Rescuing American Prosperity: A Conversation with Joel Kotkin

with Joel Kotkin

This latest podcast is with Joel Kotkin, America’s Demographer-in-Chief, on his recently released book, The New Class Conflict. Kotkin and I discuss his grave warning of an American future that no longer contains the promises of democratic capitalism. Two groups, in Kotkin’s telling, have converged and share a vision of America that is unconcerned with economic growth, shared prosperity, and the need to rein in state power. The book’s opening argues that this class of tech entrepreneurs and the “Clerisy” pose a fundamental challenge to America’s self-understanding as a nation of economic mobility:

In the coming decades, the greatest existential threat facing America lies with the rise of a new class order that leaves diminished prospects for the vast majority. In this emergent society, wealth and power are concentrated in ever fewer hands and threaten to erode much of the traditional appeal of America, its institutions, and sense of promise.

Instead, Kotkin argues that class divisions promise to harden underneath the influence of a newly-minted ruling class who, unlike its predecessors, is relatively unconcerned with upward prosperity and middle class abundance. The middle class is a diminishing category and those who compose its ranks are increasingly anxious about their future. Kotkin’s term for this disposition is the “Proleterianization of the Middle Class.” One massive barrier they face, according to Kotkin, is the indifference of the “Valley of the Oligarchs,” or that group of tech investors and moguls, software engineers, and other information technology denizens of Silicon Valley and Seattle who are increasingly able to shape the flow of information and media in America. These digital mavens are the new elites. However, said oligarchs don’t depend on a large middle class workforce to buy their products, nor do they create one with their labor needs. Their business incentives are unlike those that led the production and manufacturing kings of another period to promote a broad-based capitalism of mass employment, mass production and consumption. After all, affording a smartphone isn’t that difficult, but owning a new Ford required a good job.

So they show little concern with ensuring that needs like energy, housing, education, and other costs remain affordable for most Americans. The past conditions for upward prosperity that even many progressives once favored don’t register their approval. Instead, they find progressive solutions superior because they purportedly promote a clean-environment and lessen inequality through redistribution.

This brings us to another key aspect of the ruling class which Kotkin labels the Clerisy, or those academics, members of the administrative state, journalists, and related symbol-manipulators who believe they hold an authoritative role to proclaim the true ideals that will guide America’s future. While not directly aligned with the Valley Oligarchs, the two groups share basic goals of clean energy, diversity, sustainable growth, highly-dense urban planning, and the gnostic belief that science can authoritatively answer political questions. It follows that there are sheep and goats on every issue, and the Clerisy per scientific knowledge knows the difference. Together, this ruling class, Kotkin argues, poses a unique challenge to the American Dream.