Sunday, 15 April 2012

Think of Taste before Taxes

This essay was written in 1956 and published in Readings in Economics and Politics, edited by H.C. Harlan, Oxford University Press (1958).

For over a century, ever since economics separated itself from its moralistic progenitor-political philosophy, practitioners of the dismal science have prided themselves on the clinically quantitative methods they have devised to analyze the "cash nexus." Benefits accruing from such a narrow vision at high focus have been impressive: So much so that policy makers in business and government today simply take it for granted that their decisions must be based on the objective studies of the specialist in economics. But apparently there is a point beyond which this intense scrutiny of a few variables isolated from the total social situation of contemporary man pays diminishing returns.

That, at any rate, is what this outsider-a scholar in the humanities-gathered from reading an extraordinary essay-Kenneth Boulding's The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society (U. of Michigan Press, 1956). That book follows the new fashion, of those whose courage far surpasses their discretion, of reconnoitering the interdisciplinary no man's land. In the same spirit, then, this sketch is the startling phenomenon of a specialist in American intellectual history defining what he believes will be the most important economic problem the United States faces in the next twenty years.

The more one thinks about it, however, the less exotic becomes a humanist's interest in his country's economic future. Taste and culture are often closely connected with such mundane economic matters as taxes, disposable income, and rates of investment. To be specific, the Sixteenth Amendment radically changed the nature of patronage in America, as every Guggenheim Fellow should know without ever having seen a copper mine; or .as the beneficiaries of the recent Ford Foundation grants for the creative arts will soon learn. And, to the despair of those who wish American drama had a truly popular audience, theatrical unions and Manhattan real estate conditions make Broadway an expense-account theatre. Moreover, we have seen Hollywood tighten its belt, and in the sweating process produce a greater percentage of esthetically important films, under the intense economic competition of the television industry. Finally, in terms of those social institutions most directly connected with literacy: economic change has forced the publishing industry to turn to book clubs and reprint or movie rights to maintain solvency: shifts in advertising strategy have doomed magazines of substantial circulation and valuable editorial policies; the baby boom and suburban "prosperity" have created a crisis of quality in mass education from kindergarten to seminar. Thus must the humanist himself turn to the economist for adequate understanding of the basic issues and problems con¬fronting his own out-of-the-marketplace discipline.

Moreover, there are many artistic crises in American society that seem, to the layman at any rate, to be soluble only—or at least chiefly-in economic terms. For example, if a humanist is convinced, as I am, that it is inhumane and socially retrogressive to produce too many cars and too few homes for our people, the first question he must ask is essentially economic: How feasible is it for the automobile [industry] to redirect its technological energies and investment to prefabricated housing construction or to the creation of other more "necessary" durable consumer goods. Or if a humanist knows, as I do, that the esthetic level of architectural design is depressed in America largely because of the conservative and unenlightened tastes of the policymakers in our financing institutions, then he must ask himself how the FHA's influence on mortgage monies can be ameliorated. Or if a scholar of American civilization sees that mass taste is cretinized by television entertainment sponsored by culturally irresponsible businesses such as cigarette, lipstick and soap manufacturers, he must try to find out whether there could be adequate financing for television (or newspapers, radio and magazines for that matter) if the non¬essential industries eventually had a much smaller share of the Gross National Product. The good life, the specialist in the humanities begins to see, derives its special qualities from the kinds of "goods" that can be produced and distributed in our economic context.

It may be, of course, that economic freedom does not include the freedom to decide whether or not one will live in smoky, junky cities that deform the sensibilities of the common man every waking hour; or whether or not our factories can produce objects both functional and having esthetic integrity; or whether or not we can decide that it is more important to build more hospitals, schools, and wholesome leisure arenas and fewer highways, drive-ins and marinas. But a humanist must proceed on the assumption that it still is possible for man to shape his own destiny, for the humanities are precisely those bodies of knowledge and intuition useful for clarifying the moral and esthetic choices that modern man cannot escape making. And the examples cited suggest that in most of the choices open to man in industrial America, economic considerations are paramount.

