“The Ideals and Sacred Things of the City:” Culture, Power and America’s Class Divide

4.11.12 | Last night I finished reading “The Real Romney,” an in-depth biography of the life and work of our likely Republican nominee for president. The book was co-written by my friend, Boston Globe Reporter Scott Helman and his colleague Michael Kranish, and it was fascinating on a lot of fronts, especially the account of Romney’s Mormon ancestry.  But the piece that is sticking with me today is the detailed account of how Romney accumulated vast wealth during his time leading the private equity firm Bain Capital.  The glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of leveraged buyout deals was very new for me, and the numbers were just astounding, with Romney and his colleagues pulling in millions on deal after deal, seemingly overnight.

Whether you believe in this kind of unfettered capitalism or not, the morality of one man having so much while other families struggle to put food on the table is surely up for debate.  The book provides a nice segway into the questions BRR Network member Bill Barnes asks in a series of columns he has published on class and inequality in America at National League of Cities.

“[I]s inequality an inevitable offshoot of globalization and capitalism?” Barnes asks. “How much inequality is too much?” and  “Are there roles here for government?”

Writing in The New York Times this weekend, Jason DeParle unpacks what happened to low-income families in the years since the U.S. ended welfare as we knew it and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program in 1997. The program introduced time limits, work requirements and encouraged states to drop poor families from the welfare roles. DeParle examines how low-income families – single mothers mostly – without cash assistance or jobs made ends meet during the recession, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow,” he writes.

The stories are hard to get through, but juxtaposed with the intimate detailed accounting of Romney’s back room corporate deals, they are almost obscene.

But Bill Barnes says wisely that we should look to social science, to “facts and analyses” to help understand the values we hold as a society and, in turn, what policy choices should come from those values – what, as Barnes says, the classic Athenian Oath refers to as “the Ideals and Sacred Things of the City.”

Barnes argues that our debates need to get beyond class warfare, finger pointing, and the kind of polarization that characterizes our current policy debates, he says, certainly the presidential one.

Barnes details the often-cited structural explanations for inequality in America: “wages have stagnated, even declined in real terms since the early 1970s; capital increased its portion of national income versus labor; outcomes for blacks and Latinos lag those for whites; the ‘middle class’ shrank; residential segregation by income sharply increased.”

But, importantly, Barnes argues in these posts that there is a role for policy in mitigating (or producing) the inequalities of capitalism. We don’t have to accept a country where children dig in the trash or mothers have to sell their blood to feed their families. There is something we can do about it.

But inequality is not solely or even mainly the result of economic factors or impersonal forces beyond our control. 

Public policy can produce inequality as well as mitigate it. 

Policy produces the so-called safety net.
 Policy also produces the rules of the game that skew benefits upward through the class structure.

In posts that follow, Barnes reviews two recent books on inequality and class division in the United States  – Thomas Byrne Edsall’s “The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics” and in a post this week, Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” both of which, in Barnes’ view, offer a gloomy, almost apocalyptic view of the future of the nation. But Barnes’ posts are useful in helping to understand that which divides us and to think through how to move forward.

We have a responsibility, Barnes argues, to try to clarify the relationships between our problems before we “enlist in all-out wars about specific solutions.”

Thomas Edsall is professor of journalism at Columbia University. His book focuses on electoral politics and policy consequences. He argues that limited resources in these tight economic times are changing American politics and the United States itself. He sees increasing political polarization that is connected to the rise in income inequality dating from the mid 1970’s.

Barnes finds Edsall’s partisan take to be smart but most persuasive when he’s “doing hard-headed analysis of how electoral politics and policy interact with collisions of issues like race, rights, immigration and taxes with ideology and values.”

In contrast, Charles Murray’s new book argues we are “coming apart at the seems” not because of power, or ethnicity, but because of culture and class.  According to Murray, the white working class has become increasingly alienated from what Murray calls “the founding virtues” of civic life. Murray focuses on only whites in his analyses to point to the fact that the trends he sees do not break down along lines of race.

Like his past work, this book has drawn criticism from the left, for his research methods and for his arguments that they say shift discussion away from joblessness or discrimination, for example, and onto the pathological behavior of low-income people.  (Murray received criticism after publishing “The Bell Curve” in 1994 for using IQ as a predicator of various social outcomes.)

But despite this, Barnes says there are arguments in Murray’s book that we can learn from:

Murray is wrong about American “exceptionalism”: it’s a sad, all too prevalent, bit of national preening. He is wrong to refuse to see the obvious roles that globalization and economic differences play in the formation of society, classes and individual behaviors. But his indignation about the insular smugness of the elite and his objection to the dysfunctional behaviors of both classes is useful. His claim that spatial and other separation matters is important.

He concludes that both of these authors force us to acknowledge “the nation’s troubles go far deeper than current economic woes. Both challenge readers to accept that reconciling the effects of half a century of fundamental economic shifts, social upheavals, and growing inequality is the rendezvous that is our destiny.”

You can read all of these posts at the Emerging Issues page at National League of Cities.

Photo by Ed Yourdon.

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