Folks Talk Economics: Two Kinds of Americans Speak Their Mind

I

THE last time I was in this country during a presidential election was when Wilson was keeping us out of the war. I did not return to the United States until Mr. Hoover had begun to explain away the depression. During the recent campaign, I found myself visiting many parts of the United States. From Wilson to Hoover must have made a vast difference in the appearance of the country, but of that I cannot speak, for I had seen none of it before, the west bank of the Hudson and one trip to Washington having satisfied my boyhood desire to see America first.

The United States, then, is a tourist country to me. I can recognize, on a screen, the Yalu River or the Sungari. I know every hidden corner of Shanghai, and once could tell where I was in Leningrad by the tone of the chimes. But Cleveland or Toledo, St. Louis or Des Moines, Lima, Ohio, or Cairo, Illinois — strange places these, foreign spots to be studied. I can distinguish a Hunanese from a Cantonese by his intonation, but a North or South Carolinian is just an American to me.

Here, then, was an opportunity to look into things. Unlike the Britisher who wants to know why his American cousin is so peculiar, or the Frenchman who wants to discover that every American is by heredity a Shylock, I am an American — for better or for worse. Born in Utica, I never knew anything of the United States, except New York, until I had seen much of the rest of the world. A stranger in my own country, if I am to know anything of it at all, I must get down to its soil just as in China, almost fifteen years ago, I had to go among the masses to discover what a Chinese is.

What is an American? How does he live? How does he think? What kind of government does he like? It is a novelty to be studying the Iowa soya bean after spending a decade upon the Manchurian soya bean. It stirs the imagination to seek the centre of power here after having grown a gray hair or two looking for it in Japan.

To have witnessed the political campaign in New York would have been futile. New York seems always to be out of harmony with the rest of the country. It reminds me of the Legation Quarter of Peking, where great men write historical dispatches about China, and the thing never happens as they say it will. There is a wall about New York — a wall of sophistication. New York knows too much; it thinks too much. The place to watch a presidential campaign is easily in the Middle West, in Ohio and Indiana, in Iowa and Minnesota. That was a discovery for me, for I once thought, when I was a child, that New York was the United States and the rest of the country just provinces.

And that brings me to Mr. Norman Thomas and his vote. New York prophesied for him two or three millions this year. That he failed to make the grade is as significant as anything that happened in the election, for it revealed a striking fact about the American temper.

II

It was Trotzky, I believe, who, in his pants-pressing days in New York, referred to the American Socialist Party as the third line of American capitalism. In those days the Socialist Party was fairly militant — not as stimulating as the I. W. W. or the Anarchists, but also not as ’proper’ as it is to-day. Whether Trotzky really coined this ‘wise-crack’ is not as important as that the vote for Norman Thomas fully justifies the judgment, for the Socialist Party in the recent canvass did not garner the votes of employed or unemployed labor, of the angry farmer frightened lest he be reduced to peasantry, nor even the protest vote of the petite bourgeoisie which is resentful at having been shaken down in the stock market. Thomas got hardly any votes in these groups.

He captured the votes of the bourgeois intellectuals — professors and students in the universities, clergymen and writers, the distressed sons and daughters of owners of tainted dollars, Christian men and women who would gradually improve mankind by the non-revolutionary process of sweetness and light. His strength lay among the technocrats — the planners for a new order, the writers of vast reorganizations of mankind. He has himself expressed surprise at the smallness of his vote; yet 800,000 self-conscious intellectuals is a large number even for the United States. His vote represents the assertion of independence, rather than of protest, by the intelligentsia.

In Minneapolis and Chicago, I found a more notable friendliness to Thomas than to Roosevelt, but his followers either changed their minds on election day or did not vote at all. Those who had proposed to vote for him because of dissatisfaction with the economic and social order probably stuck to him. Those who wanted Hoover out deserted Thomas lest a vote for him might keep Hoover in the White House.

