Politics to Porcelain

Politics to Porcelain

Politics to Porcelain

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

John Adams wrote this paragraph in a letter to his wife Abigail, posted from Paris in May 1780. In the overall letter, he lamented that his civic duties meant he lacked time to pursue his interest in the fine arts by experiencing them in depth while in Paris. It is interesting to note that in the original manuscript Adams crossed out “Painting and Poetry” before writing in “Mathematicks and Philosophy.” The idea is that there is a tiered structure, with the arts at the pinnacle. What is important about this letter is that it expresses a hierarchy of values and socio-economic progression that are indicative of a free society.

Economist John Tamny proposed in his book The End of Work (2018) proposed that the new economy will be what he calls the “entertainment economy.” The entertainment economy will, in Tamny’s view, stem from the already-increased material prosperity and ease of production. As it is worded in three successive chapter titles “What Once Was Silly Is Now Serious,” “Profit Makes Possible the Work That Isn’t,” and “The Millennial Generation Will Be the Richest Yet – Until the Next One,” the US – and most of the developed world – is at the fortunate point; the general population can pursue interests and activities beyond those relating to food, clothing, or nation-building. Already, Tamny noted that the situation favors those in the arts and performance industries, hence his moniker “entertainment economy.” In other words, the country has reached the third tier envisioned by Adams.

An important part of the transition from the service to the entertainment economy is an understanding of the underlying social relationships between economic structures and intelligence. As Tamny explained, in an agrarian economy, such as the US in the early 19th century when over ninety percent of the population lived and worked on unmechanized farms, those without aptitude for agriculture were viewed as stupid. When tractors and fertilizer came along, allowing a smaller number of farmers to produce food in greater quantities, the market share of jobs in industry and white-collar professions exploded – revealing the analytical flaws of the doom-and-gloom economists who had predicted that mechanized farming would lead to civil unrest as laborers and smallholders were put out of work. Instead, these same workers discovered that they had previously unsuspected aptitudes and skills and revealed their intelligence in other areas, often becoming the lawyers, engineers, businessmen, etc. envisioned by Adams.

The underlying idea that John Adams expressed, and which Tamny argues is currently coming to fruition, is that a creative society is the ultimate goal of a free nation. Adams’ intellectual heritage is reflected in Tamny’s repeated arguments that automation and capitalist pursuit are paths to freedom: they free people to be profitable through creativity because they are liberated from subsistence concerns.  

Today, we read sweeping claims that globalization has negatively affected societies as formerly unified groups, such as white-collar workers, are now split in half with the lower end experiencing “downward pressure.” No one quite agrees on what constitutes “downward pressure,” but the primary symptom appears to be a feeling of devaluation. People, or so the claim goes, especially those in flyover country, feel as though their worth and place in society are lower than what they were previous to a globalized world.

Assumed as part of this dynamic is a nostalgia for the manufacturing era, specifically from the end of World War II to the late 1980s. This period is lionized by populists as a time when everyone, regardless of education or skill, made money and had a middle-class life. The view, though, is through rose-tinted glasses. Writer Kevin D Williamson tries regularly to remind people of the historic reality. As he wrote in his article “’Socialist’ is the new ‘Libertarian:’”

Those old midcentury factory jobs were – the sentimentalists and nostalgics will not tell you this – terrible [italics original], for the most part. […] But those factory jobs provided a predictable and stable path to basic economic self-sufficiency for at least a part of what we call the working class, which was of great interest to the social planners on both sides of the aisle. If you view human beings as liabilities rather than assets, then a job with good pay (and healthcare benefits and a pension) is a way to solve that problem, or rather of getting American businesses to solve the problem for you. You take the liability off your books and put it on Ford’s or U.S. Steel’s.

As Williamson asked before writing the above paragraph:

But if we were inclined to set aside for moment the petty tribalism of our politics and consider the situation with some charity, we might ask ourselves: “Why is that woman so terrified that she’ll lose her health insurance and never be able to replace it? Why does this family dread the prospect of competitive schools that charge tuition, even if we’re offering vouchers to pay for that tuition? Why is this man so convinced that distant Chinese bureaucrats mean him and his family harm? Why are these people so anxious when they see a cigarette billboard in Spanish in their neighborhood? Why have these young people lost faith in the general economic arrangements that have made them, whether they realize it or not, rich beyond the dreams of 99.99 percent of the people who have ever walked this Earth?”

Williamson’s conclusion was that fifty years of the welfare state with its planned society has taken the hustle out of those most in need of it as it allowed people to offload responsibility for their own destinies to the state, which in turn has warped their view of their place in the world. In this view, the real problem with globalization is that it emphasizes where a segment of society has failed, failed to use the freedom available to it. It’s the principle of “use it or lose it;” The older generations had terrible jobs but were compensated by middle-class lives. However, they did not take advantage of the wealth generated and move onto the next stages envisioned by John Adams.

The entertainment economy may be the pinnacle of a free society – a time when it is profitable and beneficial to study “Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” But there is a problem Adams did not foresee: the pervasive influence of a people corrupted and emasculated by a nanny state, a society where lack of risk is the new utopia and mediocrity, such as that expressed by Williamson’s comment on a family horrified by the idea of free but competitive schooling, is the people’s ideal. As Tamny notes, the entertainment economy and all its baggage, i.e. a world where people are expected to be good at something before they are paid, but equally are well-paid for being good at what they do, is coming whether or not the “sentimentalists and nostalgics” like it. The nation is ready to move on: the question will be whether it happens homogenously, or if the “left behind” really will become a clearly defined group.








Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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