Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > In the Shadow of the Progressive Era, for Better and for Worse

Oct 24, 2013

In the Shadow of the Progressive Era, for Better and for Worse

The other day I took in, at a single glance, three headlines on the home page of the Washington Post. As they merged in my mind, they set me thinking back to the Progressive Era -- the decade from 1905-1915 -- that is arguably as pivotal as any in U.S. history and, for those of us who see a need for significant social change, perhaps more worth studying than any other decade.

It was a time when a Republican president with impeccable conservative credentials, Theodore Roosevelt, could stake his political life on words like these: "every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it. ... Whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property." "The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us." 

It was a time when there were no businesses "too big to fail." The biggest business of all, Standard Oil, had its crimes and abuses exposed in articles and a book that became the talk of the nation. TR racked up plenty of political points by demanding that this trust, like others, be broken up.

It was a time when experts began to use statistical methods to measure the effects not only of trusts, but of poverty, crowded slum housing, contaminated food, substandard education, and hundreds of other things. Armed with such objective evidence, Progressives got laws passed that have saved and improved innumerable lives ever since.

We still live in the long shadow cast by Progressivism, for better and for worse.  Though some things have changed some have not, as the three articles I took in made clear.

Today, a president with impeccable liberal credentials echoes TR's words. But he  doesn't follow through on that narrative nearly as rigorously. That liberal president (I read in the first of those WaPo articles) has allowed his Justice Department, in good Progressive fashion, to impose an unprecedented fine on JPMorgan Chase. The fabled House of Morgan will have to pay something like $13 billion -- more than half of last year's profit.

But what about all the accumulated profits from the other years since Morgan started peddling subprime mortgage packages and other derivatives that it knew were dubious, at best? Those profits will more than compensate for whatever pain Morgan feels from the fine, and they’ll keep the firm’s top execs living in their accustomed uber-luxury.

Indeed, once Morgan’s accountants tote up the cost-benefit analysis in good Progressive fashion, they’re bound to conclude that, in the long run, the bank's miseeds were quite profitable. The obvious lesson is simply to go on doing more of the same -- especially when Morgan knows that one central tentet of Progressivism is long gone: Huge banks and corporations are now considered too big to fail. So the fine is not likely to have much deterrent effect at all

And 9t’s still very possible that Morgan, with its massive legal war chest, will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Can we count on today's Supreme Court to follow the public will and allow a harsh penalty to stand? It's certainly doubtful. This is 2013.

How different things were in 1913, when Standard Oil, after spending huge sums in court fighting the break-up order, took its case all the way to the Supreme Court and lost, ending up with no choice but to organize its own demise.

One IQ Point Spells Death

The Supreme Court was itself the subject of the second article that caught my attention. It has agreed to decide whether a convicted a murderer must be put to death by the state of Florida because of ONE IQ point. 

In 2002 the Court ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who is mentally disabled. That was far short of the goal promoted by Progressives like Clarence Darrow: declaring all capital punishment cruel, unusual, and hence unacceptable.

And to limit the effect even further, the Court gave each state the right to define "mentally disabled." Florida picked IQ 70 as the legal cutoff point. Anything above 70 and you can't claim that you're mentally disabled. So Florida plans to execute Freddie Lee Hall, whose IQ, the state’s tests showed, is at least 71.

Hall's lawyers argue what every psychologists knows: The results of IQ tests are just approximations, at best. There's a heavy dose of subjectivity in the scoring. And there are shelves of research questioning whether IQ tests, even when administered by experts, tell us anything definitive at all about someone's intelligence. But the Florida Supreme Court has said, in effect, "Sorry, Freddy. We've got an objective measurement. And you're one point too high to live."  

That's one legacy of the darker side of the Progressive era. Progressives were devoted to the newly arising cult of objectivity and statistical measurement, with some unarguably humane results. But here we have a case -- and so many others could be cited -- where the same myth of the all-powerful objective statistic may very well end up taking a life in a way that a more liberal Supreme Court could easily consider cruel and unusual punishment.

It's only a bit of a stretch to see the $13B fine against Morgan as part of the same pattern. Why, it's more than four times the size of any previous fine against a financial giant! By pinning that enormous number on Morgan's misdeeds, we may get a warm feeling of satisfaction, as if justice has been served. And to warm our hearts more, some $4B of the settlement will supposedly go to the victims of the huge bank's nefarious scheming.

But will $4B really be enough to compensate all of them (even if they get it all, which historical precedent suggests is doubtful)? Every foreclosure has effects that can never be quantified, not only in the lives of the people evicted but in the lives of everyone they touch. Those effects ripple out across their block, their neighborhood, their whole city. Sometimes those effects leave dead bodies, quite literally, in their wake.