If the election was a protest, it was directed against Hoover, not against capitalism; against the depression, not against poverty; against going broke, and not against the unplanned economic structure of the United States. It was Hoover who had done the people a wrong, not any system. It was Hoover who was to be retired, not the Constitution.

To grasp the significance of the smallness of Mr. Thomas’s vote it must be remembered, if some are already forgetting it, that economic conditions in the United States during the three years preceding the election were such as to encourage voters, particularly employed and unemployed workers and impoverished farmers, to resort to radical if not revolutionary measures to force the government to serve them. It has been just that form of human experience in other countries that has sometimes resulted in violence, but more often in a tendency to Leftist politics.

Were Mr. Roosevelt a popular personality, were he of the stature of his late fifth cousin, did the people believe that he could achieve a miracle, it might be assumed that the masses looked upon him as a Moses who would lead them to Manna. But at no time during the campaign was he held forth as a superman; he himself avoided promises of marvels. The masses, then, were not stirred by the vigor of his leadership, nor were they lulled into satisfaction by the glorious vistas of his accomplishments.

They wanted a change, it is true. They sought that change within the capitalist system and within the existent political system. They disregarded Communism, Socialism, and Marxism. They may have listened to speeches, and some may have read them, but it mattered little, for the speeches came late in the day. The decision had been made immediately after Al Smith failed at Chicago. It was a choice, not between two political conceptions, but between the men, Hoover and Roosevelt, and the people chose Roosevelt. That appears to be the normal course of American politics.

III

The American Socialist is a protestant, not a revolutionist. He would ennoble the lot of mankind by improving, not only the conditions under which men live, but the men themselves. He would by gradual processes alter man’s lot so that the benefits of natural increment might descend upon all men. Thus the hours of labor would be reduced; leisure would be more generally available; adult self-education would become more attainable. Not only the rich and the bourgeoisie would have purple bathtubs and streamline cars, but all men would relish the glories of imagining themselves Roman Emperors. This is to be achieved by constitutional changes, by endless legislation, and by commissions and experts and statisticians who would regulate production and control distribution in the interest of the average man. The American Socialist differs from the Russian Communist in that he would reach the Marxian goal by elections and legal changes, not by revolution.

But is this not the programme of Mr. Hoover? Has he not sought to raise the standard of living of the average American until that person has so many things that his wife can only find in bridge a substitute for sewing and baking? Have not the hours of labor been reduced by numerous labor-saving devices, and has not Mr. Henry Ford’s philosophy, that the laborer must have enough money to buy the goods he makes and enough time to spend the money, become part of the Hoover credo? Has not the American farmer become the master of a mechanized civilization so that his hens lay by an alarm clock and his cows pour forth cream to the tunes of the radio? Has not the motor car become a necessity of rural life even more than of urban life? Has not the government become so complex that the bureaucracy has gradually been usurping the authority of a democratic Congress? Have not Americans been improved by a thousand bureaus, committees, commissions, and organizations? Have not the people been standardized as the varieties of nails were standardized under the Hooverian creed of saving waste? Has not the eradication of hookworm made the South vigorous, and the education of mountaineers moved their minds from honest moonshine to commercial bootleg bourbon?

In a word, mere improvement of the lot of man is not a sufficiently attractive novelty to stir the American worker or farmer to become a Socialist. He does not want more improvements; he wants security. He does not want to be improved; he wants to be sure that he can eat. Mr. Roosevelt does not give him a greater assurance that he will be able to eat than Mr. Thomas does, but Mr. Roosevelt talks his language. He says, in effect: —

‘Boys, Hoover and the Republicans have had twelve years of opportunity and now we are all broke. Let’s have a change. Elect me President and I will try to fix things so that you can eat. I am no Boy Wonder. I don’t know everything. But the other fellows made a bad mess because they had got involved in too many promises and obligations. We don’t make many promises and we have no obligations. We start with a clean slate. There is a good chance that we shall be able to get this thing straightened out somehow.’

