A surprising fact jumped out at me as I read a column yesterday by David Brooks in The New York Times.
Referencing a new book by Oren Cass — “The Once and Future Worker” — Brooks, a conservative, wrote:
“In the 1970s and 1980s, [Cass] points out, the Emmy Award-winning TV shows were about blue-collar families: ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Taxi,’ ‘Cheers,’ ‘The Wonder Years.’ Now the Emmy-winning shows are mostly about white-collar adults working in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, New York and Washington.”
This likely partly reflects how the economy has changed from a time when labor unions were still a force, if declining, and blue-collar folks could still make a decent living, to now, when the rich aren’t just getting richer but fabulously so as the less-rich see their wealth eroding at an alarming rate.
And as the universe increasingly expands at a hair-raising pace (we are told), the distance between the “one percent” and others appears to be exponentially widening as well.
The rich get mega-rich
The website Inequality.org quantifies this transformation with some disturbing statistics:
“The most visible indicator of wealth inequality in America today may be the Forbes magazine list of the nation’s 400 richest. In 1982, the ‘poorest’ American listed on the first annual Forbes magazine list of America’s richest 400 had a net worth of $80 million. The average member of that first list had a net worth of $230 million. In 2016, rich Americans needed net worth of $1.7 billion to enter the Forbes 400, and the average member held a net $6.0 billion, over 10 times the 1982 average after adjusting for inflation.”
Is it any surprise then that tens of millions of white, jobless or underemployed Americans with no more than a high school education have steadily become more and more infuriated as rich citizens leave them further and further in the dust in an ever-destructive, ever-increasing shift of wealth?
Is it any surprise that these folks make up the core of billionaire President Donald Trump’s vaunted “base” and voted him into the White House in 2016, whether or not “The Donald” cares a whit about them (the evidence clearly implies not) or their poverty and problems that impoverishment makes inevitable (like violence, drugs and broken families)?
First among unequals
The fault lines in this divide are delineated in Brooks’ column, “What the Working Class Is Still Trying to Tell Us: And how we can make a difference in their lives,” and in a companion piece by Paul Krugman, “Real America Versus Senate America: Some of us are more equal than others, and they like Trump.”
That’s the reason in the midterms that urban and suburban Democrats were able to re-take control the House, while lawmakers from rural, Trump-loving states succeeded in expanding their control of the Senate.
Brooks believes, referencing Cass’ book, that growing disrespect of honest labor over the past few decades has helped create and intensify the divide, as the educated elite in America “screwed up labor markets in ways that devalued work and made it harder for people in the working class to find a satisfying job.”
That hard reality is driving hard-put Americans to grasp at supposed saviors, like the pseudo-populist Trump, a who is clearly more of a self-absorbed opportunist who lusts after authoritarian power.
The question is, how to even the economic playing field for the forgotten men and women struggling to find jobs of any kind in rural and small-town America, and failing miserably to find good-paying ones.
The irony is that what is needed is a plan that would, in effect, redistribute wealth so that it’s more evenly spread throughout the country. However, if there is one thing that Republicans, now led by Donald Trump, are four-square against, it’s redistribution of wealth. Waiting for underprivileged, underclass Americans to get motivated to raise themselves by the bootstraps and retrieve some of that wealth for themselves, history tells us, is a pipe dream of conservatives, who have yet to wake up.
Now, something completely different?
No, we need something radically new, it seems. Brooks suggests a path:
“We in the college-educated sliver have built a culture, an economy and a political system that are all about ourselves. It’s time to pass labor market reforms that will make life decent for everybody.”
In the meantime, the inequality of the system that populates the House and Senate remains, cleaving urban and so-called “flyover” Americans and putting everyone at odds on policy. Krugman warns:
“We may, then, be looking at a growing crisis of legitimacy for the U.S. political system — even if we get through the constitutional crisis that seems to be looming over the next few months.”
Will blue-collar TV shows come into vogue again anytime soon? Don’t count on it.