Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future

Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future

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by Michael Barone

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A peculiar feature of our country today, says Michael Barone, is that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds. Indeed, American students lag behind their peers in other nations, but America remains on the leading edge economically, scientifically, technologically, and militarily.

The reason for this paradox,… See more details below


A peculiar feature of our country today, says Michael Barone, is that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds. Indeed, American students lag behind their peers in other nations, but America remains on the leading edge economically, scientifically, technologically, and militarily.

The reason for this paradox, explains Barone in this brilliant essay, is that “from ages six to eighteen Americans live mostly in what I call Soft America—the parts of our country where there is little competition and accountability. But from ages eighteen to thirty Americans live mostly in Hard America—the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability.” While Soft America coddles, Hard America plays for keeps.

Educators, for example, protect children from the rigors of testing, ban dodgeball, and promote just about any student who shows up. But most adults quickly figure out that how they do depends on what they produce.

Barone sweeps readers along, showing how we came to the current divide—for things weren’t always this way. In fact, no part of our society is all Hard or all Soft, and the boundary between Hard America and Soft America often moves back and forth. Barone also shows where America is headed—or should be headed. We don’t want to subject kindergartners to the rigors of the Marine Corps or leave old people uncared for. But Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America, and we have the luxury of keeping part of our society Soft only if we keep most of it Hard.

Hard America, Soft America reveals:

• How the American situation is unique: In Europe, schooling is competitive and demanding, but adult life is Soft, with generous welfare benefits, short work hours, long vacations, and state pensions

• How the American military has reclaimed the Hard goals and programs it abandoned in the Vietnam era

• How Hardness drives America’s economy—an economy that businesses and economists nearly destroyed in the 1970s by spurning competition

• How America’s schools have failed because they are bastions of Softness—but how they are finally showing signs of Hardening

• The benefits of Softness: How government programs like Social Security were necessary in what was a harsh and unforgiving America

Hard America, Soft America is a stunningly original and provocative work of social commentary from one of this country’s most respected political analysts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his latest book, Barone, a writer for U.S. News and World Report and a well-known political commentator, describes America as comprising two diametrically opposed characteristics: hard and soft. "Hard America" is characterized by competition and accountability, while "Soft America" attempts to protect its citizens through government regulation and other social safety nets. While Barone's book is not without its political overtones-he identifies Hard America with the political right and Soft America with the left-his book should not be seen as the latest installment in the conservative-liberal cultural wars. Rather, Barone provides a deeper look at the way in which ordinary people live and work and the meaning behind the decisions they make. His concrete historical examples highlight the advantages and disadvantages of Hard and Soft America, creating a compelling picture of two very different ways of looking at the world, without degenerating into mudslinging or name-calling,. Although Barone, a conservative, clearly favors Hard America, he appreciates the necessary difficulty that comes with balancing the two Americas. He concedes that a society without some softness would be a cruel one, but warns that "we have the luxury of keeping parts of our society Soft only if we keep enough of it Hard." Despite his conservatism, Barone (The New Americans) writes with moderation and insight. Even those who do not agree with his normative conclusions can enjoy his thought-provoking and perceptive analysis. Agents, Lynn Chu and Glen Hartley. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Pick your adjective. He is the brilliant Michael Barone. The encyclopedic Michael Barone. The unparalleled Michael Barone.” —National Review

“A compelling analysis . . . citing news events, politics, and policy, and even novels and pop nonfiction.” —Wall Street Journal

“An ingenious book, a big-canvas, broad-brush picture of America by a man who has spent years immersed in the details.” —Seattle Times

“Barone has given us a fascinating way to look at the past and the present.” —Weekly Standard

