Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coming Apart... and how to come back together

I was just reviewing this blog and realized it's been quite a long time since I've provided any new post.  A lot has happened since July '09.  Back then, I was working for the high-end fit-out contractor Conelle Construction in NYC, but by January 2010 I had finally found the position in the middle east I thought I was looking for.  The last two years have been quite a ride, and now that things have stabilized, I think I’ll start writing new posts about my experiences here.  But not just yet.  Before I get into work and life in the GCC I wanted to share an op-ed my aunt sent me recently published in the NY Times that ties in directly with my last topic on Richard Florida’s book, the Big Sort

The Great Divorce by David Brooks (1/30/12), is basically a book review for Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart (also reviewed in the WSJ).  There’s no need for me to review a review, but the argument is that American society is “bifurcating into a different social tribes, with a tenuous common cultural link linking them.”  A nice summary of the situation can be found in the article in the times:

“Today, Murray demonstrates, there is an archipelago of affluent enclaves clustered around the coastal cities, Chicago, Dallas and so on. If you’re born into one of them, you will probably go to college with people from one of the enclaves; you’ll marry someone from one of the enclaves; you’ll go off and live in one of the enclaves.

Worse, there are vast behavioral gaps between the educated upper tribe (20 percent of the country) and the lower tribe (30 percent of the country). This is where Murray is at his best, and he’s mostly using data on white Americans, so the effects of race and other complicating factors don’t come into play.

Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. In the upper tribe, nearly every man aged 30 to 49 is in the labor force. In the lower tribe, men in their prime working ages have been steadily dropping out of the labor force, in good times and bad.

People in the lower tribe are much less likely to get married, less likely to go to church, less likely to be active in their communities, more likely to watch TV excessively, more likely to be obese.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.
It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites.

The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.”

Brooks then proceeds to advocate mandatory national service as a way to “jam the tribes together”.

As most of you might guess, I find this solution abhorrent for a lot of reasons.  First, all service provided by humans should be voluntary in nature, not coerced at the point of a federal or state held gun.  Second, making two culturally disparate groups work together doesn’t work.  Allowing them to live next to each other and trade as free individuals on the other hand does.  The solution to this problem is in the way we build our cities, not in the way we force people into slave labor.

From my research, the physical environment has a serious impact on how people interact with each other and how they separate themselves from others.  One of the boons of traditional cities is that within a framework of property rights law, they allow all sorts of people to live next to each other, to experience different cultures and to fluidly exchange ideas.  Suburbs make that pretty difficult.  Ironically, the widespread use of suburbs as we know them come from the central planning (top down) mentality of the 1950's.  Most cities had some form of zoning law by the late 1920's but used them mostly for their stated intent, controlling noxious/polluting uses, rather than demographic control.  Post civil rights act, we decided it was time to step up socio-economic segregation too.  When we build suburbs constructed only of homes all in the same price range, and limited exclusively to home-owners (renting your house is usually illegal in most HOAs) we intentionally segregate ourselves from other socio economic groups.  The policy of suburban planning has created an increasingly segregated society.  Before the 1940/50’s, you could build a house on a block in a city and could do whatever you wanted with it, now those old cities, with lively streets and spontaneous interaction are becoming so expensive that they are being accused of being the enclave of the elites. Imagine saying all of Manhattan is for the wealthy in the 1980’s when you could find hookers in Times Square and crack cocaine in Tompkins Square Park.  It’s amazing to me to think how much things have changed in only 30 years.

Rather than promote national service, we should reign in outdated zoning policy that prevents people from building what they want and living where they want.