Changing the choices (or values) of our society, then, means first and foremost changing the rate and direction of capital investment. You takes your choice when you pays your money. Where risk capital goes, there the nation's heart is. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence that these problems about the theory of value are no longer merely academic ones. For one thing, Sputnik dramatically revealed the different results of differing strategies of financial investment. The earth satellite may shatter the smugness of the tyrannous American majority naive enough to share Charles Wilson's doubts about the value of studying why grass is green and potatoes brown. But deficient financing of basic research is but one symptom of a widespread ideological disorder in the United States.

Industrial society requires both specialized training for the super¬vision and construction of its machinery and social services-preventive and therapeutic-for its increased interpersonal tensions. Even the money we do invest in these essential appurtenances of an industrial community doesn't have maximum effect because of the intervening variable of the entertainment-salesman complex. For the spurious values of the lipstick-cigarette-automobile promoters exert a powerful dampening effect on the natural growth curve of American taste and aspiration.

In order to keep our factories going, some policymakers have decided that it is necessary to bamboozle the American public into captive consumership. This means we have to dump a great deal of wasted capital into the salesman's very expansible and equally expendable expense account-to bribe him into accepting the enormous tensions of moving goods to reluctant consumers. Still more precious risk capital is frittered away on the bullish entertainment market-in order to sell a certain shade of lipstick, a special filter tip, a unique angle of tail fin. The net result of the salesman's illogical overtures and the entertainer's collective sugar-nanny is the perpetuation among vast sectors of the American public of a kind of perennial adolescence. This commercial (and unconscious) suppression of the naturally rising gradient of mass desire and enlightenment is a portentous threat to our survival at our nation's present level of industrial complexity.

American taste and intellectual self-awareness must go up or we face social and economic bankruptcy. That is the clear moral of a powerful book by three scientists from the California Institute of Technology, The Next Hundred Years: Man's Natural and Technological Resources (Viking, 1957). As industry demands more and more energy and raw materials, our pool of available skilled brainpower must increase or else the foundations of machine wealth and power are eaten away and the elaborate technological structure collapses. The central problem of the American economy, then, is how we will reinvest our technological power and risk capital into more schools, hospitals, cleaner and more healthful urban environments. We must gradually (but as fast as possible) wean the American public from infantile fantasies assiduously created by hidden persuaders who do not think of the long haul, but only of the next marketing drive, the forthcoming advertising campaign, the current TV season. Quite seriously, the problem is to root out this kind of insidious subversion, the kind that, under the tinselly banner of comfort and progress, has almost sold our birthright of enlightenment [and] idealism for a mess of "nondurable" consumer's goods.

If America's greatest problem is an education adequate for the survival of a complex technology, its greatest asset is the new leisure. There are enormous pressures, largely from short-sighted marketing specialists, for making this new leisure one big joy-ride. But to transform or deform America into an economy-sized Las Vegas is to jettison an inspiring and still viable tradition from Franklin, Hamilton and Jefferson, who wanted to see America as a new experiment for the ordinary man to excel in things that really mattered, not in the trivial razzmatazz of horsepower and horseracing. For a maturing technological culture it is essential that Americans, one and all, have constantly expanding intellectual and imaginative horizons, increasingly demanding tastes and aspirations.

Where, therefore, the American economic problem up to now has been the democratization of quantity, great parts of the new reservoir of leisure should be earmarked to equalizing opportunity for securing quality. That can never happen, however, so long as only a piddling .7 percent of our GNP goes for education, or when, annually, 150,000 promising young high school graduates never matriculate. Having solved the problems of mass production with great skill and dynamism, we must now use the indispensable resource of the new leisure to solve the more exacting and morally ambiguous problems of "class" production. The best guarantee of a wise investment of this leisure is to raise the effectiveness and scope of education in the humanities from kindergarten through professional schools. It is an illusion to think machine based leisure can be squandered with impunity; if we do not reinvest much of it in creating more complicated and sensitive producers and consumers, our technological society will inevitably languish.

