Since summer is traditionally a time for lighter reading, the newspaper supplement Parade recently offered a list of appropriate books. Though I was surprised to see the recent myth-dispelling biography of Walter Cronkite on the list, a number of recent books getting a lot of attention are not; I imagine this is because most deal with our country’s growing political divide and as a result are pretty depressing to read.
I mentioned a couple of these books in my last column, including It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” co-authored by liberal scholar Thomas Mann and conservative scholar Norman Ornstein. Despite their ideological differences, Ornstein and Mann agree that “one party has really gone off the tracks.” Ornstein and Mann say Republicans have become so “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of inherited social and economic policy; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of political opposition” that it has become what they call an “insurgent outlier.” The effects of this approach to governing were demonstrated just last week when Congress failed to stop interest rates on student loans from doubling or to fund our nation’s road projects.
But is it the politicians who are to blame for this or the people they represent? For those who like to relax on a hot afternoon by reading polls, thePewResearchCenterhas just released a poll showing that the American people are just as divided as Washington. Over the 25 years that Pew has tracked the attitudes of average Republicans and Democrats, Democratic views have stayed about the same. The views held by Republicans, however, had changed a great deal. Republican support for a social safety net has dropped from 62% to 40%, while their support for environmental protections has dropped from 90% to 47%. Though there was some evidence of Democrats becoming more liberal, the Pew researchers contend that our current partisan divide is the result of an ongoing Republican shift to the right.
For readers seeking to chill-out by having their illusion of the American Dream shattered, Columbia Professor and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s new book, The Price of Inequality, is just the ticket. Stiglitz argues that the dream of upward mobility has become just that – a dream. Over the past 30 years while median income has stagnated, the share of national income going to the top 1% has doubled, and has tripled for the top 0.1%. This has resulted in a loss of social mobility – while some people, like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, do still manage to get rich, they have statistically never been more of an anomaly.
Stiglitz says “America has the least equality of opportunity of any of the advanced industrial economies” — the social stratum one is born into is now more difficult to rise above than it was in ‘old Europe.’ And with income inequality only getting worse, the rich will get richer while everyone else will get poorer. Stiglitz warns this “two-class” society endangers everyone’s future. “People will live in gated communities with armed guards. It’s an ugly picture. There will be political, social and economic turmoil.”
Last, for those tired of blaming conservatives for bringing about the end of the world as we know it, there’s X Events: The Collapse Of Everything by complexity expert and systems theorist John Casti. Casti outlines all manner of disasters that could lead to catastrophe. And while the odds of any one scenario actually happening are fairly low, Casti maintains “it’s a mathematical certainty” that one way or another, something bad is going to happen.