Q&A with Dalton Conley

January 26, 2009 |

Dalton Conley, Breakthrough Senior Fellow, sociology professor at NYU and author of the upcoming book "Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety," sat down with Ted Nordhaus to answer some questions about social and economic inequality in America, and the impacts of the current recession on recent socioeconomic trends in the United States. Don't miss the chance to see Conley speak tomorrow, January 27th, at Berkeley Arts and Letters with Michael and Ted introducing.

Ted Nordhaus:
You have written extensively about the impacts of rising social and economic inequality on American culture and society. What would you identify as the key drivers of rising inequality?
Dalton Conley:
Wage inequality has increased for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most important being what economists call "skill-biased technological change" meaning that the new economy skews rewards heavily toward folks who have the most hi-end cognitive and emotional skills and credentials (i.e. educational degrees). But total inequality has increased also because of family dynamics: more and more families are two-earner households with high-earners marrying high-earners, thereby doubling (almost) household inequality.

Over the last few decades, up until the current recession, America has experienced both consistently high levels of economic growth and rising levels, by some accounts unprecedented levels, of economic inequality. How are those two phenomena related and do you think it is possible to have a high growth economy without rising levels of inequality?
The rewards of growth have been typically unequally distributed in the U.S. For instance, the last time we experienced inequality levels equal to contemporary ones was 1929, right before the crash. So it remains to be seen what the impact of the current bear market will be. There are, however, examples abroad of societies that have managed to obtain standards of living similar to (or better than) ours without such extreme inequality. Northern Europe comes to mind.

What do you think the impact of the current recession will be on social inequality? Are we likely to see declining levels of inequality and if so, what impact would you expect that to have on Elsewhere U.S.A?
I think inequality may lessen if the evaporation of all this abstract wealth holds fast. However, already public policy has been directed to restoring the old ways. Even if inequality declines, I still think folks will be haunted by economic anxiety. In good times we fear that others are doing better than us in relative terms. In bad times, we fear losing what we have in absolute terms.

You write more specifically about the ways in which rising inequality is self reinforcing. The more money affluent Americans make, the higher the opportunity costs of not working become. The resulting greater incentive for affluent Americans to work more, not less, then exacerbates income inequality all the more. Would you expect a recessionary economy in which income inequality was declining to result in a reversal of this dynamic? With the opportunity costs of family time and leisure declining, would you expect affluent Americans to take more time away from work and with their families? What impact might that have on Americans who work in the service sectors to which affluent Americans have in recent decades outsourced so much of their lives?
I could see a potential upside of more folks living a slower lifestyle--cooking at home more and outsourcing less childcare and other aspects of what was once family life; this might be an upside of a tepid economy. However, the monkey wrench in all this is the fact that we are burdened with enormous household (and national) debt thanks to our recent consumption binge. So most of us--thanks to credit card bills or mortgages that exceed the value of our homes--don't have the option of working less and enjoying simpler pleasures we had forgotten about. We are going to be working for our interest payments and feeling perhaps even more pressure to earn.

You write a lot about the ways in which modern life, and particularly the market, has increasingly erased many of the old modernist dualities - work and leisure, public and private, market goods and public goods - mostly in the negative; but aren't there real benefits to many of these trends as well, in terms of the creation of all sorts of technologies and new personal/professional spaces that allow for greater flexibility and control over when, how, and where we work, play, shop, and lived?
Definitely, but the skills we need to manage these are new. The ability to multi-task--i.e. attend to several streams of interactive data exchange while not losing any of those threads, is perhaps as important as perisistence, brains or other skills that are prized. I am not trying to be judgemental and make some nostalgic claim that things were "better" in the days of yore; rather, I am merely trying to describe a new social landscape that comes with plusses and minuses.

You also write about the rise of the intravidual - about the ways in which the collapse of so many of those dualities has led to a fracturing of the self. Is this really a new development? How is this different than Whitman's observation that we "contain multitudes" penned more than a century ago? Haven't we always contained multitudes and multiple selves?
That may be the case. However, I think back then there was still a clear(er) division between front-stage (i.e. public persona) and back-stage (our private self). Today with Facebook updates (and so on), public cell phone conversations, and the blurring of home and work, this dichotomy has eroded, combining with other dynamics I describe in the book, to lead to a greater--perhaps--fragmentation of our consciousness, I argue.

How do the social safety net and the institutions necessary for its provision need to evolve to address America's increasingly complex social and economic arrangements?
We have to face the fact that the social safety net devised in the 1930s (and even the 1960s amendments) were made in the context of a much less affluent society where household budgets were much more devoted to basic necessities. Today what we "need" is much greater (education, high quality health care, family care and so on) and often relative in nature (better schools -- better than what?). These are much more difficult to provide using the old-school social insurance model.

About the book:

Over the past three decades, our daily lives have changed slowly but dramatically. Boundaries between leisure and work, public space and private space, and home and office have blurred and become permeable. How many of us now work from home, our wireless economy allowing and encouraging us to work 24/7? How many of us talk to our children while scrolling through e-mails on our BlackBerrys? How many of us feel overextended, as we are challenged to play multiple roles-worker, boss, parent, spouse, friend, and client-all in the same instant?

Dalton Conley, social scientist and writer provides us with an X-ray view of our new social reality. In Elsewhere, U.S.A., Conley connects our daily experience with occasionally overlooked sociological changes: women's increasing participation in the labor force; rising economic inequality generating anxiety among successful professionals; the individualism of the modern era-the belief in self-actualization and expression-being replaced by the need to play different roles in the various realms of one's existence. In this groundbreaking book, Conley offers an essential understanding of how the technological, social, and economic changes that have reshaped our world are also reshaping our individual lives.


I partially agree with JH... Certainly higher degrees do not guarantee wealth (although the type of degree matters as well as the level, e.g., a BS in petroleum engineering earns more than an M.Ed), however higher skills are needed in today's economy than in previous decades. For example, project managers now use Monte Carlo techniques for risk management and schedule development. The higher sophistication in our economy requires higher level mathematic and communication skills.

By R Margolis on 2009 01 28

"The new economy skews rewards heavily toward folks who have the most hi-end cognitive and emotional skills and credentials (i.e. educational degrees)."

Is that why the top hedge fund manager in NY made more in one year than all the 43,000 NY teachers made in 3 years combined? I think it is a myth that credentialing is a major source of inequality, since teachers, for sure, mostly have graduate degrees. This line is a typical American blame the victim dig: if you just went to school more, you'd make more money. The problem is that merit has less and less to do with quality of life.

A related statement above--that rich people work more because the opportunity cost of not working is more for them--also perpetrates another myth: those who are rich work hard, and the presumed corollary that if you work hard you will be rich. Neither are true. Nobody works harder than poverty wage workers. Nobody.

By JH on 2009 01 27