To complicate the humanistic aspect of these economic problems, many American businessmen are finding a new interest in the humanities for the wrong reasons. They have discovered that the liberal arts major is a better leader than the narrowly trained technician. A liberal education gets a man used to the synoptic views needed to run a modern corporati9n, just as it also gives him in rhetoric ideal skills for disseminating corporate policy. But the humanities are not valuable because they can serve the manipulative functions of modern bureaucracy. Their real worth lies in the objective criticism of bureaucratic life that they make possible. The humanities, then, are indispensable to a free technological society because they can help us gain the foresight and wisdom to reinvest our goods toward a more adequate image of the good life. Unfortunately, this truth is not convincing most policymakers in American business.

For they "give" to education and culture such funds that other¬wise would go to the federal government. (Given the political philosophy of a great many such benefactors, there is the added pleasure of keeping just that many more dollars from the greedy and insatiable behemoth at Washington.) But such "charity" radically misapprehends the nature of our civilization. For the American business community has devised a spurious kind of double-standard bookkeeping that obscures from public view the truth that "profits" at least partly due to an earlier generation's commitment to education and culture are being spent on private caprice instead of being wisely reinvested in the technological future of generations yet unborn.

The men who make the economic decisions that will in great measure set the tone and quality of American life in the next score of years must somehow learn that taste. and enlightenment are matters to be considered before taxes; what now looks like a case of private magnanimity or corporate patronage is, in any adequate perspective, really repayments to the commonweal and public heritage that made technology possible in the first place. Unless the masters of our economy soon learn that they have a moral responsibility to replenish the sources of culture and enlightenment, that they must reinvest significant portions of their budgets in the future of the American mind and sensibility, then we have seen the zenith of America as an industrial giant. To misquote another unlucky formulation of our recent Secretary of Defense: What is good for General Motors (more "guts" for more cars of gaudier form) may be the worst possible thing for American democracy.

The gradual disengagement of our productive energies from this deadening dead-end into more humane enterprises that serve our present and prepare for the future will, however, be an extremely difficult task; it will make our magnificent solution of the problems of mass production look like a boy's job in retrospect. Specialists in the humanities and in economics must collaborate in providing the perspective that will teach the American businessman to worry about two kinds of graphs-the traditional sales curve and the upward arc of taste and intellectual discipline that in the final analysis alone make sales success possible. By bringing their special definitions of "value" into mutually stimulating contact, the humanist and the economist can give the business policymakers of our country a new maturity-the maturity to see that growing material progress is dangerous and precarious unless securely based on a growing complexity of thought and belief on the part of the common man—the mass producer-consumer.

Depress the natural rate of intellectual and esthetic development, as our entertainment-sales complex is doing at present, and you eventually both dissipate our supply of trained manpower and inhibit the maturing of true aspiration and ambition. Mass production depends on that manpower for its dynamism; mass consumption depends on the widening and deepening of mass desire for its growth. It will take all the persuading that economists and humanists are capable of to convince American business leaders that the "goods" they produce and try to have consumed end up constituting the American image of the good life.

Only by reinvesting a great deal of current capital in our institutions of culture and education can they prevent the tragic loss of the heart of our democratic heritage in a motivation-researched clambake of "scientific" toothpastes, kiss-proof lipsticks, and "adult" TV westerns. To avoid that imminently threatening fiasco, the humanist must imaginatively create the ideals or goals of a humane industrialism, and the economist must empirically develop methods for such reinvestment of our material wealth as is necessary to make the theoretical ideals practical.

In conclusion, then, "the most important economic problem to be faced by the United States in the next twenty years" is how to use our resources in education and social welfare to stimulate the growth of mass consumers whose ambitions and desires are large enough to absorb the largesse of our technological cornucopia. Somehow we have to make man measure up to the promise of the machine. Paradoxically, this problem of maturing taste and intelligence is the very one most businessmen have considered the furthest removed from their own "practical" responsibilities. Thus does short-sighted practicality turn out to be the most impractical of theories. Thus could an economy of free and easy enterprise become a mature economy of enterprising freedom.

This essay was published in Readings in Economics and Politics, edited by H.C. Harlan, Oxford University Press (1958).

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