Here Is Why You're Not Making It In America: Your Sunday Morning Conversation

04/13/2014 08:59 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2014
Sharon Dominick via Getty Images

Is the United States a strong nation? There's a notion that it is, of course -- based mainly on the disruptive philosophical underpinnings upon which this country was established. But these are all really the fumes of nostalgia. What else is there? Well, we have the best fleet of aerial drone death-dealers in the world (for now). Certainly our fast-food accomplishments are second to none. And our Reality Teevee Industry remains one of the more successful and innovative welfare programs in the world, lifting individuals with no evident utility to the human race -- and who would quite likely be pushed into ditches to die in lesser nations -- into the warm embrace of the Fame Economy.

So we've got that stuff going for us, which is nice.

Less nice, perhaps, are our ongoing struggles with the post-crash economy. Yes, there has been some good news to cheer. In April, we added approximately 192,000 jobs to the economy, bringing America back to where we were at before everything went to hell in 2008. This was probably an immense achievement for our beleaguered economy, given that too many lawmakers have clutched up as hard as they can on the economic brakes, hoping for a political breakthrough that will lead them back to power. But it's by no means a reason to pop Cristal -- now comes the task of bringing our economy to where it would have been had the financial sector's galactic incompetence not sent the rest of us into ruination in the first place.

Besides, it would be a false comfort to say, "Well, at least we're back to where we were before." We are not back to where we were before. In terms of how shared our "economic recovery" has been, back in 2013, Berkeley economics professor Emmanuel Saez determined that "the top 1 percent" had captured "121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery." That picture has brightened a little since then, if only because there was nowhere else to go from "unrelenting darkness" except to "brightened a little." As Annie Lowrey reported in September, the incomes of the bottom 99 percent had, in 2012, "started growing again -- if only by 1 percent." By contrast, "the total income of the top 1 percent surged nearly 20 percent that year," while the "incomes of the very richest, the 0.01 percent, shot up more than 32 percent."

Someone is making it in America, but it's probably not you. Hell, that top .01 percent has hit such stratospheric new heights that now the rest of the top 1 percent is set for a healthy dose of class envy. Still, those guys are headed for a new and covetable status -- they'll essentially be the New American Middle Class. Their future will likely involve simultaneously chafing under that down-market moniker, while thanking Baal that they are even that fortunate. This is already resulting in a fair amount of unsurmountable cognitive dissonance, where the most powerful and fortunate members of society increasingly look upon the poor and powerless, and somehow arrive at the conclusion that they are "Nazis."

But the people whom these uber-wealthy bimbos liken to the European fascists of the early 20th century sure don't appear to be anyone's idea of a master race at the moment. Here are some of the things we've learned about the bottom 99 percent of America in recent weeks:

-- According to research by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the "difference between wealth held by the top 1 percent and the rest of us has climbed back up to levels not seen since the roaring 20s." In fact, their "work also suggests that the bottom 99 percent may be poorer in absolute terms than they were before the housing bust." Like I said, beyond the happy-sounding jobs numbers, we're not actually anywhere near to getting back to where we were in the pre-crash era.

-- As much as you've heard about the immiseration of the long-term unemployed, the short-term unemployed aren't having a better time of things. According to a paper authored by Princeton University economists Alan Krueger, Judd Cramer, and David Cho, while "about 50% of those who were short-term unemployed at any given time" since "the beginning of the downturn" are now "working a year" after losing their job, only 15 percent were back at "steady full time jobs."

-- And, it gets worse. The generation now entering adulthood and the job market is at a tremendous disadvantage. As Bloomberg reported at the end of March, "For households headed by someone 40 years old or younger, wealth adjusted for inflation remains 30 percent below 2007 levels on average, according to research by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis."

-- According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are "260,000 Americans with bachelor's degrees earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour or less in 2013" and "another 200,000 associate's degree holders" who are also stuck at that wage. (Opponents of raising the minimum wage often say that the low minimum wage serves a purpose -- it's a temporary condition for people just getting their feet wet in the job market. The reality is that it's now a permanent condition for hundreds of thousands of seasoned, accomplished adults.)

And these bitter morsels are merely the appetizers that come before the latest bad news entree, served up in one 700-page helping by French economist Thomas Piketty, titled Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In his book, Piketty describes the extent to which returns on financial assets -- the unproductive, synthetic sector of the economy -- is diverging from overall economic growth, by which we mean the productive parts of the economy.