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At the beginning of Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, published in 1900, eighteen-year-old Carrie Meeber is riding on a train from a small town to Chicago, with four dollars and a slip of paper with her sister's address in her purse. The city, as Dreiser describes it, is "a great sea of life and endeavor" stretching "for miles and miles in every direction." Indeed, Carrie arrives in a city that is growing rapidly; fifty thousand people move in each year, and new factories, railroad yards, department stores are sprouting up. But life is difficult. Her brother-in-law gets up at five-thirty every morning to walk to his job in the stockyards; her sister toils all day at child care and household tasks. To Carrie, who has never seen the city before, it is all strange: "Amid all the maze, uproar and novelty she felt cold reality taking her by the hand. No world of light and merriment. No round of amusement. Her sister carried with her most of the grimness of shift and toil." Carrie is expected to get a job and pay rent; the alternative is to fall into immorality: "When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse."

This was Hard America. At eighteen you were on your own. School was long behind you: only 10 percent of young Americans went to high school. Parents were relieved of any obligation to support you, or even keep you in their house. If you wanted to eat, you had to find work: Carrie's first job pays $3.50 a week. On the farm, where most Americans still lived, you depended on the year's harvest and fluctuating crop prices. In the rapidly growing big cities you lived bunched together: in many neighborhoods there were more people than rooms. One-quarter of urban Americans never married, as compared to just 8 percent today. Many men did not marry because they could not support a family; they lived with their parents or as boarders in other people's houses and found sexual release with prostitutes.

Work was available, but difficult. Employers could dismiss you for any reason. If you were injured, there was no recourse: you could sue for damages, but courts usually found contributory negligence. The death of a breadwinner was disaster for a family, as Russell Baker shows in his moving memories of his mother's grinding hard work in the 1930s and 1940s. Yet there were bounteous rewards for those who succeeded. In a city like Chicago the contrast between rich and poor was stark. The rich paraded their wealth in gaudy mansions on city streets, in full view of passersby. Dreiser's Sister Carrie, on seeing the inside of a rich man's home, decides to leave her sister's apartment and assume the "cosmopolitan standard of virtue"; eventually she becomes a rich actress. Dreiser's book was considered scandalous because its heroine chose vice and was not shown to be punished.

Dreiser's grim vision of Hard America came to be widely shared. In the America that Alexis de Tocqueville described in Democracy in America in the 1830s, it was not considered cruel that people had to live off what they earned, that they were subject to the vagaries of the marketplace and faced disaster in case of illness or injury or death. The large majority of Americans were property owners who scratched out a living from their farms, and there seemed no way to protect them against such contingencies except through help from extended families and local charity. But in the booming cities of 1900, Hard America seemed to many unnecessarily cruel. And many feared that the urban masses, many of them recent immigrants from Europe, would rise in revolutions like those in Paris in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1870. The rich in their mansions collected furniture once owned by Marie Antoinette, proud to be able to live like royalty, but they must occasionally have had a frisson of fear that they might share the previous owner's fate.

The wealth that these people amassed was a product of Hard America. For years America's vast industrial expansion and surging economic growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was taken for granted. The men who gained riches from it were referred to routinely as robber barons, the implication being that the rich were, in Theodore Roosevelt's words, "malefactors of great wealth,"that they had unfairly grabbed the lion's share of America's growth for themselves. But there was nothing inevitable about that growth. It required the establishment of a legal framework--courts that enforced contracts, laws that permitted limited liability corporations. And it required investors who were willing to take enormous risks. Recent biographies--Ron Chernow's of John D. Rockefeller, Jean Strouse's of J. P. Morgan--portray these men not as robbers who took others' rightful gains away from them but as visionaries who created businesses and economic wealth that, but for their efforts, might not ever have existed. Rockefeller created new means of distribution and stimulated new uses for a product, oil, which had not had much economic worth when he started his business. Morgan facilitated a huge flow of investment in American enterprises by British capitalists who lacked confidence in other investment bankers. Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan once playfully remarked that Morgan, who died in 1914, won World War II: if the capital investment in industrial plants that he fostered had not been made, the United States would not have had the capacity for mass production which was necessary for victory.

