Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American DreamBy David Leonhardt. Random House. 2023. 528 pages. As we enter into a presidential election year in the United States, we will soon be hearing more about the fierce political divisions there and the social and economic factors behind them. With this in mind, David Leonhardt of The New York Times has set out to diagnose the central economic problems, while also encouraging his counterparts on the political Left to broaden their appeal. Ours Was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream, published in October, is the fruit of his labour. The writer of his paper’s flagship The Morning newsletter has produced an absorbing, readable and in many ways persuasive account of the long decline of the "American Dream". Surveying the evidence of sluggish growth in incomes, deteriorations in various measures of public health and stagnating life expectancy, Leonhardt labels recent decades as the "Great American Stagnation". The promise of upward social mobility lay at the heart of America’s self-understanding, and this was not a fictional notion. It was instead the norm. Leonhardt points to analysis by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty which showed that 92 percent of children born in 1940 grew up to have higher household incomes than their parents. In subsequent decades, it became far less likely that children would surpass their parents on the economic ladder. In fact, Professor Chetty states that about half of the babies born in 1980 will attain this feat, thereby meaning that “achieving the American dream is a 50-50 proposition.” Leonhardt notes additional evidence showing that the typical American family in 2019 had a net worth lower than the typical family in 2001, before describing the range of ways in which life appears to have gotten worse. “The number of children living with only one parent or with neither has doubled since the 1970s. The obesity rate has nearly tripled. The number of Americans who have spent time behind bars at some point has risen five-fold. Measures of childhood mental health have deteriorated,” he writes. Social institutions The book’s nostalgic title is no accident. As the author makes clear, things were not always like this. Colonial America was strikingly less unequal in economic terms than most countries in western Europe, with their systems of inherited wealth and hereditary title. As the author recounts, the extraordinary levels of income inequality which developed during the ‘Gilded Age’ in the late 19th and early 20th centuries eventually led to a decisive reversal in US economic policy: with President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration increasing regulations, strengthening labour unions and intervening more in critical sectors of the economy. While Leonhardt is clearly a supporter of the Democratic Party, he goes to considerable lengths to highlight the achievements of the moderate Republican administrations of the mid-20th century, in particular that of President Dwight Eisenhower which prioritised infrastructural improvements and greatly increased federal spending on research and development — thus laying the groundwork for future innovation by private sector companies. Unions are a core focus here. Leonhardt maintains that the rise of the labour movement from the Depression era onwards helped usher in the period of widespread affluence which followed, just as he believes that declining union membership is central to the poor wage growth of recent decades. Government policy certainly played a role in making union membership more common — more than 30 percent of American workers were union members by the mid-40s, up from just over 10 percent a decade prior to that. Frustratingly though, the author does little to connect these shifts to the broader trends of decreased institutional involvement (be that in unions, churches, membership associations or so forth) in the last half-century. For a book that assails economic individualism while also taking occasional aim at social individualism, this is certainly a weakness. Movers and shakers Leonhardt is on steadier ground in identifying a greater sense of social responsibility among mid-20th century business leaders, who were far less likely to seek disproportionately high salaries. The author’s profiles of particularly important figures throughout his narrative constitute a powerful part of this book’s appeal. One particularly effective description is that of the businessman turned politician George Romney, who turned down enormous performance-related bonuses while serving as a very successful chief executive of American Motors Corporation. Even in good times, Romney did not wish to violate the salary cap which he had helped put in place. Leonhardt draws a sharp contrast between George and his son Mitt, who decades later would earn vastly more money running a private equity firm. The comparison between Romney Senior and Junior highlights the rapid growth in executive pay in recent decades in an era of declining median family incomes, not to mention the transformation of an economy centred around making things to one centred around making money.
Tommy Jessop, an actor with Down’s syndrome known for his role in the prime time BBC drama, Line of Duty, has petitioned Hollywood to make a new superhero film starring an actor with Down’s syndrome. A BBC documentary released last month follows brothers Tommy and Will Jessop as they attempt to shake up Hollywood with their new screenplay. When Jessop’s acting agent told him his ambition of being the next James Bond was unrealistic, he turned his mind to superhero films.Inspired by the success of films such as The Peanut Butter Falcon, which gave a leading role to Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down’s syndrome, the Jessop brothers pitched the idea of a superhero with Down’s syndrome to Hollywood. Villain is a scientist who wants to rid the world of Down’s syndrome Tommy did not shy away from difficult truths in the documentary. His superhero, Roger Mitchell, faces an arch-nemesis, scientist Noel Skum, who is trying to “screen out” people with Down’s syndrome. Tommy describes the villainous scientist as trying to “get rid of” people with Down’s syndrome. In a read-through of part of the script, the villain declares to the superhero, “Your DNA is a mistake … you have an extra chromosome that corrupts the rest of it.” When the superhero with Down’s syndrome responds that his extra chromosome is a gift, Skum retorts, “It’s a gift no one wants… you have nothing to offer us.” A screenplay that reflects Tommy’s real life Earlier in the programme, Tommy and members of his family speak about prenatal diagnostic testing, or screening, which allows families to learn if their baby has Down’s syndrome before he or she is born. Campaigners have highlighted that this screening has led to a significant increase in the number of lives of babies with Down’s syndrome ended by abortion.
