Book Review, My blog., Opinion, Uncategorized

Don Peck’s America Is Still In A Pinch.

I remember something from when I was in college that still sticks in my head.  I was with my parents at a restaurant in Painesville Township which is east of Cleveland, Ohio.  We went to this place over the years and we would usually sit in the enclosed porch section which looked out on Mentor Avenue.  Anyway, that day we were there not too long after my father, a certified welder who was laid off from his previous one, got a better job.  For some reason, as my mother talked to the waitress she mentioned this fact and that she was glad because for a few months we didn’t have any health insurance.  As she was saying that, she almost sobbed and I could tell she was embarrassed.  “I know,” the waitress replied and a few seconds later my mother regained her composure and we gave our order.

I write this because this was in fact over two decades ago and the bread and butter problems that so many men and women have faced then are still occurring, the latest as a result of the Great Recession of 2007-2008.  In light of the race in Georgia, the Scientist March, and (as I shall call him) the idiot savant’s refusal to still release his tax returns, reading Don Peck’s Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It is again very illuminating on how we got to this point. As I originally wrote in a review six years ago, Pinched is a well research book. In nine chapters, the author explores how the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression has had lasting impact on the average American.

Peck argues that the financial meltdown of ten years ago simply accelerated long-standing trends in American society when it comes to making a living (and thus echoes to a degree Derek Thompson in his later piece) “America’s classes are separating and changing.  A tiny elite continues to float up and away from everyone else.  Meanwhile, as manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of what the United States has historically regarded as its middle class is in danger of drifting downward.  Left in between is what might be thought of as the professional middle class-unexceptional college graduates, for whom the arrow of fortune points mostly sideways, and an upper tier of college graduates and postgraduates for whom it points progressively upward, but not spectacularly so.” (Page 34).  In this environment women apparently rebounded in finding jobs better than many working class men.

This crisis directly affects politics and from the sharp swings in voting patterns, people are at a point where any change is worth it. “American politics has grown meaner as economic anxiety has lingered.  Anti-immigrant sentiment has risen, and support for the poor has fallen.  By many measures, trust-which to a large degree separates successful societies from unsuccessful ones-has diminished.  The number of active militias in the United States increased from 43 to 330 between 2007 and 2010.  And while frustrations will ebb when the economy improves enough, ideas and attitudes carry their own momentum” (Page 25).  This leads Peck in Chapter Eight to make this very accurate conclusion: “In the end, if we remain stuck in an economic climate in which stagnation and disappointment are the norms for large numbers of Americans, the most-likely risks to our politics are not rogue leaders or an insurgent populist party.  They are endless vacillation, low levels of public trust, and political options that are stunted by a poisonous atmosphere and heavy discontent.” (Page 152).  As shown in Weimar Germany and 1930’s France, a long festering economic malaise can make people turn against mainstream institutions which they feel failed them and look for something else; usually something more authoritarian in nature.

As a man, it does interest me reading this what Mr. Peck writes about men in the work force.  He goes even further to put this in the greater context of generations who had gone through the Great Depression, and even the Gilded Age.  (Something common with today). On the study of the Great Depression in Chapter 3. “Many young adults who could not find footing in the job market were left permanently scarred. Glen Elder, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and a pioneer in the field of ‘life course’ studies, has spent much of his career tracking the various generations that lived through the Depression, to see how it shaped their lives.  Some three decades after the Depression ended, and even after a long postwar boom, he count a pronounced diffidence in aging men (though not women) who had suffered hardship as twenty-and thirtysomethings during the 1930s.  .Unlike peers who had been largely spared during those lean years, these men came across, Elder told me, as “beaten and withdrawn, lacking ambition, direction, confidence in themselves.” (Page 53).  This is also something that can be seen in later generations of men who were affected by later economic crises.  It would be interesting to see if this lack of self-confidence and direction manifests currently in thirty-something millennials as well.

The interviews are still potent.  From a homeowner in Bridgewater Florida to an unemployed construction worker with eight children in Reading Pennsylvania, Peck interviewed a wide range of Americans for whom the American Dream tanked.  For some reason, the plight of a man using the name Mark Nickelson sticks in my head.  A native of Ohio, he worked his way through college and got into law school passing the bar in both Massachusetts and New York.  However, after much effort, he only landed a job at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2010 through a fellowship program “The job doesn’t make use of his law degree, and he doesn’t advertise that degree around the office, he said.  Whenever a colleague finds out, ‘they’re like, You went to law school?  What are you doing here?” (Page 75).   Nickelson should be in his early 30’s now and I wonder if he finally got to use that degree, or pay off those student loans.

