Alienated America

Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse

[Amazon Link]

By coincidence, I found myself concurrently reading two books about dysfunctional America. The other one, The Inclusive Economy, focused on poverty, and I didn't care for it much. This one, however, by Tim Carney, exceeded my expectations. When I get around to composing a "top 10" nonfiction list, this will definitely be on it.

Carney's goal is daunting, to explain various symptoms of social dysfunction among some areas of America. There are increased "deaths of despair" caused by drugs, suicide, and alcohol. People report feelings of loneliness, depression, and free-floating anger. People perceive that the "American Dream" is deader than the dodo. And we alreadly know about the murderous wackos.

Arguably worse: Donald Trump got elected by tapping into all this angst.

So what's going on? Carney convincingly ties things to the breakdown of healthy communities. Much is due to the decline of church attendance. (For example, those Trump voters? They report being "religious" at a higher than average rate. But their church attendance is actually lower than average. Hm.)

Yes, economic dislocation, in terms of good old "creative destruction" has its part. When a factory shutters, a significant fraction of "good decent" people move away, leaving behind a population without good prospects. But its more than that. (Carney visits a North Dakota fracking boom town, which is pretty dysfunctional on its own terms.)

Carney does a fantastic job of slicing and dicing demographic data, exit polling, and plain old shoe-leather reporting on communities that work and communities that don't. He doesn't have any grand top-down solutions, and explains why he doesn't. "Solutions" are something that have to be bottom-up; the best thing he can recommend is that governments stop some of the trends we're on: restore religious liberty, stop discouraging private charity, decentralize, deregulate.

You know, the kind of things that no major politician is advocating.

Personal note: one of Carney's Bad Example locations is Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Where I lived for the first ten years of my life. Guess it was a good idea for Mom and Dad to move us out back in 1961. The big city in the county is Council Bluffs, across the Missouri from Omaha. I guess it's where Omahans go to sin these days. And the current nickname for the place is "Counciltucky". Ouch.