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Left behind

from David Ruccio

Liberal stories about who’s been left behind during the Second Great Depression are just about as convincing as the “breathtakingly clunky” 2014 movie starring Nicolas Cage.

For Thomas B. Edsall, the story is all about the people in the “rural, less populated regions of the country” who have been left behind in the “accelerated shift toward urban prosperity and exurban-to-rural stagnation” and who supported Republicans in the most recent election. 

Louis Hyman, for his part, argues that the people who have been left behind—rural Americans and the people “who live and work in small towns”—hold a misplaced nostalgia for Main Street, which has been exploited by Donald Trump. What they really need, according to Hyman, is to find new jobs online so that they can “find their way from Main Street to the mainstream.”

In both cases, and many more like them, the great divide is supposedly one of geography: everyone is prospering in the big cities—with high-tech jobs, soaring incomes, and a proliferation of non-chain boutiques and restaurants—and everyone else, outside those cities, is being left behind.

Except, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, lots of people outside of the country’s metropolitan areas have been excluded from the recovery from the crash of 2007-08 (just as they were during the bubble that preceded it). But that’s true also of cities themselves, from Boston to San Francisco.

The problem is not geography, but class.

According to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute, in almost half of U.S. states, the top 1 percent captured at least half of all income growth between 2009 and 2013, and in 15 of those states, the top 1 percent captured all income growth. In another 10 states, top 1 percent incomes grew in the double digits, while bottom 99 percent incomes fell.


Much the same is true in the nation’s metropolitan areas. In the 12 most unequal metropolitan areas, the average income of the top 1 percent was at least 40 times greater than the average income of the bottom 99 percent. In the New York City area, the average income of the top 1 percent was 39.3 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent, in Boston 30.6, and in San Francisco, 30.5 times.

By the same token, some of the nation’s non-urban counties have very high levels of income inequality. Lasalle County, Texas, for example, has an average income of the bottom 90 percent of only $47,941 but a top-to-bottom ratio of 125.6. Similarly, Walton County Florida, with a bottom-90-percent income of $40,090, has a top-to-bottom ratio of 45.6.

left behind

The fact is, across the entire United States—in large cities as well in small towns and rural areas—the incomes of the top 1 percent have outpaced the gains of everyone else. That’s been the case during the recovery from the Great Recession, just as it was in the three decades leading up to the most recent crash.

While it’s true, the voters in most metropolitan areas went for Hillary Clinton and those elsewhere supported Trump. The irony is that the majority of those voters, inside and outside the nation’s cities, have been left behind by an economic system that benefits only those at the very top.


  1. April 19, 2017 at 1:05 am

    Yes the problem is class, but has any society ever strained so mightily to disguise that force and reality, and I don’t mean to over-assign its role; still, the avoidance harkens back to the title of Thomas Edsall’s first major book, from 1992: “Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics.”

    The left’s everlasting burden of explanation and motivation.

  2. patrick newman
    April 19, 2017 at 11:01 am

    Certainly Clinton was no solution for this rampant inequality and you cant see Trump going against his commercial instincts and pecuniary interests! What is impressive is the gathering of data. I dont think there is an equivalent in the UK or EU. All has to think how does the solution (taxation and employment) get translated into practicable political movements. Bernie is not immortal!

  3. April 19, 2017 at 12:12 pm

    None of this is new. It’s been part of the history of Europe and the Americas (leaving out the rest of the world for now) for millennia, literally. One of the reasons for the democratic revolutions from France to the US, from Russia to Bolivia was to deal with the problems of economic inequality in a democratic context. The democrats wrestled with a problem humans have faced since the invention of money. After all, some folks are just better at getting rich than others, especially when there are few or no limits on the methods used to acquire the wealth. And wealth translates to control. Based on my experience knowledge of this situation is widespread. Knowing is not the issue. Action is the issue. What actions ought those with less wealth do to curtail the control of those with more wealth? Physical actions? Violent actions? Changes in the laws? War? Imprisonment? Etc. Most of us are unsure what actions to take. As one community organizer and rock band member told me, we know these damned people don’t care at all about us, so we must push them out of the way to take care of ourselves. But just how do we “push them out of the way?”

    • robert locke
      April 19, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      “so how do we push them out of the way, by making “unheard voices” “heard’ in institutiions both civil and governmental that decide on the distribution of income.

