The Great American Decline

If you’re worried that American’s widening inequality gap could cause fission the country’s social fabric, don’t worry. According to the Gini coefficient America still isn’t as asymmetrical as Namibia. George Packer examines some of the causes of this phenomenon, the one in America that is, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs – b/t/w, they have a subscription firewall.

As good writers tend to do, Packer raises lots of good points and generally presents a thoughtfully nuanced account of America’s current trajectory. Nevertheless, if we reduce his argument to a simple cause and effect, the main cause of America’s increasing stratification is the influence of money and lobbyists on the American legislative process. Packer argues that the slow deterioration of America’s social contract with itself can be traced back to 1978 when Washington began tipping toward the ideologically rigid construction experienced so head-shakingly and painfully today.

Of course, as Packer admits, choosing “any time frame has an element of arbitrariness, and also contains the beginning of a theory.” Nevertheless it was around this time that America saw its roughly egalitarian post-war social system begin to erode.

There are, elephant in the room, a few problems with this theory. 1) Post-war America, to put it mildly, wasn’t all that cool if you were something or someone other than a white male. 2) If alarming inequality also persisted before WWI, which Packer does admit cursorily, then shouldn’t the period of post-war America be considered an outlier rather than some kind of forgotten rock in America’s social and moral past? And that essentially the curve of American history (it just sounds so trite to say ‘arc’ here), and perhaps history in general, has always tended toward exploitation and stratification. In this reading then, the issues underlying American inequalities are much deeper than the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act or the establishment and increased use of carried-interest.

Feelings of nostalgia are tricky (and admittedly Packer too alludes to this issue in his article). Etymologically, the word refers to something like the aching or longing for a return home. But surely Packer can’t be arguing that we ought to go back to the 1950s, when executives only earned 40 times (and not 400 times) the salary of their lowliest employees.

Obviously this kind of simplistic return to a world lost isn’t what Packer means. Instead, he seems to argue for something like a return to values lost. Not the values of keeping the other down, but the values of community membership, the values of an awareness and recognition of the other.  And although at one point he defends his argument with the eyebrow-raising and unsubstantiated assertion that “[i]n movies from the 1940s and 1950s, bankers are dull, solid pillars of the community,” he still raises a good point here.

It’s not just that the wall between investment banks and commercial banks collapsed leading to a massive rise in speculation and the establishment of a theoretical, or option-run, or derivative economy. It’s that along with it grew the ethos of individuality and the political system of interest groups. The notion of individuality became bloated all out of proportion leaving a kind of inchoate individual unrecognizable to its necessary corollary, the ‘we’ of American society – the ‘us’ of the world – in which all individuals are embedded.

The difficulty, however, with Packer basically curtaining his argument in an idealized past in which bankers cheered at little-league fields and showed up at PTA meetings is that it obviates that which must not be obviated when talking about something as tricky and intangible as values, especially American values. And that is the idea of the rugged individual scything his way through an uncompromising wilderness. For every King or Lincoln couched in the American psyche lies a Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford – i.e., individuals who built a nation with their bare, calloused paws.

In this reading, the civil rights movement didn’t emerge through a gradual collective awakening through the tireless work of thousands going as far back as John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Quakerism and perhaps further; it began with Rosa Parks. The invention of the mouse wasn’t the result of a community of innovators at Xerox PARC, it was the singular prescience of Steve Jobs. Hagiography is more easily written than history.

Like Janus, American values point in two contending directions.* There is the individual, and there is the social. Too often, and going back much further than 1978, the efforts and impacts of the individual are elevated over and above the group. Perhaps it’s because it makes for an easier narrative, perhaps it’s because America is and likely always will be a nation of immigrants infused with the frontier mentality.

I don’t know. These are just some ideas. But what I would love is a few intellectually rigorous and lobby-disinterested members of Congress. We need a few. In fact, as I’ve been arguing here, we probably need a whole lot more than a few. Because another lesson of the past three years, maybe the most obvious and at the same time disappointing lesson, has been that no one individual can save us. Not even one as apparently intellectually rigorous and communally aware as Obama.

* To be fair, American values point in innumerable directions. But by using the simple dichotomy of the individual and the social, they become easier to talk about. Hopefully this isn’t an example of the kind of reduction to simplicity that otherwise ought to be avoided. And yes, I read a lot of Hegel in college.

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