck in the middle class became more enjoyable in the 1920s.

To see America’s 1920s middle-class experience in context, it helps to consider how we think of the rest of the world today. Specifically, it is important to ask what material benefit symbolizes arrival in the middle class elsewhere in the world. Indians have chosen their definition, one that makes sense to the rest of us: indoor plumbing. If a family has an indoor toilet, it is, or is becoming, middle class. The 1920s were the decade when America enjoyed the transformation that India has just enjoyed. At the decade’s start, 2 in 10 American homes could boast indoor flush toilets. By 1930, more than 5 in 10 did.
Herbert Hoover's "chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" wasn't wishful thinking. But, in much the same way that Friedrich Engels would lament the creation of a "bourgeois proletariat" in England, the Enlightened of the Twenties found much to dislike in the creation of a more broadly shared prosperity.
The general sense was that if the rich prospered, the rest might do better than before. This attitude was validated by tax data. The Wilson, Harding and Coolidge administrations all cut tax rates. Following these cuts, more revenue than the authorities had expected flowed in. But, crucially, the wealthy also paid a greater share of the taxes.

This happy, middle-class decade did not please all, especially those in the progressive movement. Progressives had anticipated that the 1920s would be a decade of radical reform, involving nationalization of key industries like hydropower.

A special shock to radicals was the 1924 presidential election, in which the very middle-class and middle-brow Calvin Coolidge won, beating the Progressive Party’s Robert La Follette and the Democratic candidate John W. Davis.

The Progressives rightly began to perceive this healthy middle class and its conservative voting habits as an existential threat. Around the time Fitzgerald was writing “Gatsby,” another author, Sinclair Lewis, was dedicating a whole book to creating the Babbitt character, an indictment of the middle class. Lewis wrote of his antihero, George Babbitt: “He had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding of all mechanical devices. They were his symbols of truth and beauty.” Yet later, Lewis attacked Coolidge directly, in a book about the banality of the bourgeoisie. Lewis titled the book, a rant against the average American, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge.”

That book sold poorly. Then, as now, Americans preferred Gatsby, seeing in the figure not just falsehood, but also the possibility that they, too, might become rich. Fitzgerald’s book itself, as opposed to the film, also offers such a possibility.
So many years, so little learned, so often the same arguments repeat.

No comments: