on January 20, 2007
"The People of Plenty" is one of the most interesting books I have read in the past two years: informative, instructive, entertaining, challenging, provocative. The book deals with the effects of economic abundance on the American national character as a relationship between history and the behavioral sciences. It is organized in two major parts. Part I outlines the concept of national character from the viewpoints of the historian and behavioral scientist. Part II is about how economic abundance has shaped the American character.
To begin with, if Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is correct that "History is to a Nation what Memory is to an individual", national character is the changing memory of a nation. This is no new assertion, but the author argues that popular generalizations of national character are incorrect. They weave traits and habits in there descriptions, and so they "show how badly the true analysis of national character will be hindered if historians, like the blindmen who examined the elephant, mistake the part for the whole" (p. 13). The problem is that nations are made up of people, and people's characteristics are cultural, political, economic, historical, and so on. Rather than nation units defining character, national character may be conceived as a national culture expressed as a political unit called a nation.
Previous explanations of national character, and here the author sweeps the canvas as only a historian can do, have been flawed. Many paid little attention to what character actually is, or "how they would define the `nation' as the unit to which the character is attributed" (p.20). The historian's generalizations of character have ranged all over the place, from such things as that (a) character is God-given (chosen nations); (b) character is driven by environmental factors like technology; and (c ) character is a genetic disposition like race. For the behavioral scientist national character stems from any number of behavioral factors: psychological traits, group propensities brought about by socialization, and so on.
From the literature the author gathers that the American character is a measure of success. Success, "the American measures as his own worth by the distance which he occupies; he esteems high current income more than the possession of long-accumulated wealth. Mobility and change are natural by-products of his quest for success, and departure from the patterns of the past is a matter of course" (p.48). This passage suggests that "the American character is a large measure of group responses to an unusually competitive situation" (p. 60) - an early indication of the hypothesis that national character is a function of economics - the subject of the second part of the book.
Abundance leads to the American character, but abundance is simultaneously a function of human and nonhuman factors, with human factors being more important and less exhaustible. Hence, the national bounty of a nation increases with human productivity. Increased productivity enables social mobility, which in turn ensures equality of opportunities. However, equal opportunities are not equal outcomes, since the former does not eliminate barriers so that social stratification is often inevitable. Nonetheless, the Americans belief in equal opportunities and the social mobility it implies is simply a rejection of status, because status is failure to progress.
American tend to believe that abundance is positively related to freedom of choice, and so to democracy. "To succeed as a democracy, a country must enjoy an economic surplus to begin with, or it must continue to attain one" (p. 116). And so abundance = freedom = American world mission. The book uses the "frontier hypothesis" to strengthen the idea that abundance is central to the American character. The frontier represents the individual spirit liberated from institutional restrictions to pursue his/her self-interests - the present is better than the past, the future preferred to both the present and the past. However, this representation is both a benefit and a cost. The benefit is obvious; the cost is that too much individualism is less democratic and civil, both being inconsistent with freedom and mobility. Thus the frontier ceases to determine national character when it is no longer a source of abundance.
The book claims that advertising is a key institution of abundance; advertising helps in spreading the economic surplus by educating, instilling, training, and hastening the consumer to adopt new tastes and preferences. It helps character formation. Abundance affects the family (a form of social structure), which in turn affects a child's character. Abundance affects society by affecting the basic human needs: food, shelter, clothing, and culture. For example, states the book, "the economy of plenty has influenced the feeding of infant, his regime, and the physical setting within which he lives. The material conditions alone might be regarded as having some bearing upon the formation of his character, but the impact of abundance by no means ends at this point" (p. 198). Child rearing is another important consideration.
As far as I am concerned the book has successfully presented and defended it case: A uniquely American character is made up of traits, experiences, ideals, time, and institutions. These are strung together by a thread called economic abundance. Now whether one agrees or disagrees is a secondary point. As an economist I have trouble with the phrasing "economic abundance", because the term "economic" means "scarce", so that "economic abundance = scarce abundance - which is an oxymoron. Yet the book goes beyond economic determinism in a refreshing manner even today, fifty-three years later. I strongly recommend this book to anyone, especially to those in positions that require or authorize them to speak on behalf of America and Americans.
Modeling Determinants of Income in Embedded Economies
on February 3, 1999
This is one of the seminal books on understanding what it means to be an American, and on what makes our character distinctive, if not utterly unique. Potter was a remarkable professor of American History at Stanford, where his final lecture in my Junior year taught me what the phrase " the crowd lept to its feet" meant. Among other remarkable traits, Potter never once uttered that or any other cliche in those lectures or in this extraordinary book. The work of a giant, engaging and accessible to almost anyone.
I first read this book while in graduate school now more than thirty years ago and I found it stimulating enough to carry around with me ever since. I recently found it on a shelf of my books and decided to reread it to see how it holds up. It does, but perhaps not in the way originally intended. At a fundamental level this is a work of consensus history. That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and the people that made it up somehow “better.” Its advocates questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties. Much of this approach, and certainly such was the case with the best of the consensus school historians such as Potter, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.
Potter begins with a discussion of history, its meanings, what it might illuminate and what it is ill-equipped to explain, and in the process bounds promise of historical analysis in seeking to understand the American character. He reminds his readers—and many historians should well take heed of this when they venture into areas that are not fundamentally about the actions of humans—that “The very term ‘history’ means, in fact, human history, and the whole record of history is, in a sense, an account of dynamic external forces operating upon men and of the reactions and responses of men to these forces” (p. x).
He then goes on to discuss the issue of abundance—economic and otherwise—that has fundamentally shaped the American character. Freedom from want for the vast majority meant that other democratic institutions also flourished. He insists that we understand “that democracy paced the growth of our abundance and abundance broadened the base of our democracy” (p. 141). Absent those interlocked imperatives and the United States might have become a very different place. Indeed, I’m sure that based on what I see in this work that Potter would have been disturbed by the increasing economic, as well as opportunity, divide between the highest and lowest of those in American society.
The remainder of "People of Plenty" lays out how this sense of abundance has contributed to and interrelated with the American character. He has chapters on the quest for equality, the ideal of democracy, the concept of an American mission to redeem the world, the experience of the frontier and Turner’s famous thesis, and the impact of consumerism and advertising. Potter’s final paragraph in the book offers a telling summation: “the presence of the force of this factor [economic abundance] are recognizable with equal certainty in the whole broad, general range of American experience, American ideals, and American institutions” (p. 208)
Does the experience of American abundance drive the manner in which the American character has evolved? Probably, but there are other nations with similar abundance whose character is strikingly different. What accounts for that difference? Moreover, has the issue of abundance so apparent to David M. Potter in 1954 been altered in the last 60 plus years? If so, might this issue still be a useful interpretative framework for studies of this subject? As powerful as Potter’s thesis is, as a remarkable as his analysis is in this book, does it still work well as an explanation of why Americans are the way they are?