Friends in India used to dismay me with their conviction that the caste system would never be modified during our lifetimes. That system entrenched discrimination and prejudice, made a mockery of social mobility and wrecked thousands of lives.
Advanced and civilised as we claim to be, we tried to demolish such structural barriers. The bad old days of piece work, eroding conditions, sweatshops and dark satanic mills seemed generations behind us. Unhappily, the one-click and gig economies have moved us backwards.
Alec MacGillis, author of an eviscerating biography of the US Republican leader Mitch McConnell, dissects the United States' one-click economy in a cogent, calm, compelling manner. He describes folk now left behind, in opportunity, wealth, education and health, all the socio-economic markers which matter. John Lanchester called that group "the precariat", and MacGillis commends that term. This is Nomadland in print.
MacGillis' main conclusions are simply but forcefully expressed. He thinks regional inequality in the US is "throwing the whole country off-kilter". He explains disparities in income not simply by reference to the obscenely rich but to the cities where they like to live. "With a winner-take-all economy come winner-take-all places." Reviewing the cumulative impact of opioids, guns, COVID and Trump, MacGillis notes that "economic decline did not excuse racism and xenophobia - rather, it weaponised them".
As a case study, MacGillis selects Amazon, which plays "an outsize role in this zero-sum sorting". Amazon neither invented American social Darwinism nor set its rules. MacGillis rightly reviews other one-click giants as well.
Throughout, his approach is well-read, well-travelled and distinctly quirky. Who knew that Microsoft set up between a massage parlour and a laundromat? Who imagined that "the era of outsize wealth in Washington started with congressional hearings on hunger"?
Some readers might want fewer characters, fewer diversions and fewer separate stories, perhaps also balanced by more concentrated analysis.
Such critics would miss the pleasure of following MacGillis in his explorations of Seattle property prices, the menial work in "sortation centres" and even the United States tax code.
MacGillis plainly knows and cares a great deal about his subject. Better oversight, tighter regulation, stricter health and safety rules, increases in minimum wages, those are some remedial steps we might readily deduce.
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