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20200426 – Great Society





The main idea of this book is to review and retell history of American “Great Society” that was supposed to end poverty and instead turned into nothing else than huge expense on bureaucracy and handouts, often resulting in increased misery of poor. Here is how author defines her objectives: “For today, the contest between capitalism and socialism is on again. Markets do promise strong growth; we do live in a creative society, the most creative in the world, creative enough to lift the nation to new heights. Yet new, progressive proposals bearing a strong resemblance to those of Michael Harrington’s and his peers’, from redistribution via taxation to student debt relief to a universal guaranteed income, are sought yet again. Once again, many Americans rate socialism as the generous philosophy. But the results of our socialism were not generous. May this book serve as a cautionary tale of lovable people who, despite themselves, hurt those they loved. Nothing is new. It is just forgotten.”


Introduction: The Clash

Author starts with the story of Michel Harrington – socialist and author of the book about poverty “The Other America”, which prompted this discussion among American upper classes of politicians, bureaucrats, and intelligentsia. Author briefly describes how this discussion turned into political action resulting in massive expense on variety of government programs that often ended in complete failure.

New Frontier

  1. The Bonanza (1960-1962)

This chapters starts with discussion of very popular TV series “Bonanza”, which author characterizes as one of attempts to answer to the key question of early 1960s: What to do with the newly found huge American wealth? Author briefly describes some key points of the New Deal, which seemingly established harmony between big government, big corporations, and big labor. Then she looks behind the façade at fight between corporations vs. unions vs. government and individuals who were involved at the highest levels. Author specifically looks at GE, which leaders Lemuel Boulware, Ralph Cordiner, and Charlie Wilson strongly rejected socialist ideas, supported capitalism, and later got Ronald Reagan involved in their effort, creating popular GE theater. Government responded by Justice department investigations and via its TVA administration attack against Reagan. Unions initiated strikes. It all ended with defeat for GE after massive intervention of Kennedy administration. It also killed Reagan GE theater and pretty much ended active ideological support of capitalism by big corporations

  1. Port Huron (1962)

This chapter is about famous student statement. It turned out that it was not some spontaneous expression of students’ feelings and ideas, but union organized and financed political action. The organizer was UAW boss Walter Reuther. Author retells history of his life, including his work in USSR after which he came out as convinced anti-communist, while retaining his believes a socialist. Then she moves to Tom Hayden, other personalities, discussions, and final result – Port Huron Statement was directed against military, supported unions, and three of Roosevelt’s four freedoms, missing freedom of worship. It also spawned SDS organization. After that author moves to relationship between Reuther and unions with Kennedy and then Johnson administrations.

Great Society

  1. Great Society (May 1964)

This chapters starts with campaign of 1964 when Johnson and media succeeded in turning Goldwater into warmonger, while preparing huge expansion of government that was supposed to raise society to the new heights. This would be massive expansion of New Deal that democrats failed to achieve before.  Author describes Johnson’s legislative success and a few failures, such as inability to eliminate “right to work” at federal level.

  1. Revolt of the Mayors (January 1965)

Here author describes struggle between local, state and federal powers using example of LA democratic mayor Sam Yorty. The struggle was about many issues, not last of them civil rights. The problem was that federal government dealt with abstractions when forcing all to be equal is always good, while mayors dealt with realities when middle class neighborhoods like Watts were turning unlivable, so middle class evacuated in mass. Author looks at multiple programs imposed on cities by federal government and analyses their consequences, including Watts riots.

  1. Creative Society (August 1965 – January 1966)

This starts with NASA and its achievements, then moves to the story of Intel and birth of Silicone Valley prompted by equity compensation in startup high tech businesses. Then author returns to politics of the period: attempts to declare welfare as property, civil rights, and right to work fights.

  1. Interlude: Looking for Socialism (September 1965 – January 1966)

Here author describes Tom Hayden’s unsuccessful attempt to initiate viable political movement for socialism. At the time American attention turned to Vietnam war, which prompted powerful political movement against it that leftists pretty much took over. They revived communist propaganda similar to “I saw the future and it works”, promoting beauty of totalitarianism in Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Author describes travels of Hayden and others to North Vietnam that was celebrated by American intelligentsia, rather than punished as support for the enemy.

