A fresh account of the magnitude of inequality in America and how it came to be.
New Yorker staff writer Lemann (Emeritus, Dean/Columbia Journalism School; Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, 2006, etc.) turns to complex theory to explain why income inequality has deepened in conjunction with the fracturing of social bonds between and among the ultrawealthy, middle-class residents, and those struggling with poverty. The author posits that three phases, dating back about 100 years, explain much of the upheaval: the era of powerful institutions, including government, political parties, massive corporations, massive labor unions, and affinity groups based on ethnicity; the era of transactions that often bypassed those institutions, mostly through Silicon Valley and Wall Street; and now, the era of internet-enabled entities such as Google, Apple, and Facebook. Lemann chooses one individual to explicate each phase: New Deal economist Adolf Berle as “Institution Man,” Harvard Business School professor Michael Jensen as “Transaction Man,” and LinkedIn co-creator Reid Hoffman as “Network Man.” Though the author’s high-level theorizing is confusing at times, he wisely offers general readers a solid foundation by discussing the impact of each era on citizens in specific neighborhoods, especially a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago called Chicago Lawn. In that setting, he provides sharp portraits of a white male automobile dealer, an African American woman who migrated from the Deep South to fend off virulent racism in the neighborhood, and other residents struggling to make sense of the increasing economic inequality plaguing much of the country. The desires of Berle, Jensen, and Hoffman to create an orderly, prosperous society allowed a small slice of the citizenry to thrive beyond their wildest dreams but left the vast majority to struggle consistently with poverty.
Lemann relies on his well-developed skills as a longtime journalist to weave the specific and the abstract into a narrative that is intellectually challenging.