America's economic growth also owed much to an apostle of Hardness, Frederick W. Taylor. Taylor was the first efficiency expert, the originator of the time-and-motion study of how to perform every step of a job most efficiently. In the 1880s, Taylor, a rich Philadelphian, started working with machinists to make them work more efficiently. He gained a clientele of many factory owners and in a burst of publicity in 1910 and 1911 became famous across the United States and around the world. Taylor's work did promote efficiency: he conducted numerous studies to determine which kind of shovel was best suited to shoveling what he decided was the ideal weight of twenty-one and a half pounds per scoop of different kinds of materials. The result, he said, was scientific management, and for a generation or more Taylorism and scientific management meant more or less the same thing. But this engineering efficiency came at a human cost. "In the past the man has been first," Taylor said in 1911. "In the future the System must be first." As his biographer Robert Kanigel puts it, "His declared purpose was to take all control from the hands of the workman (whom he regularly compared to oxen and horses), and place it in the hands of management, yet he insisted that he aimed only to substitute 'hearty brotherly cooperation for contention and strife.' "Taylorite management was Hard, with each worker held responsible for executing every move as the time-and-motion study prescribed, but it removed from the worker the Hard responsibility for the quality of his output: that was the responsibility only of management, which made all the decisions and did all the thinking. Taylorite management increased production, but at the cost of decreasing workers' autonomy and skills and removing their sense of accomplishment.

But even if the workplace was growing more unpleasant, American society was being improved in other ways. Rockefeller, Morgan, and Andrew Carnegie, who sold his steel company to a group headed by Morgan in 1901, also embarked on great philanthropies, well before the enactment of the estate tax. Rockefeller established the American system of medical research, Morgan developed great museums, and Carnegie built thousands of libraries. (Carnegie once told an importuner who was seeking money for a medical project, "That is Mr. Rockefeller's specialty. Go see him.") These men felt a responsibility to use a large part of their wealth to benefit their fellow citizens, but they wanted to maintain the Hardness of America, which they believed was responsible for the country's great economic growth and creativity.

Others disagreed. From the new universities came voices for government action to Soften economic America. University of Wisconsin economist Richard Ely, trained as so many American academics were in Germany, attacked market economists and called for state action and trade unions. Also German-trained and also at Wisconsin, pioneering sociologist Edward Ross proclaimed that "sin evolves along with society" and that "tax-dodging is larceny, that railroad discrimination is treachery, that the factory labor of children is slavery, that deleterious adulteration is murder." At the University of Washington, J. Allen Smith explained that the ills of the cities were caused by "the selfishness and greed of those who are the recognized leaders in commercial and industrial affairs." Inspired by such academics, and responding to what they saw around them, Wisconsin and other states around 1900 started passing laws to alleviate working conditions. (Wisconsin, with its university and its large German-American population, seemed particularly drawn to regulatory and bureaucratic remedies for social ills.) State legislatures started passing laws banning child labor, limiting work hours for women, and instituting workmen's compensation systems for injured workers. Sometimes the courts struck these down as violations of the right to make free contacts. Congress pitched in and in 1916 passed a ban on child labor on products sold in interstate commerce and established workmen's compensation on government contract jobs and an eight-hour day for railroad workers.9 On the farm and in the small town, individuals did not seem in need of such protections: in a small homogeneous community neighbors were not likely to exploit one another. (Of course, white landowners were exploiting black sharecroppers in the South, but after the Civil War and Reconstruction most Americans put that out of mind.) But in the big cities, giant corporations employing thousands of workers in steel factories or small garment-makers pressed hard by vigorous competition could exploit workers without ever having to see them face-to-face. Individual ethics could not be counted on to Soften a necessarily Hard economic system; blanket protections, policed by disinterested bureaucracies, were needed to Soften an economically vibrant America which seemed Harder than it needed to be.

