There have now been 15 September 11ths since the one we call simply 9/11, that day when the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center were hit by airplanes being used as missiles and crashed to the ground, killing almost 3,000 people. We call the site “ground zero,” which started as the military designation for the place where a nuclear bomb detonates, its effects spreading out for hundreds of miles. Now the phrase is so associated with this epoch-changing event and place, people may assume that’s just what it means. And while there was no literal blast spreading far beyond the towers, certainly there were far-reaching effects: 9/11 initiated a new era in American military intervention and the frustratingly dangerous and out-of-kilter world we live in.
In his most recent foray into Deep Thinking, rapper Kanye West declared himself and Henry Ford, among others, to be “artists [and] merchants.” Though Kanye was mocked for his egotism, his description of Ford was well put. Ford not only sold products, but saw his ideas made real. Even the most abstract of these ideas—vertical integration—became reality in the largest industrial complex ever built: the River Rouge.
Designed by Albert Kahn, the Rouge covered 1,300 acres. During the 1930s, over 65,000 men worked at the plant on three shifts. The namesake river was dredged and widened to allow ships access to the facilities. Raw materials—iron, sand, rubber—brought by barge into one end of the complex, could be transformed into steel, glass, and tires on site, and assembled into a finished car at the other.
Probably since time immemorial, each generation has thought the next one lacked industriousness. But for the last half-century, this belief has been true of American men. Even as the economy has grown, a rising share of prime-age males have opted out of work.
Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis, a brief book by Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, drives this point home forcefully, drawing on an impressive array of data to explain what’s happening and why.
The chart that forms the core of Eberstadt’s case depicts the percentage of men age 25-54 who do not have a job.
The novelist John le Carré has a desk in the basement of his chalet in the Bernese Oberland. Through a window he can see the peaks of the Jungfrau, the Silberhorn, and the Keines. He’s owned the chalet for 50 years. When they were younger, he brought his sons (presumably from both marriages, though he doesn’t say) there every winter to ski. Sometimes they came in the spring, too. It’s May, and he’s at the desk writing his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, longhand—the only way he’s ever written—and it’s raining.