General Motors' autonomous-vehicle operation is called Cruise, and just last August, it received permission (along with Google's Waymo) to operate driverless robotaxis in San Francisco at all hours of the day and night. This made the city the only one in the United States with two competing firms providing such services. Only a week after the California Public Utilities Commission acted to allow 24-hour services, a Cruise robotaxi carrying a passenger was involved in a collision with a fire truck on an emergency call. The oncoming fire truck had moved into the robotaxi's lane at an intersection surrounded by tall buildings and controlled by a traffic light, which had turned green for the robotaxi. Engineers for Cruise said that the robotaxi identified the emergency vehicle's siren as soon as it rose above the ambient noise level, but couldn't track its path until it came into view, by which time it was too late for the robotaxi to avoid hitting it. The passenger was taken to a hospital but was not seriously injured. As a result, Cruise agreed with the Department of Motor Vehicles to reduce their active fleet of robotaxis by 50 percent until the investigation by DMV of this and other incidents was resolved. Near-tragedy In many engineering failures, warning signs of a comparatively minor nature appear before the major catastrophe, which usually attracts attention by loss of life, injuries, or significant property damage. These minor signs are valuable indicators to those who wish to prevent the major tragedies from occurring, but they are not always heeded effectively. The Cruise collision with a fire truck proved to be one such case. On 2 October, a pedestrian was hit by a conventional human-piloted car on a busy San Francisco street. This happens from time to time, but the difference in this case was that the impact sent the pedestrian toward a Cruise robotaxi. When the unfortunate pedestrian hit the robotaxi, the vehicle's system interpreted the collision as "lateral", meaning something hit it from the side. In the case of lateral collisions, the robotaxi is programmed to stop and then pull off the road to keep from obstructing traffic. What the system didn't take into account was that the pedestrian was still stuck under one of the robotaxi's wheels, and when it pulled about six meters (20 feet) to the curb, it dragged the pedestrian with it, causing critical injuries.
It wasn’t just the violence. It was also the timing. Hamas’s October 7 slaughter of Israelis on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War sent a message to Israel. In October 1973 Egyptian and Syrian armies invaded. It was a close-run thing. Israel was caught napping; in the early days of the war, success was far from certain. But there are other anniversaries this year which shed light on the war in Gaza. 2023 marks the 100th year since the publication a famous essay about relations between the Arabs and Jews, the “Iron Wall” by Zeev Jabotinsky. Odessa-born Jabotinsky was a Zionist who fought for the British in World War I and migrated to Israel. In 1923 he published an essay that has been commented on frequently in the Israeli press after October 7. He warned his readers that the Palestinians were never going to accept a Jewish majority. "Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population,” he argued. “Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach." The Israelis remember the metaphor of the “Iron Wall”. A well-known conservative Rabbi, Hayim Navon, wrote recently in the magazine Makor Rishon: “We have to delete from our dictionary, plain and simple, the word ‘deterred’ and in its place we must substitute ‘crushed’ … For the sake of our children’s lives, we must never again allow anyone to crack the Iron Wall.” The other significant anniversary is the 70th anniversary of the Qibya Massacre. It foreshadowed Israel’s response to the savage massacre on October 7. On October 12, 1953, Palestinian infiltrators threw a grenade into a Jewish home a few kilometres from the Jordanian side of the armistice line. A mother and two of her children were killed as they slept. This capped months of killings by Palestinian fedayeen and reprisals by Israelis. The Israeli army decided to teach the Palestinians a lesson. On the night of October 14, half a brigade of elite Israeli troops led by Major Ariel Sharon – yes, that Ariel Sharon, later to become Prime Minister – forced their way into the Arab village of Qibya, on Jordanian side. They ordered the inhabitants to leave and then blew up their homes. Either because they didn’t know or didn’t care to know, many of the villagers were still huddling in their houses. About 70 people died. The raid was denounced around the world and in the United Nations. But the widespread outrage did not bother Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. As historian Daniel Gordis relates in his book Israel: a concise history of a nation reborn, Sharon briefed Ben-Gurion after the event. Ben-Gurion said: “It doesn’t make any real difference what will be said about Qibya around the world. The important thing is how it will be looked at here in this region. This is going to give us the possibility of living here.”
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