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Encountering the Provincials

Chris Arnade is an odd duck. Once employed on Wall Street, his life was a storybook tale about a small-town Southern boy who made good. Success and material wealth couldn’t quite satisfy him, though. He had a burning fascination with “back row America”, the slums and desiccated towns that our least-prosperous citizens call home. After putting in his 9 to 5, Arnade would find himself wandering through the slums of Hunts Point, an impoverished New York neighborhood close to his office. As his obsession with poverty grew, his connection to bourgeois life eroded, and he eventually lost his job. He took leave of his family, and traveled the country alone, wandering through litter-strewn Walmart parking lots, and chatting up locals in McDonalds booths. In earlier centuries, men like Arnade might have founded religious orders. He is a creature of the 21st century though, so he didn’t do that. Instead, he took pictures, and published a book.

Taken as a work of social criticism, Dignity is not particularly original. When Arnade steps back from his narrative to offer his own social critiques, they’re generally fairly plebeian. Happily, those reflections are rare. Most of the book is narrative-focused, and as a chronicler of life at the bottom, Arnade is very good. His accounts are honest, but compassionate. He doesn’t valorize his subjects, but neither does he savage them. He’s keenly aware that each person he interviews has his own complex story; he generally resists the urge to cast his subjects as set pieces in a pre-spun narrative. As a liminal figure himself, Arnade shows an unusual ability to function as an honest observer, reporting contradictions and complexities without judgment. The result is a book that should pose difficulties for practically every social theory currently on the market.

To complement his verbal snapshots, the book also includes sections of photographs, taken by Arnade himself along his journey. They’re mostly portraits. Through his eyes, we see a man who wheels his kids around all day in a grocery cart, because he has nowhere to hang his hat. We see a homeless, addicted women who self-describes as “mother of six”, even though she has custody of exactly none of her children. We see elderly factory workers who spend whole days in McDonalds, reminiscing about the good old days. We see prostitutes. We see drug addicts. We see posters advising us that, “America was NEVER great!”

Obviously, there are places in America that aren’t thriving. Which places? Though Arnade himself would likely object, I think there is a simple and broadly accurate way to explain the problem. Cosmopolitan America is thriving. Meanwhile, the provinces are suffering. Back-row America is provincial America, and it’s taken a beating in recent years. Both culturally and economically, the modern American ecosystem is good for free-floaters, but bad for the sorts of people who rely on deep roots to keep themselves stable. The duck weed flourishes, while redwood forests disappear.

We tend to think of “provincial” as a pejorative term, but it needn’t be. It’s not bad to be attached to a particular place. Throughout history though, province-dwellers have had characteristic features that tended to distinguish them from their more cosmopolitan counterparts. Provincial people tend to have simpler tastes, and longer-established traditions. They’re often more religious than city-dwellers, with stronger attachments to community and clan. They certainly have their own kind of strength and toughness, and an integrity that alienated urbanites find more elusive. At the same time, they aren’t as adaptable as cosmopolitans. New trends and innovations are likely to be met with suspicion by people whose deepest ambition is to raise up children who will live more or less as they and their parents and grandparents have done. Provincial people, in other words, are natural traditionalists.

Why aren’t the provinces thriving? In short, they’ve lost much of the social cohesion that was once their greatest strength. A quarter-century ago, most Americans understood that cities offered the widest range of opportunities and amusements, while less-urbanized areas fostered wholesome, grounded communities where people felt comfortable raising families. Today, crime and addiction are especially rampant in the small, desiccated communities of the Rust Belt and deep South, where manufacturing jobs have largely dried up. Educated and affluent people have mostly moved on in search of greener pastures. The people who are left are, in general, the ones who were always most attached to their homes and extended families. But they’re also the ones with the fewest resources and weakest connection to centers of influence. They consume popular media along with everyone else, but they aren’t well-equipped to pioneer new industries, or initiate a cultural renaissance. They always had a strong impulse to keep the home fire burning. Lately though, oxygen has been in short supply.

What is to be done? It’s one of the pressing questions of our day, and nearly everyone seems to have his own answer. Arnade’s narrative raises challenges for everyone, regardless of where they fall on the current spectrum.

According to our newly-energized right-wing nationalists, outsourcing and immigration destroyed the economic backbone of our company towns, leaving men without work and families without breadwinners. Meanwhile, the Sexual Revolution precipitated a long, miserable process of social decline, as fragmenting families tore apart once-functional communities. The solution is a reinvigoration of traditionalist norms, perhaps supplemented by morals legislation, along with a rejection of free-market pieties, and efforts to stimulate local jobs by any available means. We’ve got to get men back to work, and it isn’t enough to offer them a U-Haul and a job in the city. You can’t transplant a redwood forest and expect it to thrive. Provincial people need their roots.

A resurgence of small-town life would certainly be a blessing. Is capitalism really the enemy, though? Throughout his book, Arnade speaks many times about the negative impacts of lost manufacturing jobs. Critics of big business may be discomfited, though, by an unlikely hero that emerges from his story: McDonald’s. “If you want to understand the country,” he tells us, “visit McDonald’s.”

As Arnade tells it, the Golden Arches have come to function as de facto community centers in our nation’s most desiccated regions. They are an oasis of security and comfort in neighborhoods that are largely devoid of functional institutions. State institutions may be nominally available in these towns, but most people prefer Big Macs and fries to more-nutritious offerings that are invariably served with a side of judgment. McDonalds, Arnade explains, gives people a place where they can be themselves. They can enjoy a hamburger in peace without the noxious interference of self-appointed do-gooders.

It’s an interesting conundrum. It seems obvious that many of these regions need help. Even our most desperate and impoverished citizens, though, seem to prefer the dignity of a free exchange to the discomfort of being patronized by people with an agenda. Who is able and willing to provide the goods they want at a price they can afford? It’s McDonalds, a company so “global” that its presence (or absence) in a given place is sometimes used as a quick gauge of a country’s success in entering global markets. Even in our least-thriving regions, the invisible hand is still feeding people more successfully than its public-spirited competitors. Shouldn’t this give our nationalists pause, as they contemplate far more aggressive efforts to engineer a top-down revitalization of small-town American life?

Arnade’s chapter on racism is interesting and impressively nuanced. Naturally, he discusses the impact of anti-black prejudice, which drew American blacks to manufacturing towns in the mid-20th century. (Northerners were prejudiced too, but they needed capable workers.) But we also hear about more-recent African immigrants (especially Somalis), some of whom say that they find white communities more welcoming to them than longer-established black communities. He talks to Mexican Americans in Lexington, Nebraska, who came to the Cornhusker State to take the meatpacking jobs that white Americans didn’t want. Today, they are in turn suspicious of the Somalis, who are immigrating to the region to take the jobs that they no longer want.

Arnade doesn’t argue that rural America is rife with bigotry. He introduces us to a number of people who are not bigots, and also makes clear that prejudice can take more and less virulent forms. Not everyone who responds to Donald Trump’s racially-inflected rhetoric is seething with racial hatred.

At the same time, it does seem plausibly true that provincial people (given their strong attachment to community and clan) have a stronger tendency to attach real significance to race and ethnicity, as one criterion that distinguishes “my people” from “not my people”. What should we make of this? Is it a damning indictment of rural America, or just another form of in- and out-grouping, of a sort that all people exercise in some way or another? The political right needs to address these questions if they hope to generate a platform with broad-spectrum appeal.

For the progressive left, Dignity poses a different kind of challenge. To leftist eyes, it seems that provincial people are suffering from a closed-minded refusal to adapt to contemporary circumstances. Better job prospects are indeed part of the answer, but these need to be reached through better education, more comprehensive social programs, and a relinquishment of racist and xenophobic prejudices that have no place in our shrinking world.

There’s a problem, though. As Arnade’s narrative makes clear, most residents of back-row America have very little interest in joining the cosmopolitan party, or of being told how to live. They aren’t dreaming of relocating to Manhattan apartments, where they can win a place in our hyper-woke “creative class”. Instead, they want secure jobs, supportive families, and Jesus. This last is especially uncomfortable for progressives, so it’s nice that Arnade devotes a full chapter to it.

Though he isn’t personally a believer, Arnade honestly acknowledges the importance of faith to people who are poor or marginalized. Nearly everyone he meets on his journey self-identifies as “religious”. The people who suffer most in this country aren’t writing their congressmen, or signing up for therapy. They’re bringing their pain to the Lord. Meanwhile, those who do pull their lives together, nearly always have a church community to thank. Arnade doesn’t offer any grand theories to explain this observation, but the truth shines through his interviews. Churches are the only institutions that can simultaneously love people as they are, offer personal help and care with their real needs, and challenge them to be better.

At the very least, progressive readers of Dignity might reflect on the wisdom of relaxing their hostility towards organized religion. Whatever one thinks of their moral and metaphysical claims, the fact remains that churches bring hope to desperate people. Isn’t that reason enough to leave them unencumbered in their mission? This question, though, points us towards a deeper one. What does the woke left really have to offer impoverished people, who at present rely on McDonalds for their daily bread, and on churches for more transcendent forms of nourishment? For ordinary people, faith and family have long been the two richest available sources of meaning. Progressive pieties and mores tend to undermine both. Is there any replacement for these traditional staples that is accessible to non-elites? Or are we reaching a point where a meaningful, cohesive life is itself mainly an elite luxury?

Arnade doesn’t have an answer to that, and consequently, he ends his book on a despairing note. In his final paragraph he declares that modern American life has left scores of people “excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated. We have denied many their dignity,” he concludes, “leaving a vacuum easily filled by drugs, anger, and resentment.”

That’s the final sentence. It’s hard to recall another book in recent memory that has reached such a depressing conclusion. After documenting scores of serious social problems, Arnade is fairly sure that elites are to blame, but he can’t see any promising solutions. Thus, his narrative ends abruptly, with no promises of redemption.

For those of us who draw more freely on supernatural sources of hope, there might be silver linings to this tale. With his camera and his pen, Arnade has shown us the deep yearning that our dispossessed compatriots feel for basic human goods: faith, family, work, home. Life is not particularly good in the provinces, but the ingredients for cultural revival are already there. Do we really need the sanction of highly-educated elites, in order to recover these fundamental attachments? Perhaps the real solutions to the problems Arnade documents are not, first and foremost, political?

Arnade is an eclectic oddity, not a visionary. Despite that, Dignity is a powerful book. It won’t supply readers with many answers, but it might help them to ask better questions.

Reader Discussion

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on September 25, 2019 at 08:53:55 am

I have read many reviews of “Dignity” and this is by far the best. Thank you.

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Fred Smith
on September 25, 2019 at 09:58:59 am

Wonderfully written, cogent review, prescient analysis.
Thank you.

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joe kenney
on September 25, 2019 at 13:49:17 pm

I offer no opinion on the book—only on the essay.

Why aren’t the provinces thriving? In short, they’ve lost much of the social cohesion that was once their greatest strength. A quarter-century ago, most Americans understood that cities offered the widest range of opportunities and amusements, while less-urbanized areas fostered wholesome, grounded communities where people felt comfortable raising families. Today, crime and addiction are especially rampant in the small, desiccated communities of the Rust Belt and deep South, where manufacturing jobs have largely dried up.

I acknowledge a complex dynamic of issues regarding the decline of rural America. But I can’t help but conclude that most of the issues have a rather materialistic origin: Loss of reasonably well-paying jobs, largely due to automation. The various social changes result from this larger dynamic. For example, many rural places have lost agricultural and manufacturing jobs. People then flock to factory-ish jobs such as meat processing, packing centers, or call centers—or to trucking. These jobs reward quick work and long hours. Rural people, who tend to be older than the US population overall, increasingly turn to stimulants to keep themselves going. And the rural drug problem was born.

According to our newly-energized right-wing nationalists, outsourcing and immigration destroyed the economic backbone of our company towns, leaving men without work and families without breadwinners. Meanwhile, the Sexual Revolution precipitated a long, miserable process of social decline, as fragmenting families tore apart once-functional communities. The solution is a reinvigoration of traditionalist norms, perhaps supplemented by morals legislation, along with a rejection of free-market pieties, and efforts to stimulate local jobs by any available means.

Nice idea. How’s that working for you? Trump as bent over backwards—taking much of the law with him—seeking to stimulate the coal industry. It’s still contracting. But on the other hand, Trump may have succeeded in slowing the growth of wind- and solar-powered generators. Yay?

I don’t dispute the importance of jobs for rural America. I do dispute the idea that bellowing “AMERICA FIRST” has any practical effect on bringing jobs to rural America. It mostly preys on desperate people’s false hopes.

What does the woke left really have to offer impoverished people….?

Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that Republicans would defend federal tax cuts and reduce the deficit by cutting the social safety net—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. In contrast, the woke left wants to defend, and even expand, the social safety net. I invite Lu to go talk to some impoverished people and ask them what they think of these options.

Or she could chat with the victims of Hurricanes Maria and Harvey about whether they favor policies designed to get FEMA aid to people promptly and to reduce the consequences of climate change, or whether they prefer the current administration’s policies.

Or she could ask the majority of people in households earning less than $30K/yr, or the majority of people in households earning between $30k and 50k/yr, about why they voted for Clinton over Trump.

I suspect she’d get an earful.

State institutions may be nominally available in these towns, but most people prefer Big Macs and fries to more-nutritious offerings that are invariably served with a side of judgment.

It is not the woke left that imposes these judgments. Qualifying for Social Security is remarkably judgment-free—as are proposals for a universal basic income. Rather, it is the right wing that seeks to attach judgmental conditions to the social safety net.

I see the problems of rural America in primarily materialistic terms. I acknowledge that social dynamics can help exceptional communities endure longer than others, and exceptional families endure longer than others. But until we can create a mechanism to produce such social dynamics, I don’t know how relevant this observation is for public policy. Famously, federal policies promoting marriage have proven to be an utter boondoggle.

I sense it may hurt Lu’s feelings to imagine that impoverished people don’t merely care about Jesus, but also about grubby, filthy lucre. Yet neither Arnade nor Lu really seem to talk a lot about Jesus; they talk about CHURCH—a social institution. And throughout the impoverished “provinces,” churches have been closing because their communities can no longer support them financially. There’s that filthy lucre again….

[T]hose who do pull their lives together, nearly always have a church community to thank.

Wonderful. This emphasis on social networks and cohesion is illustrated the adage “It takes a village to raise a child”—an adage <a href="It takes a village to raise a child">embraced by the Democrats and disparaged by the Republicans as insufficiently individualistic.

For ordinary people, faith and family have long been the two richest available sources of meaning. Progressive pieties and mores tend to undermine both. Is there any replacement for these traditional staples that is accessible to non-elites? Or are we reaching a point where a meaningful, cohesive life is itself mainly an elite luxury?

Who, exactly, is an “elite” here—the priest who rapes children with impunity, or the people who seek to stop him? The husband who beats his wife and children like a tyrant, or the people who seek legal and practical mechanisms to help them escape? The people who browbeat, shun, fire, and assault the LGBT, or the people who seek to welcome and affirm them?

True, ever more people decline to affiliate with a religion—as is their right under the First Amendment. But until I see a citation or two to members of the “woke left” who disparage a church for “lov[ing] people as they are, offer[ing] personal help and care with their real needs, and challeng[ing] them to be better,” I’ll chalk this up as a strawman argument.

I find no contradiction between recognizing the GOOD that churches and families do and recognizing the BAD that they do. They do both; welcome to the real world.

It seems obvious that many of these regions need help. Even our most desperate and impoverished citizens, though, seem to prefer the dignity of a free exchange to the discomfort of being patronized by people with an agenda…..

[R]esidents of back-row America have very little interest in joining the cosmopolitan party, or of being told how to live. They aren’t dreaming of relocating to Manhattan apartments, where they can win a place in our hyper-woke “creative class”. Instead, they want secure jobs, supportive families, and Jesus.

I don’t fault anyone for wanting those things. But if you think public policy will provide them to you, I think you may be a bit gullible. In short, Lu creates a false dichotomy: She suggests that if people want (many) things that government CAN’T provide, therefore government shouldn’t seek to provide things that it CAN provide. This argument doesn’t follow.

Generally government has little role in providing a person with a “stable family.” That said, we do have vital policies designed to transfer a child out of an unstable environment into a more stable one—so there’s that.

Likewise, government has not generally assumed the role of provider of “secure jobs.” Those have always been exceedingly rare. enjoyed by royalty, federal judges, and tenured faculty—and even the latter group is now iffy. Rather, people look back with nostalgia on jobs that seemed secure, compared with contemporary alternatives. And in the US, those jobs mostly come via the capitalist labor market. What capitalism giveth, capitalism taketh away.

How fortunate, then, that “God may [still] be had for the asking”—no government action required.

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nobody.really
on September 25, 2019 at 18:40:43 pm

I can imagine that the author of the book and the reviewer are clueless as to how the "provinces" have lost their economies. There used to be a Virtuous Local Economy comprised of elderly loaning their savings through local banks to young families to buy cars, houses and start small businesses. In turn, the younger families paid a decent rate of return back to the elderly for use of their money. Thus, the local economy was inter-generational and money stayed in the community. With the onset of globalism banks provided a paltry rate of return to the elderly for their savings deposits and instead tried to divert their monies into stocks and bonds connected to the global economy. The elderly could no longer rely on Certificates of Deposit (CD's) returning 6% to 8%, as the globalist banks only paid maybe 0.25% while money inflation was hovering around 2%. Put differently, not only were industries shipped overseas but the very remaining monies were also siphoned to China and elsewhere. This is called the Vicious Globalist Economy. To get a loan for a car or house, young families have to borrow from lenders who get money from the Federal Reserve Bank or create their own money to lend through what is called fractional interest lending. Hedrick Smith wrote about this in his book Who Stole the American Dream? Unfortunately, Smith's book and a documentary were funded from liberal sources so he concocted a notion that it was greedy Republicans who came up with this scheme.

What is a possible partial solution to the eclipse of the Virtuous Local Economy ? If people in the provinces would put their money in local-commercial banks instead, then their monies would stay in their communities. It probably would not be enough to revitalize the entire economy but it would not be what Ross Perot once famously described as "that giant sucking sound".

Instead of people in the provinces sending their young adults to colleges to join the ranks of the globalists, it might be better if local community colleges worked on educating for the creation of local industries.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on September 26, 2019 at 15:57:19 pm

[…] of small-town life would certainly be a blessing. Is capitalism really the enemy, though? Encountering the Provincials syndicated from […]

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Encountering the Provincials | Best Legal Services
on September 27, 2019 at 15:59:02 pm

... I can’t help but conclude that most of the issues have a rather materialistic origin: Loss of reasonably well-paying jobs, largely due to automation.

I think is true to some extent, but the issue of automation is a subset of a more fundamental principle: certain areas (rural, and parts of metropolitan areas) decline because of economic efficiency. This includes the proposition that economic activity that occurs there can be done more efficiently elsewhere, as well as the fact that the activity that remains can be done more efficiently with fewer jobs. This is true, for example with agriculture, and manufacturing.

Efficiency is a difficult circle to square. It is an economic good, but not necessarily a social good; it is essential for progress (all progress is essentially the increase in some kind of efficiency) but the relentless pursuit of efficiency is dehumanizing. This empiric observation is the basis of much dystopian literature, and arises from the fact that many of the characteristics that humans have interfere with efficiency. Also efficiency is relatively easy to measure, but not so easy to model. Who pays for efficiency? Certainly consumers expect to pay less for products that are efficiently produced. The producer is willing to pay more for efficient production processes, but only if he expects efficiency to produce a net benefit, e.g. a growth in market share, product volume or profit margin. One may think of efficiency as the amount of something desirable produced per unit of resource. Economic efficiency does not care if that resource is human capital. Efficient processes tend to minimize the amount of the resource, and when that resource is labor "back row America" declines. This cannot be avoided. When American labor becomes less efficient than Chinese labor, or Indian labor, economic decline will result. When Mississippi labor is less efficient than Indiana labor, prosperity will migrate to Indiana. It makes no sense to ask if this is fair, or just, or humane; it is the way the world works. In order for rural areas to thrive, they need to have economic activities that can occur most efficiently there, or those activities will seek the most efficient environment.

As to the social safety net, there is another conundrum. The challenge is to provide security without creating dependency, because dependency creates vulnerability and vulnerability leads to anxiety, depression and despair. A dependent class also seems to stimulate the development of a corrupt ruling class; again, just the way the world works.

In short, the travails of rural or "back row America" are not due to a single character flaw in those who profess given political or religious views. It is not because of greed or indifference or malice. Those travails are largely the result of forces that affect human life that we don't always understand or appreciate, and that we think we can control simply with good intentions.

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z9z99
on September 27, 2019 at 20:01:04 pm

Z:

let me add something to this.

Yes, efficiency is key to understanding the loss of industrial jobs in the USA.
And yes, there is MACHINE efficiency and HUMAN efficiency.

As someone who has managed (and, modestly I hope) im[proved the efficiency of both types, I can assert that:
a) An automated placement machine is as efficient in America as it is in the United States. Indeed, I would advance the notion that it is even more efficient in the usa AS A CONSEQUENCE OF DOMESTIC APPROACHES AND ATTITUDES TO THE LABOR FORCE AND THAT LABOR FORCES ABILITY and WILLINGNESS TO DEVELOP METHODS (Oops, excuse the caps) and processes to assure even better operation, less downtime and more accurate machine coding instructions. (I did this for 20 years in one form or another).
b) It is arguable as to human efficiency as well. Employing certain techniques in a consistent and rigorous fashion, it is possible to overcome the disadvantage resulting from the offshore manufacturers practice of simply "throwing extra bodies" at a problem. (Again, I did this).
BUT, if we define efficiency as only labor cost per unit of resource value add, it is clear that the USA is at a significant disadvantage. this disadvantage is even more pronounced when one factors in UNION environments where direct labor costs and benefit costs are significantly higher and union rules may serve to prevent improvements in efficiency.
c) Let us be honest here. To some extent these rural areas, more specifically those that were "Union Towns" are partly to blame for their own demise having demanded wage / benefit packages that proved unsustainable when faced with offshore competition.
d) Add to that the added costs of Governmental regulation and it becomes clear that these folks did not have much of a chance to compete.
e) With the "financialization" of the US economy commencing with the graduation of newly minted MBA's from Harvard and Wharton in the 1980's, who were taught the "value" of EXTRACTING VALUE rather than creating value, it was inevitable that capital intensive industries such as manufacturing would be lost to lower cost / lower capital investment endeavors offshore.

Above, our friend, nobody really extols the virtue of Democrat Party hacks who promise MORE benefits, even while he concedes that it is JOBS that these people want and need.
He is right with the LATTER, It is jobs that are needed and accepting the advice of the essayist Rachel Lu, who rails against certain "America First" or nationalist policies will NOT produce a single DAMN JOB. Rather, an industrial policy, via the tax code, MAY be able to produce incentives for the creation of jobs associated with the new innovations that, for some odd reason, continue to flow from the minds of American engineers and entrepreneurs.

Then again, this may be a surprise to nobody.really but it would be helpful in certain Democrat Party Leaders (Joe Biden and Sons, John Kerry and Sons) did not enter into "venture capital funds with the chinese government whereby new american innovations are almost immediately OFF-F'ING-SHORED to China. See Schweitzers Secret Empires).

It strikes me that we as a nation have an obligation to "back row America" that extends beyond simple platitudes of "I feel your pain."
REALLY? Well as some of my working class friends like to say,
Then show it or kiss off" (Not you, of course). Your words don't put a paycheck in my hands.

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gabe
on September 28, 2019 at 00:57:42 am

It makes no sense to ask if this is fair, or just, or humane; it is the way the world works....

[T]he travails of rural or “back row America” are not due to a single character flaw in those who profess given political or religious views. It is not because of greed or indifference or malice. Those travails are largely the result of forces that affect human life that we don’t always understand or appreciate, and that we think we can control simply with good intentions.

This largely reflects my view as well. Thus, I weary of hearing discussions of economics presented as morality plays. We observe different results than in the past because today's circumstances differ from the past's. We can identify more and less adaptive behavior, but it doesn't make a lot of sense to discuss this in term of "fault" and "blame"--unless you're running for office.

As to the social safety net, there is another conundrum. The challenge is to provide security without creating dependency, because dependency creates vulnerability and vulnerability leads to anxiety, depression and despair. A dependent class also seems to stimulate the development of a corrupt ruling class; again, just the way the world works.

...Maybe...?

If you read Little House on the Prairie books, you will learn about the wide range of skills that people used to have to provide for themselves. I have basically none of these skills; instead, I'm dependent on others. In particular, I don't have a lot of self-defense/combat skills; I rely on police. I guess you could say that we're now all more vulnerable--but this inter-dependency enables society to specialize and become more productive.

We've had Social Security since the 1930s. Have the elderly become more vulnerable, anxious, depressed, and desperate? Sure, we could identify some elderly people with these attributes. But if you think that these attributes are more common today than in the past, I suspect you'd be engaging in nostalgia. In the past, old people were especially likely to be destitute. Social Security had the effect of making elderly people among the most secure people in America.

America has never been richer, even on a per capita basis. Yes, government has grown--but per capita after-tax income has grown faster. Yet America's wealth has never been more unequally distributed--and federal tax cuts have only exacerbated this situation. So, once we realize that this growing inequality results from socio-economic dynamics that transcend the virtues and vices of any specific individual, we can forthrightly address the problem. Let's design economic policies to (more or less) maximize wealth. But then let's create functional mechanism to distribute that wealth.

It is unclear to me that government should try to give everyone a meaningful job--and instead just focus on giving everyone a minimum standard of living. I'm not opposed to people having meaningful jobs--but I don't know that government is especially good at generating them. In contrast, government is pretty good at distributing Social Security.

That said...

I attribute most of the changes we observe in the labor market to automation, not to immigration or globalization/offshoring. US manufacturing has never been more productive--but they produce more with fewer people. If you go into an auto factory or bottling plant, you won't find row upon row of Mexicans; you'll find row upon row of robots.

But what about offshoring? Sure, it happens, but less than many people had thought. The NYT just had a story about how plenty of jobs that were predicted to move overseas never did. It turns out that low hourly labor costs is not the end-all/be-all that many economists thought.

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nobody.really
on September 28, 2019 at 05:59:03 am

RE: "Churches are the only institutions that can simultaneously love people as they are, offer personal help and care with their real needs, and challenge them to be better."

The famous sociologist Max Weber described in his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism how religion is always intertwined with an economy. As Judeo-Christian scriptures put it "man doesn't live by bread alone" (or by material goods or government subsidies alone). As a real estate appraiser I recently had an assignment where I had to value a portfolio of fast food franchise ground leases in rural California, the Midwest (Indiana, Kansas) and the South (Texas, Georgia). One of the things that stuck out from my studying the local communities in these states is the huge percentage of what are called religious NONES (those who state they have no institutional religious affiliation). In many communities this is 50% or higher. Do portraying people in former heavy industrial areas as religious may not be accurate (although even the NONES remain spiritually inclined).

These communities thrived during the era of Industrialization where people left farms and worked on assembly lines for large corporate enterprises. When we hit the era of Deindustrialization and outsourcing of industries, these communities were left without an industrial economy and concomitantly no religion or weak religion. What also supplanted religion was the rise of secular colleges and universities that provided professions for elite intellectuals such as Lu, but a hollowed-out worldview to sustain their daily lives and deaths. These educational institutions are oriented to producing more workers for cosmopolitan service jobs but there is no industrial economy to support service industries on a mass scale.

So the writer of Hillbilly Elegy may have come from Appalachia and then went to the Ivy League to college and law school, but that isn't a pathway for most people and is a drain on local communities.

Max Weber also described how the Roman Empire fell. It was not due to the invasion of the Barbarians or the rise of weak, effeminate religion (Edward Gibbon), but the collapse of the value of money which destroyed the trading economies along the big coastal cities of Italy. When the collapse hit, people migrated back inland and went back to farming. People in hollowed out former industrial towns no longer have the skills to go back to farming and agriculture is now a corporate enterprise that hires mainly economic migrants from South America. And, by and large, the universities, even the agricultural colleges, don't teach the skills necessary for farming but instead teach management skills. People can't even return to serfdom by renting land for farming to sustain themselves. There is no farming and there are no large industries. Perhaps automation can rise again by 3-D printing technologies that provide small scale industries that can build cookie cutter homes, cars and food? But our universities are not teaching that, but instead produce writers of books like Hillbilly Elegy and professors like Lu.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on September 28, 2019 at 10:49:32 am

nobody:

I was going to start with the Marx Bothers quote about "Who you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?"
BUT:

It is apparent that you do not OBSERVE the world around you but rather seek to draw conclusions / prescriptions from secondary sources. Yes, it is "data" as you are wont to exalt - but it may very well be tainted by what the French characterize as "educational blindness" (rough translation).
As to your claim, supported by the NYTimes, which I would be hesitant to even cite as a source for the selling prices listed in their classified ads, that " plenty of jobs that were predicted to move overseas never did.", I can attest from FIRST HAND EXPERIENCE that this is not the case. I can also attest that ENTIRE SECTORS OF industries have been offshored leaving in its wake hundreds of thousands of displaced workers.
As just one (or maybe two) example(s), the medical imaging field which once boasted dozens of American designers / manufacturers has seen almost a complete denuding of manufacturing capacity (if not capability owing to the "trickle effect) in these areas. Ultrasound imaging, X-ray, etc manufacturing, other than final assembly has been offshored. I ran a manufacturing operation for one such company that employed at its peak 2,000 people. This was not dissimilar in numbers to what our competitors employed. They are gone.
Consider also the recent delisting of General Electric from the Dow 500. GE was a powerhouse in medical imaging. Not so any more. I could name dozens of other companies suffering the same fate.
GE presents an interesting case as Jack Welch not only outsourced much manufacturing but he also "financialized" the company and even during the late 1980 - ,1990's, GE was generating more of it's profits from financial services rather than from "value-added" activities. Ultimately, this proved disastrous for GE employees and GE itself. (Funny, he did not seem at all concerned when I tried to recruit away from GE a top engineer and an operations type).
It is crucial to observe that it is not only the hourly manufacturing employees that are displaced but also:
1) engineering personnel
2) manufacturing / process engineers
3) tool-makers / jig and fixture makers
4) material / supply chain professionals
5) quality assurance professionals
AND
as part of the ripple effect
6) countless other professional and hourly personnel from the supporting industries such as the makers of automated placement / assembly equipment, process equipment, etc.

This, my friend, is hopw it actually works and how it came to be, mind you in just ONE SUBSET of the electronics industry that countless middle class families were displaced.

BTW: The same is true of the domestic "contract" manufacturers, i.e., those companies that provided manufacturing services for domestic manufacturers who had decided to "outsource" their production. Eventually, these rather large (one of these companies for which I also ran their operations had gross sales of $3billion) also moved manufacturing operations offshore and were ultimately acquired by a foreign competitor. This latter company had employed 30,000 people.

And you insist upon the fallacy that manufacturing jobs did not move offshore. or that immigration did not and does not play a role in the travails of "back door America."

May I suggest that you visit any construction site around the nation where you will find that, with the exception of electricians, the building trades are now dominated by Mexican immigrants who often times work for less than half what a native worker would AND could demand. I know people first hand who have had to seek other forms of employment due to this depressing of wages by immigrants workers.
Consider, how many of these jobs could have been filled by inner city minorities? by the inhabitants of" back door America."

As Z argues above, there are many causes. A solution is demanded.
BUT:

The FIRST THING in problem resolution is always to correctly identify the problem.
I usually start by OBSERVING first hand what has transpired rather than reading some paean to free market economics or obfuscating tutorials by a NYTimes writer who may not be able to determine which end of a screwdriver to turn. It may be *data* as you like to insist upon but then again, "Who ya gunna believe, Me or your own lying eyes? - Ha!

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gabe
on September 28, 2019 at 14:35:46 pm

Again, one of my "for whatever it is worth" comments.

The perspective I offer has two points of view: The first that of a person whose growing up years were lived out in a modest and quite provincial environment; the second in the company of intellectually gifted family, friends, and - very important - great authors.

The simple virtues of life in common with people of modest mean and education are of timeless and true value. People "have each other" as Eudora Welty wrote. Traditions are not simply "the way we do things". They are sources of meaning. Tradition offers more than repetition, i.e. the chance to think about that which stands behind them. Those who do not understand this may and do scoff. This is their loss. Traditions teach us much about human nature.

The foregoing comments offer perspectives on economic life and they are provided by accomplished persons. But there is one aspect of life that is waved away, one to which Rachael Lu refers. It is that of faith, a hard won resource that provides inner resources and strength to deal with life's challenges and misfortunes. Those who truly and persistently search for God, who attempt to live in accordance with ancient teachings, change. But this is not, as Cardinal John Henry Newman teaches, for the faint hearted.

Still those who do achieve some measure of faith (with reference to the Jewish and Christian faiths) can offer something that is actually not theirs to give and in fact cannot be given in any other way except through faith. They - not always but sometimes - are instruments of inspiration to those who are in need. Amazing things can follow.

Some people who gain faith - early is better than late but it is never too late - might even begin to imagine and begin to build new fields of endeavor with benefit that may increase the well-being of many, many others.

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Latecomer
on September 28, 2019 at 14:41:06 pm

Re: "with reference to the Jewish and Christian faiths" - My intention was to limit myself to those teachings with which I have some familiarity and not to imply that God works in many ways and through many people and certainly through those whose way of life is unfamiliar to me.

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Latecomer
on September 28, 2019 at 14:44:17 pm

One more correction: "and not to imply any thought on my part that God's work is limited in any way - he can and does reach all people in ways that are known to him; certainly not to me!

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Latecomer
on September 28, 2019 at 14:54:21 pm

Better late than never both with respect to your commentary AND to the fact that you did indeed comment.

quite insightful re: the import of tradition.

And again, an insightful comment:

"They – not always but sometimes – are instruments of inspiration to those who are in need. Amazing things can follow. "

If I may, let me add one that I used at the memorial for my Mother-in-Law:

If Christianity is understood as the ability to engender in others the capacity to Love, then she was a true Christian."

Too often, we minimize the profound moral and human "rightness" of people of faith in order to maximize the insignificant errors and follies they may at times be subject to.

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gabe
on September 28, 2019 at 15:06:08 pm

nobody.really,

You make a valid observation regarding dependency, and one which highlights pitfalls that await unwary policy-makers. The observation that some dependencies may be relatively benign does not excuse consideration of those that are not.

Dependency can take many forms. Saddam Hussein was dependent on his security forces for personal safety, and if he took time to consider the fate of Anwar Sadat or Indira Gandhi, this dependence might reasonably have made him a bit jumpy. An attorney who makes $600,000 a year is "dependent" on his job for his income, but even if he loses his job, he retains the underlying skills that mitigates the vulnerability that such dependence might otherwise imply. Further, even the least martially adept individual is not completely helpless when facing a physical threat in the absence of immediate police presence. I am confident that many people, untrained in unarmed combat, would muster a more useful response than collapsing in the fetal position if a drunk begins pawing their spouse. The corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy is more complex and invokes a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors.

We have previously discussed the role that dependency plays in the mantenido and cuponero culture of Puerto Rico. There is a difference between the hereditary dependence that creates its own cultural pathologies and the pragmatic type that is inherent in social arrangements that provide mutual benefit. To take your Social Security example, it might be expected that a dependency into which one emerges from adolescence is different than that which one ages into after a productive life. It would be incompetent and destructive public policy to ignore the former because of the latter. It may be worthwhile to consider the effects of dependence, and associated welfare rules which discouraged fathers from living with their families in the 1960s. Dependency is unavoidable; it is a fact of life that must be accommodated, but it is also something that can be made orders of magnitude worse by poor policies.

It is also worth considering that the vulnerability that results from dependence is not a standardized threat. Dependency has the ability to affect concepts of self worth, family relationships, and ambitions. Not everyone responds to dependency the same way, and we should be suspicious of policies that assume otherwise. Are workable policies possible? I suspect so, but are unlikely because of political realities and interests that are given priority.

Let’s design economic policies to (more or less) maximize wealth. But then let’s create functional mechanism to distribute that wealth.

This is just my opinion, but I don't think that you can practically distribute wealth on an ongoing and sustainable basis. What must be done is distributing the generation of wealth, and discouraging the concentration of wealth. If it were easy, anybody could do it. Or nobody.

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z9z99
on September 29, 2019 at 20:13:04 pm

Saddam Hussein was dependent on his security forces for personal safety, and if he took time to consider the fate of Anwar Sadat or Indira Gandhi, this dependence might reasonably have made him a bit jumpy.

Yup, Hussein relied on his security forces for personal safety. And that differs from other political leaders--how? How long do you think Obama would have lasted without the constant attention of US security forces? Indeed, how long do you think he would last TODAY without their assistance?

(Yes, I know, Obama is just one more black man whose character has been crippled by government handouts. But at least he's no longer in government housing, so there's that....)

An attorney who makes $600,000 a year is “dependent” on his job for his income, but even if he loses his job, he retains the underlying skills that mitigates the vulnerability that such dependence might otherwise imply.

How do you think very successful Jewish lawyers fared in Nazi Germany? Or very successful Chinese lawyers fared during the Cultural Revolution? Imagine the very successful lawyer who, on purpose or by accident, ends up joining the Pilgrims in their voyage to the New World. Or that ends up shipwrecked on a desert island. Or that ends up on a rocket bound to colonize Mars. Or that survives a nuclear apocalypse whereby civilization is destroyed.

Yes, these lawyers might have had tremendous skills that were extremely valuable—within a specific context. Once that context changed, how well would they do?

The 1998 film Out of Sight depicts two people with remarkable skills. George Clooney plays a bank robber who has the savvy and unflappable nature to navigate prison life—but lacks the skills that are prized on the outside. Albert Brooks plays a bank executive that oozes the skills prized in civilian life, but is utterly defenseless against the hoodlums he encounters in prison. While they are both in prison, Clooney rescues Brooks. Once they are both out of prison, Brooks fails to reciprocate in proportion to the services received.

In short, the concept of “skills” almost entirely reflect social context—and we can (to some extent) change this context if we choose to.

Further, even the least martially adept individual is not completely helpless when facing a physical threat in the absence of immediate police presence.

Children can defend themselves? People in comas can defend themselves?
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy is more complex and invokes a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors.

The defenselessness of children and people in comas is the result of inept social and economic policy?

Well, kinda. That is, for much of human history we took it for granted that various people would be prey. Indeed, it was only recently that our society has decided to take action to shield children from abusive priests. Thus, we could say that it is only as a result of our inept social and economic policies that we’ve chosen to regard sexual abuse by priests as a problem worthy of social intervention. The conduct has probably always existed. But the choice to regard that conduct as a problem has not.

We can embrace various libertarian views—such as “The corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy is more complex and invokes a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors”—so long as we doggedly agree to ignore all the circumstances when it’s not true. But, dammit, soft-hearted and weak-willed people keep screwing this up.

[I]t might be expected that a dependency into which one emerges from adolescence is different than that which one ages into after a productive life.

Indeed; again, consider all the skills depicted in the Little House on the Prairie books. Most of us are raised today without these skills—and may suffer for our ignorance if we find ourselves as castaways or in a post-apocalyptic world.

Maybe this kind of dependency is different. But I don’t see how.

[C]onsider the effects of dependence, and associated welfare rules which discouraged fathers from living with their families in the 1960s.

Huh? The story I heard was that the incentives to keep unmarried parents apart arose from a misguided effort to LIMIT the scope of public assistance.

What harm resulted from this policy? And why would you regard that harm as worse than the harm of living in destitution? You are keen to emphasize that people really do have agency to defend themselves in physical altercations. Are you similarly keen to recognize that people on public assistance also had agency, and could decline the assistance and live with their lovers if they regarded that as a preferable outcome. The fact that people who were harmed by the need to separate from their lovers nonetheless made this choice should tell us something.

[V]ulnerability that results from dependence is not a standardized threat. Dependency has the ability to affect concepts of self worth, family relationships, and ambitions. Not everyone responds to dependency the same way, and we should be suspicious of policies that assume otherwise.

Fair enough. Likewise, not everyone responds to poverty in the same way, and we should be suspicious of policies that assume otherwise.

Are workable policies possible? I suspect so, but are unlikely because of political realities and interests that are given priority.

