For the past forty years, as I've often noted, the left has been obsessed with the rights of less well of groups: black Americans, women, gays, and others. And indeed, in some respects they have made great progress towards achieving full rights for these groups. Gays in particular can now come out of the closet, form relationships, and even marry in most of the country. Both women and minorities are far more represented in management and the professions, even though their champions claim that they are still underrepresented. They also hold more public offices. The elite of America, in short, is far more integrated by gender and race than it has ever been before. Yet meanwhile, the elite has become much richer relative to the population, the economically lower half of the population has essentially no wealth, and uneducated people have lost the opportunities for job security and a reasonable life that they enjoyed before the de-industrialization of America.
A number of stories that I have read recently suggest to me that the gains of women, in particular, have been limited to a relatively small portion of the population, precisely because of increasing economic inequality. The first, oddly enough, is the Ray Rice case, and related stories about the plight of NFL wives that have appeared in its wake. With rare exceptions, NFL players come from relatively poor backgrounds. The few college football players who actually make it into the league suddenly enjoy undreamed of wealth,. which makes it easy for them to induce young women of relatively modest backgrounds to live with an marry them. The women seem to be willing to do so without any kind of prenuptial agreement that would do something to assure their economic future if their relationship goes badly. (Perhaps some young women would like to do this, and a few may do so, but there is no shortage of those who will not.) And thus, the economic pressure to remain within an abusive relationship becomes tremendous. Rice's wife did not want the courts to take more severe legal action against her husband, and she issued a statement regretting that the NFL had become interested in the case. Rice has raised her well up the economic ladder, and she presumably has no way of getting there on her own. If professional athletes were compensated at a more modest rate, and good long-term jobs were available to the general population, these situations would not arise so much. Money simply gives some individuals too much power over others. (This morning's paper informs me that the NFL's arbitrator--a female judge--has overturned Rice's suspension on the grounds that he could not be punished twice for the same offense. The lynch mob mentality that now dominates the media and university life still occasionally runs up against the protection of the legal system.
A second story concerned female undergraduates at leading universities. Burdened by the disgraceful cost of higher education, a number of them are making ends meet, it seems, by finding older, wealthy male protectors on web sites who will pay very handsomely for casual sexual encounters. I was immediately struck by the 19th-century flavor of these arrangements. Balzac's novels are full of them, even though the kept women he describes simply want to live in luxury, rather than pay for the education that is the price of admission to the elite. Thomas Piketty has shown that we are returning to 19th-century levels of income inequality, and we should therefore not be surprised to see older patterns of behavior re-emerge. Ironically, while colleges become more and more concerned about sexual assault on campus, their tuition has risen so high that some of their female students apparently find it necessary to sell themselves off campus. Once again we see that questions of gender equity cannot be separated from economic questions.
For forty years our society has focused on individual self-fulfillment, rather than the good of the larger community, the nation, or often, even the family. More adults now do without families, probably, than at any moment in recorded history. Yes, many families in earlier periods were dysfunctional and abusive, and many older gender roles were highly restrictive. Yet at some point, I feel, things will begin to turn around--because of economic incentives. With fewer and fewer good jobs, young people may find it worthwhile to marry and pool their resources earlier in life. Similarly, on a completely different front, news forms of communally available transportation are emerging, and mass transit may be expanded, simply because so many people can no longer afford their own car. We have created enormous wealth over the past few decades but it is now concentrated to an extent not seen for 100 years. That will, I think, lead to more pooling of resources, first at the individual level, and later, perhaps, in cities and states, and even in the nation at large.