30.1.08

SIFTING AND WINNOWING. Cato's Brink Lindsey has now expanded his meditation on political alignments that have outlived their usefulness into a book, The Age of Abundance. It has both a super-title, Why the Culture Wars Made Us More Libertarian, which may or may not be accurate, and a sub-title, How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. This Book Review No. 8 reminds readers that not everybody views that transformation the same way (consider Robert Reich or Patrick Buchanan or Robert Kuttner.) In places, the argument strikes me as strained: he repeats the same formula about the Aquarians taking advantage of plentitude while questioning the market economy that makes it possible while the Evangelicals saw sin in the plentitude while defending the market economy (perhaps because it was not communistic?) The development of his argument identifies some of the same strains in the New Deal - Pax Americana establishment that Strauss and Howe's Fourth Turning identify, and many of the elaborations are the same. What's different is that Mr Lindsey envisions a permanent synthesis of libertarian notions (greater tolerance for differences in ethnicity and belief systems and greater reliance on emergent systems such as markets) while Strauss and Howe see libertarian attitudes as popular during a time of decay of the old social order, but put aside once the new social order establishes itself, which requires a severe secular crisis, often a war or a rebellion, to remind people of their fundamental reasons for cooperating with others.

We have not yet seen such a secular crisis, despite the best efforts of seekers of political power to pin that label on Islamofascism or environmental decay or for the n-th time, the fatal collapse of capitalism. That noted, it is difficult not to like a book that includes, at page 289, this.
Nevertheless, the fact that many Americans have been unable to take proper advantage of the new economy's immense possibilities. That fact must be considered a major disappointment -- and one that is not easily remedied. For while economic incentives matter, sometimes culture matters more. And many Americans have been raised in a working-class culture that does not sufficiently encourage education or long-term planning. As a result, they lack the skills that are now so highly rewarded -- and what is worse, they lack the capacity to develop those skills. Until relatively recently, working-class culture was consistent with upward mobility. But things have changed, and low-skill, high-paying jobs are increasingly a thing of the past. Consequently, the anti-intellectual mentality that remains deeply engrained in large segments of the American populace has become a socioeconomic dead end.
So let it be with the Rust Belt.

Elsewhere, Mr Lindsey extends his argument to the underclass, noting a connection between the absence of "middle-class skills" in that population and its prolonged misery. That squares with a contention of mine, that misplaced emphasis on eliminating hegemonic biases and other mushy-headed substitutes for real learning keep the poor poor.

(Cross-posted at the Fifty Book Challenge).

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