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Busting myths

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, Simon & Schuster, US $32.50, Pp 480, October 2020, ISBN  978-1982129149

Every nation has its myths. We have our own. One of the myths on which we Americans thrive is that the standard of living of most Americans is growing even if the income gap between the rich and the poor is also growing. We also believe that racism may still exist, but it is on the decline and people of color continue to gain more and more freedom and rights. Another myth we continue to hold on to is that women have gained equality in recent decades. In The Upswing, Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and the founding contributor to “Weave: The Social Fabric Project” respectively, busts these popular myths. It is true that huge advances in communications, transportation, and standards of living have brought to almost all Americans a degree of material well-being unmatched in our history. They say that increasing educational opportunities have leveled the social and economic playing field. Goods priced for mass consumption as well as innovative new forms of entertainment have improved the daily lives of almost everyone. Americans largely enjoy a degree of educational opportunity, abundance, and personal freedom of which previous generations only dreamed.

But the downside is that this prosperity has come at a cost. The authors say that the big corporations produce huge profits which do not trickle down. The poor are better off than their predecessors but the benefits of economic growth remain highly concentrated at the top. This does not stop here. They say that the economic power of corporations has in turn become political power. Big corporations can easily evade financial and ethical responsibility to the public systems that allow them to flourish. They do it by donating exorbitant amounts of money to politicians who use the money to win elections, creating a dangerous mutuality between wealth and power. In turn, politicians help these corporations avoid any efforts to regulate them.

Putnam and Garrett  argue that while aggregate measures of economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, and cultural narcissism all follow a strikingly similar inverted U-curve over the course of last 125 years, the  story is far more complex when it comes to measures of racial and gender equality. They say because African Americans, women, and many others had to fight to achieve even basic forms of equality and inclusion during the first two thirds of the twentieth century, it might be fair to assume that America in this period was racist, sexist and white.

Widespread intolerance, inequality and oppression are often thought to have been the unchanged norm for blacks and women until the watershed changes of the mid-sixties Civil Rights and feminist revolutions led to improvements at an unprecedented pace. They write, “However, this cartoon history is in important respect misleading. A close reading of the data… indicates that a surprising number of gains in both racial and gender equality happened well before 1970 – and in fact constituted a long period of progress that corresponds to the story told by the variables charted above.” They continue their argument that in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, blacks and women actually benefited as racial and gender disparities in education, income, health, and voting gradually narrowed. The rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s were the culmination of more than four decades of progress. This progress was often made in segregated spheres and was certainly not sufficient. In the decades after the 1970s, there was a marked slowdown, especially for Black Americans. Putnam/Garrett say that our ongoing failure to achieve racial and gender equality and inclusion is a deeply troubling aspect of our national life – indeed one that violates foundational principles of the American projects. However, it is far from the only problem our country now faces. The Upswing tells the story of how we got here.

The Upswing is an ambitious scholarly work that busts myths of economic, racial and gender equality in America and exposes how the income gap between the poor and the rich has grown in recent decades. Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett also expose the unholy alliance between the politicians and the big business. The authors trace the roots of America’s current mess and answer questions every American is asking. It is a well-researched and beautifully written work. The Upswing is a scholarly masterpiece even a high schooler will enjoy. If you want to understand what went wrong with America in the 1970s and later, and why we are in total economic, political, and racial mess, The Upswing will answer many of the  troubling questions you may have.

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