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The Face of Decline

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

They are, literally, left behind.

Not so many years ago, appalled pundits studied the so-called “underclass,” stranded in black ghettoes, condemned to poverty, burdened with bad education and bad health, reliant on government handouts, addicted to drugs and down-home religions, combatting the ills of broken families and casual violence, barely aware that a better future was even possible. Today, this pathology embraces most of the national territory and perhaps most Americans, white and black, and for the same reason: the economy they need to rebuild their lives no longer exists.

How many people have missed this train depends on your definition. George Packer, writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, estimated that this new class — not just the poor but the stuck, a sort of under-middle class with smart phones and the other toys of prosperity but with no hope of membership in the global economy — at about 80 percent of all Americans, which sounds about right. This is not the war between the 1 percent and the 99 percent; instead, it’s the fact that 20 percent of Americans now occupy a different world from the rest of the country.

The others, the 80 percent, have no idea how to catch up. As the late redneck author Joe Bageant wrote, something like 90 million Americans, more than one-third of all adults, are functionally illiterate, which means they can read a headline and a paragraph or two, but not really understand them. They certainly cannot read a real estate contract, which helps explain the mortgage crisis. And they cannot begin to compete in a post-industrial, knowledge economy.

Certainly, America retains formidable strengths and pockets of real prosperity, centers of innovations competitive in any economy. They include the pulsing financial and business centers of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and other global cities. They definitely include Cambridge, Austin, Madison, Palo Alto, Ann Arbor, Raleigh-Durham — intellectual capitals, homes to mighty universities. And there’s Silicon Valley, which still puts ideas and money together better than anywhere in the world.

None of this is trivial. It supports millions of Americans, brings in scholars and investment from around the world, designs and markets the products that power this global economy, makes this nation still a magnet for the world’s best and brightest.

via The Face of Decline.

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