2008: Year of Hope, Year of Fear. Essay 13

Why the odds are long for an economic and social turnaround
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Weathering politics.

Why the odds are long for an economic and social turnaround

When I was 8, I was upset when our Japanese neighbors in Los Angeles were sent off to internment. In 1963, I traveled across the Deep South, awed by the totality of segregation and discrimination. So despite the Civil Rights revolution, you can understand that I was afraid that, in the secrecy of the absentee ballot, racism would prevail. The election of Barack Obama restored a degree of faith in the American experiment, and hope for an economic and social turnaround.

But my skepticism is strong. The Democratic party is one of the intellectual rich, not of the worker, and not very inclined to deep change. What are the real problems of American society? By far the greatest, and probably not even on the agenda, is the astounding degree of economic inequality, perhaps back to the levels of 1929 or even 1913. Not unrelated to this is deindustrialization and overdependence on other nations for resources, products, and credit. The story of the rise of the United States to world power was based on production. Our success over Germany and Japan depended on massive production and our capacity (yes, from the likes of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) to destroy the productive capacity of the enemy. Now we are willing to bail out the bloated financial and service sectors, and let industry die.

Similarly, while the United States may have the 'ꀜfinest'ꀝ education at the top, the general level of education is amazingly mediocre, with an astounding prevalence of ignorance and superstition. I do not see even a hint of a turnaround here. I suspect the power of the medical insurance and hospital sectors are sufficient to prevent serious reform of this dysfunctional system. Nor are we close to abandonment of the hopeless war on drugs, or to real reform of criminal justice, or — despite the election of Obama — to integration of millions of Black males into mainstream society. Do the ivory tower economic theorists, Democratic as well as Republican, have a clue about the disaster potential of 100,000 more unemployed workers in Detroit?

The beginnings of this economic and social restructuring were around 1976; believe it or not, the lowest level of economic inequality in US history was 1974. Those of us at the top surely believe we earned our way there, but are in denial about the immense cost to the majority left behind.

I just hope I'ꀙm as wrong about prospects for reform as I was about the election!


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.