America’s in the Midst of a Socioeconomic Shift

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

How have cars shaped your life, and/or what do you think about their future? (I’m eager to hear anything from attacks on the automobile to defenses of the great American road trip to eagerness for driverless electric cars to laments that the kids these days don’t learn how to drive when they turn 16, let alone how to drive a stick shift. Do you hate your commute? Do you like toll roads? Do you love your Harley-Davidson? Do you regard the replacement of tactile stereo interfaces with touch screens as a scourge? If you want, you can even send me a paean to the rotary engine, if it’s well written.) As always, while you are opining on anything related to cars or trucks or even parking spaces or meters, I especially encourage stories and reflections rooted in personal experience.

Send your responses to or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

The New Anarchy

In an article about political violence in America, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance takes a detour to Italy to reflect on how a country that suffers an outbreak of domestic terrorism can regain stability:  

On Saturday, August 2, 1980, a bomb hidden inside a suitcase blew up at the Bologna Centrale railway station, killing 85 people … the deadliest attack in Italy since World War II. By the time it occurred, Italians were more than a decade into a period of intense political violence, one that came to be known as Anni di Piombo, or the “Years of Lead.” From roughly 1969 to 1988, Italians experienced open warfare in the streets, bombings of trains, deadly shootings and arson attacks, at least 60 high-profile assassinations, and a narrowly averted neofascist coup attempt. It was a generation of death and bedlam. Although exact numbers are difficult to come by, during the Years of Lead, at least 400 people were killed and some 2,000 wounded in more than 14,000 separate attacks.

As I sat at the Bologna Centrale railway station in September, a place where so many people had died, I found myself thinking, somewhat counterintuitively, about how, in the great sweep of history, the political violence in Italy in the 1970s and ’80s now seems but a blip. Things were so terrible for so long. And then they weren’t. How does political violence come to an end? No one can say precisely what alchemy of experience, temperament, and circumstance leads a person to choose political violence. But being part of a group alters a person’s moral calculations and sense of identity, not always for the good. Martin Luther King Jr., citing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” People commit acts together that they’d never contemplate alone.

Vicky Franzinetti was a teenage member of the far-left militant group Lotta Continua during the Years of Lead. “There was a lot of what I would call John Wayneism, and a lot of people fell for that,” she told me. “Whether it’s the Black Panthers or the people who attacked on January 6 on Capitol Hill, violence has a mesmerizing appeal on a lot of people.” A subtle but important shift also took place in Italian political culture during the ’60s and ’70s as people grasped for group identity. “If you move from what you want to who you are, there is very little scope for real dialogue, and for the possibility of exchanging ideas, which is the basis of politics,” Franzinetti said. “The result is the death of politics, which is what has happened.”

Talking with Italians who lived through the Years of Lead about what brought this period to an end, two common themes emerged, LaFrance argues:

The first has to do with economics. For a while, violence was seen as permissible because for too many people, it felt like the only option left in a world that had turned against them. When the Years of Lead began, Italy was still fumbling for a postwar identity. Some Fascists remained in positions of power, and authoritarian regimes controlled several of the country’s neighbors—Greece, Portugal, Spain, Turkey. Not unlike the labor movements that arose in Galleani’s day, the Years of Lead were preceded by intensifying unrest among factory workers and students, who wanted better social and working conditions. The unrest eventually tipped into violence, which spiraled out of control. Leftists fought for the proletariat, and neofascists fought to wind back the clock to the days of Mussolini. When, after two decades, the economy improved in Italy, terrorism receded.

The second theme was that the public finally got fed up. People didn’t want to live in terror. They said, in effect: Enough. Lotta Continua hadn’t resorted to violence in the early years. When it did grow violent, it alienated its own members. “I didn’t like it, and I fought it,” Franzinetti told me. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, a sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara who lived in Rome at the time, recalled: “It went too far. Really, it reached a point that was quite dramatic. It was hard to live through those times.” But it took a surprisingly long while to reach that point. The violence crept in—one episode, then another, then another—and people absorbed and compartmentalized the individual events, as many Americans do now. They did not understand just how dangerous things were getting until violence was endemic. “It started out with the kneecappings,” Joseph LaPalombara, a Yale political scientist who lived in Rome during the Years of Lead, told me, “and then got worse. And as it got worse, the streets emptied after dark.”

A turning point in public sentiment, or at least the start of a turning point, came in the spring of 1978, when the leftist group known as the Red Brigades kidnapped the former prime minister and leader of the Christian Democrats Aldo Moro, killing all five members of his police escort and turning him into an example of how We don’t negotiate with terrorists can go terrifically wrong. Moro was held captive and tortured for 54 days, then executed, his body left in the back of a bright-red Renault on a busy Rome street … It shouldn’t take an act like the assassination of a former prime minister to shake people into awareness. But it often does. William Bernstein, the author of The Delusions of Crowds, is not optimistic that anything else will work: “The answer is—and it’s not going to be a pleasant answer—the answer is that the violence ends if it boils over into a containable cataclysm.”

The rest of the article is similarly thought-provoking.

