When Government was BIG

          FDR had been dead for fifteen years, but my social studies teacher remained fixated on him. She would slip comments into class discussions that derided him and the big government of the New Deal. One day she said, “Whenever the government starts a program, the program never disappears. It just gets bigger and bigger.” I knew little about the New Deal then and was not interested in defending it or other government initiatives. Instead, I was a general wiseass, and my mind instinctively searched for counterexamples. I raised my hand and when she called on me, said, “What about prohibition? That was a huge government program, and we no longer have it.” She turned her back on me and did not call on me again for a week. I was not unhappy with that outcome.

She was from that American school of get-the-government-off-my-back, a strain of bitching that always seems to be with us. The examples seem ubiquitous, and we see it now with people denouncing required face masks as socialism. Underlying such complaints is that in the good old days, government was smaller, and Americans had more freedom. Of course, as with prohibition this has not always been true. Big government programs of the past are not all still with us now. Slavery and the many tentacles of the Jim Crow laws that existed in the lifetimes of many of us required a strong government for example, but those “programs” no longer are with us.

Because of my northern roots in a white small town, I was not directly affected by Jim Crow (nor was I directly affected by the myriad laws and government actions and policies that discriminated against women), but I, as were almost all Americans of a certain age, was affected by another, now defunct, freedom-restricting, big government program—the military draft. To someone my age, the draft needs no explanation, but many of my students, a generation or two younger than I am, not only did not know that it existed, but could not believe that it ever was the law of the land. But, yes, men (only men, not women) could be required to join the armed services. Put in slightly different terms, the government could force men from their homes and jobs and families, control their lives for years, and place them in a position where there was the possibility that they would have to kill or be killed. This was big government writ large.

Its reach was so pervasive that it routinely affected people’s behavior even before a military induction. I learned this early. In sixth grade, Glen and I hung out at George’s service station. A couple of high school boys did some work there. One day they discussed what they would do after high school and whether they should get some vocational training. Gary said, “No. I’m just going to get any job I can and wait to get drafted.” He was going to put his life on hold until after his forced military service.

The draft led many to enlist. Perhaps part of the motivation was public service and patriotism, but a self-interest was also at work. An enlistee, unlike a draftee, could choose the branch of the armed services he would go into, and the college-graduate enlistee could be an officer while the draftee was a private. In a personal cost-benefit analysis, many concluded it was better to enlist than wait to be drafted. I have many friends of my age, often graduates of the country’s most selective universities, who were officers in the armed services while the draft existed. There are fewer similar people today who are veterans.

The draft affected education and job choices. College males got deferments; that is, they would not be drafted while in school. And for a long time, deferments were also given for graduate school. In my generation, only those from 18 to 26 were drafted. Back then, I never heard of a “gap year” before college or graduate school. We knew that such a time off from school might find us not in Europe with a knapsack and a rail pass but backpacking in Vietnam using military transport. One of the reasons so many of my generation may have gone to law or business school is the draft deferment it offered. (Not so for medical school. Doctors got drafted at 26 and beyond because not enough doctors enlisted. Go watch M*A*S*H).

If, however, you finished all this education by the ages of twenty-four or twenty-five, you still had to make it until twenty-six not to be drafted. Ah, but for some jobs, you also got a deferment. Public school teaching was one. Teach until twenty-six, and then start your real career. Many of my generation had a brief stint as a middle-school teacher.

The draft was not only big government because it could intrude into every corner of a life, it was also big because it produced a huge bureaucracy. Nearly every county in the country had a selective service (the official name for the draft) office with one or more paid workers as well as volunteer (I think) boards. (Does anyone know who came up with “selective service”?) And, of course, regional and national offices. Paperwork galore.

Both aspects of the big government came together for me in my second year of law school. As I began my legal studies during the height (or shall we say, depth) of the Vietnam War, deferments for graduate school ended. And thus, one day during a break in my classes, I found the missive in my mail with what was then the famous salutation, “Greetings.” I was being drafted pending a physical, for which I had to return to my home county.

It wasn’t as though I hadn’t thought about being in the army before—all males of my generation did–but the draft notice certainly, how shall we say, focused my attention on an impending military life. It was more than a little hard to concentrate on the law of corporations or the tax code with the army looming. Part of my thoughts that followed the draft notice were about the war that the U.S. was then bogged down in, but many of my thoughts just went to basic training, which I dreaded for good reason.

