June 14, 2013
(Image courtesy of George Packer)
(Image courtesy of George Packer)

Every now and then, a book or article is worth a recommendation because it stimulates the most provocative political and social questions of the day: rising income disparity and the decline of the middle class.  We see the anecdotes all around us: the college graduate whose unpaid internship never converts to a salary; a neighbor who has been unemployed for more than a year; a business which re-hires, but with fewer permanent positions. This decline has been happening slowly and for a long, long time, and we seem to have gotten used to these stories. As well, we are accustomed to the data points, the figures on income disparity and falling wages that paint a sobering picture of an economy that no longer provides opportunity to millions and millions of Americans.

One book and one article I have read recently are worth your time if the topic of the causes and implication of our economic decline interest you. George Packer, a writer with the New Yorker, has written “The Unwinding” which the New York Times calls,  “close to a non-fiction masterpiece.” Packer focuses on a series of stories of people, some famous, some not, that add up to a mosaic of the economic and social dislocation that has beset many Americans. If the core of America was once a rising middle class with a reasonable promise of the next generation besting the previous, Packer shows with poignancy how it has rotted, how the few have thrived while the many have been left bewildered, bitter and often close to broke. Packer makes it clear that there are villains in this piece, familiar ones, financial interests enabled by a bought and paid for government. Our government and corporate interests, Packer shows, are in a symbiotic relationship that is slowly strangling America’s promise.

An even more provocative point of view is offered by the computer scientist Jaron Lanier. He argues that “big data” is accelerating the decline of the American economy by allowing wealth to become more and more concentrated in the hands of those who control the information. He cites the music and media industries where ubiquitous sharing of free content has devastated the job prospects for musicians and journalists, while providing the various technology companies that display the content  “for free” a captive audience they can monetize through advertising. Other industries, Lanier argues,  are similarly vulnerable — everything from mining to medical lab technology where machines can replace humans.  Lanier’s solution, as I struggle to understand it, is that if people are providing information that can be monetized, they should be compensated.

Our politics are always focused on the stories of today: the implications of Syria, the immigration bill, Hillary Clinton’s tweet and reemergence, Chris Christie’s latest whereabouts. Kudos to Packer and Lanier for reminding us that there is a much more profound story unfolding in our country.