Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nostalgia and the Near Poor: Confronting the real issues that face us

A number of my recent posts could legitimately be characterized as “nostalgia”, that is, generally positive reflections on times or things gone by  (Brooklyn Nostalgia, Remembering Records, Steve Goodman). That’s OK, we all have our memories and some of them are good, and I get pleasure writing about them, and sometimes they evoke pleasant memories  in others who read them.

But this is not at all to say that all memories are good, or certainly that times past were better. I have had a harder time writing about the difficult and sad memories because – they are difficult and sad. Nostalgia tends to be selective. While it is good to remember things that were good, or interesting, and now gone or much decreased, or are no longer easily available to us because we have moved (“Nathan’s” hot dogs, French fries and clam strips!) , that doesn’t make it true that the past was all good. I have also written about this.

In a typically excellent piece in the New York Times, November 19, 2011, Charles Blow writes about the “Decline of American Exceptionalism”. He discusses a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, in which, for the first time, the percent of Americans  answering saying that they agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” had dropped below 50% (to 49%,from a high of 60% when first asked in 2002). Even more striking, he notes, “…was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain.”  (Note that France, the other country for which data is provided is quite a bit lower than the US, despite the common portrayal of the French as “culture snobs”. Funny, that.)

Looking at it the other way, older people are more likely to believe this statement, whichever country they are from; the percents for the groups 18-29 and 50+ are, for the US 37/60, for Germany 45/51 (the smallest difference), for Spain 39/55, for Britain 38/38 (and, interesting, this is the only country where the middle group, 30-49, is way below either, at 20%), and for France 20/35. Perhaps this, in general, does indicate that older people remember the past as better, either because of “nostalgia” or because it actually was.

Providing some support for the latter idea is the increasing evidence that most of the increase in wealth over the last 30 years (certainly in the US) has gone to a small percent of those at the top. At the greatest extremes the top 1% have more wealth than the bottom 50%. The ratios of CEO earnings to those of the average worker have increased logarithmically, from the mid 2 digits (about 40) to over 300 times since the 1950s. Some support for this is also presented in another article from the same day’s Times: Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census, by Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise.  “They drive cars,” it starts, “but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by. “ We have focused on poverty in the elderly and in children and in the “core” poor, but this is a “new” group. Or newly-identified by the Census Bureau; most of us know people in this situation.

I am not; I am very fortunate to have gone to medical school and become a doctor, I know in part because it would provide financial security as well as the opportunity make some positive difference in the world. But I could have been in this group had I chosen a different profession. My parents worked hard, and wanted me to get a good education, but they certainly were not rich or able to provide for my future if I didn’t work.  I benefited from growing up in NYC when the public schools offered the opportunity to have an excellent education. This is “nostalgia”  but it is socioeconomic nostalgia for a time when the city of New York was populated mostly by workers, who had built institutions that in many ways mirrored European social democracies. Where one could get a bachelors and masters degree tuition-free from the City University. Before the “financial crisis” of the 1970s (brought on, let us be clear, like all financial crises, by the bankers and not the people) opened the door for a jealous and vengeful rest-of-the-US to destroy the infrastructure the city that had built for its people (NY Daily News headline of October 30, 1975: "Ford to City: Drop Dead!"). (For a much better and more complete discussion of the history of the city and the people-centered infrastructure it had built, see “Working Class New York”, by historian – and no relation – Joshua B. Freeman). 

The bankers, as we have become used to, won. Jobs left the city, and it became more and more a “center of finance” catering to the well-to-do. The small factories that had covered the city left for lower-cost (read: “non-union") states when they could. And the same happened across the country. The industries that allowed people who had often less than a high-school diploma to work really hard and earn enough to buy a house, a car or even two, and send their kids to college – the steel mills of Chicago and Pittsburgh, the auto plants in Michigan and Ohio, “blue collar” jobs everywhere  – disappeared. And the folks who were born just a little too late to have worked in these jobs into retirement, as well as many who have seen their retirement benefits dwindle, are our new “near poor”.

But the disparity that strikes me most about the findings of the Pew study are between those with and without college degrees, with the latter group consistently and significantly more of the belief that their culture is superior. They are quite impressive in each of the countries surveyed. In France, apparently the new standard for cultural non-arrogance, the difference is 20%, with 15% of those with college degrees and 35% of those without having this belief. The country with the largest difference is Germany (25%/50%), while in the US, the difference is the smallest (9%, 43% of those with degrees and 52% of those without), but the percents for both groups are the highest.

Why are those without college degrees more likely to believe their own cultures are superior? Perhaps it is the obvious answer, that a college education broadens one’s outlook and decreases this kind of arrogance-born-of-ignorance. In this case, it is scary to think about what the US higher-education system is doing if 43% of college graduates still hold these beliefs. Or it could be, in part, that as opportunities, economic and otherwise, wither, it is nice to have something to hold on to, in much the same way that beliefs in an afterlife can be comforting in times of loss. Or maybe it is nostalgia – I may not look like so much now, but once I – and my country – was young and strong. I certainly don’t know. But I know that we need to understand the difference between nostalgia, remembrances accurate or inaccurate of the past, and what is recognizing that we have in many ways gone in the wrong direction for the last 30 years, guided not by ignorance but by selfishness and greed, and now need to change that direction.

Blow says: “We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices.” Indeed.

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