That is the new Robert D. Putnam book and it focuses on the widening opportunity gap among America’s young. Much of the work is narrative and case studies, starting with Port Clinton, Ohio but not stopping there. Any Putnam book is an event, and this one is the natural sequel to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. The writing and the underlying intelligence are of an extremely high quality.
One significant theme is that upward mobility results from a mingling of the upper and lower income classes, and such mingling is more scarce than in the immediate postwar era. You can think of it as case study evidence for the cross-sectional statistical regularities stressed by Chetty et.al. Contra Chetty, however, Putnam believes that declines in socioeconomic mobility will start to show up in the data as current generations age.
The book’s problem is finding a new note to strike. Putnam stresses this is a story of social forces rather than personal villains, but, for all the merits of his text, he identifies no new culprits or solutions. Inequality of opportunity seems to have more to do with parents than schools, but how to control parents? This book does not flirt with the so-called Neoreaction. Putnam favors increased access to contraception, professional coaching of poor parents, prison sentencing reform and more emphasis on rehabilitation, eliminating fees for school extracurricular activities, mentoring programs, and greater investment in vocational education; contra Krugman he gives a lot of evidence for skills mismatch (pp.232-233). More generally, he asks for federalist solutions and lots of experimentation. Maybe those are good paths to go, but the reader feels (once again) that matters will get worse before they get better. There is very little on either political economy or the evolution of technology.
Do read this book, but by the end Putnam himself seems to come away deflated from dealing with some of America’s toughest problems.