“There is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly ‘bowling alone,’ ‘coming apart,’ and inhabiting a ‘fractured republic.’ At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.
Lee’s report focuses on a decline in “associational life” — marriage, church membership, volunteering, etc. — and blames prosperity: “[R]ising affluence has made associational life less necessary for purposes of gaining material benefits …”
True enough. But I’d also blame this chart, which I’ve come to think is the most important chart around when it comes to explaining contemporary politics, including Trump:
It’s not just that wages for many have been stagnant. It’s that their increase or decrease has taken on a vicious meritocratic bias. Well-educated Americans are still doing well. Uneducated Americans are actually doing worse — they’re dropping out of the bottom of the pack.
It’s hard to see how traditional American-style social equality — everyone’s equal, not only in the eyes of God or before the law but in the eyes of each other — can survive many more decades of this chart. It’s one thing if the rich get richer — I’d argue there isn’t a hard, Marxist connection between income tables and a sense of social superiority. (Would you let any of these guys butt in front of you in line?) It’s another if a whole group of Americans — increasingly identifiable by dress, appearance and language — keeps getting tossed into the economic trashcan. *** I’ve had more than one conversation out here in West Los Angeles in which the topic of heartland working-class decline comes up and the explicit response from one of my friends is, “Fuck ’em.” (The only-sometimes-explicit rest of the response is “… if they’re too stupid to move or go to school.”)
Social equality isn’t “community” or “social capital.” You could have a perfectly socially equal society of monads who never talked to each other but merely tipped their hats out of respect when they passed on the street. But in a nation where community institutions — schools, churches, highways, ball games — are built on an egalitarian basis, the introduction of vicious class divisions isn’t going to help. Who wants to associate with a bunch of losers whose children will only drag down your kids’ SAT scores (and push them onto a lower meritocratic track)?
More simply: If, as Robert Putnam suggests, ethnic divisions cause a decline in social trust, the meritocratic split is yet another division that has to be overcome. Maybe a bigger division. It’s probably easier for ethnic Chinese software developers to associate with Caucasian software developers (I see it every day in my neighborhood) than for Caucasian software developers to associate with Caucasian car wash attendants.
True, each educational class might develop its own associational life, the way ethnic groups traditionally developed their own groups (Knights of Columbus, etc.). But it might take a long time. It’s also the stuff of neo-feudal dystopias. (When will the Betas and Zetas revolt?)
Which is another way of saying that community and “social capital’ aren’t everything.
*** — That’s why I’m obsessed with immigration, which may explain a third of “the recent decline in the relative wages of less-educated native workers.” It’s the easiest lever we have to pull (easier than reversing trade patterns, or halting automation). Controlling competition from cheap imported labor isn’t a full solution, but in itself it could cause a surge in unskilled wages — something that may already be happening.