07/15/2011 06:54 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Nations

"It's the best of times; it's the worst of times," to paraphrase Charles Dickens. Some portion of the American citizenry is experiencing lives of greater wealth than at any other time in any other country in world history. According to the latest statistics, over 8.4 million households have assets of over $1 million, a gain of 600,000 from last year.

On the other hand, in the last decade, poverty, as measured by the U.S. census bureau, has increased from 11.9% to 14.3% of the population: that is, presently there are 42 million Americans living in poverty.

The distribution of wealth is also terribly skewed toward the wealthy, the top 10% of which received almost half of the wages earned in 2007, leaving only half to the remaining 90%.

We are, indeed, turning into two nations: a small but steadily growing proportion of the population acquiring greater wealth and a much larger number moving into poverty and certainly anticipating a significant decline in the economic well-being of their children. Even life expectancy is declining in almost one-third of the 3000 counties in the United States, according to a recent article in Forbes (June 16, 2011) by Alex Knapp, "What Lower Life Expectancy Tells Us About the Future." Knapp attributes the decline to poor diet and lack of exercise, both products of a society that encourages addictive and unhealthy behaviors in the interests of "increased profits" on fattening foods and "work-saving" products that lend themselves to reducing physical activity such as children's video games.

When the life expectancy in a country begins to decline, as has happened precipitously in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is an objective sign that something really "different" must be considered in dealing with a national malaise, a sure sign of the decay of a culture.

Ironically, people who work are working harder than ever; the U.S. is near the bottom among industrialized countries in vacation time, and at the top of hours worked per year yet the average worker's yearly income ranks fourteenth internationally and our minimum wage is between that of Greece and Spain.

According to a recent New York Times report (7/6/2011) by David Leonhart, "Big Business Leaves Deficit to Politicians," the Business Roundtable, a "moderate" business organization is both for increased spending on infrastructure and decreased corporate and other tax rates. It is concerned about the increasing deficit, but none of its goals would in any meaningful way address it. Unless politicians begin to grapple with the most significant causes of this decline and have the political will and wisdom to fight to broaden economic opportunity, there is no reason to believe that there will be any marked improvement in our economic future except, of course, for the elite.

Unfortunately, it seems today that despite their protestations to the contrary, few members of our electorate really want to hear the truth about our economic decline for an increasing majority. Instead of "pragmatism," the political scene seems to be filled with "magic realism."

Einstein was supposed to have defined "insanity" as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The Republicans, seeing the slowest job creation since the Depression during the period of the Bush tax cuts, argue that "more of the same" will improve job growth. The Democrats, who seem to have become "Republican lite" but not too lite, have been bullied into accepting the notion that cutting more jobs from what is left of the social safety net will also improve the economy. They are offering the Republicans the opportunity to dismantle as much of what is left of the New Deal as they can with the reluctant approval of a Democratic president. According to Einstein's definition, both parties are engaged in "insane" behavior but neither is confronted with a united voice of the people who are increasingly being victimized by this insanity.

A simple example of how this economy is continuing to pauperize a larger proportion of its citizenry is the disappearance of meaningful interest rates on savings, a traditional source of income for those with the resources to put aside a portion of their earnings into CDs and other interest-bearing instruments. But there is no income accumulating for them when interest rates for savings are almost non-existent. At the same time, banks may be offering relatively "low" mortgage and lending rates, but they are 40 times greater than what they pay to their depositors. And while in the past American businesses depended on a healthy economy in order for consumers to buy their products, the "global" corporations today based in the U.S. get almost half their profits from other countries. In other words, they don't need a healthy American economy as much as they did in the past.

None of the issues that have become central to the present political debate really deal with these problems. The only way to "balance the budget" and "reduce the deficit" that will actually make an impact on these fiscal problems, at least in the direction in which the two political parties are going, is to turn United States into "the richest Third World country on the planet." As it is, an underpaid, overworked labor force, with fewer benefits, greater uncertainty about their futures as well as their children's, and more pressure to increase "productivity," a euphemism for more work at proportionately less pay, is showing signs of breaking down. Recent estimates indicate that between 15 and 30 million Americans suffer from clinical depression, when they simply cannot function. Another symptom of the stressful conditions under which working people labor is a rise in absenteeism, much of it due to personal issues that could be connected to the emotional costs of unreasonable demands at work.

I am sure there are economists that will argue that once the deficit is under control, "business confidence" will be restored and the trillions of dollars that are not being invested in business creation will miraculously return. I have many reasons to be doubtful, the most obvious one being that based on past "policies," I have confidence that so long as they can squeeze out more "productivity" from their working force, or "outsource" it for cheaper labor, employers will not have much reason to create enough new jobs to have a significant impact on unemployment.

The personal incident that recently provided me with a metaphor for what I see as the rapid development of "A Tale of Two Nations" occurred over the past week. Some fifty pianos were distributed throughout the city of New York for the use of musicians who would like to "play" on them. The only restrictions, of course, were not to abuse the piano and, if someone else was waiting to play, give them the opportunity after ten minutes. I came upon one of these pianos in a gazebo at the entrance to Prospect Park at the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn about a week ago. I have the ability to play by ear and have a fairly large repertoire. In a few minutes I was joined by a talented singer possessed of a fine Irish tenor, a group of children who danced, an elderly diva who induced me to do a George M. Cohan medley and other passersby. Naturally, unlike those talented but unfortunate "underground" musicians and the thousands of mendicants begging in the subways I had no interest in getting any other "reward" than the response and occasional verbal appreciation of those who joined in song, danced, or just listened.

The experience of actually doing something one enjoyed and not expecting money for it moved me to fantasize about a future world in which "the best things in life are free." However, when I came back several days later I found that there was, at least to me, an insurmountable obstacle for a return engagement: three derelict men all asleep at mid-day, sprawled out on the benches around the piano. I hadn't the heart nor what might have required the courage to wake them. We now seem to have arrived at a cultural norm in which high art -- I refer to the grand piano, not necessarily my playing -- can "exist" in the same world as degrading poverty as if the one can simply ignore the other. But what I see is a future of a nation that is rapidly going into a decline from which, unless sanity does return to the political process, it will not recover.