Has a second Gilded Age dawned on America? Is the new economic morning we’re seeing all around us - damp with high unemployment, offshoring, and stagnant wages - a precursor to another depression or lost generation? Is what we're seeing dimly these days being illuminated by light refracted from the wealth America’s top earners have amassed?
Many conservatives bristle at the notion that exaggerated income disparity could be any sort of economic problem. Many liberals – even rich ones – bristle at the notion that America’s new super rich shouldn’t share more of their wealth with our lower economic classes. In between are, well, the rest of us. Only being in the middle doesn't have the same ring of prosperity that it did even a decade ago.
According to the liberal-leaning Institute for Policy Studies*, the top 1 percent of Americans received 23% of the income in 2007, the most since 1928. Is that true? Did one percent of wage earners get almost a quarter of 2007's entire payroll? If this statistic is true, does it depict a healthy economy?
Adjusted for inflation, America's average hourly wage was $20.06 in 1972, and $18.52 in 2008. Does this mean that middle-income workers are losing financial ground? Are the rich getting richer at the expense of everybody else, or have they simply managed to leverage their assets better than everybody else? Have we reached the upper limits of capitalism, where raw greed trumps innovation? Or do economic slumps simply make us have-nots more grumpy?
Indeed, is it petty jealousy which causes us to complain about how other people have more money than we do? Have the super-rich really earned their money, or have they simply benefited from a skewed system of rewards? Why do executives who manage but don't create merit significantly greater compensation than workers who actually produce the product for sale?
Why do airline pilots - by whose expertise an airline sinks or swims - earn less than their top-tier bosses? Why do doctors have to justify their life-saving skills to MBA's at insurance companies who earn more than them? Hasn't the system of value and rewards become woefully imbalanced in our country?
How do we all benefit when a small group of us amasses disproportionate wealth? Does a rising tide really lift all boats? Or have systemic subordinations, born of Darwinian economic ideologies, become the means by which income disparity has begun to whittle away at the middle class? Has Wall Street really provided the best method for paying people what they're worth to our economy?
Many conservatives claim taxation based on income represents another form of wealth redistribution. Some high-income folks balk at being subjected to higher taxation rates than lower-income folks, but if somebody who earns $1 million a year is taxed at the same rate as somebody earning $50,000, is the lower-wage-earner actually being taxed more in relation to the cost of living? Some evangelical conservatives point to the 10% benchmark provided in the Bible for tithing, saying that if a flat rate is good enough for God, it should be good enough for the IRS. What people who make this argument are missing is that the 10% is ONLY a benchmark - indeed, Luke 12:48 says that to whom much is given, much will be required. Is Christ talking about a dollar amount, or a percentage?
A lot these questions actually boil down to the intrinsic value a middle income class has within a society. If the super-rich keep firing employees to make their companies leaner so they're more profitable, will the society's overall buying power be adequate to support what these companies are trying to sell? If the super-rich are banking on global markets to compensate for their shrinking US market, then what's to stop corporations in other countries from poaching the remaining customers here? For example, what will happen if and when China comes up with a fantastic new computer operating system? Or SUV? Or any number of other widgets and services American countries are currently offshoring? Do conservatives go crying to Washington, wanting even stricter tariffs to keep foreign competition at bay?
I guess, after all of these questions, my one basic question is this: why do conservative elites** dislike the middle class? What have we done to offend you? Aren't middle class workers industrious and productive? Are we simply higher-paid lower class grunts? Why do you think everybody should be rich like you? If all 300 million of us were rich like you, who would be your business analyst, graphic designer, school teacher, police officer, nurse, or salesperson?
If income inequity is actually a rising tide that lifts all boats, then mine must have sprung a leak. And for all of you conservatives who are aspiring two-percenters, dreaming of being on Forbes' lists: don't look now, but your ship may have already sailed... with none other than limousine liberals like Gates and Buffet at the helm.
* Apparently, the Institute for Policy Studies has incurred the wrath of Koch brothers puppet Glenn Beck, which considering his feeble credibility, and the Koch brothers' Soros-esque machinations, probably says more about the Institute than Beck.
** After considering the feedback from a reader (see below) I have changed my wording in this sentence to better reflect the group to whom my question is addressed.