The U.S.'s great social divide —non-college people in small towns and educated people in cities —has its root in deep economic forces. (Photo:Shutterstock)

David Autor, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology, has a record of attacking the biggest and mostimportant issues. He has raised alarms about disappearing middle-skilled jobs, pointed to the downsidesof trade with China, warned about increasing industrialconcentration and attacked the question of whether automation will kill jobs.

In a recent lecture at the American Economic Association meetingin Atlanta, Autor attempted to weave many of those threads togetherinto a single story. Paraphrasing heavily, that story goessomething like this: Forty years ago, Americans who didn't go tocollege could move to cities and get good jobs in manufacturing or office work. But starting inabout 1980, these jobs began to disappear, thanks in part tooffshoring and automation. By 2000, manufacturing was in steadyretreat:

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