What happened to pragmatism?
The New York Times carried an article several months ago on a social policy paradox. Needle exchange programs through which drug users can exchange dirty needles for clean ones, dramatically reduce HIV infections. One study found that a needle exchange program in the District of Columbia reduced new HIV infections by 70%. Yet there are only about 200 syringe exchange programs operating in 33 states. Instead, “Today, injection drug use, notably of heroin, is on the rise and has led to outbreaks of HIV in some communities.” Yet empirical research shows that needle exchange programs actually increase drug users’ participation in treatment programs. This makes sense since they are healthier and are likely more hopeful. So these programs are simple to implement, reduce the burden of illness and its associated costs in a community, prevent the spread of infections to innocents, and increase the likelihood that drug users will stop using. As they say in American slang, “It is a slam dunk” (referring to basketball). Yet there are so few programs.
A few weeks before this article appeared, the Times published a piece on a failed program for rehabilitating prisoners through a work-release program in a small Arkansas town. The town “was a casualty of the mechanization and other changes to American agriculture,” and had many abandoned buildings. Criminals used the buildings as refuges, and the crime rate was high. The program as conceived would employ prisoners on work-release to demolish the buildings while receiving high school instruction and drug treatment services. The prisoners would also earn $1,000 over six months of work and master demolition skills. The town would remove abandoned buildings, eliminate sites for criminals and vandals, while also creating vacant land available for future development. Finally, prisoners released on probation would be more employable. Everyone would benefit. Again, a slam-dunk! But the buildings contained asbestos. To save money on asbestos removal, town officials who implemented the program gave prisoners only flimsy protective clothing for example, “outfits picked from a local clothing drive and masks with a disclaimer on the packaging warning against use around airborne asbestos or lead particles.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency ultimately shut down the program.
These might seem to be minor stories. But consider a more egregious situation. In 2014, the state appointed managers of Flint, Michigan switched from using treated water from Detroit to using water from the Flint river. “The corrosive Flint River water caused lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply, causing extremely elevated levels of the heavy metal neurotoxin.” As a result, “between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to drinking water with high levels of lead and they may experience a range of serious health problems.” This happened even though earlier, “Flint had commissioned an evaluation of Flint River water, the results of which indicated it would need to be treated with phosphates to reduce its corrosiveness.”
These events point to a larger question that has puzzled me for some time. What has happened to American pragmatism, its resolute “can-do” culture that attracted Europeans ever since Alexis de Tocqueville made his trenchant observations about the early Americans? As he wrote, the Americans were fixed upon “purely practical objects” shaped in part by their focus on commerce, which drew them “earthward,” distracted only in a “transient” fashion by their religious beliefs.
This earthward glance created a culture that prized commerce and used taxes and bond issues to build bridges, railroads, canals, and interstate highway systems. Yet in August of 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 more. Close to my home, the New Jersey Transit system is in crisis. “Its aging tracks and trains need billions of dollars in improvements. Delays and fares are rising along with ridership, with passenger cars packed to the breaking point. The century-old tunnel that carries its trains to New York is crumbling. And the agency has gone nearly a year without a permanent leader.” On September 29, a New Jersey Transit train crashed into the Hoboken train station killing one person standing near the tracks and injuring more than 100. This was an eerie evocation of the derailment of an Amtrak train outside Philadelphia in 2015, which killed 8 and injured 200. Yet, neither the New Jersey Transit nor the Amtrak train tracks were equipped with “positive train control” technology, which automatically slows down trains turning corners or entering a station. Why the backwardness?
Consider the following as well. Reviewing the state of infrastructure in the United States, “the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America a ‘D’ on its nationwide Infrastructure Report Card. ASCE estimated that $2.2 trillion is needed to completely reform the nation’s transportation networks, a huge sum of money that is double the federal deficit. Regardless of the government’s inability to provide this money, it must find a solution for the infrastructure crisis.” Similarly, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, complained in a presidential debate that the U.S. airports met the standards of a “third world country.” In this matter, he was in spirit, accurate. As the Economist reports “Skytrax releases an annual ranking of the world’s top 100 airports. This year’s puts five airports in developing countries ahead of the top American airport, Denver International, which lies in 28th place.” To account for this poor standing the reporter writes, “There are a number of factors, beginning with chronic underinvestment in public infrastructure across the country.”
