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Is Undercover Boss the Most Subversive Show on Television?

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Is reality TV finally living up to its name?

Most of what we are served up under that rubric is actually the farthest thing from reality. The exploits of Snooki, Jake the Bachelor, and all those Real Housewives hardly reflect life as most of America knows it and lives it.

The real America is hurting -- not jetting off to an exotic location for Fantasy Suite canoodling. But no matter how sobering the statistics we are getting on a regular basis (and I'll offer up some bracing ones in a moment), the hardships and suffering tens of millions of Americans are experiencing are almost entirely absent from our popular culture.

Which is a shame, because drama and narrative have the ability to move people's perceptions in a way that raw numbers never can.

Enter Undercover Boss, the new CBS reality show in which corporate CEOs don disguises and spend a few days experiencing what it's like to be a low-level worker at their companies.

Watching the show -- including the episode in which the CEO of a waste management company vacuumed out port-a-potties and learned that one of his employees, a woman who drives a garbage truck, has to urinate in a cup because her productivity requirements leave her no time for a bathroom break -- I thought of Benjamin Disraeli.

Before becoming Prime Minister of England, Disraeli wanted to issue a wake up call about the horrible state of the British working class. So, in 1845, he wrote a novel, Sybil, which warned of the danger of England disintegrating into "two nations between whom there is no sympathy, as if they were inhabitants of different planets." The book became a sensation, and the outrage it provoked propelled fundamental social reforms.

In the 19th century, one of the most effective ways to convey the quiet desperation of the working class to a wide audience was via a realistic novel. In 2010, it's through reality TV.

And Undercover Boss has clearly touched a nerve with viewers. Last week, only the Olympics and American Idol scored higher in the ratings.

It's the kind of popular entertainment that can start out as one thing -- a fun, high concept reality show -- but morph into something that affects the zeitgeist by turning a spotlight on just how out of touch America's corporate chiefs are. And their cluelessness is not just about the jobs their workers do -- it's about the lives their workers lead.

Ever since Roseanne went off the air, network TV has not been the most welcoming place when it comes to telling the stories of working class Americans. But now, week in and week out, millions can see what downsizing and Wall Street's demands for ever-greater productivity and earning margins did to the lives of so many Americans, even before the economic crisis.

The chasm between America's haves and have-nots has reached Grand Canyon-esque proportions. Thirty years ago top executives at S&P 500 companies made an average of 30 times what their workers did -- now they make 300 times what their workers make.

That's the kind of statistic a show like Undercover Boss can put flesh and blood on. Here are a few others:

  • Since 2000, 3.2 million more American households are trying to make do on under $25,000 a year.
  • In 2005, households in the bottom 20 percent had an average income of $10,655, while the top 20 percent made $159,583 -- a disparity of 1,500 percent, the highest gap ever recorded.
  • In 2007, the top ten percent pocketed almost half of all the money earned in America -- the highest percentage recorded since 1917 (including, as Henry Blodget notes, 1928, the peak of the stock market bubble in the "roaring 1920s").

Making matters even worse is the fact that while the classes are moving farther apart -- with the middle class in real danger of entirely disappearing -- mobility across the classes has declined. The American Dream is defined by the promise of economic and social mobility -- but the American Reality proves just how elusive that dream has become. Indeed, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and even the often-reviled France, have greater upward mobility than we do.

Here are the numbers:

  • Almost 100 million Americans are in families that make less in real income than their parents did at their same age.
  • The percentage of Americans born to parents in the bottom fifth of income who will climb to the top fifth as adults is now only seven percent.
  • If you were born to wealthy parents but didn't go to college, you're more likely to be wealthy than if you did go to college but had poor parents.

In other words, as the middle class is squeezed and more and more people are being pushed down, it's becoming harder than ever to move up.

Those are ugly trends, but Americans still want to believe otherwise. Over 60 percent of parents think that their children will have a higher standard of living than they have. And over 70 percent believe that drive and hard work play a bigger role in economic mobility than external factors, such as the income of parents.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution and John E. Morton of the Pew Charitable Trusts wrote in a study of economic mobility:

The inherent promise of America is undermined if economic status is -- or is seen as -- merely a game of chance, with some having the good fortune to live in the best of times and some the bad luck to live in the worst of times. That is not the America heralded in lore and experienced in reality by millions of our predecessors.

And yet it's certainly the reality being experienced now, and, at least in part, the reality being shown on Undercover Boss. Now, I'm not suggesting that the show is going to foment a working class rebellion or directly lead to a raft of social reforms. But it might lead to a conversation we, as a nation, desperately need to have -- especially in Washington.

Instead, we have two parties that often seem as clueless as the undercover bosses.

On one side of the aisle we have the likes of Jim Bunning, willing to hold up unemployment benefits for millions to pull a meaningless budget stunt, and the likes of Jon Kyl, the GOP's number two man in the Senate, who believes that "continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

And on the other side of the aisle we have a president who believes to his core that the party of Bunning and Kyl must be won over before we can proceed with real reforms.

Maybe if our elected representatives went undercover for a little while and experienced the reality of the millions of American families that are measurably worse off because of Washington's actions and inactions, we might get some real change.