The Cultural Divide Explains the Economic One
Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece about “The New American Divide“:
People are starting to notice the great divide. The tea party sees the aloofness in a political elite that thinks it knows best and orders the rest of America to fall in line. The Occupy movement sees it in an economic elite that lives in mansions and flies on private jets. Each is right about an aspect of the problem, but that problem is more pervasive than either political or economic inequality. What we now face is a problem of cultural inequality.
When Americans used to brag about “the American way of life”—a phrase still in common use in 1960—they were talking about a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace. It was a culture encompassing shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.
Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America’s core cultural institutions.
A companion piece illustrates this divide with a number of charts.
The piece goes into great detail about how we got here, but sets that aside as so much water under the bridge now. Instead, the focus is on a prescription for shrinking the gap. It’s not a massive, structured plan. Instead, it centers on changing attitudes.
There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices….America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.
Such priorities can be expressed in any number of familiar decisions: the neighborhood where you buy your next home, the next school that you choose for your children, what you tell them about the value and virtues of physical labor and military service, whether you become an active member of a religious congregation (and what kind you choose) and whether you become involved in the life of your community at a more meaningful level than charity events.
Everyone in the new upper class has the monetary resources to make a wide variety of decisions that determine whether they engage themselves and their children in the rest of America or whether they isolate themselves from it. The only question is which they prefer to do.
I wonder if it’s too late.
ADDENDUM: I had this piece by Michael Gerson filed in my “to do bin”. It’s related:
Conservatives naturally focus on equal opportunity rather than on equal outcomes. But equality of opportunity is a more radical concept than we generally concede. It is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. It depends on healthy families and cohesive communities. But opportunity also depends on effective government — on public safety, public education and public health. Governmental overreach can undermine other important social institutions. Yet the retreat of government does not automatically restore them to health.
Liberals often fail to recognize that income redistribution, while preventing penury, is not identical to social equality. The main challenge of poverty is not a lack of consumption but a lack of social capital — measured in skills and values — and of opportunity. Addressing these problems is more complex than increasing marginal tax rates, particularly when revenue is used to cover the increasing costs of non-means-tested entitlement programs. The structure of the modern welfare state is not focused on empowering the poor. Instead, it has increased the percentage of government transfer payments that go to middle- and upper-income seniors.
On all sides, the poverty debate can be paralyzed by an obsession with fundamental causes. A failing community is a puzzle box of interconnected failures. Globalization and technology put downward pressure on wages and lead to stagnant labor markets. Permissive cultural norms encourage family breakdown and self-destructive behavior. Complaining about the rise of China or the decline of morality can be satisfying. But cosmic explanations can be obstacles to action.
Read all of it. For a more local view (both in problems and potential ideas, read this post (and the discussion) by “Frymaster” over at the resuscitated RI Future.