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The New Gilded Age


Peter Van Buren provides an absolutely outstanding rundown of the New Gilded Age, even if he doesn’t use the term. An excerpt to remind you of the glories of 21st century America:

Last year eight Americans—the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett—made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1 percent of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.

Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1 percent of Americans hold 35 percent of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80 percent, only 11 percent percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the US is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the US include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”

Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don’t we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line. If workers don’t like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can’t find good paying jobs in their area, why don’t they just move? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and…

Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs—almost six million of them—between 2000 and 2009, and wherever “there” is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25 percent, the US has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20 percent, Japan under 15 percent and France 11 percent.)

One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the US where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.

I’d only quibble in his way forward bit at the end that he doesn’t talk about taming capital mobility. He correctly identifies the fleeing of factory work from the United States as undermining the nation’s 99%. But without the taming of corporations that can only happen if they remain in one place for a reasonable amount of time, there’s nothing we are going to do about these problems.

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