Now, that is the kind of language that the average American likes to hear. He does not care for florid discussions of basic ideologies. It all sounds to him like some foreign lingo — and he believes still that he can find salvation without the aid of foreigners and their foreign ways. He does not expect his official to set him right altogether. He just wants a change in personnel. He believes that the old boys went stale on the job. They got all tangled up with connections in Europe, in Wall Street, in the high places of church politics. The average American wants beer, not because he prefers it to whiskey, but because it symbolizes his opposition to all the troubles that came with and after the war.

To the intellectual this is a horrifying picture. Is it possible, after all, that the American worker or farmer does not grasp the essential difference between Marxism and Fascism, between government by technocrats and government by postmasters? Curiously enough, the average American does not. Not only does he fail to grasp the intricacies of the theory of Surplus Value, but he cares nothing about it.

His greatest concern, if he is a farmer, is that the American dollar shall be a medium of exchange, and not a medium of control. If he is a worker, that there shall be enough jobs to go around, but if there are not, that he shall still have a job. If he is a manufacturer, that the American public shall have enough money to buy the goods he makes. If he is a taxpayer, that taxes shall not be so high that he cannot pay them, nor yet so low that the town looks like a dump and the schoolhouse does not match the one in the next town. If he is a banker, that obligations are met when due, but that the public shall not be so thrifty that it is altogether without the incentive to take on new obligations.

He does not seem to generalize much; he prefers to cite specific cases. He does not romp all over the country for a solution of his troubles; he prefers to deal with local questions from a local angle. The average American thinks in terms of things and immediate conditions. His mind docs not drive him to a consideration of principles and philosophies. He will read an article and listen to a lecture, but he makes a mental reservation that the writer or lecturer could not do the job if he had it to do. He often asks why, if the boy is so clever, he does n’t go out and make his pile. Only a few generations removed from the frontier and the pioneering days on the farm and in industry, the average American still admires the doer rather than the knower. He discounts the philosopher and the expert because his own experience has taught him that there are nine ways of skinning a cat, and that you may have to try all nine before the skin comes off. Henry Ford’s reproduction of the Edison Laboratory represents a specific American concept: it shows that there is no knowledgeable short cut to achievement. You work and you toil, you blow off a finger and burst an eardrum; in the end you make an electric light or a phonograph, and you become a millionaire.

The Socialist finds that this trialand-error method is unsuited to the twentieth-century development of production and distribution. He would plan the structure anew. He would reorganize it, remodel it, change it, according to his plan which has been worked out by experts in each fraction of each field. He would so alter the processes of production and distribution that the government would control everything, and the individual be left only the task of producing and accepting fixed rewards for his labor.

It is true that his programme includes shorter hours of work, wider opportunities for education, a greater care for the health of the workers, and many other laudable proposals. But it does not include the possibility of the Iowa farmer’s having a son who might make a rubber hose that would bring him a million. Until the average American is convinced that the doors to great wealth and prestige are closed to him, he will vote for Mr. Roosevelt or Mr. Hoover. When he is convinced that he has become economically and socially stratified, he might vote for Mr. Thomas or Mr. Foster. But that day has not yet come. The depression has made a dent in the complacency of the average American. It has not bowled him over.

IV

As one gets about this world a bit, the varieties of governmental forms grow increasingly interesting. Nowhere the same in form, each government seems to have the same objective — namely, peace and prosperity in the state. If the objectives are identical, why not the form of government? Why not have a single, standardized form of government — one that would fit Americans, Germans, Russians, Rumanians, Japanese, and Siamese?

Such standardization does not happen because it runs contrary to the habits and traditions and needs of the various human beings that constitute national units. Each group is the culmination of centuries of experience and habits. Tell a Chinese that he is a democratic person, and he writes eleven constitutions in almost as many years; tell a Russian that he is a democrat, and he creates a dictatorship; tell an American that he needs a change in government, and he makes a change in personnel.

