Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Refragmentation

One advantage of being old is that you can see change happen in your lifetime. A lot of the change I've seen is fragmentation. US politics is much more polarized than it used to be. Culturally we have ever less common ground. The creative class flocks to a handful of happy cities, abandoning the rest. And increasing economic inequality means the spread between rich and poor is growing too. I'd like to propose a hypothesis: that all these trends are instances of the same phenomenon. And moreover, that the cause is not some force that's pulling us apart, but rather the erosion of forces that had been pushing us together.

Worse still, for those who worry about these trends, the forces that were pushing us together were an anomaly, a one-time combination of circumstances that's unlikely to be repeated—and indeed, that we would not want to repeat.

The two forces were war (above all World War II), and the rise of large corporations.

The effects of World War II were both economic and social. Economically, it decreased variation in income. Like all modern armed forces, America's were socialist economically. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. More or less. Higher ranking members of the military got more (as higher ranking members of socialist societies always do), but what they got was fixed according to their rank. And the flattening effect wasn't limited to those under arms, because the US economy was conscripted too. Between 1942 and 1945 all wages were set by the National War Labor Board. Like the military, they defaulted to flatness. And this national standardization of wages was so pervasive that its effects could still be seen years after the war ended.

Business owners weren't supposed to be making money either. FDR said "not a single war millionaire" would be permitted. To ensure that, any increase in a company's profits over prewar levels was taxed at 85%. And when what was left after corporate taxes reached individuals, it was taxed again at a marginal rate of 93%.

Socially too the war tended to decrease variation. Over 16 million men and women from all sorts of different backgrounds were brought together in a way of life that was literally uniform. Service rates for men born in the early 1920s approached 80%. And working toward a common goal, often under stress, brought them still closer together.

Though strictly speaking World War II lasted less than 4 years for the US, its effects lasted longer. Wars make central governments more powerful, and World War II was an extreme case of this. In the US, as in all the other Allied countries, the federal government was slow to give up the new powers it had acquired. Indeed, in some respects the war didn't end in 1945; the enemy just switched to the Soviet Union. In tax rates, federal power, defense spending, conscription, and nationalism the decades after the war looked more like wartime than prewar peacetime. And the social effects lasted too. The kid pulled into the army from behind a mule team in West Virginia didn't simply go back to the farm afterward. Something else was waiting for him, something that looked a lot like the army.

If total war was the big political story of the 20th century, the big economic story was the rise of new kind of company. And this too tended to produce both social and economic cohesion.

The 20th century was the century of the big, national corporation. General Electric, General Foods, General Motors. Developments in finance, communications, transportation, and manufacturing enabled a new type of company whose goal was above all scale. Version 1 of this world was low-res: a Duplo world of a few giant companies dominating each big market.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries had been a time of consolidation, led especially by J. P. Morgan. Thousands of companies run by their founders were merged into a couple hundred giant ones run by professional managers. Economies of scale ruled the day. It seemed to people at the time that this was the final state of things. John D. Rockefeller said in 1880:
The day of combination is here to stay. Individualism has gone, never to return.
He turned out to be mistaken, but he seemed right for the next hundred years.

The consolidation that began in the late 19th century continued for most of the 20th. By the end of World War II, as Michael Lind writes, "the major sectors of the economy were either organized as government-backed cartels or dominated by a few oligopolistic corporations."

For consumers this new world meant the same choices everywhere, but only a few of them. When I grew up there were only 2 or 3 of most things, and since they were all aiming at the middle of the market there wasn't much to differentiate them.

One of the most important instances of this phenomenon was in TV. Here there were 3 choices: NBC, CBS, and ABC. Plus public TV for eggheads and communists. The programs the 3 networks offered were indistinguishable. In fact, here there was a triple pressure toward the center. If one show did try something daring, local affiliates in conservative markets would make them stop. Plus since TVs were expensive whole families watched the same shows together, so they had to be suitable for everyone.

And not only did everyone get the same thing, they got it at the same time. It's difficult to imagine now, but every night tens of millions of families would sit down together in front of their TV set watching the same show, at the same time, as their next door neighbors. What happens now with the Super Bowl used to happen every night. We were literally in sync. (...)

It wasn't just as consumers that the big companies made us similar. They did as employers too. Within companies there were powerful forces pushing people toward a single model of how to look and act. IBM was particularly notorious for this, but they were only a little more extreme than other big companies. And the models of how to look and act varied little between companies. Meaning everyone within this world was expected to seem more or less the same. And not just those in the corporate world, but also everyone who aspired to it—which in the middle of the 20th century meant most people who weren't already in it. For most of the 20th century, working-class people tried hard to look middle class. You can see it in old photos. Few adults aspired to look dangerous in 1950.

But the rise of national corporations didn't just compress us culturally. It compressed us economically too, and on both ends.

by Paul Graham |  Read more: