Two Americas: Which America Do You Live In?
My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.
The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.
Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.
There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.
A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.
Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book,The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.
In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.
Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.
Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.
Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.
What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.