The American form of government is a natural outgrowth of the Hanoverian British system, as simplified by Puritans and codified by lawyers. It tends toward legalities because the lawyers made it; it tends to protect minorities because the Puritans feared the effects of suppression by the majority. The struggle to maintain the equality of thirteen colonies has perpetuated itself in forty-nine constitutions, one national and the rest governing each of the states. There are forty-nine sets of laws; forty-nine governments; fortynine political systems. Nobody knows how to operate such a machine except; the lawyers who made it, continue it, and run it.

The American is accustomed to its intricacies, and expects a Senator from Idaho to have as much to say as a Senator from New York. He expects to be unable to buy cigarettes in Kansas, yet to be able to get an easy divorce in Nevada if he has the fare to go there. When a long-distance judgment of Mr. Hoover’s administration comes to be made, it will probably be found that the people resented his attempt to simplify the structure of government by poking the Federal authority into everything.

The average American hopes to have nothing to do with this confusion except during elections. He expects to be protected from it by the politician. He selects the politician as a man, not as the embodiment of an idea. A politician must first of all be a good fellow, a chummy, warm person; then he must be able to keep his fellow citizens away from the law. Congressmen are continued in office for the favors they do, not because they are statesmen. If the local folks want a tariff on a particular commodity, the Congressman is expected to get it, no matter what effect this local need may have upon the national well-being. If he cannot look after his own people, they want to get somebody else who can. For them, it is all quite simple.

When the story was told in Illinois during the election that Big Bill Thompson had said in a speech, ‘You went to England for your President, to Czechoslovakia for your Mayor, and now you are going to Jerusalem for your Governor,’ it was thought that Big Bill was a clever boy. The issue in that state was high taxes, but the politicians tried to make it pork because a Jew (who may or may not eat pork) was a candidate in a pork-growing state. More than two hundred thousand voters in New York wrote Joseph McKee’s name in the ridiculous space on the voting machines because McKee stood for a principle, but most of the voters cast their ballots for the Tammany candidate because Tammany represents New York’s ideal of political protection: it stands between the citizen and the law.

V

The planner, the technocrat, represents a wholly different conception of government. He would make the law triumphant. He would have the law determine absolutely every activity of each individual American. He would be just, and do no favors. His followers would sit in councils and solemnly vote on the size of next year’s corn crop. He would transcend state lines and have Washington decide on California’s necessities and whims.

One of the immediate reactions of the intellectual to what he regards as chaotic governmental processes is his criticism of Congress. Most intellectuals want to abolish Congress altogether. For the elected representatives of the people they would substitute experts. Surely representation should be on a basis more scientifically sound than mere regionalism. Particularly incensed do they grow when they think of Southern Senators, to whom they often refer as ‘gentlemen from the Bible Belt’ — gentlemen who salt their politics with Fundamentalist Christianity, who think in the language of Daniel rather than in the terminology of Bukharin, who use Congress to bargain for a penny on sugar rather than as a forum for disputation about principles of human development.

As one moves eastward from the Mississippi, one hears Congress sworn at more vigorously. What is to be expected, one is asked, from a Congress that is narrow-minded and provincial, that wants France to pay, that will not take seriously the finest plans of the most superior economists? By the time New York is reached, Congress is anathema. Huey Long! Borah! Johnson! And now McAdoo!

It is not only the self-conscious intellectual who grows irate. The banker, the professor in the university, the Nordic who sniffs at government by Tony Boloneys — all these have lost their enthusiasm for Congress, and would substitute for it a government by experts. To them, democracy is bankrupt. Government should be by the natural aristocrats, by the chosen of God — that is, by those who have money and position and can trace their ancestry in the United States back at least to a great-great-grandfather. They want an oligarchy, a Council of Superior Minds who would put into execution the findings of the commissions of experts, in the interests of the state and for the welfare of the less fortunate.