These reports point to the following hypothesis. There is a sense in which what is public—the commonly shared places, facilities, tracks, roadways and utilities, that connect us in commerce and daily life-- has been devalued practically and psychologically. Pragmatism is weak because the object of its efforts, the “public square,” is devalued.
Pragmatism in American history
What is striking about the loss of a “can-do” and public-spirited ethic is that American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Pierce, William James and John Dewey established a unique strain of American philosophy, itself called “pragmatism,” as a counterpart to European rationalism. In the spirit of “doing” rather than just “thinking,” these pragmatists prized empirical knowledge gained through action by finding out what in fact works. Truth, in this way of thinking, emerged from experience, not from the exercise of unencumbered reason nor through the recourse to faith or holy texts. John Dewey in particular played an important role in the intellectual life of what has come to be called the “progressive period” in American history, roughly the period from about 1890 to the end of World War One.
I have been drawn for the longest time to the social reformers of this period. They were practical, inventive and deeply touched by the day-to-day lives and struggles of common people in large cities. They were instrumental in restricting child labor, creating local housing codes, setting up baby-milk stations, limiting the working day, building parks and playgrounds, educating immigrants in Settlement Houses that still stand today, and deploying visiting nurses to tenements. They invented the profession of social-work as a way to connect families to housing, schooling and jobs, developed zoning codes for cities, advocated that cities own their trolley lines and utilities, and propagated the idea of “social standards,” what today we would call a “living wage.” Many of the ideas that shaped this inventiveness and energy were informed by the wider ethic of the “conservation of resources,” so that people, settings and nature itself were used rationally and not to excess. In this way of thinking the “market” was not efficient in the widest sense insofar as it undermined families, sickened children, ruined natural landscapes, and created slums.
Jane Addams, a leader in the movement for progressive social reform, had close intellectual and personal ties to John Dewey, a leading philosopher of pragmatism. Dewey founded an educational philosophy based on the idea that children learn best from experience. As one scholar notes, Dewey was intellectually nourished by two settings, the “lab school” at the University of Chicago and Hull house, the settlement house that Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded in 1889. Philosophical pragmatism and social reform pragmatism were joined together by the idea that Dewey advanced and that Addams underlined, that, “knowledge is not its own justification but a means of resolving the problematic situations in which it arises.” In other words, problematic situations, only when meaningfully engaged, that is with the mind and the heart, give rise to the understanding that is required to resolve them. This is the pragmatist ethic of “learning from experience.” This is why Addams believed that young social reformers had to “settle” in the neighborhoods they hoped to help improve.
The division of labor
To my mind there is something compelling and uplifting by the breadth and depth of thinking that Jane Addams and others brought to their very practical work. “Cost-benefit analysis,” the managerial appropriation of public policy planning today, pales in comparison. I have long wondered what was the basis for their conviction, courage and steadfastness. In this regard I have admired and puzzled over a text that Herbert Croly, a major progressive period intellectual, and the founder of the magazine, The New Republic, wrote. It is found in his book, The Promise of American Life, first published in 1909. Let me quote it at length and bear with me as you read it.
“A man achieves individual distinction not by the enterprise and vigor with which he accumulates money, but by the zeal and skill with which he pursues an exclusive interest, an interest usually but not necessarily connected to his livelihood. The purpose to which he is devoted, for instance as that of running a railroad, is not exclusive in the sense of being unique. But it becomes exclusive for the individual who adopts it because of the single-minded and disinterested manner in which it is pursued. A man makes the purpose exclusive for himself by the spirit and method in which the work is done; and just in proportion as the work is thoroughly well done a man’s individual quality does not depend merely on the display of superior enterprise and energy although, of course, he may and should be as enterprising and energetic as he can. It depends on the actual excellence of the work in every respect, an excellence which can best be achieved, by the absorbing and exclusive pursuit of that alone. A man’s individuality is projected into his work. He does not stop when he has earned enough money and he does not cease his improvements when they cease to bring him immediate return. He is identified with his job and by means of that identification his individuality becomes constructive. His achievement, just because of his excellence, has an inevitable and unequivocal social value. The quality of a man’s work reunites him with his fellows.”
