Sunday, November 20, 2011

Give Us Our Freedom Back

Kevin Drum reflects on a NY Times article on the pattern of economic segregation and polarization over the last few decades.
    "It was similar in my neighborhood. My father was a university professor. Our neighbor on one side worked at a local factory. Our neighbor on the other side owned a machine shop that made airplane parts. Our neighbor across the street was career Navy. My best friend's father was a Caltrans engineer.
    "You don't see that kind of thing as much anymore. Today the middle and working class folks have stayed or perhaps moved down, while the dentists and stockbrokers and professors and engineers all live together in upper middle class neighborhoods with great schools and great services. And this self-segregation works in other ways too. I remember reading once that if you have a college degree, the odds are that virtually all your friends do too. So I tested that once. At a party with about 20 of our friends, I mentally went around the room and ticked off each person. Sure enough, all but one of them had a college degree, and about a third had advanced degrees of one kind or another. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the report finds that 65% of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 1970 and today only 44% do."
He finishes his piece without any suggestions for either what might have caused the problematic phenomenon, or what we might do about it.
It's a toxic trend, and it's one that's increasingly reflected not just in our social lives, but in our economic lives and our political lives too. It's not clear what, if anything, can slow it down.

I don't know that I can do much better.  There have obviously been major shifts both in culture and the economy in this period.  The right wing explanation for the phenomenon, as usual, avoids structural critiques and pins the blame on secularism, progressive loosening of mores, and well-intentioned yet ill-conceived government interventions, and of course, a basic lack of personal responsibility.  Government, it is claimed, has contributed to this breakdown in traditional values by removing moral hazard from personal responsibility, via welfare or other forms of social safety netting.

Charles Murray, darling of the right, and infamous author of the Bell Curve, which argued that some races are genetically superior in IQ to others, thus explaining disproportionate poverty rates, is coming out with a new book on the issue.  At a recent talk at the American Enterprise Institute, he expanded upon his thesis.  Conservative blogger Roger Selbert outlines Murray's description of the problem:
"Marriage: In 1960, 88% of the upper-middle class was married, versus 83% of the working class, a negligible 5% gap. Today, 83% of the upper-middle class is married, but among the working class, marriage has collapsed: only 48% are married. That’s a revolutionary change, as is the percentage of children born to working class single women (from 6% to nearly 50% in the last 50 years).
Industriousness: The percentage of working class males not in the workforce went from 5% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Among those with jobs, the percentage working less than 40 hours a week increased from 13% in 1960 to 21% in 2008.
Religiosity: The percentage of Americans saying they have no religion increased from 4% in 1972 to 21% in 2010. A substantial majority of the upper-middle class (58%) retains some meaningful form of religious involvement, whereas a substantial majority of the working class (61%) does not.
Honesty: The great increases in crime and incarceration over the past decades have overwhelmingly victimized working class communities, while hardly touching upper-middle class communities."
It's hard not to see this outline as a portrait of traditionalist, authoritarian values.  If people, it asks, were simply married, more industrious, religious and honest, they would be more successful.  What's missing, however, is a larger picture of social and economic realities.  While it is true that marriage is a valuable form of social capital, it isn't necessary for life success.  Divorce rates have obviously increased, especially among the working class, but this could just as well be explained by an increasing social consciousness and individual cultural independence that fosters dynamism.  Think of the added value successful women have brought to the workplace.

It isn't at all clear that iIndustrious as measured by declining work hours represents a lack of industriousness.  It is a well-known fact that many businesses purposefully limit their employees hours and rely on temporary labor to maximize profits.  This has had a devastating impact both on salaries and eligibility for health care.

While religion can be a powerfully motivating and empowering social institution, it can also severely limit free thought, again acting as a bulwark against the dynamism and social progress that is fundamental to economic growth.  A strong case can also be made that it is a fairy tale.  Useful maybe, but a fantasy nonetheless.

As for honesty, it isn't at all clear that working class people have become less honest.  If anything, crime is a function of social debasement and perceived lack of opportunity.  Blaming poverty on crime is like blaming a cold on a runny nose.

What seems to be at the root of this analysis his less an attempt to find explanations for rising inequality, and more about an attempt to reinforce and define traditionalist values and identity.  Amanda Marcotte speaks eloquently to this authoritarian obsession:

I won't pretend to have any good answers as to why income inequality and geographic and cultural isolation is happening, much less give anything more than an off-the-cuff prescription. But I would begin with looking at human social capital - those elements upon which real social mobility is always leveraged, and then look at structural issues that our system faces.  People have not chosen to become less successful, less honest, or less industrious.  Marriage as an institution has certainly weakened, but only as horizons for personal identity and ambition have risen.  Traditional careers, especially those in low-skill yet high-paying areas of the economy have disappeared.  Cultural, social criticism has grown, and people are less credulous.  We are less provincial, more expansive, less likely to have as much in common with our neighbors than we once might have.  Our system of property values has steadily solidified geographic "classification".

As I said, I'm not comfortable assigning causality, less comfortable prescribing solutions.  Yet we can ease these modern burdens: family planning, child care support, better access to health care, cleaner streets, parks, libraries, differentiated public schooling - all paid for with more progressive income taxes.  Each of these, while not a solution, is a clear path to increasing the equal distribution of social and human capital.  We cannot stop progress, whether for good or ill, but we can strive to fashion it into more of what is really important.  Instead of vainly crying for a nostalgic, rosy vision of the past, we must look to our core values of liberty, equality and egalitarianism, and embrace solutions that truly aid in their revivification.

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