Tuesday, July 19, 2005

"America is not just mobile. It is a perpetual-motion machine."

I have tons of work to do this week, and still haven't answered the email from when I was away, so I thought I'd avoid it all this morning by reading The Economist's special (if borderline jingoistic and most definitely conservative) survey of mobility in America.

Long characterised by "restlessness in the midst of plenty," Americans seem to be moving - by choice and by force - for work and better housing. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are often moving to the very places abandoned through domestic migration - providing a "never-ending supply" of labour needed for economic and urban growth. (Cough.) Although this mobility sometimes leads to increased segregation - 40% of new California communities are gated - these trends also seem to reinforce America's cultural melting pot. At the same time, class differences are increasing and class mobility is declining - although "rising inequality is not affecting the optimism and ambition of average Americans." (Am I the only one who thinks of Fortress L.A.?) Mobility is also seen to increase an "appetite for social bonds," and Americans are joining clubs again. Rising civic and public engagement, internet-enabled associations, and religion are seen to be increasingly common forms of social cohesion. But finally, in these constantly changing times, it seems the American government is becoming more rigid in its policies and practices.

So the main conclusion is this: mobility is sorting out America.

"Sorting out means groups of like-minded people are clustering together by choice. The process may result in discord but is not created by it. Splitting, on the other hand, is usually created by discord and produces even more. It implies that the groups people form are not merely separate but opposed ... Sorting does not necessarily imply that social ties are weakening. Splitting does. It is the difference between growing apart and falling apart ... Because sorting is a result of demographic dynamism, it is associated with growth and achievement as well as failure and divisiveness ... [But] because sorting out is a fluid process, problems can be put right relatively easily ... This is not to say that sorting has been a uniform blessing, merely that it mixes good with bad."

Interesting perspective. And looking back at the title, I wonder if the writers know that perpetual-motion machines are impossible?


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