This Softening of America is usually portrayed as arising spontaneously in the political marketplace. But it was the product not of mass politics--the political bosses, who mobilized huge turnouts of voters, were often hostile to labor legislation, and the great urban masses spent most of their time working--but of intellectual elites. Such elites were purveyors of what historian Robert Wiebe calls "bureaucratic" ideas, "peculiarly suited to the fluidity and impersonality of an urban-industrial world. They pictured a society of ceaselessly interacting members and concentrated upon adjustments within it." These Progressive-era reformers, the products of the new universities' faculties and professional middle classes, were eager to reform society in line with what they deemed to be scientific principles, seeking to impose a Softening order on the seeming disorder of the burgeoning marketplace of late-nineteenth-century Hard America.

One with great influence was the philosopher John Dewey. He left behind a mountain of difficult prose on all manner of subjects, but his greatest influence was on education. Dewey was a passionate egalitarian who disliked what he saw as the characteristic methods of American schools--rote memorization; book learning; a curriculum concentrating on English, history, mathematics, and science; testing and competition; teacher-led classrooms. "Throughout his writings," Wiebe observes, "ran a limitless faith in the scientific method as the means for freeing people of all ages to learn through exploration and through social experience." Dewey himself wrote, "Education implies the guidance of behavior in harmony with social processes." He believed that children growing up in farm communities learned partly through observation of the work and life around them, and he wanted children growing up in cities also to develop a working understanding of the processes that made urban civilization work. They would cook in the school kitchen, sew in the textile room, grow wheat in a dirt container in the back of another room. As his biographer Alan Ryan writes, "Dewey insisted over and over that school was itself part of life, not just a preparation for it, that the child had to bring into play at school all of his or her energies, not just intellectual ones and not just manual skills." He founded a famous Laboratory School at the University of Chicago and inspired the creation of Teachers College at Columbia University. For Dewey it was not enough to teach children the lessons of the past; it was important to prepare them to deal with a rapidly changing society. "It is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be 20 years from now," he wrote. "Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions."

The Progressive movement of which Dewey was a part saw its political influence wane in the 1920s. But the move toward progressive education, inspired by Dewey's ideas, made gains in that decade and the next--though its advocates misinterpreted Dewey's ideas, as he himself protested in 1938. Progressive education came to be the accepted dogma of the schools of education, state and federal education bureaus, city school boards, and professional education associations and would continue to be for decades. "By the 1940s," writes scholar Diane Ravitch, "the ideals and tenets of progressive education had become the dominant American pedagogy." The advocates of progressive education argued, incorrectly, that the Hard science of psychology had proven that it was better to teach reading by getting children to recognize whole words than by phonics, and that the study of subjects like Latin and advanced mathematics did not improve mental discipline. The curriculum, they said, should concentrate not on traditional subjects but on "life activities"--language activities, health activities, leisure activities, vocational activities. Memorization and drill were bad; projects and "life experience" good. As Ravitch recounts, these progressive education advocates produced "a pronounced shift in the state goals of schooling, away from concern with intellectual development and mastery of subject matter to concern for social and emotional development and to the adoption of 'functional' objectives related to areas such as vocation, health and family life." A well-publicized education manifesto published in 1944 proclaimed, "There is no aristocracy of 'subjects.' . . . Mathematics and mechanics, art and agriculture, history and homemaking are all peers."

Thus was accomplished the Softening of an important part of American life. The champions of progressive education argued that it was more democratic than traditional education, because it included activities that could be mastered by any student. And enrollment did increase: while only 10 percent of high-school-aged children attended high school in 1900, 65 percent did by 1950. But progressive education did not encourage upward mobility. The progressive educators, Ravitch writes, "saw their task to be one of fitting the children to the needs of the social order." They took great satisfaction when schools reduced the percentage of students in college-preparation courses and discouraged blacks from learning trades in which they were thought unlikely to get jobs. Traditional Hard schools provided a chance for children to achieve more than their parents had. Progressive Soft schools encouraged conformity and contentment with their lot.

From the Hardcover edition.

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