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Jewish World Review June 1, 2000 / 27 Iyar, 5760

George Will

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Great Awakenings -- AFTER HARNESSES WERE DEVISED to hitch oxen to plows, it took 4,000 years to adapt harnesses to the long necks of horses. But 66 years after the Wright brothers flew a distance shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, a man stood on the moon, and mankind marveled at the modern pace of change.

The velocity of change since the late 19th century has produced "technophysio evolution"--human evolution that is biological but not genetic. For example, in just four generations in Holland the average height of a male has increased eight inches. Today, changed material conditions may be radically changing our political agenda. So says Robert William Fogel, University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, in his new book, "The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism."

Since the 1730s, he says, three "awakenings"--changes of religious sensibility--have produced new political agendas. The First Great Awakening, which began around 1730, presaged the Revolution by fomenting skepticism about authority. The Second Great Awakening, which began around 1800, stressed personal perfection and America's mission to pursue social perfection, and fueled anti-slavery passions. The Third Great Awakening, which began around 1890, during industrialization, urbanization, labor unrest and immigration, said an unreformed society, not inherent sinfulness, is the source of corruption. This produced a modernist or liberal agenda of material amelioration--the welfare state.

Fogel thinks this agenda has been rendered anachronistic by material progress which has coincided with the Fourth Great Awakening. It began in the 1960s and by the end of the 1980s, Fogel estimates, 60 million Americans were participants in "enthusiastic religion." America is, he thinks, ripe for a politics focusing on "immaterial commodities," meaning education and other spiritual assets to enable everyone to use his new leisure and other assets for "self-realization."

Three centuries ago, "self-realization" was not the first concern. Malnutrition was nearly universal. Even the English peerage's diet was deficient in vitamins, and its ladies drank, on average, three ounces of absolute alcohol a day, enough to cause a high incidence of birth defects. Until the mid-19th century, one-fifth of the English population was too malnourished for regular work.

Prior to 1810, a voyage from Europe to North America cost the annual income of a European worker and killed 5 percent to 10 percent of voyagers. Another 5 percent to 10 percent died of diseases contracted during the voyage. Still, in the 1790s the average American was four inches taller than the average Englishman and had a 20-year advantage in longevity. America had a diet rich in protein and a population density insufficient to sustain major epidemics of diseases such as smallpox.

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But cities grew faster than did understanding of urban public health problems, and between 1790 and 1850 life expectancy in northern states declined 25 percent. In the 1830s and 1840s, life expectancy at birth in New York City and Philadelphia was 24 years, six years less than for southern slaves.

Even in 1900 only half of those born in the same year were alive at age 40. (Today it is not until age 79 that only half a birth cohort is left.) Until World War I, 80 percent of American consumption was in food, shelter and clothing. The work year, workweek and workday left little leisure for anything other than church or drinking, and retirement was essentially unknown.

Today time available for leisure exceeds time spent working, and as the workweek declines, Fogel says, toward 28 hours, retirement at 55 will become normal. This, he says, raises a "new and urgent set of distributional issues" involving a "fair access to spiritual resources." These include--this gets a bit murky--"a sense of purpose, a sense of opportunity, a sense of community, a strong family ethic, a strong work ethic, and high self-esteem."

Well. If the conquest of economic necessity means more time for reflection and introspection, education may be a spiritual as well as economic good. (Fogel says the democratization of education "may have been the largest socialist enterprise in history: the transfer from the rich to the poor and the middle classes of a form of capital that exceeds the value of all privately held land and industrial capital, human capital.") But Fogel's book does not really make the case for a new political agenda of government-distributed "immaterial" goods.

Rather, it explains the continuing attenuation of political intensity. If Americans increasingly have time and--Fogel does not prove this part--inclination for "self-realization" through reflection, this is grand news, but does not entail new government duties.

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