David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “August, 2021”

How the Class War Ends

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks authored an essay in The Atlantic entitled “How the Bobos Broke America.” Now, if you’re like me, the first thing that pops into your head when you read that title is “What the hell is a bobo?” And this kind of makes his point. Bobos are the so-called “creative class,” the educated elite. The journalists, the scientists, the information technology specialists, the architects. Brooks himself is one of them, and he can’t help but notice that the institutions these people frequent have lost a lot of the trust they once had. The bobos don’t connect with “ordinary” folks. Even the term bobo, which was created by a bobo, namely Brooks, is unfamiliar to working class Americans.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg 'survives' leadership vote - BBC News

The bobos, unlike the conservative elite that dominated the ruling class before them, seem to value justice, equality, and tolerance. The problem is that their actions only seem to amplify inequality and alienate the working class. They cluster together in high-tech communities and drive up housing costs. More than anything, they promote meritocracy. And it is becoming increasingly clear that meritocracy is tearing America apart.

On its face, meritocracy seems beneficial and logical. Martin Luther King famously said that he dreamed of the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Many of us have grown up believing that in an ideal society, discrimination would only be based on merit. That’s fair, right? Merit. If you win, fair and square, that’s good. If you lose, fair and square, that’s fine too.

When Martin Luther King Jr. visited Brandeis | BrandeisNOW

Only it’s not fine. The meritocracy merely becomes one more excuse to maintain, even amplify, injustice, inequality, and intolerance. Even if the criteria for inclusion and exclusion are “fair,” what does it matter if it increases human suffering? If meritocracy is the way to go, why doesn’t it apply to voting? Shouldn’t voting be a privilege that has to be earned? One person, one vote is imposed equality. Equality is imposed because each person should have an equal chance to control their own life. But when it comes to economics, which have just as big an influence on one’s life, we accept meritocracy.

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The result of America’s meritocracy is that one person gets a first class ticket and 10 others get lifetimes of struggle. As Brooks puts it, the meritocracy “determines who gets included in the upper echelons of society and who gets excluded; who gets an escalator ride to premier status and worldly success and who faces a wall.” The bobos ended up protecting their privilege just as assiduously, if not more so, than the WASP elites that preceded them. Working class America gets the shaft. “Some 60 years after its birth, the meritocracy seems more and more morally vacuous,” Brooks concedes. “Does the ability to take tests when you’re young make you a better person than others? Does a society built on that ability become more just and caring?”

F.D.R. Proposes a Second Bill of Rights: A Decent Job, Education & Health  Care Will Keep Us Free from Despotism (1944) | Open Culture

The last section of Brooks’ essay is entitled “How the Class War Ends.” His solution is partly economic: Close the income gap and provide good jobs to people without college degrees. But Brooks goes farther. He maintains that the meritocracy itself, the sorting mechanism that leaves so many behind, must change dramatically. I think he’s right. But this is really no different than what Franklin Roosevelt envisioned with his Second Bill of Rights. That every American would be guaranteed the basics so that they can strive for the privileges. A decent home. A decent job. Decent health care. A decent education. No one should have to have a college degree in order to have access to the basics.

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Where Brooks and I probably differ is on what has been the real instigator of America’s vast inequality. The bobos may have played a big role in maintaining it, but it was Ronald Reagan who gave us the church of the almighty trickle-down. It was Ronald Reagan who led the country into a profound distrust of government and the degradation of public spaces. And only by breaking the back of Reaganomics will we be able to restore trust. Brooks speaks of a society in which people are rewarded for the ability to work in teams, to sacrifice for the common good, to be honest, kind, and trustworthy. It is precisely the public good that has been allowed to wither in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, and only a self-conscious national movement is going to restore it.

Sloan Science & Film

To me the meritocracy is much like eugenics, an idea that was once popular and seemed very reasonable to many smart people. Like eugenics, the meritocracy seeks to improve life by sorting people. And like eugenics, it ends up increasing human misery. I have to judge it by its results. It doesn’t work. People have to be able to trust their government, their schools, and their scientists. Exclusion and massive inequality create resentment. The meritocracy has to go.

Income Inequality - Inequality.org

I do not mean that privileges should be eradicated. As I have said before, I don’t really care how much wealth Jeff Bezos controls. What I care about, and what I think Brooks cares about, is that we have a healthy middle class in which people don’t have to struggle just for the basics. You can’t adequately compete for the privileges if you have to constantly struggle just for the basics. Everyone should be guaranteed the basics. That’s how the class war ends.

Rural America Continues to Hollow Out

The new census data are out, and they clearly show the continuation, if not the acceleration, of a trend that has been apparent for a few decades now: Rural America is slowly hollowing out. Although the vast majority of states saw population increases, in many cases these were quite modest. The population of my home state of Louisiana, for example, increased only 2.7% in 10 years. 22 states saw increases of less than 5%, and 3 states saw declines.

What is more significant is that the vast majority of the increases were concentrated in urban and suburban areas, with particular locations being focal points. Huge swaths of middle America are slowly losing population. 76% of the 105 counties in Kansas lost population, and almost half saw declines of more than 5%. In my home state of Louisiana, 72% of parishes lost population, and 42% lost more than 5%. Even in the Northeast, rural areas generally lost population.

Meanwhile, many cities saw increases, some quite dramatic. Florida and Texas were particularly noteworthy. Austin, Houston, the Orlando metro area, and the coastal cities of the Florida peninsula saw dramatic increases. Osceola County, just south of Orlando, increased 45%. Hays County, just south of Austin, increased 53%. Strikingly, Los Angeles County in California increased only 2%. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, containing the city of Cleveland, actually declined 2%.

A prevalent media narrative has it that Californians are abandoning the state in large numbers, while Texas is growing rapidly. But a closer look reveals that most of Texas is slowly depopulating. While the big cities in Texas grow rapidly, white rural Texas is losing population. Most rural Texas counties have seen population declines exceeding 5%. Many have declined more than 15% in just 10 years. Meanwhile, in California only 11 counties have seen population declines, and only 4 of these have exceeded 5%. These are concentrated in the northern, rural part of the state, which is overwhelmingly white.

In another 10 years, many baby boomers will be gone. The white population of America is already declining and this will accelerate. The rural/urban divide has largely become a partisan divide in America, and the increasing urbanization of the country means big trouble for Republicans. Texas is already majority non-white, and non-whites in Texas are overwhelmingly Democratic. Texas will soon gain 2 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and there will be a huge battle over redistricting in that state. Texas will likely be the focal point of a national shift in politics over the next 20 years. It is virtually inevitable that at some point Texas will turn blue, probably by 2030. When Texas turns blue, it will be over for the Republican party nationally.

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