I would describe this passage as a paean to society’s division of labor. Croly is extolling the way in which a person’s exclusive work connects him to a wider social order represented by the world of work. As he says, once a man, or person, finds the work he is singularly called upon to perform, once he projects his individuality into it and thereby becomes constructive, he is “united with his fellows.” The paean evokes what the first sociologist Emile Durkheim discovered in his groundbreaking book, The Division of Labor in Society; that working connects us organically by virtue of our specialized but complementary roles. Croly’s paean to the division of labor also expresses the basis for what my colleague Howard Schwartz calls, “objective self-consciousness.” This means understanding yourself by seeing yourself through the eyes of others to whom you make contributions and from whom you gain resources. This consciousness is built on the idea of one’s limitations, hence the notion of exclusivity, and in this sense is a bulwark against narcissism, the belief that we are omnipotent and co-extensive with the world.
Now to the modern ear this focus on “exclusivity” might sound strange. We live in a period in which we value our flexibility. The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the terms “protean man” or “protean self” to give an account of our own post-modern condition. In light of the choices we face, the perspectives we acquire, and the competing narratives we encounter, Lifton argued, we are strengthened by our eclecticism. We are in this vision “shape-shifters.”
This suggests that “exclusivity” in the progressive period had a precise and historically specific referent. We don't have to look far for it. In building a progressive social order out of what was, at times, the chaos of market-led development, particularly in large cities, progressive intellectuals were drawn to the metaphor of the machine. The machine’s power derives precisely from the interaction of its specialized, yet complementary parts. Each part has an exclusive function and the failure of any part stops the machine.
The grand expositions of the post-Civil War period highlighted the visual and metaphorical dominance of the machine. The giant Corliss machine of the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition-- replete with shafts, belts, hammers, presses and wheels-- provided power for the entire fair. At the Chicago exposition of 1893, President Cleveland pressed a small button that made the great Allis engine “throb” and in response, “thirty great engines in Machinery Hall, as if they had heard the ringing of the gong on the electro-automatic engine stop, started up with a roar and thrashed the air with immense fly wheels like a cyclone.” The historian Henry Adams, long obsessed by the apparent inscrutability of social change, thought he had found one key to history – the exponential path of change itself, by observing the hall of dynamos at the Great Paris exhibition of 1900.
The machine as metaphor was linked to the idea of efficiency as a social ideal. As one writer notes, in the first decade preceding World War One, efficiency became a “normal American madness.” Frederick Winslow Taylor of course promoted efficiency on the shop floor, but there were also movements for “personal efficiency, “household efficiency,” “natural resource efficiency” and even “social efficiency,” which meant harmonized relationships between social classes. In April of 1914, 69,000 people attended an “efficiency exposition and conference” at the Grand Central Palace in New York City. A similar exposition was later held in the Midwest. Thorstein Veblen, the iconoclast economist wrote a series of papers, later collected in the book, The Engineers and the Price System, in which he proposed that since, ”the progressive advance of this industrial system towards an all inclusive mechanical balance of interlocking processes appears to be approaching a critical pass,” it was time for engineers rather than business people to oversee production and thus prevent inefficiency and artificial scarcity.
Let me pull these threads together. I am arguing that the pragmatic temperament as expressed by the social reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century was based on the idea that there was a larger social order based on the division of labor, which through social reform, local planning and “conservation” in the widest sense of the term, could be realized. This ideal social order, glimpsed through the chaos of actual city life, but felt to be within reach, had the merit of giving to everyone a valued place in an interlocking system of roles. People were reciprocally engaged in the work of building civilization. This idealized social order meant that the shared public space of cities, the streets, the schools, the houses, the factories, could be beneficent in a psychological sense, if it could be organized according to practical reason and common sense. I propose that this was one important basis for American pragmatism.
If this argument is right, it suggests the following. Pragmatism declines insofar as we no longer have a purchase on a societal-wide division of labor, if we no longer experience our roles in a societal wide system of interlocking parts through which we share our collective work. The resources and institutions we hold in common- our schools, cities, roads, bridges, rails, neighborhoods- are not part of the connective tissue that sustains a social order; an order through which we attain an awareness of our dependence on others, and our contributions to them. Instead, we are more likely to feel extruded from this dance of reciprocity. If so, the public order would no longer appear to be beneficent. And insofar as it excludes us it would be toxic.
