Sunday, April 12, 2015



I finally got the chance to read Robert Putnam’s latest, Our Kids.  

In the world of political theory, Putnam’s work on “social capital,” especially in Bowling Alone, was inescapable for about ten years.  Putnam argued that voluntary belonging to groups in civil society had been in long decline, and he pinned most of the blame at the time on television.  The decline in “belongingness” mattered, he argued, because “civil society” was where most people learned and developed political efficacy.  It was where you learned to be a citizen.  In putting together, say, a Little League schedule, you form broad-but-weak ties with other adults in the community.  Those ties -- beyond the family, but still local -- form the basis for collective action, as well as for professional networks.  In the shift from bowling leagues to bowling alone, he argued, we lost capacities we didn’t know we needed.

As with any Big Idea, there was plenty to attack, and people did.  But there was a recognizable glimmer of truth to the idea, which is probably why the term stuck long after anyone still read the book.  For years, political theorists were compelled to grapple with the idea of “social capital,” whether they wanted to or not.  (My own, somewhat skeptical effort can be found in the September, 2001 edition of “New Political Science.”  I came away much more impressed by Nina Eliasoph’s work in Avoiding Politics than by Putnam’s.)

His new book, Our Kids, attempts to be similarly agenda-setting.  This time, the goal is to highlight the effects of class polarization on the lives of young adults.  His thesis is that during his own childhood in the 1950’s, there was enough social capital in many places that kids who grew up in working-class homes were often able to climb economically over time, and to avoid serious deprivation or danger.  (To his credit, Putnam recognizes that his nostalgia is racially specific.)  But in contemporary America, the gulf in life circumstances across economic classes has grown so large that people in any given class really don’t recognize the reality that others experience.  The cultural tailwinds that used to propel many people forward are largely confined to the upper classes now.  Worse, while the tailwinds are effective, they’re also largely invisible, especially to those who benefit from them.  As a consequence, people who have political clout don’t understand the roots of their own success, and falsely attribute it entirely to their own (or their family’s) merit.  And people who don’t have clout are so turned off and mystified that they don’t even try.  So the political discourse, and resulting action, is based on a myopia that becomes self-reinforcing over time.  As the classes pull farther apart, we collectively lose sight of our common humanity, and we enact policies that accelerate the polarization.

Putnam is careful throughout not to come across as polemical, taking pains to note when a politically conservative lens is useful for understanding an issue.  The book never really identifies villains, per se, and its policy prescriptions fall far short of anything that would make a meaningful difference.  For a book on a crucial political conflict, it’s strangely apolitical.  

From the perspective of someone at a community college, Putnam’s treatment is both revealing and unsatisfying.  He asserts that “for most kids (!), community colleges are not really a rung on a taller ladder, but the end of the line, educationally speaking.” (p. 185)  Leaving aside his sense of community college student ages, Putnam leaves entirely unaddressed the “middle skills jobs” that require education beyond high school, but that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.  Instead, he leaps quickly to “more selective institutions, which for better or worse offer the best prospects for success in America…” (p. 186).  Well, yes and no.  I would have expected a more thoughtful and detailed take from someone this prominent on an issue this important.

Putnam mentions in passing that Jennifer Silva assisted in his research.  Her recent book, Coming Up Short, is a much smarter and more incisive take on similar issues.  She works without nostalgia, and her interviews are far more insightful and revealing than his.  If you like to read about the effects of class polarization on the ground, I’d recommend going directly to her book instead.  In this case, at least, the research assistant has surpassed the big name.

Still, Putnam offers an unintentionally helpful insight into the ways that well-meaning, progressive-ish elites view community colleges, and how they get them wrong.  Most people who work in community colleges -- Putnam doesn’t cite a single one -- see their mission as helping struggling students of all ages improve their lot in the world.  They’re about creating a middle class for a country that has forgotten how to do that.  Putnam seems to share that goal, but has moved so long in elite circles that he has forgotten how it’s done, too.  To the extent that he has the ear of the powerful, he’s unintentionally sending messages that will make our mission even harder than it already is.  

“Our” kids, as a phrase, presumes the existence of a coherent group behind the first-person plural.  Putnam’s view, sadly, reflects a relatively narrow group, despite his best intentions.  If he’d like to get a sense of social mobility on the ground, I’d be happy to host him on campus.  We’re only about 90 minutes from Harvard on the Mass Pike, though from his telling, you’d think we were a world away.  It might even be faster if you catch a tailwind.

I think it's simply more true that our elites (and, let's be honest, our own white peers) were more comfortable with social mobility when it didn't include The Jeffersons.

Once it did, we were willing to pay any price, no matter how grievous, to tamp that sort of thing down. We are the same people who raised an army of poor white men to defend the slave system that kept them poor and white (as well as, yes, the people who raised an army of poor and middle class men to destroy them -- and then let them off the hook).

Six years of the white response to Obama -- and the white response to repeated murders of black men and children caught on film -- has made me something of an essentialist. You just cannot explain anything in the US without race as the starting point.

Regrettably, I agree with Punditus' conclusion, though I get there by a different route. It's why the most segregated school system in the country is New York City.
Stewart made clear that antiblack racism, while the basis for conservatism, cuts right into the center-lefty continuum.

We had a chance to address this in a real way, back in the 1870s. Conservatives bribed enough people that we muffed it. We had another chance, in the 1960s and 70s, and conservatives shot enough people that we muffed it.

