Friday, December 26, 2003

Well, as the year ends, it may be time to take stock and reflect on, among other things, what this country is becoming. Something rather unpleasant, according to Tom Spencer, who sees his well-off relatives expressing deep sympathy and concern for the plight of a cousin of his, who bought two different million-dollar homes while he could really only afford one, while at the same time chatting amiably about such other topics as:

...David Letterman's possible leftist liberal leanings and how trial lawyers are going to destroy the medical system in this country. (During this discussion, one of my aunts, a small business owner, stated rather matter-of-factly that she'd never paid for health insurance for any of her employees during the last twenty five years.) I also learned that the courts were just out there to harass good taxpaying citizens by allowing nuisance lawsuits. In short, while my relatives were apparently filled with compassion for my cousin (who I honestly believe doesn?t deserve it), they apparently had little compassion for, well anyone else, especially those who couldn't afford medical insurance or anyone who might file a lawsuit.

Spencer winds up comparing his relatives to the Gilded Age elites that he studies as a professional historian -- unfavorably, as that crowd by and large at least pretended to a sense of noblesse oblige, and some of them (like the presidents Roosevelt, scions of a family that was a big deal in New York from pretty nearly the time it was still called New Amsterdam) did in fact act on it.

But of course, the plural of anecdote is not data. For that, see this Nation article by the economist that the modern right despises more than Karl Marx himself, Paul Krugman:

According to estimates by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez -- confirmed by data from the Congressional Budget Office -- between 1973 and 2000 the average real income of the bottom 90 percent of American taxpayers actually fell by 7 percent. Meanwhile, the income of the top 1 percent rose by 148 percent, the income of the top 0.1 percent rose by 343 percent and the income of the top 0.01 percent rose 599 percent. (Those numbers exclude capital gains, so they're not an artifact of the stock-market bubble.) The distribution of income in the United States has gone right back to Gilded Age levels of inequality.

Apologists for the new Gilded Age sometimes claim that this is OK, because of income mobility -- a suspect argument at best; income mobility among the bottom 90% doesn't matter a whole lot if that entire population is getting drained. And how much of the population will ever be in the top 1%? But in fact, things are worse:

A classic 1978 survey found that among adult men whose fathers were in the bottom 25 percent of the population as ranked by social and economic status, 23 percent had made it into the top 25 percent. In other words, during the first thirty years or so after World War II, the American dream of upward mobility was a real experience for many people.

Now for the shocker: ... a new survey of today's adult men ... finds that this number has dropped to only 10 percent. That is, over the past generation upward mobility has fallen drastically. Very few children of the lower class are making their way to even moderate affluence. This goes along with other studies indicating that rags-to-riches stories have become vanishingly rare, and that the correlation between fathers' and sons' incomes has risen in recent decades. In modern America, it seems, you're quite likely to stay in the social and economic class into which you were born.

And the effects can be seen all around us. In Manhattan, for instance, in the middle of what are at best tepid times for the bulk of American workers -- job creation is still not happening -- there is a bidding war for multimillion dollar apartments, with many people who could afford to pay $3 to $5 million being simply unable to find anything at all in their price range. Meanwhile, at the lower echelons of society, things continue to tighten up -- due to, among other things, the proliferation of dead-end jobs, which don't offer middle-class entry. And, as Krugman points out, current government policy seems designed to cement the position of the current elites -- by reducing estate and capital gains taxes, allowing them to preserve their wealth, while cutting the educational and health care programs which assist the poor to get themselves out of poverty.

Meanwhile, things aren't looking ducky for the middle class either. IBM just announced that they will be shipping several thousand jobs overseas -- good, middle-class jobs held by people once very much like Tom Spencer's relatives. Some of them may well get stuck in dead-end jobs. They shouldn't look to Tom Spencer's relatives for sympathy.

In short, under the guidance of a party (starting with its President) that endlessly proclaims itself guided by the principles of Christian faith, the United States seems to be becoming a less inviting, less caring, more brutal place. A transformation which can also be seen overseas, literally, as Tom Friedman recounts:

If we ever run out of room to store our gold in Fort Knox, I know just the place to put it: the new U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. It looks just like Fort Knox -- without the charm.

The U.S. Consulate used to be in the heart of the city, where it was easy for Turks to pop in for a visa or to use the library. For security reasons, though, it was recently moved 45 minutes away to the outskirts of Istanbul, on a bluff overlooking the Bosporus -- surrounded by a tall wall. The new consulate looks like a maximum-security prison. All that's missing is a moat with alligators and a sign that says: "Attention! You are now approaching a U.S. Consulate. Any sudden movement and you will be shot. All visitors welcome."

The column also describes embassies elsewhere with a "Crusader castle look", and the common European disgust with such new regulations as fingerprinting requirements for getting a visa. (One might add, though Friedman doesn't, that terrorism isn't probably a great excuse to try to use on these guys -- a lot of European countries have been living with serious terrorism, foreign and domestic, for longer than we have). And for once, he doesn't try to give it some kind of Panglossian spin; instead, he worries about the long-term effect this kind of isolation will have on our relations. One might add, though Friedman doesn't, that treating people as though they will act as enemies can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the burden of that fight from our side would fall mostly on the American lower classes -- which is OK, I guess, if you don't care much about them anyway...


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