|August 12, 2013|
|How deeply has an awareness of our epoch’s growing gap between the rich and everyone else penetrated into our popular culture? This deeply: Hollywood movie studios now bet their summer blockbusters on it.
The latest of these blockbusters, a sci-fi tale entitled Elysium, opened last week. The storyline: The world’s rich have relocated onto an orbital space station, a peaceful, disease-free, and heavily guarded mini-universe. People of modest means remain back on old “overpopulated, crime-ridden, rubble-covered Earth.”
In a sense, this storyline is already playing out, sans the space station. We live in two ever more distinct economic worlds, one placid and protected, the other intensely insecure. In Elysium, this stark divide eventually generates entertaining fireworks. In real life, the fireworks don’t come with popcorn.
In this week’s Too Much, more on our great economic divide — and the folks working to write a real-life ending worth cheering.
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|Looking for a metaphor for rising inequality? Look up, suggests columnist Harold Meyerson, to our friendly skies. Airline seating may now be “the best concrete expression of what’s happened to the economy in recent decades.” What’s happening aloft? Airlines are supersizing business class and squeezing standard into a 21st-century steerage. On Lufthansa flights, power suits can recline into quasi-beds that stretch six and a half feet. On steerage-style Spirit Airline, by contrast, the seats don’t recline at all — and water costs $3. The truly super rich, of course, fly on private jets, and one Swiss marketeer, Adlux, is now screening 12-minute video loops in private-jet waiting rooms. Adlux charges advertisers up to $107,000 for a mere four weeks of waiting-room visibility . . .
This summer’s hottest inside-the-Beltway battle is pitting Larry Summers, the “poster boy” of the Democratic Party’s Wall Street wing, against party progressives out to end Wall Street’s outsized influence on party policy. Summers, a former Clinton Treasury secretary and top Obama adviser, is angling to become the next chair of the Federal Reserve Board, the powerful panel that oversees the nation’s financial industry. That industry has been kind to Summers. Recent news reports have traced how cushy gigs with the likes of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs jacked up the Summers personal net worth from $400,000 in the mid 1990s to as much as $31 million in 2009. At that point, the New York Times details, Summers joined and then left the Obama White House to begin still another “moneymaking spree.”
“What a crazy world we live in,” Travel Trends exulted last week. Economies are still reeling, yet prospects for luxury hotels have seldom seemed brighter. “Rising wealth,” says Starwood hospitality CEO Fritz van Paasschen, will help “fuel the growth of luxury travel for some time.” The more adventurous of these travelers may be heading to a private Indian Ocean island in the Maldives that hosts the opulent Jumeirah Dhevanafushi hotel. This “slice of paradise” sits 10 kilometers from its nearest island neighbor, amid some of the world’s rarest coral. But hotel guests don’t have to rough out their isolation. All suites come with a 24/7 butler.
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|Americans, says ethicist Melanie Sloan, “tend to prefer their political figures not to be cashing in on their positions of public trust.” At least not until they leave public office. But Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark and the prohibitive favorite to become New Jersey’s next U.S. senator, can’t seem to wait. In March 2012, reports last week documented, Booker tapped his Silicon Valley deep-pocket friends for “the brainpower and financing to help create a company that could make him very rich.” Two months later, Booker went on national TV to blast critics of the private equity profiteering so dear to deep-pocket hearts. Booker called attacks on private equity “nauseating.” The truly nauseating in all this: One high-profile endorsement of Booker’s Senate bid cites “his coziness with the moneyed class” as a commendable asset!||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
Nike’s Phil Knight is “giving back” to his alma mater. The billionaire has just bankrolled a “performance center” for the University of Oregon football team that offers all the comforts of home — if home happens to be a four-star luxury resort. The on-campus facility features Brazilian hardwood for the weight room and a German walnut meeting room table that stretches 35 feet. University officials refuse to give a final cost figure. One estimate runs over $100 million.
Cloaking Inequity/ A guide to reforming the billionaire-funded “education reform” drive.
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Consumers committed to sustainability can buy forest-friendly paper. But what about consumers who want to strike a blow against corporate pay inequality? Toronto activists have an alternative to offer: Wagemark, a newly launched initiative that offers a special insignia to enterprises that pay their top executives no more than eight times what they pay any of their workers. Canada’s top 100 CEOs currently take home 235 times Canadian average worker pay. Big-time U.S. CEOs average 354 times worker pay. Among the 18 enterprises that have so far applied for Wagemark certification: the high-tech Impact Mobile and detergent manufacturer Oxibrite. Wagemark is aiming to debut internationally this fall.||
Corporate execs in the United States can outsource manufacturing. But they can’t outsource warehouses. Help Warehouse Workers United end the exploitation that pumps up grand fortune.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
Today’s most obscene concentration of national wealth may now be unfolding in the Philippines. The total net worth of the 40 richest Filipinos has jumped from $34 billion in 2011 to $64.2 billion in 2013. Social Watch Philippines noted last week that 27.9 percent of Filipinos last year met the government’s official poverty definition.
Crocodile-Tear Time for America’s Free Press
A ruthless billionaire has grabbed one of the world’s great newspapers. But you don’t have to be a high-tech plutocrat, the paper’s previous regime has demonstrated, to help make our world more unequal.
Jeff Bezos, the bezillionaire Amazon CEO, has bought the Washington Post, America’s second-most prestigious daily newspaper. Bezos only had to pay $250 million, less than 1 percent of his over $27.8 billion personal fortune.
Has plutocracy, with this sale, simply and inalterably overwhelmed the nation’s “free press”? Some commentators fear the worst. Another grand old family of American journalism, their lament goes, has stepped away. Who can we now count on to protect the public interest?