But even in these years of depression nobody wants a government like that — nobody, that is, but the technocrats themselves. To the average American, that would be just carrying Hoover’s commissions and experts to a logical absurdity. ‘Is it not a fact,’ he asks, ‘ that government has already gone into too many enterprises? Is it not a fact that the railroads are in trouble because of the Interstate Commerce Commission and Mr. McAdoo’s management during the war? How about prohibition? Let’s get back to as little government as possible!’ He feels that way about the government except when he wants something from it. Then it must act chop-chop to give him some special consideration.

It may be sound politics in the purlieus of New York or the Politics Club of a university to discuss socialization in Vienna and the need of technocratic government in this country. But the farmer in Minnesota wants to be let alone. He thinks of the Farm Board, and shudders. If the Farm Board could do that to him, what might not happen if the governmental grip were tightened? During and immediately after the presidential campaign I visited eight Middle-Western states, and everywhere I found the same sentiment, the same opposition to government control, government interference, government operation. These people want to be left alone to work out their affairs.

The protest vote among these people went to Roosevelt instead of Thomas because Roosevelt functions within the capitalistic, democratic structure which the American understands. Had Mr. Roosevelt blazoned forth any brilliantly original concepts, Mr. Hoover would probably have had another term. It is amazing how little of the campaign was remembered two weeks after the election. I was then again in the Middle West. What did people talk about?

‘The trouble with Hoover is,’ I was told, ‘that he knows it all. Why, he said that if he had n’t been in the White House things might have been worse. Is he the only fellow with brains in this country? And what do you think of that speech about grass growing in the streets? That man was licked by his nerve.’

When I tried to pin a conversation down to issues, it always moved to personalities. Will Roosevelt survive four years in the Presidency, or will Jack Garner some day get it? Then somebody tells a smoking-room joke on Garner and Curtis. Mrs. Roosevelt comes into the picture, and Jim Farley. Who’s Howe? Is he a second Colonel House, or what? Is Al Smith still sore? What job does Al want?

Now, all this is not unintelligent. It is traditionally American. The President, after all, is only an elevated politician. On a grander scale, he protects the people from the law; he operates the law in their interest. Americans want to know what kind of ‘ folks’ he is, not what his principles are. With rare practicality, they have discovered that principles may be twisted all over the map, but that a decent, hard-working, average-minded, two-fisted person like Lincoln or the first Roosevelt will see them through a difficult time. They never really did care for Hoover because he is not one of their kind: he was elected because Al was a Catholic and a former fish peddler, and his wife came from the Bronx. Norman Thomas could in no way dramatize their opposition to Hoover, because he is not their kind of personality — he is the embodiment of a remote idea. He talks New York.

VI

Many intellectuals, principally in New York and Chicago, but also to be found in other large cities, are now devoting themselves to producing a new economic and political order for the United States. After three years of depression, they believe, we have come to the end of an era in American history, and a new era is about to begin. They would not usher in this new era by revolution and civil warfare, but by planning. They would sit down about a round table and work out a plan. This Congress would pass. If the plan transcends the Constitution, change the Constitution. Amend it until it is a workable document. If Congress will not agree to the plan, abolish Congress.

These gentlemen and ladies divide themselves into many groups. Some are Communists, some Fascists, some Socialists; some are planners within the capitalist structure. All of them have one salient trait in common.

The American intellectual — and every technocrat, of course, is an intellectual — has developed the happy faculty of divorcing himself from the remainder of the American people. This is only to be expected, since his habitat is principally New York or Chicago, or occasionally a university city. He has few contacts with the farmer, except when he makes a special sortie into the Corn Belt in connection with a particular study. He only knows the worker when the latter is on strike and needs protection from the police. An elder generation of intellectuals were farmers’ sons, who, when past middle age, could still remember the hay; but now I find that they are mostly bred in cities, which do not reflect American traditions or American life.

The result is that the American people often appear unintelligent to these gentlemen of learning, and the average American returns the compliment by not trusting the intellectual. The planner thinks he sees the exact specifications for the structure within which a new life may be created and lived, and, when America is slow to accept the design, he regards his compatriots as ‘just plain dumb.’ He grows irritable at the delay, and thinks of a Roosevelt or a Hoover as a fiddling Nero. He is angered by the slowness of Congressional oratory, and would abolish Jack Garner.

