David Brooks and Gail Collins have a very interesting exchange in today’s New York Times. (here) Collins offers a narrative of post-WWII America’s boom times for ordinary Americans followed by (since the 70s) a persistent squeeze. Brooks sets this story within another narrative, the divergence between the highly educated (the elite 20%) who are doing very well and the rest of Americans.
What I found particularly interesting was Brooks’ suggestion that this elite 20% not only do well financially, they also dominate our public culture. Since advertisers are wild to get at them and their wallets, their tastes dominate the media. When the 80% watch those same media, they develop the same elite tastes (for bigger houses, vacations in Cancun, flat screen TVs, and so on). The 80% don’t have incomes to sustain those tastes, though, so they borrow. And then, it all blows up, as it did this year.
Here’s what I’d add: the 20% not only dictate the culture of acquisitiveness, they dictate a culture of unlimited freedom. In particular, they dictate a culture of sexual freedom. Watch TV and ask yourself: what are the ethics of sexuality in this society?
The elite, for whatever reasons, can handle this freedom. They marry and still have a low divorce rate. Even if they do divorce, they have the income and personal stability to manage the consequences. But the 80% do not. Their divorce rates are well over 50%, and so well over half their kids grow up with only one biological parent. This produces a high quotient of personal problems, which reinforces tendencies to quit school early and earn less money.
It’s an ugly cycle that tends to reinforce itself. I wish I knew what to do about it.