Two political thinkers, a liberal and a conservative, believe America is headed toward inexorable decline. There are good reasons to believe they’re both wrong.
For example, economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show in their book, The Race Between Education and Technology, how critical the development of open, free, relatively gender-neutral public schooling was to our economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, allowing us to surge past our European competitors. For Murray, the only thing about public schooling of that era that deserves a mention is the heavy-handed McGuffey Readers—not so much because they taught kids to read (an ancillary benefit, apparently) but because they inculcated the proper virtues into America’s polyglot population.
More risible still is Murray’s depiction of 1950s America as some sort of classless utopia. He treats problems like rural poverty, urban ghettos, racism, the subordinate position of blacks, women, and gays, and so on as just minor footnotes to an almost perfectly functioning society. And he certainly doesn’t believe class divisions were much of an issue back then— after all, the fabulously rich heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post may have lived in a somewhat bigger house than most Americans, but (at least according to Murray) she ate the same chow and read the same best sellers. Clearly Murray is seeing what he wants to see in fifties society, and only what he wants to see.
But his view of society since the 1950s is radically different. He throws away his rose-colored spectacles and now can see nothing but class and inequality. Indeed, his relentless focus on this problem and some of the economic trends he documents would not be out of place coming from a liberal think tank or academic. Yet that overlap has not led him to pay the slightest attention to the careful work these think tanks and academics have done analyzing the growth in inequality. Murray dismisses out of hand explanations rooted in structural shifts in the economy, slower growth in educational attainment, changes in labor market institutions (unions, the minimum wage), or really anything other than increasing rewards for smart people and declining morals for dumb people. This is no more believable than his Panglossian view of 1950s America.
Perhaps he senses that his analysis is a bit less than completely convincing once he strays from documentation (for example, the top 20 percent are growing away from the bottom 30 percent—hardly big news) to explanation. He admits that some of his cultural claims are necessarily anecdotal, relying on the work of social commentators like David Brooks, whose generalizations, he says, are consistent with his own. If that doesn’t provide sufficient comfort to readers, he urges them to reject or accept his account based on their own experience. In other words, if it seems right, it must be right. Murray even provides a pseudoscientific questionnaire so readers can assess their own “class” position, as defined by Murray. As we used to say back in graduate school: Garbage in, garbage out.
Wrong diagnosis inevitably leads to wrong prognosis, and so it is with Murray. If an unfolding process of concentrated cognitive ability at the top and declining morals at the bottom is not the origin story of today’s inequality, then the inevitable future decline of American society seems less obvious. Better policy might actually make a difference. Government might actually have a role to play. People might actually benefit from having more education and opportunities to get ahead. (Murray believes we’ve already soaked up all the smart people, so more education would be like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.) In short, Murray’s variant on Amero-pessimism is not justified.
Nor is Edsall’s—though, again, for different reasons. Edsall’s analysis is generally more closely connected to Planet Earth, and he correctly emphasizes the political dimension to today’s unequal economic outcomes. Where he goes off the rails is his blanket acceptance of the most pessimistic assessments of today’s trends coming from different and usually contradictory quarters. He fully accepts the negative verdict on economic trends promulgated by the Economic Policy Institute and other left-leaning groups. But then he tacks to the center and completely embraces the themes of centrist pundits like Thomas Friedman who see both parties as completely incapable of compromise and meaningful policy reforms (though Edsall is especially hard on the Republicans). Perhaps most damaging, however, he repeats, in the gloomiest possible tones, the predictions of various deficit hawks on the coming debt crisis that will bring America to its knees—predictions that the EPI and Paul Krugman, among others, have done their best to debunk.
Call it the austerity assumption: America will grow slowly. America will have high structural unemployment. America’s ratio of debt to GDP will spiral out of control. America will be forced to cut lots of stuff. The parties will fight over what stuff to cut. Not enough stuff will be cut and things will get worse, necessitating more cuts and more fighting. You get the picture. No way out!
But what if the austerity assumption is incorrect? What if America’s fiscal situation is difficult but not intractable? What if slow growth is not locked in and high unemployment is not structural? What if, in short, the extraordinary depth of our current problems is driven in large part by cyclical factors that are likely to improve?
If so, the extraordinary “brutality”— Edsall’s term—of current politics might subside as well. He implicitly admits this when discussing Arizona and some other cases where the rise in political brutality tracks very closely with the deterioration of the economy. It follows logically that if the economy improves, brutality will subside.
But Edsall doesn’t seem to believe that more growth is possible, that the current expansion could get stronger, or that better policies could make much difference. Looked at in, say, a six-month time frame, these beliefs might appear reasonable. Looked at in broad historical context, however, they seem excessively pessimistic. There have been other periods of American history with high inequality, and they have been followed by periods of compressed inequality; other periods of slow growth have been followed by periods of faster growth. And during some of these periods— notably in the late 1800s—visions of America’s deteriorating, bitterly divided future were even more apocalyptic than that predicted by Edsall (though he gives them a run for their money). Those visions were proved wrong; Edsall’s is likely to be proved wrong as well.
The same can be said for his vision of an ever more coarse and brutal politics that accomplishes nothing. Sure, again, over six months that may sound plausible. Stretched out over the long term, however, it is less so, and not just because the economy is likely to improve. As Edsall observes several times in his book, the demographic underpinning of the Republican coalition—the chief perpetrators, in his view, of political brutality—are eroding, while that of the Democratic coalition is growing. He seems to assume that these changes will be neutralized by the ongoing resource war and the ability of Republicans to squeeze more votes out of affluent whites. But that is far more compelling as a short-term analysis than a long-term one. Change is coming, and it is not always for the worse.
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