10 Things to Read to Understand America
(Bloomberg View) -- The U.S. in the 21st century can be a bewildering place, even for its own residents. The political turmoil, the kaleidoscope of radical online social movements, the presence of vast wealth combined with often stunning inequality; these things not only baffle foreigners, they often mystify Americans as well. People living in the U.S. often see only a small slice of the country, defined by their town, their occupation and their social circle.
Since the turn of the century, a number of important new trends have either emerged or intensified that have changed the nation to its core. Not all of these trends have been written up satisfactorily in books and papers, but many have. Whether you live in the U.S. or out of it, here is a reading list that will help deepen your understanding of modern America.
No. 1. “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America” by William H. Frey
In 1980 the U.S. was 83 percent non-Hispanic white. Since 2012, fewer than half of the children born in the country have been such. No one has chronicled this rapid demographic transformation better -- or with a more neutral, clinical eye -- than demographer William H. Frey. This book doesn’t just lay out the numbers, but shows detailed maps of how the ethnic composition of each of the country’s regions has evolved. The key fact is that Hispanics and Asians, once confined to a few regions and cities in the country, are rapidly spreading to outlying regions. There’s little doubt that this has created political and social unrest in areas that once had white supermajorities. It also has great relevance for electoral politics.
No. 2. “The New Geography of Jobs,” by Enrico Moretti
This slim volume by one of the world’s top urban economists explains why some cities in the U.S. have flourished while others languish. Knowledge industries, and clusters of smart, educated workers, have become increasingly important not just to a region’s prosperity, but to its physical and social health. Large cities, technology hubs and college towns are pulling away from the rest in both economic and social terms.
No. 3. “The China Shock,” by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson
This landmark economics paper, which really deserves to be turned into a book, details how opening up trade with China in the 2000s was fundamentally different from anything the U.S. had experienced before. Whereas in past eras, manufacturing workers displaced by foreign imports mostly managed to find jobs elsewhere in the industry for similar pay, Chinese competition was so vast, sudden and comprehensive that most displaced workers ended up taking huge wage cuts or going on the welfare rolls. The sudden devastation of American manufacturing has undoubtedly had broad social implications.
No. 4. “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In this series of essays, Coates, arguably the country’s most important writer and intellectual, vividly narrates the racial politics of the 2010s. The presidency of Barack Obama seemed to herald a new era in race relations, but a series of highly publicized police killings and the election of Donald Trump dashed that hope. The racial divide, and the events that have exacerbated it, are crucial to any understanding of modern American politics and society.
No. 5. “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich
Beginning in the 1980s, American politics was increasingly dominated by leaders who believed in the fundamental efficacy of markets. But in many ways, people were not fully prepared to cope with the new free-market world. The transaction costs, uncertainties and unfairness of daily life in the new, do-it-yourself America overwhelmed many poor and working-class people, and even some in the middle class. Few document the exhaustion of modern capitalism better than Ehrenreich. Her book should be paired with the more recent “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” by Matthew Desmond.
No. 6. “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” by Bill Bishop
There are many divides in American society -- racial, economic, gender and religious. But perhaps no divide is as powerful or as pernicious as the partisan political polarization that has emerged in the last few decades. Bishop chronicles how the populace has been geographically separating itself into clusters of like-minded individuals, producing the feeling of two separate countries co-existing in the same space.
No. 7. “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War,” by Robert Gordon
Americans, traditionally, are a people accustomed to growth. The spread of the populace from East to West, the Industrial Revolution, the technology booms of the 20th century and the financial bull markets of 1980-2008 all presented the feeling of boundless, limitless frontiers to be explored and conquered. But just as the frontiers of the West closed a century ago, economic frontiers may be closing now. In this book, economist Robert Gordon presents the reality of slowing productivity growth, and makes the case that technological progress will be slow for the foreseeable future. For a contrary, more optimistic case, try “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.
No. 8. “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton
The U.S. has become substantially less healthy than other developed nations. Though mortality rates among black Americans have plunged dramatically, they are still high. More ominously, mortality rates among white Americans -- particularly those without a college education -- have risen slightly, driven in part by the opiate epidemic, alcoholism and suicide. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton document this ominous trend, which seems to confirm the existence of a social malaise among working class white Americans.
No. 9. “Income and Wealth Inequality: Evidence and Policy Implications,” by Emmanuel Saez
Inequality has risen in most countries around the world, but in the U.S. it has reached levels usually only seen in developing nations. While books such as economist Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” have presented grand, sweeping theories of inequality, I prefer to start with the blunt facts of the matter. Saez, Piketty’s frequent co-author, lays out the numbers in this paper.
No. 10. “Concrete Economics: The Hamilton Approach to Economic Growth and Policy,” by Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong
With the U.S. beset by economic problems ranging from inequality to slow growth to the decline of whole regions, why hasn’t the government done more to help? In this short, readable volume, historian Stephen Cohen and economist Brad DeLong opine that in the last few decades, American policy makers have shunned the idea of deliberate and industrial policy and chosen instead to step back and let the market go where it will. This, they argue, has led to a financialized economy where capital sloshes around (yielding big fees for financiers) but rarely makes the big, bold bets necessary to get the economy moving again.
These books and papers don’t touch on all the changes coursing through the U.S. A number of very important trends are omitted -- changing gender roles, gay rights and the stunning and rapid decline of Christianity, to name just three. A full understanding of the trends affecting American society would require one to read more books and papers than I can personally recommend. But the basic trends outlined in the list above -- rising diversity and racial division, inequality and the discontents of a free-market world, political polarization, and the threats of foreign competition and slowing growth -- are essential to making sense of the turmoil and chaos roiling the superpower.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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