But my reader can ask; can there possibly be evidence for what is after all a most abstract proposition?
The decline of work
We may not have to look too far. One striking development is peoples’ increasingly insecure attachment to the working world. For example, men of prime-age are increasingly disaffected from the world of work entirely. As the following graph shows, the ties that successive cohorts of men have to the work-word are weakening.
As Nicholas Eberstadt writes in, “Men without Work: America’s invisible crisis, “Almost all of the collapse of work in adult male America over the past half century is due to the rising numbers of men no longer seeking jobs. Between 1965 and 2015, the employment-to-population ratio for U.S. men twenty and older fell by a bit over thirteen percentage points (81.3 percent to 68.1 percent). Over this same period, LFPRs (labor for participation rates) for U.S. men twenty and over fell by more than twelve percentage points (83.9 percent to 71.5 percent). In effect, exit from the workforce—including retirement—accounted for almost all of the drop in employment levels for all adult men….The prime prime-age male exodus from the labor market accounted for seven-eighths of the total work rate decline.” Moreover, in 2015, “over two-fifths of prime-age male un-workers had some college education, and one-sixth had at least a bachelor’s degree.”
And prime-age men are not alone. Young people are also experiencing what the Social Science Research Council calls “disconnection.” In its Measure of America project, the Council’s authors estimate that 13.8% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither working nor in school. “Disconnection” peaked in 2010 in the early phases of the Great Recession, but it has fallen only slightly since then. Strikingly, the Council’s report connects the fates of young people and prime-age men. As it notes, “Parents who themselves struggle with weak attachment to the labor market are less able to help their children gain a foothold in the world of work than parents with robust employment histories.”
Finally, even for those who do work, their attachment to work may be increasingly insecure. As a Forbes reporter notes, “Tucked away in the pages of a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office is a startling statistic: 40.4% of the U.S. workforce is now made up of contingent workers—that is, people who don’t have what we traditionally consider secure jobs.”The causes of these trends are legion, from the decline of manufacturing jobs, automation, the rise of low-paid service work, a growing number of ex-prisoners, the end of the draft, the rising cost of college, and a more generous disability insurance system. My focus is less on the causes and more on the effects. Reporting on prime-age men, Eberstadt notes one simple fact, “For un-working men, watching TV and movies ate up an average of five and a half hours a day. That’s four hours a day more than for working women, nearly three and a half hours more than working men, and a striking two hours a day more than unemployed men.”
I take from this that being what Eberstadt calls an “unworking” prime-age male puts you at great risk of being and feeling isolated. This is not far from Emile Durkheim’s original insight that the obverse of social integration, what he called “organic solidarity,” is “anomie.” If this line of reasoning is plausible, it suggests that important segments of the population are losing their material and psychological relationship to the division of labor broadly considered. This means that they are not finding their place in the world of work, and because they feel isolated, to the local communities in which they live.
The psychology of the “bad object”
Psychological processes link isolation to the devaluation of the public domain. Margaret Thatcher, in attacking social entitlements, famously said, “there is no such thing as society.” But in fact there is always a “society in the mind.” We are creatures of what Freud called “introjection" and "projection.” If we feel isolated we give an account of that isolation to ourselves, unconsciously to be sure, by creating a picture in our mind of the kind of setting that would isolate us. We then project out that picture, giving further color and shape to how we in turn experience these settings. For example, if we feel isolated we may come to see the setting that devalues us, as itself lacking in value. Its failings--we can't even secure clean drinking water(!) -- then confirm our projection. It is then only a short step to suppose that this setting does not deserve our support, and if anything, we should deconstruct it. In this sense, the public realm has become what psychoanalysts call a “bad-object,” a symbol of what extrudes rather than includes us. Why should we support it?