Let’s cut this gauzy sentimentalizing. Yes, the Graham family that has owned the Post the past 80 years did perform a notable public service after the 1972 Watergate break-in. But the Grahams may have performed an even greater service — for plutocracy — three years later when they hired “replacement workers” to grab away the jobs of striking Post pressmen.
That move broke an unwritten rule that had held sway among “respectable” employers for the entire mid 20th century — and set a precedent that President Ronald Reagan would exploit, to the fullest, six years later. Reagan replaced striking air traffic controllers and busted their union, a two-step that would help shove the American labor movement on a three-decade-long slide.
This steep labor descent has left modern American workplaces virtually “union-free.” Less than 7 percent of America’s private-sector workers now carry union cards.
None of these union workers, at last count, labor in the vast Amazon warehouses, where employees exhausted after 12-hour shifts can wait unpaid, for nearly a half-hour, at security checkpoints meant to keep workers from “pilfering electronics or other pricey goods from the Amazon stock.”
Amazon has, to be sure, started making nice on some fronts. Last year, after a barrage of negative publicity, Jeff Bezos did have the company install air-conditioning in its brutally hot warehouse workplaces.
But Amazon’s basic, take-no-prisoners business model is still roaring along. The online retail giant “drives local stores out of business,” notes USAction’s Richard Kirsch, “while paying low wages to its non-union workers.”
That formula has made Bezos staggeringly rich and denied middle-class status to tens of thousands of American families. Workers at Amazon’s distribution center warehouses, CNN reports, take home about $24,300 a year, “less than $1,000 above the official federal poverty line for a family of four.”
No one knows what exactly Bezos has in store for the Washington Post, since his PR people declined to make him available for interviews after the announcement of last week’s sale. The talk around town has it that Bezos won’t “interfere” in the Post’s daily operations.
No surprise there. The Post editorial line already meshes quite smoothly with the Bezos worldview, liberal-ish on cultural issues, dependably conservative on anything — like the labor movement — that poses any serious potential threat to America’s deep pockets.
In other words, working families will find in the new Washington Post no more crusading zeal on their behalf than they found in the old Washington Post.
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So what’s new, any crusty veteran newspaper reporter might ask. America’s most powerful newspaper publishers have always been, by and large, consistently partial to the privileged.
But we have had exceptions, publishers who remind us how great newspapers could — and should — be wielding their power. The most eloquent of these public-spirited publishers? That may well have been Joseph Pulitzer, the widely honored moving force behind the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In his 1907 retirement address, Pulitzer urged his successors to “always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
Don’t expect any credo remotely similar to Pulitzer’s admonition to appear on the Washington Post masthead anytime soon. In his home Washington State, Bezos has played the predatory plutocrat to the hilt.
Three years ago, for instance, the Amazon chief helped bankroll the defeat of a ballot initiative that would have cut taxes on Washington’s small businesses and average families and modestly raised taxes on the state’s rich — like himself.
John Sutter, The Rawls Test: A journey to the most unequal place in America, CNN, August 7, 2013. A CNN correspondent begins a series that explores life amid America’s great divide.
Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel, The Pay of Corporate Executives and Financial Professionals as Evidence of Rents in Top 1 Percent Incomes, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2013. CEO pay as the product of toxic rent-seeking behavior.
|NEW AND notable|
In the West, an Egalitarian Star Dims
Climbing Toward the American Dream: A Second Analysis of Economic Mobility in Utah, Utah Foundation, August 2013.
In The Spirit Level, the landmark 2009 book on the impact of inequality on our daily lives, the surprise societal star — at least for most American readers — ends up to be the state of Utah.
On all sorts of measures of social decency, the book points out, Utah rates near the top among America’s 50 states.
Utah, Spirit Level authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show, also rates as one of America’s most equal states, and those two traits — high ratings for social decency, low levels of inequality — turn out to match up all over the world.
Among the world’s developed nations and among U.S. states, Wilkinson and Pickett have found, the same trend repeats over and over: The more equal a society, the better the quality of that society’s daily life, in everything from levels of trust to numbers of school dropouts.
In the United States, we typically don’t differentiate states by their level of inequality, as Wilkinson and Pickett do so powerfully in The Spirit Level. We talk instead about “red states” and “blue states,” Republican states and Democratic states. Utah ranks as one of the reddest of all.
But Utah, as contributing editor Bob Bernick of Utah Policy has just noted, also embraces “unique social attitudes” that have nurtured greater equality over time.
Utah’s uniqueness, this new Utah Foundation study suggests, may be evaporating. The foundation’s just-released Climbing Toward the American Dream report compares incomes, inequality, and mobility in Utah over two periods, 1994 through 2002 and 2003 through 2011.
Over this time frame, the report shows, Utah has become distinctly more unequal, more and more displaying the same inequality trends as the rest of the United States. Between 1994 and 2011, incomes of Utah’s richest 1 percent jumped over three times faster than Utah’s middle 20 percent.
The encouraging news? Utah income inequality still remains “near the lowest in the nation.” In Utah, households in the state’s most affluent 5 percent have 8.9 times more income than their counterparts in the poorest fifth. The U.S. average by this yardstick: 13.3 times.
The discouraging news? Utah has become so “red state” politically that many state lawmakers are now talking policies — “like doing away with mandatory public education,” as Bob Bernick observes — that directly threaten the state’s more egalitarian traditions.
Given these trends, Utah could yet become — on income distribution — America’s most unexpectedly dramatic cautionary tale.