American inequality: Who is subsidizing our lifestyle?

On the economic front, separate news stories are painting a disturbing picture of American inequality. The number of uninsured people has jumped from last year’s totals. The gap between the rich and poor has grown wider for 30 years (at current levels, the top fifth of earners takes home 50% of the money while the bottom fifth takes home 3%). Do you think of this being a fair country, a place where opportunity shines for everyone? Be prepared for a different reality. Among all Western industrialized countries, the U.S. stands last in income equality. England, the home of residual class antagonism going back for centuries, has leveled the playing field better than we have.

The problem is just that equality has become more like a myth than a fact. There are still many routes to upward mobility, and when one hears about the shrinking middle-class, it should be noted that a healthy percentage of that shrinkage was due to families climbing higher on the economic ladder (earning $75,000 or more) rather than sliding down. Yet the current recession has brought into stark relief an underlying flaw, not in American economics but in our consciousness. Money is creating a new, selfish class whose only interest seems to be in greed. The current Hollywood sequel to Wall Street brings back Gordon Gekko, an iconic figure from the go-go Eighties because of his maxim, “Greed is good.” Gekko went to jail when greed took him too far. Now he has emerged from prison with a smirk on his face: Greed has become the new virtue in financial circles. It is no longer something to be ashamed of. You can drive the economy to ruin with insanely risky investments, get bailed out, and scamper down the road to make even more massive profits, some of them still based on too-high risk.

The ordinary person can’t stomach this, and the Tea Party is their enraged reaction. Anyone who is morally decent would have to share in the anger, but the Tea Party isn’t based on a drive for social and economic equality. Its toxic agenda is to push immigrants and the unemployed even lower. With sublime unreason we hear calls for lower taxes and an end to deficit spending, even though the two are exact opposites. If the Tea Party were swept into office tomorrow, the Republican Party would push for the overturning of Obama’s entire public policy, resulting in even greater inequality.

When you push greed, selfishness, rage, and crankiness out of the way, the future holds exactly what President Obama has been advocating; a more just society that can only solve the problems of debt and an aging population by raising taxes, lowering medical costs, and restructuring entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The elderly are not immune to greed and selfishness, and many are reluctant to pay their fair share, even though most have the means. What could be more selfish than the now legendary cry of the senior citizen who yelled, “Keep the damn government out of my Medicare!”

What the greedy and well-to-do aren’t facing is their own flawed consciousness. The moneyed class is sitting on the sidelines, just as it did throughout the Great Depression, squeezing credit, refusing to invest, and demanding — with consummate gall — that the government should ask less of them in taxation. They refuse to face a stark fact: Their well-being and the general prosperity of this rich country is being subsidized. In his classic account of poverty in England during the Depression, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell dourly noted that the smooth highways carrying cars across the land were built on the backs of coal miners — quite literally, in fact, since mine shafts often ran under the roads. He appealed to community and decency, to morality and empathy in the hope that England would become a fair state.

The same plea needs to be heard today, because your lifestyle and mine is being subsidized by immigrants working for low wages in order to keep prices down, while at the same time receiving marginal benefits from the state compared to the rest of us. We are subsidized by the uninsured, who never go to the doctor. We are being subsidized by a minimum wage too low to live on. We are subsidized by the unemployed who do without welfare support. Finally, we are being subsidized by the average worker, who became the most efficient producer in the world, only to see the corporation he worked for take that increased productivity, turning it into dividends and bonuses that would benefit stockholders, executives, and almost everyone but the workers themselves. The gap between rich and poor has resulted, to be blunt about it, because the wealth isn’t being shared. It’s being gobbled up by those who are already well off. There is much more to say about why a society cannot afford to subsidize the best-off at the expense of the worst. But at bottom, such a society can’t look itself in the mirror. We are getting perilously close to that point now.

Published by San Francisco Chronicle