A Note on Russell’s Fascinating Renegade History of the US

I recently watched a video of historian Thaddeus Russell giving a lecture based on his book A Renegade History of the United States. The historical aspects of the lecture were quite fascinating – history that I had never been taught in school.

A few main takeaways:

– Many aspects of our culture we take for granted today in fact originated from the “lowlife” of society – prostitutes, slackers, drunkards, and criminals.

– These cultural phenomena were wrested from a society committed to the Puritanical work ethic.

– The way to change law is to change culture – and that’s what the shameless of the past have done.

I recommend watching it if you have 45 minutes (1h 25 mins total with the questions at the end) – they will be minutes well spent:

Besides making a pitch for watching the speech (note: I do not necessarily support the normative suggestions he has for society), I wanted to share an email that I wrote to him (mainly) on his point about labor regulations and hours of labor supplied by workers in Europe:

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Hi,

My name is Michael (I’m an Econ and Comp Sci undergraduate) and I just finished watching the lecture that you gave to NHLF based on your book. I found the lecture to be quite fascinating (and did shed a tear or two at a point), but I wanted to make a quick note of disagreement (about which I could be wrong, of course). You mention in the lecture that one of the reasons why people work less in Europe might be due to labor regulation, but you wave off that reasoning. From what I understand, however, government policy can have a significant effect on labor supplied by workers. A quick overview of the ideas can be seen here:

Glossing over the details, changes in the relative tax rates between the US and European nations over the last decades can do a good job of explaining changes in labor supplied (that is, both the theory predicts the outcome we see and the empirics fit well in the theory).

So I wouldn’t brush aside government policy and labor regulation so easily. (More on this later).

There is another point that I wanted to make on the same topic: I’m European, though I was in elementary school when I left to come to the US. My parents, however, have told me much about their experiences, and I generally believe their observations, which are that Europe has a much more rigid social structure that does allow for as much class mobility. To get ahead, you have to know someone or cheat in some way. As such, the work workers put in simply wouldn’t be worth it, and so they work less. They have no “American Dream” to keep them going (so to speak). They’ve settled into a crappy state of affairs.

Moreover, this might have weird interaction with the tax policy effects mentioned earlier. That is, it might be that Europe has long had a history of lack of social mobility, which has given them fewer incentives to work. But also, it could be that their labor policy has been so bad for so long that their previous Puritanical morals could have been worn down, since they saw that work didn’t yield anything. So it’s not that they’re enlightened – just worn down by a long history of bad policy.

What are your thoughts?

Another question: The way I explain things to myself, morality and the Puritanical work ethic might have been necessary in pre-industrial society in order to have your children survive, no? Life was grueling work at a farm with uncertain crop yields due to unpredictable weather – if your children slacked off, they (and you in your old age) could die. Hence, when society was agrarian and with no capital structure (that is, stuck in the world of Malthus), they needed to teach kids that work was an end in itself – because that’s the only way they could survive.

And lastly: Are the thoughts presented in your lecture consistent with the evolution of the same social phenomena in places outside the US? That is, did the weekend, acceptance of bright clothes, etc. arise in places that are not in the US in the same way – by being introduced by “lowlifes?” Or were these ideas exported from the US?

In any case – I found the historical content of your lecture quite good (even if I haven’t had enough time to ponder over your normative suggestions for society).

Cheers,
-Michael

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The speech/lecture has a lot of other gold nuggets and is well worth a watch.

P.S. Teaching material along these lines got him kicked out of the profession: Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History

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