Most Americans regard the intellectual planner as a strange creature — interesting and stimulating, but strange. There is something Russian or Italian about him, something that will not fit Toledo, Ohio, or Cairo, Illinois. The farmer, in particular, has been so badly abused by experts that he is a bit frightened by the new crop. He prefers leaders out of his own class — such men as Henry A. Wallace of Des Moines. He prefers his own associations to look after his interests. He wants particular, not general, protection. The small merchant, the laborer, the manufacturer — they all seem to feel the same way about it. In fact, this tendency is so strong in the United States that one notices here the rise of what might be termed representation of economic self-interest by means of the associations which have been established for mutual benefit and protection in each field of economic activity.

The planner, whether Capitalist, Socialist, or Fascist, rarely takes into account the American distrust of plans, schemes, and counsels of perfection which tend to limit freedom of economic or political action. Prohibition failed, not because the American wanted a drink, but because the government presumed to tell him how to live. He reacted to it by making a cult of lawbreaking. Similarly, the Department of Agriculture finds it difficult to convince farmers that they ought to plant a smaller acreage.

I have no doubt whatsoever that in the course of time many of the ideas of the planners will be accepted, as the American accepted woman suffrage, the popular election of Senators, the direct primaries, the eight-hour day, the income tax, and countless other political and economic changes. But it is not in the nature of the American to swallow an entire plan, because he never can be made to believe that any group of men know it all, or that everything is wrong as it is. He is essentially a conservative person, rather cynical about the great, now not a little frightened by the complexity of the world he lives in, always optimistic about the future, which he takes on faith as he does his God. He tries hard to readjust his mind to the new world which the war has forced upon him, to know about debts and disarmament and the SinoJapanese conflict in Manchuria, but he would have found life less trying had he been left to himself to grow his crops or make his goods without all this fuss.

As peoples go, the average American is a strikingly intelligent fellow — possessed of that natural canniness which makes it possible for him to be flexible without being gullible. Better informed than most farmers and laborers on this earth, he wants to be shown and to make sure. He regards Republican prosperity as a grand ‘souse,’ and he now sees pink elephants. He wants to wait a bit until he knows that his feet will carry him — he resents the idea of being carried. He likes to see things work. You tell him of the wonders of Russia, and he asks whether the Russian farmer is better off than he is. And that, after all, is the whole of the matter.

City folks rarely grasp the essential fact that, no matter how you look at it, the people who inhabit this country are in the main these farmers and workers, and that any form of government which we may have here has to depend upon them for support. Even were we not a democracy, but a well-planned despotism like Fascist Italy or Communist Russia, the objective of government would have to be the welfare of these same farmers and workers. They are too intelligent to be driven like Russian muzhiks or Chinese coolies; perhaps too individualistic to trust to experts.

The intellectual’s task, then, is not to attempt to change the structure, but rather to work within the structure to convince those who uphold it that changes are to be made in their own interest. The intellectual is nervous and frightened. He fears that the structure will topple down if his doctrines are rejected. Like Mr. Hoover, he believes that he alone knows the way out of the trouble. The average American knows that the structure will not topple. When he has no money to buy coal, he burns corn. He cannot buy clothes this year, but he eats his pig and his chicken. An agricultural people survives because it can eat. That was discovered in China along with the compass, and the American knows it too. He cannot use his tractor; so he goes back to the horse. His motor car is too expensive to operate; he attaches to it an ox and moves on. The average American has stepped back a few paces, as Lenin once told the Russians to do. Going backward or forward, he survives and tells a good yarn about it.

The intellectual is in a hurry. The average American would like to chew a bit of tobacco and think it over. He can wait—things cannot be much worse. He is possessed of the calm psychology of an agricultural people, which the machine age has hardly affected. He votes for Roosevelt — well, perhaps we had better have a change.