Again, fair enough. But those same political realities and interests are just as likely to intervene to STOP a public policy than to create one. Thus the bias created by these impediments, while real, do not lead me to conclude that inaction is preferable to action.

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nobody.really
on September 29, 2019 at 22:41:01 pm

Are you feeling okay, nobody? Because your response above is weird, and all over the place. I can't really identify a single valid, not to mention relevant point. It is filled with straw men and a fallacious habit you seem to have when making certain points.

A few examples:

Yup, Hussein relied on his security forces for personal safety. And that differs from other political leaders–how? How long do you think Obama would have lasted without the constant attention of US security forces? Indeed, how long do you think he would last TODAY without their assistance?

This is irrelevant and silly. By mentioning Saddam Hussein I am not proposing an expressio unius est exclusion alterius proposition. Nor am I obligated to list everyone who relies on personal security. To do so would be pointless. I cited Hussein as an example. For some reason you seem to have concluded that I was saying that Obama was not dependent on security forces. Weird.

Yes, I know, Obama is just one more black man whose character has been crippled by government handouts. But at least he’s no longer in government housing, so there’s that….

This is no reason for you to suggest that blacks are inherently crippled by government handouts.*

How do you think very successful Jewish lawyers fared in Nazi Germany? Or very successful Chinese lawyers fared during the Cultural Revolution?

Again, irrelevant. The point being discussed is that there are different degrees of dependence and that dependence can lead to vulnerability and thus to anxiety and depression. But since you asked, I would expect that a very successful lawyer in Nazi Germany or very successful Chinese lawyers during the Cultural Revolution....would feel very vulnerable, anxious and depressed. Which was the original point I was making, that you have now illustrated. I still can't figure out if you were trying to make a different point.

In short, the concept of “skills” almost entirely reflect social context—and we can (to some extent) change this context if we choose to.

Again, irrelevant. The original point was that a person person possessing skills, even though situationally dependent on a particular job or circumstance is less vulnerable than someone who only possessed skills relevant to his current circumstances, Your argument is a straw man.

Further, even the least martially adept individual is not completely helpless when facing a physical threat in the absence of immediate police presence.

Children can defend themselves? People in comas can defend themselves?

You are the one that said, and I quote " I don’t have a lot of self-defense/combat skills; I rely on police." I was unaware that this is because you are a child in a coma.

"The corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy is more complex and invokes a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors."

The defenselessness of children and people in comas is the result of inept social and economic policy?

This is a version of a formal logical fallacy. You have tricked yourself into believing that somebody argued that the defenselessness of children is the result of inept social and economic policy.

We can embrace various libertarian views—such as “The corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy is more complex and invokes a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors”—so long as we doggedly agree to ignore all the circumstances when it’s not true.

Please identify the circumstances where "the corrosive dependency that results from inept social and economic policy" does not "invoke a constellation of psychological, spiritual, social and cultural factors, and defend your argument that the statement is 1.) libertarian, and 2.) that embracing such view requires agreement to ignore all the circumstances (what are they?) when it is not true? Note that a premise of the proposition as stated is that there is a particular type of corrosive dependence that results from inept social and economic policy, not that all dependence does so, nor that all inept policies inevitably result in such dependence. I think you have created another straw man. You may do well well to review the concept of <non distributio medii

C]onsider the effects of dependence, and associated welfare rules which discouraged fathers from living with their families in the 1960s.

Huh? The story I heard was that the incentives to keep unmarried parents apart arose from a misguided effort to LIMIT the scope of public assistance.

Please explain how the phrase "associated welfare rules which discouraged fathers from living with their families" only applies to misguided efforts to EXPAND the scope of public assistance. I didn't say that it does; another of your straw men must have.

And why would you regard that harm as worse than the harm of living in destitution?

Now which straw man are you addressing? Or are you conceding the point that policies can have harmful unintended consequences and want to move on to the argument of which harm is greater?

Thus the bias created by these impediments, while real, do not lead me to conclude that inaction is preferable to action.

This is no reason to argue that blacks are incapable of providing for themselves without the beneficence of white policymakers.*

So let me try and untangle our discourse. Please answer the following:

1. Do you think that policies can have the effect of creating dependency in some people?

2. Do you think that any such dependency is potentially harmful to those people, or in fact to anyone?

3. Do you believe that policies can create harmful unintended consequences?

4.) Do you believe that policies that might create harmful unintended consequences are acceptable, if one alternative is doing nothing? Is acceptability a practical or political determination?

5.) Is a policy that is unlikely to work acceptable because, if nothing else, it is "doing something?"

6.) Let us agree that a social safety net is an obligation, especially in the most prosperous country the world has ever known. What would satisfactory safety net policies do? What would they accomplish that Johnson's War on Poverty did not?

* Of course, I am not saying that you made any assertions about blacks one way or the other, I am merely innocuously stating the obvious, that the quoted statements are not reasons to make such assertions. I am paying homage to what appears to be a staple of nobody.really argument: make a statement that appears to be a rebuttal of something that the other person has said, implying that that is what the person actually believes. Things like "[a]nd why would you regard that harm as worse than the harm of living in destitution?" or "Thus the bias created by these impediments, while real, do not lead me to conclude that inaction is preferable to action." It's a straw man argument with plausible deniability. But it doesn't do much for the conversation, in my opinion.

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z9z99
on September 30, 2019 at 09:27:14 am

Z

Thank you for this:

I am paying homage to what appears to be a staple of nobody.really argument: make a statement that appears to be a rebuttal of something that the other person has said, implying that that is what the person actually believes."

Not just a staple BUT the raison d'etre of nobody.rally's presence at LLB.

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gabe
on September 30, 2019 at 09:36:57 am

Forgot this:

Hadley Arkes (if I recall correctly) once commented:

"The fact that you cannot identify where a cloud begins and ends does not support the conclusion that clouds do not exist." (OK, a paraphrase).

This would appear to be nobody. reallys mode of argumentation.

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gabe
on October 01, 2019 at 01:02:01 am

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