15.2.16

WRECKAGE OR RENEWAL?

Start with signs of the wreckage.  Charles Murray, who has written extensively about social polarization and cultural rot, summarizes.
The new upper class consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. Both of these new classes have repudiated the American creed in practice, whatever lip service they may still pay to it.
The establishment, whatever its political leanings, becomes a cohort of people who believe they have been born booted and spurred to saddle and ride the people.
The members of the new upper class are seldom attracted to the films, TV shows and music that are most popular in mainstream America. They have a distinctive culture in the food they eat, the way they take care of their health, their child-rearing practices, the vacations they take, the books they read, the websites they visit and their taste in beer. You name it, the new upper class has its own way of doing it.

Another characteristic of the new upper class—and something new under the American sun—is their easy acceptance of being members of an upper class and their condescension toward ordinary Americans. Try using “redneck” in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs. Refer to “flyover country” and consider the implications when no one asks, “What does that mean?” Or I can send you to chat with a friend in Washington, D.C., who bought a weekend place in West Virginia. He will tell you about the contempt for his new neighbors that he has encountered in the elite precincts of the nation’s capital.

For its part, mainstream America is fully aware of this condescension and contempt and is understandably irritated by it.
Barbara Burt, observing the same events, from a different perspective, offers "ten reasons the [Democrat] establishment missed the boat."  Although she seems disappointment that Barack Hussein Obama was unable to fundamentally transform the United States into another case of Eurosclerosis, some of her points harmonize with Mr Murray's observations.
If those in the one percent live a comfortable, safe life, they don’t feel the frustration experienced by the less lucky when dealing with the daily hassles of hamstrung government. Underfunded schools? Lousy transportation alternatives? Environmental hazards? Crumbling infrastructure? Ineffective (or worse) policing? Government at all levels seems unable to provide services that communities require to thrive. And because the problems have grown so big and feel so unsurmountable, incremental change—as a process within the current system—appears impossibly slow and easily diverted. To use a favorite phrase of the elite, what’s needed is “disruption” of that failed system. Well, out in the land, there’s a definite appetite for disruption, born out of despair.
Disruption, as I understand it, is emergent and not likely to be advanced, whether by the suits expecting it or by the commissars willing it, through sheer force of will.

Perhaps it's out there, but in the form of multiple flowers blooming, some of which will not survive the spring.  James Fallows recently went plane-hopping around the United States, in his own plane, which offers a different perspective from that obtained on the look-alike interstates, or from forty thousand feet, or from a train window.
From only 2,500 feet higher up, the interstates look like ribbons that trace narrow paths across landscape that is mostly far beyond the reach of any road. From ground level, America is mainly road—after all, that’s where cars can take you. From the sky, America is mainly forest in the eastern third, farmland in the middle, then mountain and desert in the west, before the strip of intense development along the California coast. It’s also full of features obvious from the sky that are much harder to notice from the ground (and difficult to pick out from six miles up in an airliner): quarries at the edge of most towns, to provide gravel for roads and construction sites; prisons, instantly identifiable by their fencing (though some mega high schools can look similar), usually miles from the nearest town or tucked in locations where normal traffic won’t pass by. I never tire of the view from this height, as different from the normal, grim airliner perspective as scuba diving is from traveling on a container ship.
He went looking for emergence, which meant getting out of the usual boxes.
We wanted to hear about cities whose recent dramas might reveal something about the economic and cultural resilience of the United States. I asked about cities that had suffered some kind of economic, political, environmental, or other hardship during the financial crash or earlier, and whose response was instructive in either good or bad ways. I said we were looking for “smaller” cities, by which I really meant anything less famous than the big stylish centers of the East and West Coasts. I also said that we definitely were not looking for the merely “quaint,” the kitschy touches of Americana such as the little town showcasing the world’s largest ball of twine. Nor were we looking for “undiscovered gems” or entries on a list of ideal low-budget retirement sites. Rather we hoped to treat seriously parts of flyover territory that usually made the news only after a natural or man-made disaster, or as primary-campaign or swing-state locations during presidential-election years.
It's not flyover country when there's a general aviation airport nearby.

The excursion is a work in progress, but Mr Fallows has already put together provisional stylized facts, in the form of eleven signs a city will succeed.  The high concept Big Project stuff the coastal talking heads natter about aren't among them.  Here are a few of the signs.
For a “young” country like the United States, surprisingly many cities still have “good bones,” the classic Main Street–style structures built from the late 1800s through World War II. In the mall-and-freeway decades after the war, some of these buildings were razed and many more were abandoned or disfigured with cheap aluminum fronts.
Those buildings emerged as the cities grew. The technocratic mania accompanying the Interstate Highway System, comprehensive land-use planning, and corporate rent-seeking has left nothing comparable that can continue in its original use or be cheaply adapted to some other use.
Research universities have become the modern counterparts to a natural harbor or a river confluence. In the short term, they lift the economy by bringing in a student population. Over the longer term, they transform a town through the researchers and professors they attract: When you find a Chinese or German physicist in the Dakotas, or a Yale literature Ph.D. in California’s Central Valley, that person probably works for a university. Research universities have become powerful start-up incubators. For instance: Clemson and the array of automotive-tech firms that have grown up around it in South Carolina, or UC Davis and associated agro-tech ventures. Riverside and San Bernardino were similar-size cities with similar economic prospects at the end of World War II. Their paths have diverged, in part because in the 1950s Riverside was chosen as the site of a new University of California campus.
That sounds much like the Richard Florida creative class argument, but note, he wrote "research universities," not "sub-prime party schools" or "bohemian districts."  You read it here first.
The land-grants and the mid-majors matter. So, too, do good adult mentors, teachers who push their charges, no matter how disadvantaged those charges may be, parents who hope for a better future for their kids, politicians who don't take bribes. Perhaps it's the abdication of all of those people, in far too many neighborhoods, that creates the spiky world.
Preparing the blue collar aristocrats also matters. Here's Mr Fallows.
Community colleges are the main exception [to increasing social stratification], potentially offering a connection to high-wage technical jobs for people who might otherwise be left with no job or one at minimum wage. East Mississippi Community College has taken people who were jobless or on welfare and prepared them for work in nearby factories that pay much more than the local median household income (for instance, some $80,000 in the steel factory, versus a local median income of about $35,000). Fresno City College works with local tech firms and the city’s Cal State campus to train the children of farm workers (among others) for high-tech agribusiness jobs.
And assimilation is a two way street.
Politicians, educators, businesspeople, students, and retirees frequently stressed the ways their communities were trying to attract and include new people. Cities as different as Sioux Falls, Burlington, and Fresno have gone to extraordinary lengths to assimilate refugees from recent wars. The mayor of Greenville, South Carolina, asked us to listen for how many different languages we heard spoken on the street by business visitors.

Every small town in America has thought about how to offset the natural brain drain that has historically sent its brightest young people elsewhere. The same emphasis on inclusion that makes a town attractive to talented outsiders increases its draw to its own natives.
The icing on the cake? Craft breweries.

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