Monday, October 21, 2019

The Truth About LBJ's Great Society

A new Amity Shlaes book is about to be published, Great Society: A New History.

This looks like a good one.

From the blurb:

 The New York Times bestselling author of The Forgotten Man and Coolidge offers a stunning revision of our last great period of idealism, the 1960s, with burning relevance for our contemporary challenges.
Today, a battle rages in our country.
Many Americans are attracted to socialism and economic redistribution while opponents of those ideas argue for purer capitalism. In the 1960s, Americans sought the same goals many seek now: an end to poverty, higher standards of living for the middle class, a better environment and more access to health care and education. Then, too, we debated socialism and capitalism, public sector reform versus private sector advancement. Time and again, whether under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, the country chose the public sector. Yet the targets of our idealism proved elusive. What’s more, Johnson’s and Nixon’s programs shackled millions of families in permanent government dependence. Ironically, Shlaes argues, the costs of entitlement commitments made a half century ago preclude the very reforms that Americans will need in coming decades.
In Great Society, Shlaes offers a powerful companion to her legendary history of the 1930s, The Forgotten Man, and shows that in fact there was scant difference between two presidents we consider opposites: Johnson and Nixon. Just as technocratic military planning by “the Best and the Brightest” made failure in Vietnam inevitable, so planning by a team of the domestic best and brightest guaranteed fiasco at home. At once history and biography, Great Society sketches moving portraits of the characters in this transformative period, from U.S. Presidents to the visionary UAW leader Walter Reuther, the founders of Intel, and Federal Reserve chairmen William McChesney Martin and Arthur Burns. Great Society casts new light on other figures too, from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to the socialist Michael Harrington and the protest movement leader Tom Hayden. Drawing on her classic economic expertise and deep historical knowledge, Shlaes upends the traditional narrative of the era, providing a damning indictment of the consequences of thoughtless idealism with striking relevance for today. Great Society captures a dramatic contest with lessons both dark and bright for our own time.

Order here:



  1. "an end to poverty" ... "Yet the targets of our idealism proved elusive"

    That is because it is impossible to end poverty. Poverty is politically defined as some portion of the distribution. This portion will always be there. There will always be some people on the tail end of the distribution. That tail end could be made to be the living standards of the very wealthy of 1960 but we would still hear about how we need to end poverty. What poverty was in 1930 has for all practical purposes been ended but we still hear about it because the definition is relative.

    Furthermore some people will put themselves into poverty despite any and all efforts.

    The free market can only solve absolute poverty, not relative poverty and nothing can ultimately protect people from themselves and their own decisions. The only mitigation there is education, social pressure, or simply force.

    Relative poverty can never be solved. The free market can drive the prices of goods and services very low such that the poor can afford nearly everything they once couldn't but they will still have less than other people. Envy and virtue will still drive the politics.

    1. So much wisdom in so few words!
      Well said, Jimmy Joe!

    2. Those designated to be living in poverty today would have been median income earners in 1935.

      Poverty threshold 2016: $12,486 for a single individual under age 65. That’s about the equivalent of $713 in 1935 when the per capita income was about $474.

      Poverty threshold 2016: $24,339 for a family of four with two children under age 18. That’s about the equivalent of $1,390 in 1935 when the median family income was about $1,200.

  2. See also, _The Years of Lyndon Johnson_ by Robert Caro. I read his terrific book about Robert Moses, _The Power Broker_.

  3. Sadly, there is an LBJ school of public affairs at UT Austin. Pretty laughable considering LBJ was a low class disgusting prole who certainly did much damage to this country with the Great Stupidity program.