High unemployment and declining incomes are changing America so drastically that we’ll soon have a country our grandparents wouldn’t even recognize. And our best and brightest lack the imagination to do anything about it.
Those are the messages, overt and implied, in a recent run of brilliant analytical journalism by Don Peck, an editor at The Atlantic. In March 2010, The Atlantic published Peck’s supremely important, and very long, article “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” September 2011 brought a follow-up, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?” and the material in both pieces has been expanded into a book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.
In that first Atlantic article, Peck successfully does what almost no one ever does: He pulls together the relationship between economics and culture. On the economics side, he establishes that what we are experiencing today is no ordinary “business cycle” recession, but something more like a slow-motion equivalent to the Great Depression. And he cites studies of previous generations that entered the work force in times of high unemployment to show that the effects of the hard times didn’t wear off, but instead persisted over a lifetime of lower earnings and diminished happiness.
On the culture side, Peck finds that the effects of prolonged joblessness are piling on to previous decades of declining wages in traditionally male-dominated occupations to produce a sea change in family patterns. Marriage is increasingly viewed as a luxury of the affluent, and single motherhood is becoming normal, even in the middle class. This, he claims, is in no small part because of the rapidly diminishing prospects of the high school-educated men who used to fill the manufacturing and construction jobs blown away by the Great Recession. Layoffs have been less severe in the traditionally female occupations such as health care, education, and customer service, and so, increasingly, lower middle-class women find themselves wondering if men are worth the trouble.
Of course, the obvious answer to all the problems Peck identifies is a systematic revival of America’s manufacturing economy. It should be self-evident that a healthy, egalitarian society must provide some way for men and women who are so inclined to make a reasonable, dignified living with their hands. Unfortunately, as he shows in his most recent Atlantic article, Peck has not a clue about how to revive American manufacturing. He wishes, a bit wistfully, that we could “keep the production of new, high-value goods within American borders for a longer period of time.” But in the next breath he asserts as self-evident the liberal creed that “Protectionist measures are generally self-defeating.” Elsewhere he reflexively recites the “free trade” truism, “We can’t wish away globalization or turn our backs on trade; to try to do so would be crippling and impoverishing.”
This is unthinking orthodoxy of the “flat-earth” variety. So-called “protectionist” measures have worked very well for China, India, Brazil, and other emerging economies, and they could work for us. We need the strong arm of a democratic government on America’s capital flow, directing investment to productive, nonservice work that will improve life for all of us. Clean energy, conservation, and other infrastructure improvements are only the most obvious starting places for such a re-industrialization campaign. I hate to sound like Rick Perry on global warming, but we really can’t afford to toss more than half our people under the bus out of allegiance to an unproven (economic) theory about “free trade.”
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his novel, White Boy, and more at www.dannyduncancollum.net.