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A Sense of the “We”

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a line of children at the ice cream truck separated by a velvet rope from a rather large and prosperous looking man.  While they wait, he is being served next to a sign that reads, “Platinum elite line.”  Meanwhile, The New York Times reports on the “arms race” going on at the major airlines to compete for wealthy travelers, or for travelers whose tickets are paid for by well-heeled corporations.  “The race to build a better business class” describes Lufthansa’s multi-billion dollar investment in seats that pamper the elite traveler with every creature comfort imaginable.  To accommodate the extra size and weight, seats in coach are getting narrower and lighter, the rows pushed closer together, and the cushioning reduced and, in some cases, replaced altogether by mesh akin to what is found in some contemporary office chairs.

Airlines need to make a profit, and transatlantic travel has always been segmented by class since the great ocean liners packed immigrants in steerage while the wealthy class dined in style above.  The deeper concern here is that the elite line at the ice cream truck and the accelerating decline in comfort for most air travelers in the back of the plane serve as perfect metaphors for what is happening in today’s American society at large. 

Just last week The Times reported that wages and salaries of U.S. workers today make up the smallest percentage of total GDP since 1929, while corporate profits after taxes now comprise the largest percentage of GDP since 1929.  The recession was actually good for corporations; in the three years from 2005 through 2007, corporate profits were 1.5 percentage points lower than the years 2010 through 2012.  Meanwhile, the share going to workers was 1.1 percentage points higher before the recession than after.  As for tax relief, the rallying cry of conservatives?  Corporate taxes as a percentage of corporate profits are ten percentage points below what they were in 2000 and eleven points below the historic average from 1960 to 2012.  At the same time, personal taxes as a percentage of personal income are about 3 points below what they were in 2000, and just one point below the historic average since 1960.  Guess who’s winning in today’s America?

In two poignant essays published this month, economist Joseph Stiglitz and social scientist Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone, American Grace) document the impact of the collapse of American manufacturing and the subsequent loss of social capital across the rust belt cities.  Drawing on their own experience growing up in Gary, Indiana and Port Clinton, Ohio, Stiglitz and Putnam describe the impact of the decline in manufacturing jobs from a quarter of the country’s workforce when they were growing up to fewer than eight percent today.  As well paying factory jobs vanished, the portrait of places like Gary, Port Clinton, and Detroit was altered dramatically.  Putnam writes,

My hometown – Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 – was in the 1950’s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.  But a half century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live.  The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare.  And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America.

The “well-knit but modest working-class families” provided a platform for countless children to head off to college at affordable state and private institutions.  And a whole system of social support, formal and informal, provided both encouragement and an expansive horizon of expectations that propelled many young people toward advancement and success. 

Today the mostly white suburban enclaves insulate the economically privileged from the abandoned poor of crumbling cities and create what Stiglitz calls a “trend toward self-reinforcing inequality” that manifests itself particularly in public education, “an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility.”  Poorer schools get poorer under current school funding patterns, encouraging even more to flee to the suburbs, and the economic divide grows ever larger.  A few short miles from downtown Detroit, today’s poster child for the destruction of the American dream, median household income is $125,000, while less than an hour away in Ann Arbor sits one of the elite research universities in the country.  Next door to Port Clinton along the Lake Erie shoreline the new upper class is evident in gated communities.  In upscale Catawba, the child poverty rate is one percent; a few hundred yards inland it is just over fifty percent.

Those good manufacturing jobs are not coming back.  But the current patterns of urban abandonment are not inevitable.  Public policies can either accelerate “self-reinforcing inequality,” or seek to reverse it.  Investments can be made in quality urban public education rather than a relentless pattern of school closings, increased class sizes, and the thrall of charter privatization.  Minimum wages can be increased toward living wages for people working in the “new” economy of restaurant and retail stores.  The safety net can be strengthened.

But all of this requires the recovery of what Putnam calls “the sense of we” in which all of us have a stake in the future of all of our children.  It is this “radically shriveled sense of “we” that Putnam sees at the root of the crumbling of the American dream and reversing this loss of the “we” is crucial if we want to restore the future to all of America’s children.  That can’t mean gutting the pensions of Detroit’s public employees who receive an average of $1,600 a month in order to protect bond holders from losses.  That can’t mean maintaining school funding patterns that have forced massive school closings and employee layoffs in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia.  That can’t mean accepting “sequesters” that eliminate poor children from early childhood education or tax cuts that starve public universities, forcing them to price themselves out of the reach of even the middle class. That can’t mean undermining the power of organized labor which has historically supported living wages along with health care and retirement benefits.  That can’t mean further evisceration of the safety net for the very poor including massive cuts in food stamps or halving the budget for Community Development Block Grants as the Republican House budget proposes.

Port Clinton and Gary will never look like the communities that launched Robert Putnam and Joseph Stiglitz from modest homes toward distinguished professional careers and economic security.  But they need not remain holes of human devastation in the midst of suburban prosperity.  What’s required is a restoration of the sense of the “we” in America.  Right now it seems very much under siege.  And unless we confront this, America will more and more resemble the evolving airliner where the few recline in extravagant comfort up front, wined and dined with luggage checked for free, while the rest endure ever more discomfort in the back, paying for their miserable snacks and checked bags and enjoying the ambiance of overused lavatories.

John H. Thomas
August 15, 2013

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