(This is the second in a series of posts on American decline.)
American decline is the topic du jour, the subject of hundreds of op-eds and a shelf of books, as the evidence piles up of stagnant incomes, third-world inequalities, fleeing jobs and slipping standards in everything from education to pensions.
Some pundits dispute the very notion of decline: after all, how shabby can a nation be that still has Silicon Valley and Wall Street, that remains the global powerhouse in arms and finance, that still draws foreign students to its universities and entrepreneurs to its cities? And besides, if we're lagging a bit right now, well hey folks, this is America. We can recoup. We can beat this challenge, just as we beat other challenges in the past. The sub-title of Thomas L. Friedman's latest book perfectly sums up this can-do spirit: "How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back."
Maybe not. Not this time. This time is different. Our previous post explained why -- that the corporations and corporate leaders who must lead this comeback have gone global, and have abandoned any real interest in the condition of American society.
The evidence of decline is everywhere. Maybe not from the privileged places -- New York, the Beltway, university towns -- from which most journalists and professors view the world These places aren't declining and, given their links to the global economy, aren't likely to.
But leave Manhattan and the Loop, head east from Seattle or north from the Bos-wash Corridor, hit the interstates through the Midwest and the South, plunge into the empty and echoing hearts of Detroit or Cleveland or the arid reaches of the Great Plains, and another America emerges.
My own turf is the Midwest, the old industrial heartland from Pittsburgh to the Missouri River, now forty years into a bad century. But the story is the same pretty much from coast to coast, for anyone willing to go have a look.
We're talking here about the ruined cities of upstate New York, the clapped-out mining towns of central Pennsylvania, the foreclosed neighborhoods of Las Vegas and Phoenix, the non-neon stretches of Los Angeles, northern California beyond the Bay, eastern Washington beyond the Cascades, central Florida inland from the gated snowbird resorts, the dying towns of Kansas and Nebraska, the abandoned textile and furniture centers of the Carolinas, the impoverished backwaters of Mississippi and the Deep South, the water-starved flats of Texas and the Southwest, the great swath of Scots-Irish territory from Virginia through the border states into Oklahoma.
This is the land of double-wides and dollar stores, of closed mills and mines, of bankrupt towns, of casinos paying minimum wage to laid-off auto workers, of once-vibrant cities -- from Newton in Iowa to Rockford in Illinois, to Terre Haute and Muncie in Indiana to Mansfield and Lima in Ohio, and onto Syracuse and Buffalo in New York -- all created to serve industries or corporations that have gone away.
All this is reportage, not prediction. It's happened and it's happening.
This pathology is both urban and rural. In many cities, the global haves and the global have-nots live side by side. Chicago, indisputably among the top ten Global Cities, is a center of world business, with corporate headquarters, global lawyers and consultants, fine universities, the best in art and cuisine. All this supports about one-third of the city, the educated elite plugged into the global economy.
For the other two-thirds, that economy is no more than a rumor. This includes inner-city blacks stranded in their ghettoes, a million Hispanic immigrants scrambling for a toehold, and many of the city's whites, high school grads or even college grads tending bars or stocking shelves at Target. Not that they're unemployed: many of these people have jobs, sometimes two or three jobs. They used to be middle class. If they owned a home, it's foreclosed now. Their kids won't go to college.
They are, literally, left behind.
Not so many years ago, appalled pundits studied the so-called "underclass," stranded in black ghettoes, condemned to poverty, burdened with bad education and bad health, reliant on government handouts, addicted to drugs and down-home religions, combatting the ills of broken families and casual violence, barely aware that a better future was even possible. Today, this pathology embraces most of the national territory and perhaps most Americans, white and black, and for the same reason: the economy they need to rebuild their lives no longer exists.
How many people have missed this train depends on your definition. George Packer, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, estimated that this new class -- not just the poor but the stuck, a sort of under-middle class with smart phones and the other toys of prosperity but with no hope of membership in the global economy -- at about 80 percent of all Americans, which sounds about right. This is not the war between the 1 percent and the 99 percent; instead, it's the fact that 20 percent of Americans now occupy a different world from the rest of the country.
The others, the 80 percent, have no idea how to catch up. As the late redneck author Joe Bageant wrote, something like 90 million Americans, more than one-third of all adults, are functionally illiterate, which means they can read a headline and a paragraph or two, but not really understand them. They certainly cannot read a real estate contract, which helps explain the mortgage crisis. And they cannot begin to compete in a post-industrial, knowledge economy.
Certainly, America retains formidable strengths and pockets of real prosperity, centers of innovations competitive in any economy. They include the pulsing financial and business centers of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and other global cities. They definitely include Cambridge, Austin, Madison, Palo Alto, Ann Arbor, Raleigh-Durham -- intellectual capitals, homes to mighty universities. And there's Silicon Valley, which still puts ideas and money together better than anywhere in the world.
None of this is trivial. It supports millions of Americans, brings in scholars and investment from around the world, designs and markets the products that power this global economy, makes this nation still a magnet for the world's best and brightest.
But these world-class islands are outposts, not locomotives. Unlike the Detroits and Clevelands of old, they don't pull an entire economy behind them. They don't produce many jobs, nowhere near as many as the old industrial economy. The Americans who live within them represent an elite sliver at the top of a declining nation. They have more to do with other global outposts, like Shanghai and Paris, than with their fellow Americans, who make do with scatter-shot health care, bad education, mean diets and no expectations.
Even the shabbiest old factory towns have their good neighborhoods, out by the golf course, inhabited by an older generation of doctors and lawyers who made good lives in these places. Their children have long since fled to the cities, which offer most of the good jobs available to educated young Americans. The sociologist Richard Florida has written that a city like Chicago is literally sucking the life -- the money, skills and people -- out of its hinterland.
Good things still happen in this country -- innovation, global vigor. But these good things don't benefit most Americans, trapped in a decline the global economy can't touch and that the political system fears to address, even (or especially) in an election year.
(The next post will discuss the cost, in both domestic and foreign policy, of decline.)