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Trying to Get a Broader Understanding

I've been trying to read more broadly to get a better understanding about current economic/political dysfunction (and many other fields). Start with the premise of American exceptionalism, the American Constitution as one of the great political document in world history, the benefits of democracy, and the success of capitalism (ignoring, at least for now, all the downsides, corruption and despicable people and events). Shift to the early post-World War II period and call that an economic and political golden age (again ignoring a host of issues). The economy was successful, the middle class achieved major progress (and expected better for the children), income and wealth inequality was relatively low, and politics was moderate (when the median voter model worked well as a analytical tool) and reasonably effective; that is, compromise, compromise, compromise.

Recent news indicate declining life expectancy, a static or declining middle class, a dysfunctional federal government, massive (and growing) income and wealth inequality, and a long and detailed list of other disruptions. I have a fairly good handle on the business and economic factors, starting with capitalism as amoral and self-interested. It gets complicated, but many books analyze a host of specific issues (and I have book reviews on many of them). I'm less familiar with political factors, but reading widely. The dysfunction started at least by the 1980's, but the current administration is an outlier even compared to earlier corrupt tactics. What I really want to learn about is the more day-to-day issues and problems (and hopefully connect them to the broader issues). Included in this list is J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about his perspective of a Kentucky family and culture succeeding in the early post-World War II period to fall victim to the various economic and political declines. I went back to a 1960's perspective with John Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie. The explanation in a word: complicated!

The starting point is Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School, a successful lawyer and venture capitalist, married with a couple of kids, and presumably relatively wealthy; in other words, one of the elites. Why is he self-identifying as a hillbilly and writing about his dysfunctional family and culture? Why is this important to the rest of us? Likely Trump voters? The continued collapse of the working class? A continuing opioid epidemic? His grandparents turned a young dysfunctional family into a working class success by migrating to Ohio for factory work: it paid well and included benefits plus retirement. In other words the typical middle class success of the post-World War II period. Then it fell apart as manufacturing jobs left. The people stayed and on average failed, including his mother (drug addiction, failed marriages). One of the big failures seemed to be job training, which either did not exist or worked poorly. Vance on the other hand succeeded through education: marines, Ohio State degree, Yale Law School. He was ill-prepared but carried on through hard work.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me is a book-length letter to his son, basically on surviving in a racist Baltimore (and more broadly, America). Coates is a successful journalist, struggling with the violence, especially police violence, against black males. The most interesting parts to me were the brief description of first, the various black intellectuals and groups with alternative views on the black struggles in America and, second, his ambivalence at various point in the book such as his journey to Paris and the difference perspective there.

Steinbeck's Travels With Charley views America from the early 1960's. A key point to me is the picture looks a lot like America today, or a country well on its way. Texas politics looks familiar, except the conservatives at the time were Democrats. The West was growing, with cities disrupting nature (e.g., California redwoods, his unrecognizable Salinas where he grew up). A major point was the rising pollution and, at the time, no effort to clear it up (the result since then: a win for government regulation). He viewed the South as incredibly racist.

Of course, I want to get back to governing from the center, which includes compromise and a pragmatic view of public policy. The two current books describe reasons for extremes (at least it covers the hostility part) from both right and left. Neither givers much hope for pragmatic politics.

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