Great Society

A New History

[Amazon Link]

This is Amity Shlaes' big book about the social engineering schemes that Lyndon Baines Johnson sold as the "Great Society". The time scale she covers overlaps the LBJ administration, though: roughly 1960-1971. It's especially relevant in these days when socialism seems to be regaining respectability once again; Amity reports on what happened the last time that occurred.

Her method is to concentrate on (mostly) important non-Presidents during that time. To illustrate the cozy corporatism coming out of the 1950's, she looks at Lemuel Boulware, General Electric's man in charge of labor negotiations. Looking at the dawn of the "Great Society" programs, she focuses on Walter Reuther and Michael Harrington, two forthright socialists. During the Nixon era, it's Arthur Burns and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And (oh yeah) she's kind of obsessed with Bonanza, the great TV show that ran on CBS from 1959 until 1973. It's like a metaphor. And the closing episode of the final chapter has Nixon going on Sunday night TV to announce the US was abandoning the gold standard, and imposing wage/price controls… preempting Bonanza.

There's a lot of stuff going on, and Amity does a fine job of digging out obscure (but important and telling) details. (She spends less time discussing the things we thought were so important back then.)

Amity bends over backwards to be fair to the social engineers, granting their good intentions, even to praise them when she thinks they've succeeded (mainly in enacting civil rights legislation). But you can't help but notice the mindset: an overall hubris that dumping money into "programs" at the Washington end would result in progressive nirvana at the other end. Instead countless pols, bureaucrats, activists, and organizers held their buckets out for the cash. The activists and organizers (of course, being of socialist bent) made it their priority use their resources to "change the system" — instead of, y'know, helping poor people to enter the system.

So, it's a good, interesting book. Marred by some silly errors. On page 304, discussing the woes of the auto industry, we learn "Ford had distained variety". On page 133, Walter Reuther warns LBJ that they must not "report" the errors made at the 1964 Democratic convention. (She meant "repeat"). And on page 104, she says a 1964 Harris Poll predicted that LBJ would carry the state of California "by 65 to 35 delegates" over either Nelson Rockefeller or Barry Goldwater. Delegates? I don't think so.