There’s little doubt that, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lingo, “the rich are different.” Indeed, today’s wealthy are so much different from the Rest of Us that they literally live in another world, a world occupied by more of the same, tending exclusively to their own, insulated from the vicissitudes of life threatening nearly everyone else. Since they control so much wealth, and because money equals political power, the fortunes and behaviors of the super rich are not likely to change, regardless of others’ needs or effects.
Referencing Charles Murray’s latest book (he of The Bell Curve notoriety), David Brooks suggests that the growing chasm that separates America’s castes is probably unhealthy. His cure?
I doubt Murray would agree, but we need a National Service Program. We need a program that would force members of the upper tribe and the lower tribe to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.
If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.
What does this guy smoke? Is he channeling the Beatles’ “Come Together”? Kumbaya?
Yes, we are acutely segregated, and it wasn’t always so. Perhaps the national effort required to oppose the fascists and the Japanese had some influence on the post-war years, when there was less division. Besides, uniforms were class-neutral, though I suspect the wealthy were disproportionately represented in officers’ ranks. Emerging from that great conflict Americans must have felt a strong sense of unity, maybe even an understanding that, while most would not graduate to wealth, there were ample opportunities for self-improvement.
Then came the Great Divergence, the product of persistent efforts by institutional wealth. The rich would be taxed less and given free rein to exploit and enhance their own fortunes, which they did—big time.
Nor should we ignore the complexion of today’s military, populated by mostly poor and desperate men unable to find meaningful work at home. Whatever tribal mixing the military affords vanished with the advent of voluntary service.
But let’s ponder this commingling a bit further. Could socioeconomic divisions weaken by putting rich and poor in the same room?
The landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education, which abolished “separate but equal,” gave birth to massive bussing of school children. Mixing the races in classrooms, it was thought, would gradually erode the saliency of color. Could an African-American have been elected president without these integration efforts, however racially divided we still are?
In his book Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, British researcher Richard Wilkinson briefly chronicled what happened to the small Pennsylvania town of Roseto, Named after an Italian village, from whence its initial population emigrated, Roseto served as an object of sociological study. The town’s 1,600 inhabitants were surprisingly healthy, with low mortality and morbidity rates. Their positive metrics greatly surpassed those of nearby towns. Why?
Researchers observed that the town was remarkable for its “close family ties and cohesive community relationships.” Wilkinson quotes one study:
During the first five years of our study it was difficult to distinguish, on the basis of dress or behavior, the wealthy from the impecunious in Roseto. Living arrangements—houses and cars—were simple and strikingly similar. Despite the affluence of many, there was no atmosphere of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Then in the 60s Roseto changed, and so did its inhabitants’ health. Again quoting from the same study Wilkinson writes:
The gradual abandonment of the old ways in Roseto…was evident in the emerging preoccupation with materialistic values that accompanied increased education and growing affluence…Their attraction to status symbols—expensive clothes, large automobiles, and elaborate new homes furnished on the advice of interior decorators—reflected the beginning [of the] breakdown of former egalitarian standards among Rosetans.
Thorstein Veblen called this behavior “conspicuous consumption”: ones’ wealth must be telegraphed. Thus, economic differences in Roseto, long rejected by its population, became palpable. Eventually everyone knew who was rich and who was poor and who was somewhere in between. (One hypothesis for the cause of the unraveling of social mores: television, which became abundant simultaneous with the emergence of conspicuous consumption.)
As social cohesion gave way to ostentation, the townspeople’s mortality and morbidity rates inched upwards. They are now “normal.” Somewhat surprisingly, Wilkinson found that the decline in health was experienced by both rich and poor. His conclusion: inequality is bad for everyone’s health.
But short of a “National Service,” what can or should be done to staunch runaway inequality in America? How could we make the rich poorer and the poor richer?
Certainly tax rates could be modified by making them more progressive. (That would also increase government revenues, which reduces federal debt.) But to make the poor richer would require Congress to use the extra dollars extracted from the wealthy to directly benefit the poor and middle class. This has been tried and found to work. Just look at the 50s and 60s.
I suppose that cities could reduce or eliminate segregated zoning. In Everett, where I live, planners have carved out areas exclusive to multi-family housing. Casino Road, for example, has become a ghetto of the poor and near-poor. The New Urbanists speak of mixed-use planning, integrating disparate housing types, businesses, retail, restaurants, public transportation hubs, and recreational opportunities—preferably all within walking distance. Would such patterns of development yield the kind of tribal jamming of which Brooks speaks? Could Everett, say, ape the original Roseto? Or does size matter?
The most-likely-to-succeed option would be robust, across-the-board jobs-creation strategies. The U.S. was once a major manufacturing nation, and manufacturing—along with other blue-collar operations—employs people who lack college educations. My father worked most of his adult life at Standard Oil in Richmond, Calif., at jobs that did not require degrees beyond high school, though he was enrolled in college before Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, he was still able to provide adequately for his family of five children and have money left over for a comfortable retirement. He was also a proud member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union.
Abraham Lincoln declared that a “house divided cannot stand” and that the U.S. could not be a nation half free and half slave. Can we long survive as a nation of extreme wealth and poverty, with a narrowing strand in-between?
The above suggested strategies are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they exhaustive. But something must be done.