Saturday, November 24, 2018


This is your semi-regular reminder that the op-ed page of The New York Times employs two insufferable columnists named Brooks who write incessantly about our national anomie and why it's never, ever the result of conservative policies. Arthur C. Brooks, like his namesake David, believes we're just lonely, and it's killing us, as well as making us kill one another:
America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness.

According to a recent large-scale survey from the health care provider Cigna, most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. The survey, which charts social isolation using a common measure known as the U.C.L.A. Loneliness Scale, shows that loneliness is worse in each successive generation.
This is the point at which David Brooks would begin summarizing, perhaps not accurately, the recently published work of a sociologist you've never heard of. Arthur Brooks turns instead to the self-appointed philosopher-king of the U.S. Senate.
This problem is at the heart of the new book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” by Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. Mr. Sasse argues that “loneliness is killing us,” citing, among other things, the skyrocketing rates of suicide and overdose deaths in America. This year, 45,000 Americans will take their lives, and more than 70,000 will die from drug overdoses.

Mr. Sasse’s assertion that loneliness is killing us takes on even darker significance in the wake of the mail-bomb campaign against critics of President Trump and the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, both of which were perpetrated by isolated — and apparently very lonely — men. Mr. Sasse’s book was published before these events, but he presciently described what he believes lonely people increasingly do to fill the hole of belonging in their lives: They turn to angry politics.
What's the problem?
Why are we becoming so lonely? One reason is the changing nature of work.... the reality of the workplace is rapidly attenuating, as people hop from job to job, and from city to city, as steady work becomes harder to find and the “gig” economy grows.

Mr. Sasse worries even more, however, about a pervasive feeling of homelessness: Too many Americans don’t have a place they think of as home — a “thick” community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient. To adopt a phrase coined in Sports Illustrated, one might say we increasingly lack that “hometown gym on a Friday night feeling.”

Mr. Sasse finds this phrase irresistible and warmly relates it to his own life growing up in Fremont, Neb., a town of 26,000 residents. He describes the high school sports events on Friday nights that drew the townspeople together in a common love for their neighbors and community that made most differences — especially political differences — seem trivial.
There's a problem, though: Small towns with that small-town, Friday-night-lights feeling may not be nice to people who aren't exactly like them. Fremont is a food-processing town. There's a Hormel plant that's America's largest producer of Spam, and Costco is building a facility that will process the rotisserie chickens it serves nationwide. As a Slate story published a year ago makes clear, this industry used to provide good jobs for the locals -- but then wages declined:
... in the 1980s, the meat industry transformed from family-owned companies with profits checked by strong unions to shareholder-driven conglomerates with a logistical approach to animal farming. At Hormel, new owners in search of greater profits squeezed workers.... In Fremont, the local accepted a two-tiered contract that mollified the existing line staff while allowing the company to cut costs on new hires.
The result?
In the ensuing two decades, the plant’s staff turned over as immigrants arrived to take those jobs. “When that series of union contracts came down, that changed the Hormel job from being a middle-class job,” [Richard] Register[, the local Democrat Party chairman,] remembered. “After the contract changed, Hormel recruited from everywhere. That started the tension. Well, I shouldn’t say that started the tension—this country has always had problems in race relations. But it certainly did not help.”
Did those immigrants get to have a sense of "'thick' community" in Fremont? No.
Fremont is the only city in the country that has successfully made it illegal to rent a house to an unauthorized immigrant. The ordinance failed in the City Council in 2008, passed in a referendum in 2010, was overturned by a district court judge in 2012, and was upheld by a circuit court in 2013. Fremont reaffirmed the ordinance in a second referendum in 2014, with 60 percent of voters in favor. Years of raucous debate split families and neighbors, inspired acts of vandalism, brought media attention from far afield, and drove hundreds of Latino residents to leave. Since the second referendum, the city has held an uneasy peace over the ordinance, which goes largely unenforced. Many Latinos who left have returned. But the City Council still sets aside budget money for the possibility they will wind up back in court.
What about those lost middle-class wages? Think they might be contributing to a sense of loss in places like Fremont? I'll remind you that Arthur C. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, on the website of which can be found cheery holiday-themed items such as this one:

There's also this, the leading item on the site right now:
Giving thanks for the magic of the marketplace, the invisible hand of strangers, and no turkey czars

... Like in previous years, most of you probably didn’t call your local supermarket ahead of time and order a Thanksgiving turkey this year. Why not? Because you automatically assumed that a turkey would be there when you showed up, and it probably was there when you appeared “unannounced” at your local grocery store and selected your Thanksgiving bird. Or it will be there today or tomorrow when you do your holiday grocery shopping, or when you “skip the trip” to the grocery store and get 2-hour delivery from Amazon Prime Now (fresh and frozen turkeys now available in some markets e.g., New York City, DC, Chicago, Seattle, and LA).

The reason your Thanksgiving turkey was waiting for you without an advance order? Because of the economic concepts of “spontaneous order,” “self-interest,” and the “invisible hand” of the free market. Turkeys appeared in your local grocery stores primarily because of the “self-interest” (greed?) of thousands of turkey farmers, truck drivers, and supermarket owners and employees who are complete strangers to you and your family. But all of those strangers throughout the turkey supply chain co-operated on your behalf and were led by the “invisible hand” to make sure your family had a turkey (or two) on the table to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. The “invisible hand” that was responsible for your holiday turkey is just one of millions of everyday examples of the “miracle of the marketplace” where “individually selfish decisions must lead to a collectively efficient outcome,” as economist Steven E. Landsburg observed.
(Emphasis in the original.)

Is it possible that some of the "individually selfish decisons" that led to all these cost-cutting efficiencies might have something to do with the sense of displacement in much of America? We make the jobs harder and pay people less for them; eventually native-born Americans don't want the jobs, and then we resent the immigrants who take them instead.

That's a part of the "miracle of the marketplace" that's never mentioned in the Arthur Brooks column.

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