The Profound Social Cost of American Exceptionalism

When I wrote my first Economic Scene column six years ago, the unemployment rate languished at 8.2 percent as the job market painfully recovered from the jolt of the Great Recession. By last month, only 3.9 percent of working-age Americans who sought a job didn’t have one.

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When I wrote my first Economic Scene column six years ago, the unemployment rate languished at 8.2 percent as the job market painfully recovered from the jolt of the Great Recession. By last month, only 3.9 percent of working-age Americans who sought a job didn’t have one.

You are welcome.

I’m kidding, of course. How could anybody claim credit for the performance of something as vast and complex as the American labor market? My columns probably didn’t have anything to do with the doubling of the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, either, or even with the sixfold rise in digital-only subscriptions to The New York Times.

To the contrary, as I write what will be the last column of my tenure, I can’t help but acknowledge how little purchase my writing has had on the substance of reality. In particular, it has had no discernible effect on what one might call America’s fundamental paradox.

The United States is one of the richest, most technologically advanced nations in the history of humanity. And yet it accepts — proudly defends, even — a degree of social dysfunction that would be intolerable in any other rich society.

My first column pondered why Americans didn’t care more about the nation’s income gap, so much starker than that of any other advanced democracy. I suggested that my compatriots might come to a consensus that inequality is harmful when they realized how vast inequities could gum up the cogs of economic and social mobility.

Well, inequality hasn’t abated much. In 2015, the richest 1 percent of American taxpayers drew more than 20 percent of the nation’s income, including capital gains, according to the tabulations by the French scholar Thomas Piketty and his colleague Emmanuel Saez.

You can bet it has gone higher, given the bull run in the stock market since then. And Republicans just passed another round of tax cuts to offer a helping hand to the upper crust.

Most interestingly, Americans still don’t care that much. Sure, two-thirds say they are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed, according to Gallup. Still, more than 3 out of 5 — compared with just over half six years ago — are satisfied with “the opportunity for a person in this nation to get ahead by working hard.”

Republican orthodoxy is that inequality is not necessarily a problem. And if rising tides substantially lifted everybody’s boat, it might matter less that the yachts parked at the North Cove Marina a stone’s throw from Goldman Sachs rode a bigger swell. Tides in America don’t work like that anymore, though.

As my column has aimed to highlight, too many Americans are, well, sinking. Seventeen percent of Americans are poor by international standards — living on less than half the nationwide median income. That’s more than twice the share of poor people in France, Iceland or the Netherlands. Forget about income, though. It’s hard to square Americans’ belief in their society’s greatness with the life expectancy of its newborn girls and boys. It is shorter than in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and probably a few other countries I missed.

Or let’s measure our progress in terms of infant deaths. Scientists in the United States invented many of the technologies used around the world to keep vulnerable babies alive. So how come our infant mortality rate is higher than that of every nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with the exceptions of Mexico, Chile and Turkey?

Our dismal rank, by the way, is not driven by the babies of white, affluent Americans. The impact of the nation’s fundamental paradox mostly fails the nonwhite and the poor. Black males born in the United States today will probably live shorter lives than boys born in Mexico, China or Turkey.

This set of facts seems to me problematic. Your heart doesn’t even have to bleed to care. The United States risks its prosperity by leaving so many Americans behind.

The children of poverty who survive will most likely hobble through life with mediocre educations — lagging their more affluent peers even before their first day in school and then falling farther behind, deprived of the resources that disadvantaged children in other advanced nations routinely enjoy.

Unequipped to cope with the demands of a labor market in furious transformation, they will give “social mobility” a new, all-American meaning: the tendency to move in and out of prison. It’s hard to believe any country could waste so many resources and prosper.

And yet for all the ink spilled by so many excellent journalists — from The Times’ own Neil Irwin to Vox’s Matt Yglesias, Bloomberg’s Noah Smith and many others — America is doubling down on its exceptionalism. The rich got a tax break. Bankers got a break from the pesky rules written in the shadow of the financial crisis to protect the little guy. The poor and near poor were freed from their ability to afford health insurance.

As Catherine Rampell noted in The Washington Post, populism — understood as a political movement shaped around giving the working class a “fair shake” — is pretty much dead.

And yet writing is, in fact, indispensable. It is because of the writing of journalists and social scientists — economists and political scientists, historians and sociologists — that we know what we know about the workings of American society, its economy and its political system. From Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, I learned that the very meaning of the word “job” is changing, as fixed employment gives way to contract, part-time, gig and temp work. David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson enlightened me about the cost to many American communities of China’s rise. Michelle Alexander’s writing told me about the impact of America’s ruthless criminal justice system on the nation’s blacks. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s shed light on the politics of its struggling whites.

To my colleagues in journalism, I owe the deepest debt of gratitude. From them I have learned how important it is to shine light on power. In this peculiar political moment, as the powerful promote self-serving realities, hoping to bend perceptions to their will, my colleagues’ work to communicate a reality undistorted by political ambition amounts to the last line of defense against autocracy.

I will miss writing the column. But I relish the opportunity this opens to write in another form, free of a column’s weekly demands to explore the drama of American life in greater depth.

I will be devoting the next few weeks to figuring out what to focus on next — chatting with my editors, as well as with the sources I have come to rely on for sober, authoritative thinking. The important question, however, remains: What kind of society does “America” mean?

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