The earnings of the top 1 percent of Americans have nearly quadrupled since 1979.
Culture » August 5, 2011
Let Them Eat Megabytes
Our media and pop culture offers virtually no indictment of the signal malady of our age: rampant inequality.
Remember social equality? Of course you don’t. Back when America was still under the sway of the New Deal social contract, few questioned that it was a good thing for our civilization to strive to provide citizens with roughly equal access to social goods such as a decent education, affordable housing and income supports. This was even more the case during the highest pitches of the civil rights and feminist movements, for what one hopes are still obvious reasons. Not only did central entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare help secure the standing of America’s most vulnerable citizens, but a truly progressive income tax helped create broad-based middle-class prosperity, placing home ownership and college education within reach of many ordinary American households (at least if they were white). And top-tier tax rates north of 70 percent helped reinforce the American ideal of equality as something we took seriously, a none-too-subtle reminder that other people got hurt–and your own moral bearings were likewise damaged–when you gorged yourself on personal excess. In the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, Park Avenue patriarch Eugene Pallette fends off complaints from his spoiled family about the unfairness of the government making off with a majority share of his earnings via the fatalistic but eminently reasonable protest, “Well, that’s just the way they have of doing things.”
It’s certainly not how they do things now. In the last 30 years, all sorts of political forces have combined in the hijacking of equality: The supply-side fantasias of the Reagan era and the shortsighted deregulatory dogmas of Third Way Clintonism are obvious culprits, and continue to hold both political parties in vice-like paralysis. More than that, though, the ideal of equality has withered away. The folklore of our media and pop culture offers virtually no indictment of that signal malady of our age–rampant income inequality.
In a recent Time magazine column, for instance, David Von Drehle swaggers up to history’s bar to declare that anxieties over inequalities of wealth and income are “overblown.” In his middlebrow broadside–which bears the high Luce-ian hortatory title “Don’t Bet Against the U.S.”–Von Drehle, a Time editor-at-large, protests that the upward distribution of wealth is “an illusion.”
Von Drehle, like so many other mainstream media scribes, wants the skittish, class-anxious American public to find succor in the Olympian recalibration of, well, everything–in short, to lie back and think of globalization. “Globalization is one of those huge transformations you read about in history textbooks,” Von Drehle burbles as the baleful effects of his Henry Luce contact high continue to multiply. “Globalization is an epoch, as surely as the Bronze Age or the industrial age, only it is happening with unprecedented speed and scope.”
You don’t say. So it is evidently the foreordained verdict of epochal history that the earnings of the top 1 percent of Americans have nearly quadrupled since 1979, while earnings of all other groups have remained stagnant. Von Drehle is forced to concede that, indeed, “wages may have stagnated” for most U.S. earners–but just look at all that shiny entrepeneurship! “America’s inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs and workers have answered the sudden glut of cheap labor around the world by leading an astonishing revolution in productivity. One American produces as much, per capita, as six Chinese.”
Never mind that this selfsame worker no longer has a reasonable shot at a sustainable mortgage, a pension or baseline job security. Casting about for a concrete benefit that globalization has brought us in lieu of wage gains, Von Drehle is reduced to observing that Americans can buy really excellent computers now: “The $160 that bought a portable black-and-white Admiral television set in 1971, with access to a handful of channels, will now buy (in 2011 dollars) a powerful laptop computer, with access to a world of information–more than any human could digest in a lifetime.”
Von Drehle fails to observe that most wage-earning souls in America can only add these fabulous gadgets to their whirring digital storehouses by continuing to fatten their world-historic levels of household debt. (Indeed, U.S. households were in debt in 2010 to the tune of 136 percent of their annual income, while the corresponding figure for China was 17 percent–which more than handily wipes out America’s six-to-one productivity advantage.)
Nor does he pause to note that any affordable computer in the U.S. market is bound to be manufactured in Dickensian production hubs in China, such as the 100,000-worker Foxconn facility in Chengdu, which in May suffered its 14th worker suicide since 2010.
All hail, in other words, the new debt-ridden, wage-stagnant, job-hemorrhaging Bronze Age. In the annals of callow parvenu journalism, Von Drehle sets an admirable standard–though if he wins the Bronze, the Gold goes to the Atlantic’s reliably vacuous “Biggest Ideas of the Year” franchise. For 2011 it plots the number one “idea” as the “rise of the middle class–just not ours,” which chirpily assures us that, in spite of the raft of demoralizing economic setbacks lately suffered by America’s working majority, “the full tale of the ‘squeezed middle’ has yet to be told.”
Idea number 3 is simply, “the rich are different from you and me.”
True enough–the rich can readily size up their stake in the New Age of Inequality without having to endure the preachments of quisling new-economy hucksters.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.