How large is the divergence? It's potentially Brobdingnagian. Basically, imagine a future in which a small percentage of people live in a gated community and the rest of us live in a favela. That is, if you are lucky enough to have a favela. Already, out in Silicon Valley, we're seeing this sort of thing. As Bloomberg reported this week, those who perform all the service sector tasks for the prosperous disruptors of the tech industry are slowly but surely getting priced out of their meager accommodations. This week, the higher minds in Palo Alto decided to make having to live out of one's car a punishable offense, to go along with previous laws banning the homeless from sitting or lying down in public. That limits the options of a population slowly getting evicted from their homestead -- go to jail, or somehow attain some entirely new metaphysical means of continuing to exist.

Ahh, but We The People still have our political power to fall back upon, right? Well, funny thing about that, actually. One of the lessons from Piketty's book is very deftly captured by Vox's Ezra Klein as "the Doom Loop of Oligarchy." In this Doom Loop, this emerging upper-upper-we-are-talking-Elysium class of people obtain "so much economic power that they begin wielding tremendous political power" as well. "And then," Klein writes, "they use that political power to further increase their wealth, and then they use that wealth to further increase their political power, and so on."

As Klein goes on to point out, the Doom Loop recently got a big dose of creatine, courtesy of the Supreme Court, which in its McCutcheon decision, assured our wealthy uber-Menchen, cowering in their panic rooms under the threat of the ever-increasingly be-Nazied population of have-nots, that there would be no cap on the money they can donate to politicians. As Klein notes: "This comes just a couple of years after Citizens United and related decisions made it easy for rich Americans to spend unlimited sums on SuperPACs and other independent political organizations."

There are, of course, Panglossian dimwits and sociopaths who characterize these Supreme Court decisions as good for everybody's free speech. But in an era where your access to even a sympathetic lawmaker is entirely dependent on whether you can trick that lawmaker into thinking you are a bona fide campaign donor, what these decisions actually assure is a tremendous distance between what sort of power the money you lost in the cushions of your couch can purchase, versus those who can spend millions of dollars as wantonly as they can without breaking a sweat. Basically, it's getting very "e pluribus zilch" up in here.

This inequality could not have been better demonstrated than it was a few weeks ago, when a collection of GOP presidential nominee-wannabes trundled out to Sin City to lower their heads before America's preeminent post-modern DeMedici, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson -- a man who, in the infinite logic his money can obtain, vocally supports stem cell research, the Dream Act, reproductive rights for women, and "socialized-like health care" and then funnels his boodle exclusively to political figures who oppose every single one of those things.

The most illustrative moment of this year's Adelson Conclave came after beleaguered New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made the terrible gaffe of referring to the part of the world "in which Palestinians live where Israel maintains a military presence" as "the occupied territories." This was a big no-no, and so Chris Christie went on bended knee before Adelson to do something that I don't think he has ever done before -- apologize. That was literally all it took to wrench a mea culpa from Gov. Christie -- a nearly incalculable pile of money. New Jersey's teachers' unions should feel a little bit better about themselves -- they never had a chance.

I pick on Christie (probably because I'm a stealth fascist!) but the truth is that this situation, in which our politicians are neatly nestled in the baby-soft, uncallused palms of dodgy billionaires, cuts across all ideological lines. The Democrats have their own assortment of influence pimps (hedge funder Tom Steyer has recently surpassed George Soros as the right's biggest bugaboo), and even those wonderfully pure libertarians have their benefactors. (In fact, the extent to which libertarians have required sugar-daddies of their own to win political battles is a fairly underreported phenomenon -- I'm guessing lots of people are of the mind that their recent successes as a movement have come from the merits of their arguments!)

Another critical thing we're learning about these dark-money wheeler-dealers is that they've got no real might or manhood. The shadow they cast is one of cowardice; they've no appetite for actually getting into the arena. This was put on display earlier this month when industrialist mega-donor Charles Koch ran to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page to pen a "Leave Britney Alone!" rant on his own behalf, then demanded that his underlings rise up to have his back. It was a seriously depressing thing to learn that the guy who desires to undergird our "free society" with his narrow vision was actually a whiny little baby. Until his op-ed, I would have at least given the man credit for having some sack. Sadly, that's no longer possible.

And that truly is an unfortunate set of circumstances. This new power arrangement is enough to make anyone who clings to nostalgia -- the notion that America derives its strength from foundational principles that empowered a gathered citizenry in a free society to work their will upon the world with boldness -- look like a right idiot. What the future seems to hold for us is an economically diminished populace led by political figures who stoop and scrape before spineless billionaires for the permission to wield power. We might be able to get by on that for a while still, but does that sound like America is a strong nation? Not by any standard I'd endorse.

Eat The Press is going on hiatus until May 12, 2014. Thank you for reading.

[You'll find more Sunday Reads and more on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

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