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America’s Opportunity City: Lots of New Jobs and a Low Cost of Living Make Houston a Middle-class Magnet
David Wolff and David Hightower are driving down the partially completed Grand Parkway around Houston. The vast road, when completed, will add a third freeway loop around this booming, 600-square-mile Texas metropolis. Urban aesthetes on the ocean coasts tend to have a low opinion of the flat Texas landscape—and of Houston, in particular, which they see as a little slice of Hades: a hot, humid, and featureless expanse of flood-prone grassland, punctuated only by drab office towers and suburban tract houses.
Ever since the publication this spring of Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century,” conservatives and much of the business press, such as the Financial Times, have been on a jihad to discredit the author and his findings about increased income inequality in Western societies. Some have even equated growing attacks on inequality with anti-Semitism, with at least one Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Tom Perkins, comparing anti-inequality campaigners to Nazis.
What if they gave a recovery, and the middle class were never invited? Well, that’s an experiment we are running now, and, even with the recent strengthening of the jobs market, it’s not looking very good.
Over the last five years, Wall Street and the investor class have been on a bull run, but the economy has been, at best, torpid for the vast majority of the population. Despite blather about our “democratic capitalism,” stock ownership is increasingly concentrated with the wealthy as the middle class retrenches. The big returns that hedge funds, real estate trusts or venture capitalist receive are simply outside the reach of the vast majority.
The November election will be played out along all the usual social memes – from gay marriage, racism and immigration to the “war against women.” But what may determine the outcome revolves around one key economic issue: energy. This has all come to a boil now as President Obama has backed an Environmental Protection Agency effort to accelerate tougher emissions standards, something that could shutter hundreds of coal-fired power plants and slow fossil fuel development across the country.
When our current President was elected, many progressives saw the dawning of a new epoch, a more egalitarian and more just Age of Obama. Instead we have witnessed the emergence of the Age of Oligarchy.
The outlines of this new epoch are clear in numerous ways. There is the diminished role for small business, greater concentration of financial assets, and a troubling decline in home ownership. On a cultural level, there is a general malaise about the prospect for upward mobility for future generations.
The recent political earthquake in Europe has great implications for the United States, both internationally and domestically. The unpopularity of European Union institutions produced record-breaking votes for a motley assortment of anti-establishment parties across the Continent, suggesting it’s time to stop looking across the Atlantic for role models as Europe’s dismal prospects have inspired the lowest levels of political support in several decades.
I’ve been friends with Charlie Sena for almost two decades. Charlie, a longtime entrepreneur, Democratic political operative and fundraiser for former Gov. Gray Davis, recently chided me about what he sees as my “negativity” about California and its future. My response was that, given its natural advantages, this region should not be in such a weakened condition. Decline, I suggest, is not an imperative here, but largely a choice.
In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.
As they approach what could be a troublesome election season, Democratic party strategists have targeted two issues – inequality and race – as their primary means to prevent another shellacking in the mid-terms.
But given the growing dominance of wealthy and overwhelmingly white gentry liberals, the class issue could prove troublesome, particularly given the tepid performance of the economy.
As they face the midterm elections with the wind in their faces, Democrats increasingly stake their collective political future on the issue of inequality. The topic has great resonance, given the economy’s vast preponderance of benefits to the very rich and the almost obsessive focus on the issue by the mainstream media.
Over the past five years, the millennial generation (born after 1983) has been exercising greater influence over the economy, society and politics of the country, a trend that will only grow in the coming years. So far, they’ve leaned Democratic in the voting booth, but could the lousy economic fate of what I’ve dubbed “the screwed generation” lead to a change?
The ongoing trial involving journalist Mark Steyn – accused of defaming climate change theorist Michael Mann – reflects an increasingly dangerous tendency among our intellectual classes to embrace homogeneity of viewpoint.
Given the quality of leadership in Washington, it’s not surprising that many pundits are shifting focus to locally based solutions to pressing problems. This increasingly includes many progressives, who historically have embraced an ever-more expansive federal government.
In many ways, this constitutes an extraordinarily positive development. Political decentralization is built into the very framework of American democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, recognized.
As all the Californians who celebrated the deluge of rain that fell the week before last know, it did not do much to ameliorate the state’s deep drought. We are likely to enter our traditionally dry spring, summer and fall in a crisis likely to exacerbate the ever greater estrangement between the state’s squabbling regions and classes.
The recent decision by Occidental Petroleum to move its headquarters to Houston from Los Angeles, where it was founded over a half-century ago, confirms the futility and delusion embodied in California's ultragreen energy policies. By embracing solar and wind as preferred sources of generating power, the state promotes an ever-widening gap between its declining middle- and working-class populations and a smaller, self-satisfied group of environmental campaigners and their corporate backers.