(continued September 14)

Post-Pandemic Dispositions

While America has always had regional and political differences, for much of American history technology and infrastructure projects knit the country closer together. Steamboats transformed river traffic. Both goods and people could move more quickly and efficiently than had been imaginable, and cities on the same river, and later lakes, became, in essence, closer and more involved with each other. 

          Canals were built that tied sections of the country together that were not previously connected by rivers or coasts. The most famous, the Erie Canal, made it possible for goods to flow from the Midwest to the East and back making these areas interdependent in ways that they were not before. The extensive networks of other canals helped amalgamate what had been separate localities into regions.

          Railroads made almost every part of the country closer to each other. The West Coast and the East Coast for the first time were truly part of the same nation. With railroads and their kid brother, streetcars, city neighborhoods, outlying areas, and downtowns became part of a single metropolis.

          Air traffic and the interstate highways furthered the process. Although many differences remained, regions were bonded into one country because of transportation improvements, almost all of which were government funded or subsidized.

          Communication advances also knit the country tighter. With the telegraph, interregional business became more efficient. The telegraph allowed the same national news to be read throughout the country on the same day. Speedy communications between friends, acquaintances, and relatives in distant parts of the land became possible. And, of course, all this was immeasurably furthered with the telephone.

          Technological advances allowed people throughout the country to experience the same culture. With the phonograph masses could hear Enrico Caruso, Gene Austin, and Bessie Smith far beyond the limited audience of a performing space. Movies made Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, and many since then into nationwide stars. With the national distribution of movies, fashion and other trends now quickly spread throughout the country as masses saw Veronica Lake’s hairdo and that Clark Gable was not wearing an undershirt. Newsreels allowed Americans throughout the country to experience Hitler rallies, the invasion of Ethiopia, and World Series highlights in ways that were not possible before.

With radio, millions could hear at the same time fireside chats and Edgar Bergen in their living rooms. (I still don’t quite understand ventriloquism on the radio.) Television intensified that trend as huge portions of the country simultaneously watched the same entertainment, sports, and news. Conversations around the country the next day would be about the same topics—Lucille Ball’s antics, Alan Ameche plunging for a touchdown as the Colts beat the Giants in overtime, JFK’s funeral, and the moon landing.

For much of our history, technological and infrastructure changes moved Americans more towards being one people. Now, however, we often see a land with many increasing and unyielding divisions. Much of this talk of a new divisiveness is overblown. Even as the United States became more united in some ways, strong factions always existed. However, it is true that some recent trends and technological advances have meant that Americans’ sharing of common experiences has lessened. Cable television may have started this. With the hegemony of three television networks destroyed, we no longer had common TV shows. The goal of reaching a mass audience has now been replaced by targeted audiences. Michiko Kakutani in The Death of Truth maintains, “New Star War movies and the Super Bowl remain some of the few communal events that capture an audience cutting across demographic lines.”

What communal media events do we have now? I had heard and seen many comments about the end of Game of Thrones as its finale approached. A mass cultural event was about to happen, or was it? The initial showing of the last episode was watched by 13.6 million people on HBO and 19.4 million on all platforms within a day or so. That is a lot of people experiencing the same event at almost the same time. But compare that to the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983 when 105.9 million watched without the advantage of immediate replays and with about 100 million fewer people (234 million) in the population compared to 2019 (330 million).

The M*A*S*H audience was indeed extraordinary—77% of TV viewers. Even so, the final episode of Cheers in 1993 and of Seinfeld in 1998 drew 84.4 million and 76.3 million viewers when the country’s population was about 260 million. The viewership of many other final episodes including All in the Family at 40.2 million in 1979 and Gunsmoke at 30.9 million dwarf Game of Thrones in both raw numbers and the percentage of the population. More than a half century ago, in 1967, 78 million people watched the final episode of The Fugitive (72% audience share) when the country had 199 million people.

It is true that the Super Bowl remains an American communal event. The last one drew 102.1 million viewers which made it the tenth most watched Super Bowl and eleventh most watched TV show ever—that M*A*S*H finale again.

A similar change in communal movie watching has also occurred. Movie success is measured in dollars, not audience size. The last Star Wars offering had a box office take of $177 million for its opening weekend in 2019. This was less than for the 2017 Star Wars opening ($220 million) and the 2015 opening ($247 million.) Rough calculations using what I pay for movie tickets—expensive New York but senior-citizen rates—the last Star Wars opening had millions fewer viewers in that weekend communal event than even the Game of Thrones finale. (continued April 27)