My Two Cents

Cyles of American history

Chris Farrell Jan 16, 2009

In trying to figure out what is going on as we stumble our way throught the worst financial crisis since the 1930s it’s worth reading “The Cycles of American Politics” by the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. I recently read it in his 1986 book, The Cycles of American History It’s a rich, nuanced essay–a delight to read. And Schlesinger was early in his prediction that American society was on the verge of a shift from an emphasis on the individual in the Reagan years to a great focus on the public space.

Today, American society does appear to be making one of its periodic shifts in emphasis. In broad terms, we’re going from a focus on “private interests” to “public action” to use the typology of economist Albert O. Hirschman.

Over the past three decades we’ve lived through a period where public policy initiatives focused on markets, open borders, deregulation and lower taxes. The dominating idea behind all these initiatives was that individuals promoting their own interests end up benefitting everyone–the invisible hand lifts all boats. But eventually every revolution breeds a counter-revolution as the neglect of certain problems accumulates, and evidence grows that the invisible hand lifted the yachts while leaving everyone else behind or vulnerable. “People grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries,” wrote Schlesinger. “A detonating issue–some problem growing in magnitude and menace beyond the capacity of the market’s invisible hand to solve–at last leads to a breakthrough into a new political epoch.”

In 2008 the “detonating issue” was record amounts of debt gone bad. It was a wake-up call to all of us.

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