Civics: Two books try to understand the other America, and stumble along the way.

Chris Arnade:

The list includes some admirable advice, such as volunteering in a homeless shelter. And then there’s Tip 10: “As we were working on this book, our cherry orchard on the Kristof farm in Yamhill needed to be replaced, so after seeing the need for jobs in the area, we decided to plant the land with cider apples and wine grapes. Cider and pinot noir will employ more local people than other uses of the land, and we’ve already hired a couple of local people with troubled histories to clear the land.”

This isn’t a bad thing at all. We all could use more empathy, understanding, and be open to working with people “with troubled histories.” Maybe not just as the hired help, though.

Throughout the book there is a noblesse oblige attitude; not the old country club type, but an updated version steeped in well-to-do educated leftist language. Again, that isn’t a bad thing by itself, but here it too often comes with an uncomfortable savior vibe.

Kristof and WuDunn are hard-working journalists dedicated to their task, so they do put boots on the ground to get beyond the data, traveling to working-class communities in the U.S. for interviews, particularly Kristof’s Yamhill, Oregon, hometown, where his family farm is located.

Despite this hard work and genuine empathy, the authors can’t break out of their worldview. They can’t get beyond wanting to get people on the good ladder, and not dismantle the system of two ladders. They don’t emphasize devaluing the meritocracy, as Case and Deaton do, but rather take on the easier feel-good task of figuring out how to get talented young people on their preferred path. Or to use their metaphor, have access to the escalator, so they can escape.