You can't live in a house with a sexist and not absorb some of that, if only out of self-defense. You can't live in a nation with conservatives and not have their all-consuming obsession taint you, if only out of self-defense.

The book never really identifies villains, per se, and its policy prescriptions fall far short of anything that would make a meaningful difference

I wish more writers would point to housing policy as a serious real-world problem. It turns out that most of the returns to capital Piketty identifies actually come from disproportionate housing appreciation that is a result of zoning changes widely made in the 70s and 80s. Let more people live in high-productivity areas like Seattle, west L.A., Boston, and New York, and you'll see both higher wages on the low end and more real income because less money will be going to rent and mortgages.

But almost no one is raising that issue—with the exception of Yglesias in The Rent is Too Damn High and Avent in The Gated City—despite its tremendous, growing importance.
Yes, it does seem that class differences have become more severe in recent years. It seems that we now have a dual class system—just a few people at the very top and a growing underclass of people trying to scrape by on minimum-wage jobs with no benefits.

One of the beneficial effects of postwar American life was an expanding middle class, in which people could afford to get married, could afford to have children, could afford to buy a house, and could afford to take a vacation now and then. However, in recent years, it has becoming more and more difficult to attain and sustain a middle-class lifestyle. More and more people are finding the gateways to a middle-class lifestyle increasingly blocked off, and are condemned to minimum wage jobs flipping burgers at Wendy’s or bagging groceries at the local supermarket.

One of the causes (or unintended side effects) of this increased class stratification is credential inflation. When I was a kid back in the 1950s, a high-school diploma was a respected entry to middle-class respectability, and even provided access to many different types of managerial-level jobs. However, recently the economic value of a high-school diploma has declined so much that it barely qualifies the graduate for manual or menial service work. Jobs that once were open to high school graduates now routinely require not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s degree, often without any appreciable change or growth in any of the required skills. Many career pathways are becoming closed off to people who do not have a bachelor’s degree, although these jobs often do not require any skills that are typically taught in college.

Employers keep ratcheting up their educational credential demands, supposedly to filter out people who, based on their lower credential levels, are presumably less competent and less trainable. Perhaps this is also being done to keep the number of applicants for these jobs down to a more manageable level. But many of these jobs do not really require skill sets that are typically taught at the bachelor’s level, and there is very little difference in skill requirements for jobs requiring a college degree from those that do not.

Nowadays, in order to obtain a career that offers even a chance of a middle-class lifestyle, one has to take out an expensive loan and go to college. This has produced an oversupply of college graduates in many fields, so much so that advanced graduate degree holders in many fields have to end up working as store clerks, driving taxicabs, waiting tables, or flipping burgers.

We have a soaring number of people struggling to get into desirable upper-echelon schools, along with growing access to schools that at the bottom of the academic pecking order. We see overworked faculty, crowded lecture halls, more and more of the curriculum being moved online, and a growing army of poorly-paid adjunct faculty.

I had to look up Putnam's background to be sure I understood the context of "growing up in the 50s" (he graduated HS circa 1959 in a small coastal OH town) to my own (a decade later in a much larger industrial city). I attended a very white HS, but The Jeffersons were welcome because they were middle class. (They had to be, to get past the red-lining by banks that HUD never really stopped.) The poorest kids at my HS were white, so I see class as a huge effect. Friends who attended a less white (but still majority white) HS didn't seem to perceive it much differently.

The difference I see is that many blue collar families were middle class back then, while others were working class. You had to know more than how to turn a wrench, but you didn't need a college degree to live between our house and a corporate VP two doors down and across the street from a teacher. Those weren't cultural tailwinds, they were jobs in an era of income equality that made college possible for their kids. (The headwinds kicked in if your kids assumed those jobs would be there for their kids after they voted for Reagan for "cultural" reasons. Ooops.)

Agree 100% about people not understanding the roots of their success, but a bigger problem is that they don't understand the roots of struggle for people who are smart but got caught unprepared for what happened in the 80s. [Aside: Heard someone tonight correct himself after saying something about the US "losing" jobs overseas, then remembering that we actually sent them there.]

But, yes, he is full of crap about community colleges. Today they are often used by children of well-off parents when an easy life led to low SAT scores. That can be the down side of being on the high side of income inequality today. And, as oft noted here, CCs are also used by bright kids who would be out of place at Swarthmore (Putnam's college) but thrive at flagship universities after transfer. I see it every year.
"unintended side effects"

Fully intended. The deal proposed in the 80s was that the hammer was coming down on the working class, but you could avoid it by going to college.

That was false, of course; the hammer was just coming down, as such. But people bought in, because it allowed them to brutalize the incoming African-American middle class under the illusion that they could escape easily.

ArtMathProf: Employers keep ratcheting up their educational credential demands, supposedly to filter out people who, based on their lower credential levels, are presumably less competent and less trainable. Perhaps this is also being done to keep the number of applicants for these jobs down to a more manageable level.

Not just employers.

When I taught are a community college (over two decades ago) you needed OAC Calculus (intended for students going to university science & engineering programs) to get into Cosmetology. Nothing in Cosmetology needed calculus, and indeed it wasn't a formal requirement*, but there were so many applications that the college used it as a simple filter to reduce the number of applications they had to read in more detail.

*Couldn't be, as Calculus is a U-level course, and colleges are supposed to be accessible with just C-level courses.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?