This conception also echoes Robert Putnam’s finding, in his classic book, Bowling Alone, that we have abandoned our “social capital,” the network of relationships we sustain by being members of unions, churches, parent-teacher organizations, fraternal lodges, and block associations. It is not that these organizations have disappeared, but that we are less motivated to support them. Interestingly, in a comprehensive paper in which Putnam goes through the many causes of the decline of social capital --he calls them “the usual suspects,” (time pressure, mobility, women working, the welfare state, etc.)-- he zeroes in on television watching as his “prime suspect.” This echoes Eberstadt’s finding.
In effect, as “un-work” grows, we increasingly hate the public sphere. This undermines public-spirited pragmatism.
I concede that my argument needs more buttressing. But it has the merit of explaining potentially why we have so willfully underfunded the public infrastructure we share and depend on, why as I noted, my local transit system is in such a state of disrepair. It also suggests why we might be so unforgiving when government programs fail. In the progressive reform tradition, failure would be a trigger for correction. Facing corruption in municipal government, the progressives, often led by local business people, instituted merit-based selection for government jobs, professional city managers and municipal research bureaus. But today there is a presumption of innate corruption, so that when programs such as the building demolition program in Arkansas fails, it secures our conviction that these efforts are hopeless.
My argument also helps explain why public policy has been “moralized.” We can’t assess needle exchange programs pragmatically, ferreting out the “greater good” they can provide. To arrive at a conception of the greater good we have to consider our moral standards in the round assessing the conditions under which they promote human welfare and when they don't. We have to be empiricists. Instead, upon feeling useless, we turn public policies into avatars of our own potential worthiness. They can be tolerated only if they meet our absolute moral standards. And when they do, they help affirm our worthiness in the face of attacks on our own self-esteem. For example, when upon my insistence and the insistence of others, my local government does give drug users clean needles -- because drug use is immoral -- I feel elevated by its stance. In psychological terms, I turn the public domain from a “bad object” into a “good object.” But this transformation works only because the public domain was already a bad object in the first place.
Finally, this argument helps explains the rise of populist sentiments in the current election season, both on the right and on the left. Populists attack the leaders of established political parties and institutions for two reasons. First, they believe that the elites are systematically excluding them from social and political life, a not unreasonable belief today as many people confront their experience of feeling isolated and useless. Second, they believe that the elites’ claims to privilege and power are completely unjustified. Ironically here, the sad state of our public services and our public infrastructure are proof points. It proves that we are leaderless.
By contrast, in the progressive period, municipal business leaders joined with social reformers to make cities efficient in the narrow sense by controlling public spending, but also in the broader sense, to ensure that children, land, and natural resources did not go to waste. Elites joined in the work of both modernizing cities and protecting people and resources. President Theodore Roosevelt was the quintessential figure here. As an assemblyman in New York he advocated for better housing for the poor and merit exams for government posts, as the police commissioner in New York City he modernized police practices and fired a police chief for bribery, as Governor of New York he introduced factory inspection and slum housing laws, and as President he oversaw the passage of the railroad regulation bill, the meat inspection act and the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.Nihilism
Today, we have the obverse of pragmatism in the form of nihilism. Populism unmoored can shade into nihilism when we come to believe that the society our leaders govern is so corrupt that it is beyond reforming. It can only destroyed. This is one reason why Hillary Clinton’s thoughtful policy positions seem to many voters to be irrelevant. Why trust elites’ tinkering when they have failed so fundamentally? What masquerades as reform is seen as simply ongoing manipulation.
This nihilism trope certainly colors Trump’s campaign. Ronald Radosh reports on an interview he conducted with Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager. “’I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. ‘Lenin,” he answered, ‘wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.’” As Radosh goes on to write, “He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.”
Nihilism’s shadow is the apocalyptic alternative. Angelo M. Codevilla, emeritus professor at Boston University writes, “the 2016 election is sealing the United States’ transition from that republic to some kind of empire. Electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump cannot change that trajectory. Because each candidate represents constituencies hostile to republicanism, each in its own way, these individuals are not what this election is about. This election is about whether the Democratic Party, the ruling class’ enforcer, will impose its tastes more strongly and arbitrarily than ever, or whether constituencies opposed to that rule will get some ill-defined chance to strike back. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the republic established by America’s Founders is probably gone.” There may or may not be a sound basis for this vision. I present it here not because it either rings true or false, but as one measure of the climate of opinion that makes pragmatism impossible.