The Most Important Chart

A lot of talk about America’s declining “social capital.” Sen. Mike Lee has a big report out:

There is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly ‘bowling alone,’ ‘coming apart,’ and inhabiting a ‘fractured republic.’ At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.

Lee’s report focuses on a decline in “associational life” — marriage, church membership, volunteering, etc. — and blames prosperity: “[R]ising affluence has made associational life less necessary for purposes of gaining material benefits …”

True enough. But I’d also blame this chart, which I’ve come to think is the most important chart around when it comes to explaining contemporary politics, including Trump:

It’s not just that wages for many have been stagnant. It’s that their increase or decrease has taken on a vicious meritocratic bias. Well-educated Americans are still doing well. Uneducated Americans are actually doing worse — they’re dropping out of the bottom of the pack.

It’s hard to see how traditional American-style social equality — everyone’s equal, not only in the eyes of God or before the law but in the eyes of each other — can survive many more decades of this chart. It’s one thing if the rich get richer — I’d argue there isn’t a hard, Marxist connection between income tables and a sense of social superiority. (Would you let any of these guys butt in front of you in line?) It’s another if a whole group of Americans — increasingly identifiable by dress, appearance and language — keeps getting tossed into the economic trashcan. *** I’ve had more than one conversation out here in West Los Angeles in which the topic of heartland working-class decline comes up and the explicit response from one of my friends is, “Fuck ’em.” (The only-sometimes-explicit rest of the response is “… if they’re too stupid to move or go to school.”)

Social equality isn’t “community” or “social capital.” You could have a perfectly socially equal society of monads who never talked to each other but merely tipped their hats out of respect when they passed on the street. But in a nation where community institutions — schools, churches, highways, ball games — are built on an egalitarian basis, the introduction of vicious class divisions isn’t going to help. Who wants to associate with a bunch of losers whose children will only drag down your kids’ SAT scores (and push them onto a lower meritocratic track)?

More simply: If, as Robert Putnam suggests, ethnic divisions cause a decline in social trust, the meritocratic split is yet another division that has to be overcome. Maybe a bigger division. It’s probably easier for ethnic Chinese software developers to associate with Caucasian software developers (I see it every day in my neighborhood) than for Caucasian software developers to associate with Caucasian car wash attendants.

True, each educational class might develop its own associational life, the way ethnic groups traditionally developed their own groups (Knights of Columbus, etc.). But it might take a long time. It’s also the stuff of neo-feudal dystopias. (When will the Betas and Zetas revolt?)

Which is another way of saying that community and “social capital” aren’t everything.

UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru suggests that one reason the wages of “less than high school” are declining in the chart is that there are fewer of them.

It was much more common to be a high-school dropout in 1973 than in 2005. We would expect the later group of high-school dropouts, a more distinctive part of the population, to have a worse relative economic standing …

In other words, “high school dropouts” used to be a mixed bag of people. But now the more able citizens almost always get degrees, while the less able drop out and become … well, a “more distinctive part of the population.” Maybe a part that always could only earn low wages. The more “less than high school” group is composed exclusively of these people, the lower its average wage, even if nobody has actually gone downhill.

Good point. A process like this might indeed be at work. But note this is the very sorting (into classes marked by income and ability) that itself eats away at our sense of equality. You used to be able to look at someone earning low wages and not think that they were someone the system has determined to be a loser. Now you can. The entire income distribution has been given a toxic, divisive cast. The fairer the system, the more toxic.

Even if the chart reflected only this sorting process, rather than a long-term decline of wages at the bottom, it would be bad for social equality (and, I’d argue, for “social capital”). It almost certainly reflects a mix of both phenomena. But it’s bad news either way.


*** — That’s why I’m obsessed with immigration, which may explain a third of “the recent decline in the relative wages of less-educated native workers.”  [See also.] It’s the easiest lever we have to pull (easier than reversing trade patterns, or halting automation). Controlling competition from cheap imported labor isn’t a full solution, but in itself it could cause a surge in unskilled wages — something that may already be happening.