      • April 20, 2017 at 4:52 am

        Since its founding wealth has played a predominant role in US history. The founders of the US warned against this danger again and again as did numerous politicians, clergy, philosophers, reformers, and even some members of the wealthy. So many voices have been raised. Some even heard, apparently. But apart from a few periods in US history money remained the major factor in determining elections and policy. Those periods suggest some courses of action that might alter this more permanently. First, change requires pressure from powerful groups opposing wealth. In the past these have included the clergy, veterans, city officials, state officials, labor and craft unions, and even members of the wealthy (e.g., Teddy Roosevelt). Second, the strategies used by these are diverse. Alternatives to keep money and power for things like utilities, education, elections, etc. under local control. Laws and local ordinances to control businesses and lobbying groups opposed to cities, states, etc. Direct confrontations in protests, sometimes violent. Campaigns of slander to gain advantage. And, of course murder when deemed necessary. Interesting point, while these fights were class-based, they retained the racial segregation of the times. African-Americans, Indigenous Americans, and other “minorities” were oppressed by all sides. These were whites only struggles.

      • robert locke
        April 20, 2017 at 8:18 am

        I realize that a US focus is unavoidable in the discussion, but alternatives exist and perhaps solutions lie outside the Anglo-Saxon orbit, which cannot be encountered if the people on the blog do not seriously look for them. Geopolitical configurations change and sometimes very suddenly.

      • April 20, 2017 at 11:31 am

        Robert, I’ve recommended just this at least 100 times as we worked with groups searching for solutions to US environmental, labor, banking, utility, water, etc. problems. Amazingly, even what seemed open-minded and thoughtful groups rejected my recommendations. Americans crafting solutions for American problems seems embedded in most of the members of these groups. Don’t know if it’s ethnocentrism or just mistrust of anything not American. I agree non-Anglo (particularly American) are important to consider. But convincing American companies and politicians that others have anything to teach us is nearly impossible. My recommendations have elicited hostility only twice. The more common response in silence.

      • robert locke
        April 20, 2017 at 1:40 pm

        Two points/ Have you been in contact with the KataCon community, which seems to be making progress developing employee involved production management. I am thinking of people like Mike Rother, who wrote the book on Toyota kata and is involved in this community in US and Germany, which is much more than just “Lean” production methods. Second point, the issue is not just the US but what is going on everywhere. If the Americans are foolish enough to let their prejudices interfere with their thinking, other countries might not be because, if “ideas” are an expression of culture, as you say, then different cultural traditions might develop an alternative way of doing things that even Ameicans might find irresistible. .

      • robert locke
        April 20, 2017 at 8:07 pm

        About the Katacon community, Mark Rosenthal says the following,

        “Though I have been to a few, I rarely attend conferences. KataCon has been an exception as I have attended all three that have been held. I find it interesting that each developed a unique vibe, culture, unwritten theme.
        KataCon1 in 2015 was a community coming together for the first time. “Toyota Kata” is (still) pretty new but by late 2014 there were enough people working on it to invite them together. The feeling was one of groups of people who had previously been working in isolation realizing that there are lots of others, all over the world (there was a very large European contingent) working on the same things. The ending felt like a launching ramp.
        KataCon2 in 2016 had an emerging theme of “leadership development.” Overall the emotions seemed more subdued. This was a group of people coming to learn about what others were doing. The general feeling was more “technical” than “emotional.”
        This year (KataCon3, 2017) the message is that “Toyota Kata” is “out in the wild.” It is evolving and adapting to different environments where it is being practiced. Overall the emerging theme seemed to be about organizations approaching the critical mass of a shift in default behavior – the ever elusive “culture change.”
        At the same time, the discussions were more nuanced. Perhaps we are moving Toyota Kata beyond the “tool age.” A realization is emerging that this is about shifting the default thinking patterns of people in an organization, and that the kata are simply teaching structure and tools to help this.”

      • April 21, 2017 at 10:04 am

        Robert, I’ve worked on several projects with KataCon folks. The approach is a bit too autocratic for me. My work includes planning based on work with the Dutch, organizational studies, The American Planning Association, etc. I’ve also worked with French sociologists/planners, Peter Senge, and Kees Van der Heijden.

        Prejudices don’t interfere with thinking. They are thinking. And prejudices are the expression of culture. I often tell students in my seminars that the only time humans are unprejudiced is when their dead. Every culture is literally a series of preferences, inclinations, and expectations — prejudices.

