What Will Reverse the Dangerous Trends in U.S. Society?

Rising inequality is but one symptom that the U.S. has swung to a society that is characterized by a disproportionate focus on individuals over the collective good. A national priority, similar to the Apollo moon project of the 1960s, is needed to reverse that trend, and there is an obvious candidate.

Thanks in large part to research by economics Nobel Prize winners Anne Case and Angus Deaton, we know that the United States has suffered a downswing since the 1970s. It has experienced increasing inequality, reduced upward mobility, stagnating incomes for those not already well-off, deteriorating health and life expectancy, and increased polarization and conflict. But a recent book focuses not so much on that downswing as on the upswing that occurred before that era. This upswing was incubated early in the 20th century and continued until the 1960s.

Two new books point the way to how the United States could create a new upswing.

The I-we-I cycle

History goes in cycles similar to pendulum swings. Some economic theories, like Kondratieff wave theory, posit such cycles. When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it causes a reaction that eventually makes it swing back. But the momentum of that backswing carries it too far in the reverse direction, bringing about a new reaction and another backswing.

The author of The Upswing, Robert Putnam, a Harvard emeritus professor who has written other popular books including Bowling Alone and Our Kids, illustrates the cycle that covered the late 1800s to the present in graphs that look like this one: