A Week in the Midwest

I just spent seven days in the upper Midwest, driving across the states that gave Donald Trump his victory – Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania – talking to friends as I went. It was mostly vacation, but I carried with me Midwest at Noon, by Graham Hutton (University of Chicago Press, 1946), and read a little every day.

Hutton, for many years an editor of The Economist, spent much of World War II as head of the British Information Service in Chicago. An admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville, a close reader of The American Commonwealth (1888) by James Bryce, Hutton aimed to give a friendly analytic account of a region “mostly unknown, widely misinterpreted, and greatly misunderstood.”

The endpapers of the book tell the basic story:  the early routes over the Appalachian Mountains created the Old Midwest, settling Kentucky, Missouri and the southern portions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The impulse came from Virginia; the first governor of Illinois is still listed as having been Patrick Henry. Kentucky joined the Union in 1793, and the other four states had been admitted by 1821.

New York and the New England states remained preoccupied with their Atlantic trade.  Only with the Land Ordinance of 1785, with its six-mile-square townships, four of each of their thirty-six sections reserved to the federal government to provide provide revenue, and a fifth to finance public schools, was the Northern interest in the western lands aroused.  The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, was the initial overture.

Hutton writes, “The civilians of the South and the East were largely disillusioned with the more settled and rigid society of the seaboard colonies before they decided to pull out…. These dissenters from Eastern society quickly became anti-colonial, anti-class-society, and anti-Eastern,”

Pioneering and agricultural settlement predominated until 1860; industrial urbanization took over after that. Immigrants from Europe poured in; many farmers of the Old Midwest moved on to the Great Plains and the Far West, taking vagely resentful Midwestern ways with them. Those who remained mixed and mingled, especially in state legislatures.

After 1920, the young and the poor in the Midwest tended to vote Democratic; the well-to-do were Republican for the most part.  In 1946, Hutton wrote, “However different they were in their origins, and whatever they brought in with them, [the Midwesterners] all had to adapt themselves to the new and growing life of a of a new and growing region.” The region had become, he wrote, “the greatest single repository in the world of nineteenth century liberalism and the individualism which underlay it.” Little noticed, the economist Milton Friedman returned to the University of Chicago the same year.

It was the New Midwest that I was traveling across last week, and I was struck as I left Indiana for Ohio how different are the accommodations each has reached in the present circumstances. Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is Vice President of the United States; Mitch Daniels, another former governor once bruited as a presidential candidate is president of Purdue University. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who grew up in Pittsburgh, lost the Republican Party nomination to Donald Trump in 2016; after two successful terms, he is ineligible for re-election. He leaves office in January 2019.

Pence’s accommodations are clear; he seems to represent the religious conservatism of Old Midwest. The other two are creatures of the upper Midwest – the Old Northwest, as the region was called after the implications of the Louisiana Purchase sunk in. Their accommodations are of a later vintage.

Columnist Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, wrote last week that the Republican Party, has become a shambles, its commitment to shared political discourse, the pursuit of “objective reality,” a thing of the past. “There is no serious GOP opposition to Trump or his vision,” he wrote.

All the more after reading Hutton, and talking to those I saw last week, high and low, I think he is mistaken. Trump’s influence has become a political bubble, I believe; the pusillanimous present leadership of the GOP to be explained by the adage, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”  Eventually, of course, the music stops, the bubble bursts. And at that point those who made the mess are often called upon to repair the damage.

The Trump presidency has come to resemble that of Richard Nixon, not in its particulars but in the growing consensus that the man as not a suitable occupant of the office.  No impeachment proceeding is necessary. The next election is only two years away.

What’s needed next is an ameliorative presidency, like that of another Midwesterner, Gerald Ford (See When the Center Held: Gerald Ford and the Rescue of the American Presidency (Free Press, 2018), by Donald Rumsfeld, for an affectionate memoir). I don’t know by exactly what path the Republican Party might get there, but I won’t be surprised if they find a way.

.                                          xxx

Martin Shubik, of Yale University, one of the last of the generation that made modern economics, died last week. He was 92. A student of John von Neumann and, especially, Oskar Morgenstern, a contemporary of John Nash and Lloyd Shapley, Shubik was made a fellow of the American Economic Association in 2010.. He published too much, spent a decade doing applied economics at RAND Corp., General Electric Co and IBM.He joined the Yale faculty in 1963.

He made several crucial contributions to the entry of game theory into classical economics and so helped open the door to a broad new era of interplay between economics and psychology. And towards the end, he completed, with physicist Eric Smith, The Guidance of an Enterprise Economy, an important treatise on macroeconomics, despite a long struggle with inclusion-body myositis.

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