David Brooks’ column today is one of his better ones—noting that the U.S. is plagued by two kinds of inequality, that which divides the top one percent from everyone else, which is prevalent in our major cities, and that in smaller cities and rural areas, where college grads are doing OK but where the bottom has fallen out for those Americans who don’t complete college or, worse, high school. The gap between the lives of college grads and others has widened not just in terms of income but health, diet, marriage stability, and the percentage of children born and raised out of wedlock.
Brooks isn’t the first conservative to have noted the disintegration of family life within America’s working class; Rich Lowry at National Review has also picked up on this. But neither Brooks, in today’s column, nor Lowry take the necessary further step of identifying what exactly has caused all this. If they want to take that step, they should check out the collected works of William Julius Wilson, the great sociologist of race and class in modern America. Wilson has argued more than persuasively that it was the disappearance of stable, remunerative work from the world of the African American ghettos that led to a decrease in the number of “marriageable males” in the inner city and the concomitant increase in family disintegration and out-of-wedlock childbirths.
Over the past three decades, and the past decade most particularly, the pathologies of the inner city have extended to the white working class as well. The decline in the number of decent-paying, stable blue-collar jobs in manufacturing, transportation, and construction—the result of offshoring, deunionization, and deregulation (particularly in trucking)—totals in the tens of millions, and that decline has been accompanied by the same drop in “marriageable males” that was apparent to Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he studied the African American family nearly 50 years ago.
The preferred centrist solution to all this—make sure more Americans go to and complete college—amounts to a massive non sequitur, a huge supply-side fallacy: If there are enough college grads, the jobs will be there for them. Piffle. Global oversupply affects college grads no less than anybody else, and given the need for tens of millions of workers in stores and restaurants, that only means that we will have even more college grads waiting tables than is currently the case. The real solution lies in upgrading the quality of blue-collar work, but that can’t be done so long as unionization is suppressed and our trade laws hasten the exodus of jobs to cheap-labor climes, with the wages of the jobs remaining here descending to cheap-labor levels. Conservatives like Brooks and Lowry, who are right to note the social disintegration of working-class America, fail to recognize that this is a Humpty-Dumpty that can’t be put back together through economically conservative remedies.