When foreclosures are rampant, as in the last few years, the whole is greater, and potentially deadlier, than the sum of its parts. To try to quantify all that seems foolish at best, callous at worst.

Yet the feeling of comfort provided by "hard numbers" is part of the legacy of Progressivism that we still live with. And as long as those "hard numbers" are so big, as in this case, they make it easier for the public to live with the idea that some financial institutions are still too big to fail. So the deadly cycle of boom and bust goes on.

Humanity or Technical Rationality?

The Progressive faith in numbers also sheds light on the third article I saw on the home page of the WaPo, the same story most newsappers were headlining that day: The president's apology for the technical failures of the Obamacare rollout and his assurance that he was bringing in the top experts to fix it all ASAP.

Apparently there's plenty of blame to go around. But the fundamental issue is that millions of Americans are equating the plan for expanded health issurance with the computers that are so central to the plan -- or at least so the mass media tell us, in endless stories that are likely to be self-fulfilling prophecies, at least in the short run.

It's certainly possible that after a few months, while the enrollment period is still open, those top experts will succeed, the problems will be pretty much fixed, and the millions who crashed the system in its first days because they were so eager to get health insurance will reach their goal.

Yet to turn this into a gripping story -- and after all that's how they make their money -- the mass media have to persuade us that it's equally possible the public will give up on the whole plan before the experts can do the job. In that case, milliions will lose health care, and thousands will die, because a potentially humane health care program was judged by the quality of its of digital computing.

The idea that government should take responsibility for the health of all is a direct descendant of the Progressive era. But so is the digital age, harking back to the Progressive faith that everything can be reduced to numbers. In the case of computing, it’s a faith in two little digits, one and zero. More broadly, it’s a faith that the right machines will save us -- machines that only experts can design, build, and maintain.

 Even more broadly, the digitial age is the culmination of the rule of technical reason that first emerged so clearly in the heyday of Progressivism. It was hardly just an American phenomenon, though some would argue that Americans have carried it to its furthest extreme. But Americans were also slowest to recognize its dangers.

By the time Progressivism was sweeping this nation, European intellectuals were already beginning to warn about those dangers. The new mode of rationality cared only about calculating what means could reach any given end most efficiently. Reducing everything to numbers was a necessary first step in making those calculations. But what numbers and technical means-ends reasoning could never tell us was the ultimate value of the ends that society was seeking.

In fact, they argued, modern society was losing the very ability to ask about ultimate goals. We were building machines meant to serve us and make our lives better, but then letting the machines become our masters, determining the quality and the very fabric of our lives. Keeping the machines going -- maintaining a dependable, seemingly rational order -- became not merely a means to an end but the very purpose of society.

People who make the whole value of Obamacare depend on the smooth function of the computers are making a similar mistake. If the tools don't work, of course they should be fixed. But the tools are only the means to the goal. The goal should not be equated with, or judged by, the quality of the tools.

Yet we can make that mistake so easily because we are so quick to reduce reality to its virtual, computerized version. That, too, is ultimately a legacy of the Progressive faith in numbers, experts, and machines. 

The computerization of medical care, like the Progressive era itself, yields us an ambiguous fate. I've seen (at the Mayo clinic) how immensely helpful a well-oiled, fully computerized, medical system can be. I want all my medical records in a national data bank accessible to any provider I visit, despite the risks to my privacy, which I believe are a price worth paying.

But I do not want my medical providers, medical insurers, or anyone else to be so mesmerized by numbers, computers, and the myth of perfect objectivity that they cannot see me, the human being in front of them.

Nor do I want the public so mesmerized by the huge number $13 billion that it cannot see all the human beings whose lives continue to be ruined by corporations that remain fundamentally unchecked because they are deemed “too big to fail.”

And I certainly don’t want the Supreme Court so mesmerized by numbers and the myth of objectivity that it cannot see the humanity of Freddie Lee Hall. Though I personally find all capital punishment to be cruel, and would like to see it become not just unusual but unthinkable, there seems little doubt that the Supreme Court in 2002 meant to make Mr. Hall’s execution legally “cruel and unusual.” 

But there’s every possibility that in this case, too, the Progressive era’s devotion to numbers and objectivity will triumph over its undeniable concern for the value of human life.

PS:  Just a day after these three articles appeared, as if to underscore the point, the WaPo offered another story explaining how our misguided trust in the "pinpoint" guidance systems of drones, guided by computers thousands of miles away, has killed far more people than most Americans would want to admit, or perhaps even think about. Yet the president assures us that in this case, too, he’s got experts refining the digital technology to fix the problem of “excessive collateral damage.”

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