People want to be heard, especially people who are rarely heard. And most Americans are rarely heard.
Our country, we tell ourselves, is a place where anyone can make it if they study enough, and where the smartest rise to the top. Grow up in a sad town with only empty lots where factories used to be? Hit the books, spend your days in the library memorizing dates, equations, and working out that brain.
Like every banker, I remember my first bail-out fondly. Mine was January 1995 and I was working for Salomon Brothers bond trading business, and we, like all of Wall Street, had gotten ourselves out over our skis.
After spending eight years driving four hundred thousand miles to take 60,000 pictures of working class Americans, I could easily write a Labor Day essay on the dignity of work, topped by a photo of a man dirty from work, leaning on his well cared for F150 with a back-rack, silver tool box, two bright yellow cylindrical Igloo coolers, and pissing Calvin mud-flaps.
I get criticized for not talking about policy enough, so here we go: No Child Left Behind is a disaster, the spearhead of our misguided attempt to funnel everyone to college.
The current debates over cancel culture are odd because few involved in them have been canceled, or risk being canceled, while entire institutions are indeed being canceled. Institutions that serve and amplify the interests of the working class, such as local newspapers, unions, and churches.
From my ten years documenting the poverty, pain, and frustration of lower-income communities it is easy to conclude that the American Dream is dead for the working class. There is one big exception though: Newer immigrants, who despite poverty, are still optimistic.
In the early 90s, as the Soviet Union crumbled, a trickle of Eastern European students came to the US. One of my roles at Johns Hopkins was to greet them at the airport and try to help their transition.
In physics, to reveal deeper truths, you slam particles together to expose their inner structure. The pandemic has been like that, slamming different parts of the country together, revealing it to be deeply divided by geography, race, education, and wealth. It is hard to imagine it once fit together or will ever fit together again.
If you spend significant time in poor communities, especially poor black communities, you wonder why they don’t explode in protest more often. The inequality that is a concerning statistic to academics and politicians is their daily commute from cleaning the office of a Wall Street bank to a home surrounded by boarded-up buildings. The oppressive state that Libertarians warn about, is the cops who hassle or arrest them about whatever they do. The declining life expectancy that has generated worried op-eds, is their friends, family, and neighbors dying from a batch of heroin gone bad.