  1. Housing Society (January 1966 to July 1967)

This chapter looks at HUD and massive housing programs that were supposed substitute old poorly regulated housing created by independent efforts over long period of time with government planned state of the art, well regulated and controlled projects that would force on poor much better quality of life than they could produce themselves. Author describes political and legal actions that extended eminent domain beyond any conceivable limit and for all practical purposed deprived poor of what little residential property they had, substituting it with a place in government owned hosing with lots of strings attached. Author describes these strings and impact they had on destruction of family and overall way of live. Author also describes war against landlords, which led to elimination of any incentive for private investment into housing for poor and implementation of complete bureaucratic control.

  1. Guns Butter and Gold (Thanksgiving 1967 to March 1968)

This chapter starts with discussion of gold and its link to dollar that was still valid at the time per Bretton Woods agreements. Johnson administration profligate spending led to gold outflow from USA. Author describes attempts to increase gold mining. It follows by the look at relationship with UK. Author also reviews multiple additional crises: political between Johnson and Kennedy clan, scary pronouncement of environmentalists that were gaining popular support, Tet offensive in Vietnam, legislative failures, and finally primaries challenge. All this together led to Johnson dropping out from running for the second full term.

  1. Reuther and the Intruder (August 1968 to December 1968)

This starts with description of arrival of small foreign cars like Toyota and Volkswagen that were destined to undermine both American big automakers and their symbiotic partner – UAW. Author retells story of 1968 elections, internal struggle within democratic party, and actions of UAW boss Reuter.

Abundant Society

  1. Moynihan Agonistes (1969 to 1970)

This chapter starts with discussion of unusual for liberal academic action: Moynihan joining Nixon administration.  Then author reviews events of this period somewhat via Moynihan eyes. Nixon’s cooperation with reasonable left reached the point when he supported and even tried to promote guaranteed income. However, since it would eliminate welfare system, depriving its constituents of cash flow, the proposal failed. Author also deviates a bit into history of welfare ideas all the way to Engels, Webb, and Roosevelt to demonstrate how these ideas developed in the Anglo-American world. Author describes how practically all political powers left and right rejected the idea of family assistance and how other events related to Vietnam led to complete disruption between intelligentsia and Nixon administration. The chapter ends with description of two symbolic events marking the end of era: Moynihan resignation and death of UAW boss Reuther.

  1. The Governor of California (1970)

This chapter pretty much describes initiation of the new movement, which was pretty much against direction to increase welfare and government power. It starts with description of fight against integration of all LA schools ordered by judge and discussion of popular legal doctrine of welfare being property of its recipients. Author then demonstrates how it prompted growth of Reagan’s political career. Reagan strongly rejected both ideas because LA school integration would require busing, which was huge burden on middle class kids and parents. Author then describes a number of political fights in California that made Reagan a national political figure of serious statute.

  1. Scarcity: Burns Agonistes (1971)

This chapter starts with the story of residual payments for actors that Reagan achieved when he was the union leader, which become less and less valuable with inflation. The author then moves to discussion of inflation and overall economic decline that become evident in early 1970s practically destroying the very idea of affordability of massive welfare state. Author discusses details of interplay between FED chairman Burns and Treasury’s Connally who tried stopping inflation and save economy with price and wage control, closing gold window, and using other measures, but were not that successful.

Coda: Demolition in St. Louis (March 1972)

This ends book on symbolic note of demolition of Pruitt-Igoe – one of the most visible and expensive projects of welfare state. More than anything else it demonstrated that human beings, even very poor, are not subject to easy control by bureaucratic machinery, at least in democratic country were, one way or another, they manage to avoid such control.


This is an interesting take on history written with typical American attitude of believe that politicians and bureaucrats had initiated welfare state, promoted, and continue promoting it because they want the best for poor. The problem is that they choose erroneous method to do it and that is why it continuously fails and quite miserably at that.

I think it is very naive view that impedes resolution of the problem. I like the expression that I read once about Roosevelt’s brain trust and other enthusiastic promoters of big government solution in 1930s: “They come to do good and did well”. I think that regardless what such people think when they start as politicians or bureaucrats, “do well” is the real engine of their effort, and key here is “do well” at the expense of productive people misleading them into believe that it is done to achieve fairness for all. The programs, projects, justifications, and promotions change but lust for power and wealth via control over government machinery of coercion is constant. Therefore, no effort to have reasonable and limited welfare programs could possibly be successful until this obvious fact of lust for power is internalized by majority and countermeasures decidedly applied.

These countermeasures should make it an impossibility to gain wealth and power over others via political or bureaucratic career, which could be achieved only by making all senior political and bureaucratic position temporary with prohibition to any conceivable cashing in upon the end of such career. In short people should obtain their wealth in public sector before embarking on political bureaucratic career or forever forfeit hope to be much wealthier than average.

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