Good News for Low-Wage Workers

Also at The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey argues that we’re in the midst of a significant socioeconomic shift:

After a brutal few decades in which low-wage jobs proliferated and the American middle class hollowed out, the working poor have started earning more—a lot more. Many low-wage jobs have become middle-wage jobs. And incomes are increasing faster for poorer workers than for wealthier ones, a dynamic known as wage compression.

As a result, millions of low-income families are experiencing less financial stress and even a modicum of comfort, though the country’s surging rents and rising pace of inflation are burdening them too. The yawning gaps between different groups of American workers—Black and white, young and old, those without a college degree and those with one—have stopped widening and started narrowing. Measures of poverty and income inequality are dropping. I hesitate to call this the “Great Compression,” given that earnings disparities remain a dominant feature of the American labor market and American life. (Plus, economists already use that term to refer to the middle of the 20th century.) But it really is a remarkable trend, a half-decade-old “Little Compression” that policy makers should do everything in their power to extend, expand, and turn great.

What’s needed next is enough new construction of houses, condos, and apartment buildings to bring costs down. All we have to do is stop preventing real-estate developers from erecting them.

A Lonely Generation

After endorsing Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge’s thesis that smartphones and social media are among the most significant factors making young people today more anxious and depressed than bygone generations, Freddie deBoer speculates about how the cause and effect might work: When he was young, “the constant adolescent itch to be with other people, to see and be seen, could only be fulfilled by being in the physical presence of others,” and when cell phones and social-media sites “presented the opportunity to connect with people whenever you wanted,” what at first seemed liberatory and world expanding was actually a powerful trap:

This form of interaction superficially satisfied the drive to connect with other people, but that connection was shallow, immaterial, unsatisfying. The human impulse to see other people was dulled without accessing the reinvigorating power of actual human connection.

Being social is scary. Sometimes you ask someone to hang out and they don’t want to; sometimes you ask someone for their phone number and they don’t give it to you. Precisely because connection is so important to us, rejection of intimacy is uniquely painful. Our constant task as human beings is to overcome the fear of that rejection so that we can connect. I would nominate this dynamic as one of the great human dramas, a core element of being alive. The danger of constant digital connectivity is that it cons us into thinking that we can have the connection without the risk, that we can enjoy a simulacra of fulfilling human interaction without ever leaving the safety of online quasi-reality.

And so no wonder kids spend less time with friends, have less sex, feel no need to get their driver’s licenses ... They’ve been raised in an environment where massive corporations spend billions of dollars to convince them that they never have to leave their digital “ecosystems.” But only human connection is human connection. There is no substitute for IRL. And I think our adolescents are bearing the brunt of a vast social experiment where we tried to substitute something else for face-to-face interaction, and found it didn’t work.

Provocation of the Week

At Blackbird Spyplane, a Substack unlike any other, the journalist Jonah Weiner and the design scout Erin Wylie argue that sometimes, that food or paint stain on your shirt is a good thing:

Don’t think of stains as “stains,” think of them as “patina” — that is, natural, inadvertent, beauty-deepening decorations. Paint is the ur-example of a sick, “inadvertently decorative” stain. Paint on your shoes, paint on your pants, paint on a sweatshirt — f**k it, paint on a chunky knit sweater: You get a little paint on pretty much anything and 9 times out of 10 you’ve made yourself look cooler. Sometimes, of course, paint can read as “cool” to the point of parody / “get a load of Jasper Johns over here” cosplay. But all things being equal, paint communicates two swag-compounding things about you at once:

  1. You’ve been in the lab getting some fly s**t done (whether it’s whipping out these still-lifes or “rolling up your sleeves” on some honest-labor house-painting type s**t), and
  2. You aren’t overly precious about your presentation. We’ve written here about how flambéeing and pan-searing a jawn in this exact spirit is a great way to assert ownership over, e.g., a hyped pair of sneakers you love but don’t feel quite yourself in when they’re box fresh.

This is why all kinds of fashion designers—Margiela, Junya and Visvim leap to mind—sell signature pre-paint-splattered pieces. As with pre-distressed denim, such clothes tend to strike me & Erin as palpably fugazi and unrockably “extra” (it’s wild how well the eye can tell the difference between paint splatter actually incurred in the line of duty and artful facsimiles!!) but that only buttresses the underlying case for paint’s power.

This also helps us understand, by extension, why wine and tomato-sauce stains can also read as mad chill and cool. As with paint, these kinds of stains communicate un-preciousness on behalf of the wearer while simultaneously indicating that you have been busy doing fun, interesting s**t: imbuing clothes with stories and putting them to your own JOIE DE VIVRED-out purposes, rather than “letting them wear you.”

These stains conjure up an ambiance of romance, where your clothes serve as a visual index of an INVIGORATED LIFE. You’d have to be a fusty buzzkill to deny that that’s tight!!

Here’s where things start to get murky, though, because a major part of what’s going on here is that wine and arrabbiata sauce tend to code as just the right patina-boosting degree of, like, “Continental” and “refined.” The implicit message is that you probably dropped some $$$ in the process of accumulating those stains, and you did so in “good taste.” This is why, even though you have literally spilled food on yourself, the wine or tomato-sauce stain in question does not communicate sloppiness the way, say, a mustard stain does.

What follows is a meditation on “good” versus “bad” stains.

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