Was American Greatness Built on Fiscal Folly?

The US Capitol in the 1830s (Courtesy Cornell University Library via The Commons on Flickr)

Is American greatness based on extravagant decisions that make no economic sense?  I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.

Our history is littered with “go-for-broke” projects that were hailed as sure-fire disasters at the time.  They would never have had a chance if our ancestors had had to defend themselves against the hand-wringers and economic rationalists who control American decision-making today.

Here is a short list of things that would never have happened because they entailed excessive risk, uncertain returns, irrevocable loss, or extravagant outlays.  In some cases, the day of exoneration for these decisions didn’t arrive for decades.  In the meantime, the country and its leaders endured ridicule as well as some terrifying liabilities.

1.  The Revolution.  It should have been a doomed undertaking.  The rebellion was impulsive and deepened into a pitched struggle that lasted eight years.  During that time, the colonies held it together with a more or less powerless committee that they tried to dignify with the name of the Continental Congress.   The war was fueled largely by reckless borrowing and the issuing of funny money.  The country organized under the Constitution largely because the new structure promised impecunious states debt relief.  Burdened from the outset with staggering debts, we became the US because there was no other way.

2.  The Louisiana Purchase.  Jefferson’s famous 1803 purchase was another patent error we wouldn’t think of committing today.  True, he acquired all that land west of the Mississippi, out of which 14 or 15 perfectly good states were made, —but he agreed to pay France an amount of money that was two times our entire federal budget at that time.  How could that be wise?

3.  The founding of Washington, DC.  Another ghastly boo-boo.  Instead of putting the capital near one of the existing states or cities, our frivolous forefathers insisted on mapping out a whole new city, and on a ridiculously grandiose scale, too.  Ignoring the fiscal realities, they threw away dollar after dollar building up an unduly magnificent city—it was all too European.  Yet, lo and behold, the iconic city they built is a global symbol, anchoring a metropolitan region of some 5 million people that is one of the most dynamic in the US today.

4. Seward’s Folly.  The Alaskan Purchase.  Another instance of classic fiscal adventurism.  Another expenditure the US didn’t need, especially not in 1867, when the government was laden with debt from the Civil War.  Critics argued that Alaska was inconvenient, and unnecessary; its only asset was a population of fur-bearing animals, whose value was declining.  That was before the gold was discovered, or the oil.  Purchased for 7.2 million dollars, Alaska today has a $49-billion GDP.

5. Ending slavery.  This, surely, was the most economically reckless action in American history.  For in putting an end to slavery, the US deprived one class of white Americans of millions of dollars of “property” and put an end to a convenient labor system they were accustomed to.  The gradual recognition that the slaves in our midst had a moral and political claim to be treated differently—that, in fact, Americans of all races are entitled to full civil and political equality—is one of the costliest convictions at which we’ve ever arrived.   Yet like many of our other decisions that “made no sense,” this one was essential to our national integrity.  And it highlights, in a way that the other items on my list do not, why economic rationality alone has never been, and should never be, the transcendent value in a republic like ours.

So, to my contemporaries I say—yes, cut away the waste and the unnecessary—but never disavow that go-for-broke mentality.  It’s part of the folly that made us great.

Image: The U.S. Capitol in 1830s Washington, D.C.
from this source.
  For a photograph of the Capitol from this period, click here.

Gallery: The Passing Year

A few photographs to go with the essay.

The Passing Year

Aboard the California Zephyr (Observation Car)

Can it be?  Are we there already?  Suddenly it’s Christmas and we’re gliding helplessly toward January.  2011 is nearly past, its events crystallizing into memories.  No longer anything to be experienced, only sensations and impressions to be recalled.  The end of the year, my birthday (which is on Christmas), and the holidays themselves, with their connotations of hope and new beginnings, invite retrospection, a consideration of where we’ve been and where we might be going.  Yet I don’t feel like writing anything political today.  The sort of analysis and judgment that comes so naturally to me seems somewhat out of place on this, my birthday.  How much better to dwell on the more irreducible memories of a recent journey.

I love getting out to see the countryside.  This fall, my husband and I took a couple of overland journeys, traveling out into the West by rail and car.  Mid-October found us boarding the California Zephyr, an amazing train that takes you across the Plains and Rockies, then down toward San Francisco via the Sierra Nevada and the Sacramento River Valley.  The passengers’ excitement was palpable, their reserve broken down in the face of scenery so spectacular and varied.  Strangers addressed one another in tones of excited exclamation, in tones that were hushed and confiding.  People hurried to breakfast early, then rushed to take up posts in the observation car, their eyes trained out the windows, cameras at the ready.  The land was like a drug we couldn’t get enough of: it was vast, it was awesome, it was enthralling, overwhelming.  It was great, for a change, to feel proud and happy.  “The United States are endless; they’re endless!” I heard an Englishwoman saying.

Yet the truth is far more complicated.  To ourselves, the United States are a half-known place, some parts thriving and well-cultivated; others poor, undeveloped, ill-used; still others useless, exhausted, polluted, sterile.  The frequent sight of worn-out factories and public buildings, collapsing farmsteads, wildlife in flight, and rural junkyards full of rusting machinery bespeak the exhaustion of an era and an earlier mode of living.

Back when it was known as the New World, there was no predicting what kind of place this would become.  The arrivistes who came here across the centuries from Asia and Europe had wildly differing hopes, conceptions, and ideas.  They were variously hunters, explorers, traders, colonists, and missionaries.  Many of their odysseys were ephemeral or concluded disastrously.  In the end, the people who enjoyed the most success were those able to enter into a direct relationship with the place, who got past their own fixed ideas and entered into a creative relationship with their surroundings.

Foreigners who came here with pre-conceived goals—whether it was to trap fur, find gold, or convert “natives” to Christianity—had a limited use for the place and tended greatly to undervalue its potentialities.  The benefits of their forays were miniscule compared to those of the Indians who worked out an elaborate rapprochement with the land, or the Virginians who later learned the ins and outs of tobacco cultivation from the Indians.  Lacking access to the most desirable oceanfront land, mid-Atlantic settlers rejoiced to have discovered what they thought of as “the best poor man’s land” in Pennsylvania.   These were the people who tended to stay: the people who saw value where others couldn’t.  In time, their ingenious interaction with the land and its materials gave rise to new foods, new habits, new industries, new livings.

Two hundred years later, much of the US still has a half-settled, half-developed, incipient character.  The proper uses of the land are still being tried.  With each decade, the population continues to redistribute itself, providing a register of Americans’ shifting perceptions of geographic advantage and opportunity.  We are still working out how the nation’s natural endowments can best support our life as a people.  Even in the face of globalism, however, the land beneath our feet remains the basis of security, prosperity, and innovation.  The nation’s resources, varied and vast but not limitless, require careful stewardship and cultivation.  Politically, the proper use of this great inheritance remains a central and complex but under-explored theme.