Now, what about the movers and shakers of the nation?  What role or responsibilities do they have?  Peck cites the work of Christopher Lasch whose book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy is something worth the author of Pinched to refer to,  Lasch believed that America’s elite feels that they are part of a global community (think Davos or that W20 Summit in Berlin Ivanka Trump went to) but are emotionally detached from the rest of the nation.  Patriotism is not high on their list. “Consequently, Lasch argued, modern elites tend to “exercise power irresponsibly, precisely because they recognize so few obligations to their predecessors or to the communities they profess to lead.  Their lack of gratitude disqualifies meritocratic elites from the burden of leadership, and in any case, they are less interested in leadership than in escaping from the common lot-the very definition of meritocratic success.”  (Page 112).  On the other hands there are those of this group, with their pocketbooks, have done just as much harm to our body politic as those who give up their citizenship to save a buck.  Thus the elites that lefties, populists and Tea Party types have been railing against are not really the ones holding the reins, or pocketbook, of power.  The Koch Brothers, the Mercers, and Betsey DeVoss’ family have done far more to threaten the proverbial American Way of Life than Chris Matthews, the NAACP and Cher ever did.

Naturally in a book like this, solutions are suggested.  After all, who would really want to buy a scathing critique about America without offering a ray of hope? Peck (along with Thompson, McAffee and Brynjolfsonn, and Jim Russell for that matter), pointed out what may be measures that could in the long run address this situation the American Middle Class is stuck in.  Like these other gentlemen, and Richard Florida for that matter, Peck asserts that improving the education opportunities of lower-income children is crucial, but doesn’t get into real details.  “Over the next decade or two, college education simply cannot be the whole answer to the woes of the middle class since even under the rosiest of assumptions, most of the middle of society will not have a four-year college-degree.”  (Page 177)   I do like the idea of career academies as well as the concept of a national innovation bank.  Some of his other ideas, such as Wage Insurance, would never play in the current political climate. Wage Insurance, something many in Trump’s Circle of donors would scoff at, “ Wage Insurance kicks in when unemployed people find a new job that pays less than their old one, making up part of the difference, say half, for a couple of years.” (Page 167).

While soaking the rich isn’t the answer, I agree with Peck that high earners should be paying more than they do now.  I wonder what he thinks about Trump’s idea to repeal the estate tax (as Governor John Kasich has done in Ohio)?  Aggressive wage subsidies (for up to a year) to employers who hire the long-term unemployed, a targeted and temporary incentive, seems interesting but again questionable.

While I do understand Peck’s argument that people’s mobility to get to jobs in other parts of the nation should be encouraged, what about the towns they leave behind?  Besides that, in light of the problems people have with student debt, the idea of using college loans as a model for a relocation loan (Page 165) seems unfeasible. Putting more money into R & D is laudable.  However, in light of what has happened since November 2016, it would be a struggle to keep government spending in this area as it is.

After repeated attempts to contact the Atlantic and Mr. Peck, I still haven’t received a response.  However, here are the questions I wanted to ask him.

  1. When he wrote this book, did he ever thought that after two terms of Barak Obama we would wind up with something like the Trump Administration?
  2. What does he see the economic state of most Americans in 2021?
  3. Have the notions of public responsibility, social cohesiveness in short a functioning Civil Society continue to weaken since 2011?
  4. Did he think what Christopher Lasch wrote about has become a reality?

It would have been really nice to hear what Mr. Peck had to say about these.

Recently, a book by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein on the fate of people .living in Janesville Wisconsin after the GM plant there closed in 2008 shows that what Peck discovered in his book still affects so many people around the nation; and that many wound up voting for Trump.  I would be surprised if Mr. Peck writes a sequel to Pinched in 2021.  After four years of Trump on the one hand and a Congressional leadership eager to pursue the same policies that led our economy to the brink in 2008, we’ll get to see if the problems he chronicled remain or gotten worse.

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