“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, April 16, 2010


It strikes me as an odd thing that our econometricmaniacs have never considered whether there is an average point spread at the heart of republican government – that is, a spread between the richest and the poorest.

I was struck by this thought reading a passage in Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn where Orwell presents a six point program for Labour. Here is the second point:
“Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax-free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.”
Has any well known public intellectual in the West said anything remotely as radical in the last twenty years? And yet, it isn’t really radical at all. Orwell is simply putting a figure on one of the oldest strains in democratic culture, going back far before, say, Babeuf in the French Revolution.

It would do infinite good to the disparate, small and more radically inclined grouposcules to settle on a figure and try to impress this into the public mind.

What is the current figure? At the moment, according to David Leonardt – taking the figure from the government – there is, on the one hand, this: “0.01 percent of earners — that is, the top 1/10,000th of earners, a group that began at $8.6 million in annual income…” And then there are the bottom earners. The press likes to bundle the top earners into larger packages – say the top 10 or 20 percent – which is highly misleading. In fact, even if one uses the median income stat as a marker – with 47 percent of households reporting 50,000 per year or less – we get a spread of around 100-1.

How is that disparity paid for? Every day, the newspapers, those pipelines of conventional wisdom, announce we can’t afford this or that: social security, medicare, etc. In fact, those stories are right. Except that they don’t include an invisible codicil: we can’t afford our entitlements AND our income inequality. The system that was set up after WWII assumed that we would do our best to tax the uber-wealthy. Of course, we haven’t done that for over thirty years now. This Reagonomics space has produced an amazing difference in amount of wealth accumulated by the top and the bottom. Using Saenz’s studies, G. William Domhoff puts it like this:

“As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers).”

This, of course, is utterly disguised by the system. The world of YouTube is so different from the world of, say, movies and television because it is a world that reflects that disparity – whereas the mediasphere has long cut off the bottom 80 percent. Hollywood weeps over its own virtue when it deigns to show any figure making less than 200 thou per. One of the amazing things about the Wire was not the plot, the cops, etc. – it was simply the acknowledgment that people actually live in the urban housing that suburbanites carefully scoot around, traveling through highways that ring cities. Imagine that! Myself, as my income is in the bottom 15 percent, I was rather thrilled to see people wearing the type of clothes I wear – cast offs from Goodwill – living in the type of rented space I live in.

The art of this era is so dominated by depictions of the wealthiest that it makes the era of Louis XIV look democratic. At least the peasants of Perrault were not trotted out and exhibited as freaks on reality game shows.

A serious radical plan for change would attack the invisible codicil. Equality may be an impossible goal, but inequality is a cancer.

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