Thursday, July 8, 2010

Beck's arguments against the progressive era do not hold up

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It's Glenn Beck's best argument as a "pundit." He knows his history, and he claims again that we're repeating the mistakes of the past. On his show this July 6th, he wished his audience a happy 4th of July (even though he hosted a best-of Founders Friday the day before) and laid into progressive Congressman Pete Stark, (D) California. He then proceeded into historical revisionism of American innovation under progressive Administrations. This was in contrast to the roaring 20's after Republicans had cut taxes and government spending.

Representative Stark is California's longest serving Congressman at 37 years. He was one of the founders of the Progressive Congressional Caucus according to Beck, and he has clearly been arrogant toward an interviewer and toward constituents in town meetings. Beck mocked him, calling him "Petsie Wheetsy" in an adolescent, teasing tone of voice. Beck then fantasized that Stark was in debt for his expensive home, lost his job, his home and his car. He was extrapolating that fantasy to what's going to happen to the U.S. economy with progressives in power. The childish tone of his voice is exhibit A for something that's difficult to convey without video - Beck's methods of communication. He's a B-movie actor when he's railing against progressivism; he was not that developed attacking Congressman Stark.

The historical fact that Beck distorted was how Stark managed to get "elected," i. e., redistricting. Stark first won election in 1972 beating 14 term George Miller in the primary. The districts changed after that in 1975 and again in 1993. Perhaps Beck misspoke again, and he actually meant to guess how Stark was re-elected so many times. Redistricting had nothing to do with his election.

Rewriting History

This is Beck's forte as a "historian." He demonstrated it with his attack on the progressive Administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and, especially, Woodrow Wilson, of whom Beck again stated, "I hate him" adding "and you will too" when he get's done explaining a version of history he largely fabricates.

Beck pointed out how much better America society was after Republicans came to power in 1920, cutting taxes and federal spending. It was the roaring 20's and innovations took off in the market place. Government just had to get out of people's way. This happened again, Beck pointed out in 1946. In both examples, the United States had just won what are now considered world wars, but Beck did not mention that. That fact didn't fit into his narrative, that lower taxes and less government spending spurs American innovation.

Beck argued that what leads to economic recovery is to have big government get out of people's way, so that innovation can flourish. Got it? According to Beck, progressive "big government" stifles innovation where as lower taxes and smaller government leads to innovations that thrive in the market place. A comparison of American inventions during the progressive Administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson is drawn below against those of the "Roaring 20's" that Beck depicts as an era of American innovation unleashed.

Inventions during Roosevelt's Administration

Inventions that were patented on an election year will be credited below to the Administration in power that year, not the candidate who won the presidency unless it was the incumbent. President Roosevelt became President in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated in September. Roosevelt attempted to move the Republican Party into Progressivism with increased regulation of businesses and trust busting, the dissolving of large corporations that had a monopolies and thus controlled the "market." Did this interference in "free enterprise" stifle individual's innovative spirit as Beck would have his audience believe? What follows is a list of American inventions that came about during Roosevelt's time in office:
  • 1902, the radio telephone was invented by Reginald Fessenden
  • 1903, the first airplane took flight, after being designed and built by the Wright brothers
  • 1903, windshield wipers for automobiles were designed by Mary Anderson
  • 1903, Gillette began marketing his 1901 invention, the disposable razor blade, used apparently to cut though all of the "stifling"  red tape put in place by the progressives in Washington
  • 1907, Bakelite plastic was invented by Leo Baekeland. Bakelite retains its shape after production
  • 1908, the assembly line was employed by H. Ford to produce a more affordable auto, the Model T
  • 1908, tea bags were invented by Thomas Sullivan
Where would the Tea Party be today without this progressive era invention?

Inventions during Wilson's Administration

1912 was an election year, and Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States. To hear Beck tell the story,  inventions and technological innovations were stifled due to progressive regulation, taxes and federal spending. The record of inventions during Wilson's presidency is another story. As follows:
  • 1913, the multigrid electron tube was invented by Irving Langmuir
  • 1913, cracked gasoline was developed by William Burton
  • 1915, the automobile starter was invented by Charles Kettering
  • 1916, the Browning rifle is invented by John Moses Browning
  • 1916, the x-ray tube was developed by William Coolidge and Sir Francis William Aston
  • 1919, the mass-spectrograph as invented by Arthur Dempster
These inventions were culled mostly from ScribD, "Notable - Inventions - Discoveries." Click on this, and look at those Roaring 20's that Beck uses as an example of a flourishing of American inventiveness. Unlike the notable discoveries during the Wilson Administration, when Americans dominate the list, the notable inventions after WWI were more spread around into Europe. That probably would not have happened if we stayed out of the war, but the list may have progressed from there dominated by American and German scientists without U.S. participation in WWI.

There were, of course, a large number of other inventions and innovations developed to help fight the war. The bolt-action rifle, rifled artillery, hydraulic recoil mechanisms, machine guns, high explosive shells, the concrete pill box, effective gas masks, were all developed and tank and navel technologies rapidly advanced. Sonar technology advanced for fighting German U-boats. Needless to write, these were all developed as a result of "big government" spending.

Does Beck approve of the spirit of the 1920's?

On his show, Beck embraces the Roaring 20's. There was general prosperity in the bubble of the 20's, but like all bubbles before and since, this one ended. The Wall Street Crash of 1929  lead to the Great Depression. What lead to this Crash was in large part unregulated and excessive speculation of stock market investments using borrowed money. The 20's were also associated with a general sense of discontinuity with the past and a greater attachment to modernity. Until the early 30's, homosexual clubs were operated openly. Had he been alive then, it's doubtful that Glenn Beck would have embraced the spirit of the times. However, the lack of reduction in federal spending under Hoover (R) is what really should have aroused his ire. It's hard to tell; Beck behaved quite differently - bemoaning the tired divisions of left and right - when George Bush was President.

As indicated above, there were sharp cuts in the top income tax rates that Wilson had imposed to pay for the war. Federal spending was also cut, again largely because the military budget was safe to cut deeply. However, the new normal of the 20's "incorporated considerably higher levels of federal spending and taxes that the Progressive era before World War I. From 1929 to 1933, under Republican President Hoover's administration, real per capita federal expenditures increased by 88 percent"(1) as he tried to respond to the Great Depression. Beck conveniently never mentions this. A good research question to be answered is the extent Beck cried warnings about the ballooning national debt under the Bush Administration.

Beck has recently championed the Apollo moon missions of the past without mentioning that they were a product of big government or that the research and development of space exploration has advanced science and technological, commercial applications of it.

Beck doesn't mention a lot; he cherry picks history of facts that help him make his case. This is not, however, a fact picked from the history books from a reactionary perspective. See "What is Glenn Beck Politically." However, when Beck tried to argue that there was much more American innovation in the 20's as a result of reduced taxation and government spending, it's clear that he was just making facts up...again.

(1) Robert K. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy: Governmental Theory and Practice in the Harding-Coolidge Era (1973) p 41.

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