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For most of the twentieth century, Americans took a certain social geography for granted: the well-off lived in the suburbs, encircling poor city centers. When I wrote a book on “The Urban Experience” forty years ago, most Americans viewed that experience with trepidation. The image of city life as bleak, dilapidated, and dangerous became entrenched. Moving to the suburbs, which the American middle class had been doing for generations, turned into “flight.” But those scary years were unusual. Historically, cities have been wealthier, safer, and more welcoming than their surroundings.

Now the wheel has turned again. The city is glamorous again; filmmakers are having trouble finding stereotypically grimy alleys in Manhattan. Today’s political fights are not about stemming urban decay but about stemming urban upscaling. What happened?

See my column on this question at the Boston Review: here.

Just about everyone from left to right believes in the power of more education for more Americans, that more education for all will open up opportunity, raise standards of living, and reduce economic inequality. Some scholars, however, are skeptical.

They have at least three related arguments. One is that the content of education–perhaps beyond basic literacy and skills– does not matter for individuals’ economic attainment, that what matters is the person’s relative level of education. When few people have graduated high school, doing so will make a big difference, but when most people have a high school diploma, then real success then requires going to college. Employers just up their requirements as educational attainment spreads, so what is important is being ahead of the pack.

Another argument is that educational degrees just signal or “credential” people with talent, people who would have succeeded with or without the extra classwork. More degrees for more people will not change that.

A third argument is that advantaged families find ways to pass on advantage to their children even as education becomes more widespread. They do that by supporting their sons’ and daughters’ attainment of yet further, more exclusive schooling, maintaining leads over those from less advantaged backgrounds and thus maintaining the inheritance of inequality (see, e.g., here).

A just-published article takes a look at what happened to equality and social mobility in the United States when a major educational reform swept through the nation in the nineteenth century: compulsory schooling. Continue Reading »

First names matter, experimental research has shown. If job resumes are sent to employers or student profiles presented to teachers, identical except for racially-tinged first names–say, Greg vs. Jamal–“white” names more often get positive responses than do “black” names. If students evaluate presidential candidates on paper, identical except for the gender of the presumed candidate–say, Brian vs. Karen–the “male” candidate gets higher approval than the “female” one.

Italian Immig

Italian Immigrants

In a recent study of historical data, “From Patrick to John F.: Ethnic Names and Occupational Success in the Last Era of Mass Migration,” Joshua R. Goldstein and Guy Stecklov found that immigrants a century or so ago who gave their sons less ethnic-sounding and more mainstream-sounding names added, on average, a few percentage points a year to their sons’ incomes–although one immigrant group was an exception. Continue Reading »

I spotted a bumper sticker as it passed through Berkeley on a blue Camry the other day. It read “McGovern-Shriver 1972.” It was a fresh sticker, not a 44-year-old relic, the driver’s wry comment on historical memory.

All but the shouting is over preparatory to the Trump/Clinton face-off this summer. (Full disclosure: I, like almost all “observers” excepting Norm Ornstein  and Sam Wang, dismissed Trump’s chances. For one post-mortem on how we screwed up, see here.) With the emotions of the primaries perhaps dampening, it becomes easier to inquire about the amazing age gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters.Sanders Clinton

In an April Field poll (pdf) of California’s likely Democrat voters, Clinton won the 65-plus crowd by about 3:1, but Sanders won the under-30 crowd by over 4:1. Age–much more than class, race, gender, or even ideology–differentiates pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders voters. (Full disclosure: I’m with her, as you would predict from my age.)

Why the canyon-sized gap? Maybe the Sanders vs. Clinton messages–boldness vs. pragmatism, frankness vs. calculation, independence vs. establishment, etc.–divide the young from the old. Maybe voters’ personal interests–say, student debt vs. protecting social security–do. But it is striking that age separates the two camps much more than how far left people say they are, their policy choices, or their social positions. One important explanation, I’ll suggest below, is historical memory, as captured by that bumper sticker.

Continue Reading »

The British took cattle to the market faire; Americans took cattle to the butcher’s stall. According to a new study, that simple difference tells us a lot about the deep nature of “American exceptionalism.”

A recurring controversy among historians concerns the origin of Americans’ exceptional adherence, both in practice and in ideology, to the “free market.” Has this distinctive commitment been there from the earliest years of settlement or was it a much-later development of the nineteenth century? One side argues that from virtually the start New World conditions enabled and encouraged European-Americans to act and think in terms of independent, unregulated, self-interested entrepreneurs. The other side argues that the colonists originally behaved much as people in their European home countries did: Being community-oriented, they adhered to local norms and to local authorities that limited economic activities, for example, dictating prices for necessities. Then, after the American Revolution, commercial interests, empowered politically and riding a new laissez-faire ideology, swept away that earlier “moral economy” and created the distinctive, decide-it-yourself, American capitalism we know today. (For discussion of this debate, see pp. 101ff of Made in America. Earlier, related posts are here and here.) The contemporary political implication of this debate, by the way, is the question of how deep and therefore perhaps hard to change this aspect of American exceptionalism may be.

Emily Holt, a historian in Scotland, writing in the William & Mary Quarterly compares the cattle business in colonial Philadelphia and South Carolina to that in Glasgow and London. Her story leans in the direction of early exceptionalism, albeit with complexities.

Continue Reading »

Current Wall (source)

Current Wall (source)

A key Donald Trump pledge is to stop the inflow of undocumented Mexican immigrants by building a border wall so much higher and wider than the one we have now that none could enter the U.S. illegally. One oddity of this pledge is that the inflow of undocumented Mexicans has already stopped. For the last roughly seven years, the illicit migration across our southern border has been zero or even negative.

There is another oddity about this proposal. From 1986 to 2008, the U.S. vastly boosted border control forces, technology, and barriers. Did this immense crackdown impede or slow down border-crossing? Not really. One thing it did do, however, was to increase–by about 4 million–the number of undocumented migrants who settled down in the U.S.

That is the conclusion of a comprehensive analysis recently published by Douglas Massey, Jorge Durand, and Karen Pren in the March issue of American Journal of Sociology, titled “Why Border Enforcement Backfired.”

Continue Reading »

Opening Day 2016

Opening Day 2016 is coming up. And thus an opportunity for me to pursue an issue I addressed in 2014’s Opening Day post: how baseball remains America’s true pastime.

Real sports excitement and engagement rests in large part on the uncertainty of the outcome. This is why the drama of sports exceeds that of the scripted arts like theater, movies, and novels. Overwhelmingly, art scripts end predictably: heroes defeat villains, true love conquers all, innocent babes are saved, and so on. Sports stories, which also have moral plots and subplots, are unscripted and unpredictable and thus more engaging and exciting. And baseball is more so than the other leading American sports.

Continue Reading »

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