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What Took Them So Long?

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Our ultra-conservative Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, said the other day that Florida colleges should stop wasting time educating anthropologists -- "who needs more anthropologists?" the Governor asked. This was curious, because it turns out Scott's daughter has a degree in Anthropology from William & Mary. At the same time, the Governor was asked to comment on Occupy Wall Street. Unlike a lot of his Republican colleagues, the Governor said he liked the fact that people were active, although he didn't know the movement's purpose or goals. I would suggest that a good anthropologist might help the Governor and his friends -- those who are so angry at Warren Buffett and the "Occupiers" -- understand why so many people finally seem to have had enough.

You see, anthropologists are trained to study cultures, and can see what those within the culture take for granted as fixed and unchanging. Anthropologists understand why aspects of culture cause people to feel and respond the way they do. The anthropologist studying American culture would see a countless mismatches of people to things. She would see lots of homeless people and lots of empty houses. Lots of roads and bridges and sewer systems in need of repair, lots of money sloshing around to pay for the work, lots of workers ready, willing and able to do the work, and no work getting done.

She would look around at the clues in society to understand how those within the culture became aware of the mismatch. She might watch some television shows on which regular people see how the fortunate 1% lives. She might look at the front page of a recent edition of the New York Times. At the bottom of the front page, she would find an advertisement for Tourneau, one of the world's luxury watchmakers. On this day, Tourneau is advertising its Tambour LV 277 in pink gold. The LV 277, according to the Tourneau website, sells for $41,000, which is more than most Florida teachers are paid each year. On pages 2 and 3 of the Times, she would see ads for Chanel, Cartier, De Beers, Chopard and Tiffany & Co. She would learn that, in what seem to be desperate economic times for so many, the common stock of Tiffany & Co. has quadrupled in value since March of 2009, and has doubled in value just since last summer. During the same period of just about a year, the common stock of Sears has been flat. If you are selling luxury items and jewelry in America, business is booming. If you are selling refrigerators, well, not so much.

Maybe the anthropologist might come visit me down in South Florida. She would see people like me living a wonderful life, going from gated communities and island homes to country clubs and skyboxes, and to gleaming office towers. Around our periphery are hundreds of thousands of people struggling just to get by. Our civil courts are so badly clogged with foreclosures that our judges have time for little else. At the same time, people who don't need the money, and don't need to worry about foreclosure, can refinance their mortgages at the lowest rates in 50 years and save thousands of dollars each month. In South Florida, the irony is that we have many people who escaped split societies in Latin America, where the minuscule number of rich are walled in from the the huddled masses. Now, we seem on the way to creating that dual culture anew.

She would learn that the most fortunate 1% of Americans control 40% of the nation's wealth, and collect 24% of the nation's income, about triple of what it used to be thirty years ago. That share of income is the highest it has been since the Roaring 20's. The luckiest 1% own half of the country's stock's bonds and mutual funds, while the bottom 50% own about 5%.

Now, here in America, we are creating a dual, walled society, just like in Latin America.
More and more people living outside the walls are beginning to think that the rules are rigged. They know the geniuses on Wall Street caused the problem, but those guys are still going to the Hamptons every summer and to Aspen every winter. When the president of Hewlett Packard screws up in just 14 months, he's given $13 million to leave. When Goldman Sachs fails to underwrite their underwriters, we bail them out with $16 billion. A year later, they take that much in bonuses. A year after that, they're firing their staff to make sure they have big bonuses again this holiday season.

And oftentimes, these guys figure out ways to make sure their compensation comes in the form of capital gains, so they pay taxes at 15%. The anthropologist will try to get this straight. America has created a system where people who work hard, and do a great job, and pay taxes at a marginal rate of as much as 35%. Other guys sit in front of a computer screen, make trades, maybe betting against American companies, maybe even screwing up along the way, still making millions, and paying taxes at less than half that marginal rate. If I resent it, and I do, why shouldn't people who are much less fortunate than me resent it? How about the guy who busts his butt with his hands and back all day? How about the guy who can't even find a job where he can bust his butt? Do you think an anthropologist studying such a skewed culture would understand why people might be getting angry?

So, while income and wealth have been more and more concentrated at the top over the last 30 years, while taxes for people who "invest" have been cut in half, while the highest income tax brakets have been cut in half, the anthropolgist would find out what else has happened. She would learn that, over the same period of time, the most basic rules that governed the behavior of those entrusted with capital had been thrown aside. Regulation of our financial markets was eviscerated. You may remember that, at the time, we were told that we would have to deregulate our markets, because they were doing it in London and Europe, and if we didn't, Wall Street would lose all of its business! Now, all of us -- except the people who are really responsible -- get to deal with the byproducts the of Wild West financial deregulation.

At the end of the day, the anthropologist would see people protesting. She would certainly understand why, and would probably ask herself, "What took them so long?" Then she could explain it all to Governor Scott's friends.

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