Dawn­ing of the ‘Age of Aquar­i­ums’

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, his­tory, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

THE COM­PLA­CENT CLASS: THE SELF-DE­FEAT­ING QUEST FOR THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM By Tyler Cowen St. Martin’s Press, $28.99, 241 pages

You can see it in aquar­i­ums. Any­one who has kept trop­i­cal fish knows that in a large, “mixed” tank where sev­eral va­ri­eties are thrown to­gether, the newly “in­te­grated” fish tend to re-seg­re­gate as quickly as pos­si­ble and as thor­oughly as space and op­por­tu­nity per­mit. Ze­bra fish hang out with other ze­bra fish, gup­pies clus­ter with fel­low gup­pies, bot­tom feed­ers con­tinue to feed on the bot­tom and “kiss­ing gouramis” only kiss each other They are all cit­i­zens of the same aquar­ium, shar­ing the same food and oxy­gen. But they still sub­di­vide into sep­a­rate va­ri­etal com­mu­ni­ties within the com­mu­nal space.

So do dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple — not de­fined by race but by ed­u­ca­tion, so­cial sta­tus, tra­di­tion and com­mu­nal stan­dards. The very term “af­flu­ent sub­urb” em­braces a long list of shared char­ac­ter­is­tics such as lower crime rates, high­erqual­ity schools, bet­ter-main­tained neigh­bor­hoods, lower il­le­git­i­macy rates, more dis­pos­able in­come and a host of other met­rics that ap­ply to af­flu­ent sub­ur­ban­ites re­gard­less of their creed, color or eth­nic ori­gin.

Wel­come to the Age of Aquar­i­ums. Since our ear­li­est days as a na­tion, we Amer­i­cans have prided our­selves on be­ing an up­wardly mo­bile so­ci­ety, and we have been one. Not a class­less so­ci­ety, but a so­ci­ety in which class en­try, re-clas­si­fi­ca­tion as it were, is at­tain­able on the ba­sis of per­sonal achieve­ment: rags to riches, slum to sub­urb, un­skilled la­borer to en­tre­pre­neur. It still is, but the speed and vol­ume of so­cial mo­bil­ity, both up­ward and down­ward, has slowed. This wor­ries Tyler Cowen, a distin­guished pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity and — that great rar­ity among economists — an ar­tic­u­late, en­gag­ing writer with at least one New York Times best­seller, “The Great Stag­na­tion” al­ready to his credit.

In his latest book, “The Com­pla­cent Class,” Mr. Cowen de­picts and de­cries what he sees as a re-seg­re­gat­ing, “match­ing cul­ture” trend that sees more and more Amer­i­cans lock­ing them­selves in place so­cially, eco­nom­i­cally, ed­u­ca­tion­ally and ge­o­graph­i­cally. These are all fac­tors that can con­trib­ute to the state of stag­na­tion — or sta­sis — he has al­ready ad­dressed in ear­lier work. The num­bers, at least su­per­fi­cially, back him up. Ge­o­graphic mo­bil­ity and job-chang­ing — forced by cut­backs or driven by bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties else­where — are down. So are pro­duc­tiv­ity and in­no­va­tion. Ob­vi­ously, none of this is good news. But is it all that sur­pris­ing?

In the cen­tury be­tween the mid1800s and the mid-1900s Amer­ica un­der­went vast change and growth. Mass in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion — at least as much as mass im­mi­gra­tion — ac­counted for much of it. But why? For one thing, there was a na­tion­wide flight of pop­u­la­tion from ru­ral to ur­ban lo­ca­tions, from agri­cul­tural to in­dus­trial pur­suits. The re­main­ing farm pop­u­la­tion con­tin­ues to shrink, but that mas­sive shift is largely a fait ac­com­pli, over and done with. Dur­ing the same cen­tury, ma­jor chunks of the U.S. were trans­form­ing from sparsely pop­u­lated, un­der­de­vel­oped ar­eas — e.g., Cal­i­for­nia, Florida, Ari­zona, Texas and Alaska — into pop­u­la­tion mag­nets with mush­room­ing ma­jor ur­ban ar­eas and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. We have no equiv­a­lent “wide open spa­ces” wait­ing to be filled by in­ter­nal mi­gra­tion and eco­nomic ex­pan­sion to­day.

Another fac­tor: Be­fore the ad­vent of the wel­fare state, there were neg­a­tive in­cen­tives for mo­bil­ity as well. If you lived in the dust bowl and lost ev­ery­thing — job, farm and house — it was move or die. You couldn’t sur­vive in place on food stamps, pub­lic hous­ing, unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and Med­i­caid. Mil­lions of peo­ple moved, not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause they wanted to, but be­cause they had to. Not any­more.

What Mr. Cowen calls the “self-de­feat­ing quest for the Amer­i­can Dream” may ac­tu­ally be the self-de­feat­ing at­tain­ment of the Amer­i­can Dream, a case of suc­cess spoil­ing it­self. It is also im­por­tant to bear in mind that the oc­cu­pants of to­day’s af­flu­ent sub­urbs and gen­tri­fied ur­ban ar­eas are a much more eth­ni­cally, re­li­giously and racially di­verse group than ever be­fore: less WASP and more Ital­ian, Ir­ish, Pol­ish, Jewish, Asian, African and God knows what else in ori­gin, com­pared to the Amer­ica of even a few gen­er­a­tions ago.

This stands in stark con­trast to most of the rest of the world. From for­mer Yu­goslavia and Cze­choslo­vakia to much of Africa, the Mid­dle East and ex-Soviet Union — not to men­tion the Euro­pean Union and even the United King­dom — a pe­riod of dis-in­te­gra­tion seems to be sup­plant­ing a long epoch of some­times in­vol­un­tary in­te­gra­tion and cen­tral­iza­tion. Clunky and bloated as Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and the Amer­i­can econ­omy are, we are not as di­vided — and not as far into a so­cioe­co­nomic death spi­ral — as most of our com­peti­tors.

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