        The notion of leadership always interests me. Many hunter-gather societies had no leaders as we think of leaders today. Leadership is a cultural category particularly important in western societies but less so in other parts of the world. Also, leaders are made, not born. The questions – how are they made and what are they made to do? It’s my view that culture and social structures that materialize it create the forms of leadership and leaders they need.

      • robert locke
        April 21, 2017 at 12:15 pm

        If prejudices don’t interfere with thinking, but the thinking is an expression of them, then how can things change. Americans had a choice in the postwar world,, continue the New Deal or go back to the preNew Dearl Era, circa, 1900. There was nothing inevitable about them choosing the latter. Its a matter of politics, Ken, we have some strong democratic anti-plutocratic traditions in the US. My views are an expression of them and they are not necessarily minority views, unless you think that the recent electtions are an expression of American democracy. I think the plutocrats are in for a rough time in the coming years.

      • April 23, 2017 at 3:29 am

        Robert, re prejudices one of my favorite case studies may help. The traditional American western movie. One popular plot version is the western town ruled by the cruel local boss with the evil “fast gun” as his accomplice. The boss and evil gun control all the businesses in the town, the city council, and the local law enforcement. The boss and evil gun threaten and if necessary kill anyone who challenges them. The hero, usually an outsider comes to town either to figure out the problem or just saddle bum passing through. For one reason or another (local sweetheart, helping a friend, local injustices) the hero challenges the local boss/evil gun, inspires local citizens to resist, and helps the town become a genuine democracy.

        While the town may have as many as a few thousand residents, none will challenge the boss/evil gun due to fear of death or other physical harm or the destruction of their livelihoods. The hero show by his/her actions that the boss can be challenged and defeated. With the clear implication that without this example the town’s people would never escape to control their own lives. They’re all in favor of (prefer, their prejudice is) democracy. Running their own affairs. The boss and evil gun change those prejudices quickly. The hero restores those prejudices. I know this story is simplistic. Actually, a simplistic morality play. But the general structure is often how actual events unfold.

        Does this story indicate the plutocrats are in for a rough time in the coming years? Perhaps, depending on the heroes that step forward and how ordinary citizens respond. So far it looks good. Many heroes, old and new, and American citizens are deeply involved, sometimes directly involved.

  4. Grayce
    April 19, 2017 at 10:00 pm

    The choice was no choice for the 99%. Even though the differences between the Democrat and the Republican can be enumerated, they pull the spotlight away from current problems and shine it onto old habits and (nod to Wm Blake) mind-forged manacles, such as the blind abhorrence of dynasties. Dynasties can be enlightened or blighted. The dilemma is to sort candidates by their willingness to think in action, rather than act from a programmed point of view. Another sorting problem is that some project the voter’s own personality onto a partisan torch bearer.
    If a culture of fair-minded citizens were to be possible, it would happen through intelligent and fair-minded media and journalists who outgrew the wannabe sports writers. Sports writers generally see the situation as two sides and only two sides, but news generalists ought to know that the world unfolds on multiple fronts. It is not neatly “us” and “them.” Following the news at this time, one would conclude that the Norquist pledge is normal. It is not a norm. It is a man-forged manacle on an elected official. It impedes thinking in action, and relies on remembered truisms.
    Elections are too late in the game to flatten that 1% spike. Maybe there is a candidate with enough power to influence a culture of fair-mindedness. Maybe there is a journalist with a plain-speaking style who can bypass the nostalgia for an earlier time and influence the 99% to demand better candidates. Maybe journalists will return to content of proposed legislative bills instead of scoring the backroom maneuvers around it. There is an open field for improvements, and the education of the man in the street and the rural road is the end point.

    • April 20, 2017 at 5:48 am

      Current US citizens are the best educated, best fed, and overall wealthiest in US history. With that background they should be able to choose wise and fair-minded leaders. Yet they do not. I think the answer to this dilemma is found in Federalist Paper #10 by James Madison. Madison wrote about the threat factions pose to the nation. Since the causes of factions, the largest of which is wealth cannot be removed, Madison asserts the only relief is found in controlling the effects of factions. But the government is now captured by one of these factions, plutocracy, so that government no longer controls the effects of plutocracy. In a democracy the polity (constituents, voters) must now exercise this control. The remaining question is how can the polity carry out this responsibility? My prior response here gives some suggested answers for this question.

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