“Oh, we’ve only just begun. We’re waking up to a sense of our responsibilities, out here, and we ain’t afraid, neither. You fellows back there must be a tame lot. If you had any nerve you’d get together and march down to Wall St. and blow it up. Dynamite it, I mean.”
“That would be a waste of powder. The same business would go on in another street. The street doesn’t matter.”
I just read these prophetic words; hint, it’s a classic novel many Americans read in their schoolwork but I just read for the first time.
On the Upper East Side of Manhattan — an enclave of almost unimaginable wealth — it’s One Percent Central. The streets are clean, swept, silent, the wrought-iron-covered apartment doors — owned, not rented — always guarded by wary, watchful doormen.
Elegant townhouses with silk balloon shades, Met-worthy art and exterior security cameras sell at the price of some small nations’ GDP — this one is offered at $23 million — often in all-cash deals.
Local hotels include the Carlyle, The Plaza Athenee and the Mark; room rates start about $700 a night. (New York State’s highest unemployment benefit, taxable of course, is $405 a week.)
Discreet private art galleries dot the side streets, $50,000 drawings locked behind elegant double doors. Shoppers, if they carry any bags, tote those marked Chanel, Ferragamo, Prada. They sleep on monogrammed linens from Leron, Frette and Pratesi.
Gleaming, spotless black Escalades, chauffeurs at the wheel, glide through the streets. Thin blond women skitter by in Louboutins. Private school boys, shouting, run down Fifth Avenue, their ties flying.
Summer and winter are verbs to this set — summer in the Hamptons, Nantucket, Maine, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard, winter in Aspen, Vail or St. Bart’s.
To the people inhabiting this world, the rest of us are barely a blip on the radar.
They are all privately educated from infancy, as are their parents, grand-parents, husbands and wives, their children prepped by SAT tutors costing thousands a month beyond the $35,000+ a year it costs to educate each child.
Their world is cocooned by nannies — likely three, one for each eight hour shift — au pairs, staff, multiple homes, private jets.
This divide is perhaps more obvious when you live in a major city split neatly by zip code by race, class and wealth: New York, London, Paris, Sao Paulo, Mexico City. Living in New York, all you have to do is exchange one subway line for another to visit a wholly different world, from one filled with the exhausted working class traveling home to Queens or Brooklyn, to another snuggled deeply in triple-ply cashmere, oblivious to mundane worries like finding or keeping a job, educating one’s children or even paying the rent or mortgage.
I know something of this world. My first husband was a physician, who, with his second wife, earns a combined income of $500,000. Even with a few kids to support, that’s pocket change to the real One PerCenters — if an impossible fortune to most of us.
Some of my mother’s family were also members of it.
Unless you’ve been exposed to the people living in this charming snow-globe, and their ferocious determination to acquire their fifth home or the 20th Birkin handbag or the Monet coming up at Sotheby’s, it’s a reassuring fantasy to think they care about the rest of us. They’re too busy out-ranking one another to even notice people whose annual income barely covers their shoe budget.
Don’t ever underestimate their determination to retain their privileges and the sources of their economic and political power.
Meanwhile, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek, median household income in the U.S. has fallen to $49,445, the lowest in more than a decade, while poverty has jumped to 15. 1 percent, a 17-year high.
Read this smart column by Times’ writer David Brooks on how the media, much of it [guilty!] based in Manhattan is still over-focusing on this obviously uber-wealthy one percent — rather than the deeply growing divide between those who are well-educated and those who are not, more visible in rural areas and smaller cities nationwide.
Great essay in the Canadian national newspaper, The Globe and Mail:
For many Americans, the recession began well before 2007, and it’s far from over. It’s become a lost decade of fading opportunity for workers, longer and more frequent bouts of joblessness and declining family incomes.
Obscured by the housing bubble and cheap credit, the well-being of working Americans was already threatened by powerful structural forces when the Great Recession hit. Technology supplanted routine work of all kinds, leaving millions with skills that employers no longer need. Offshoring of work to China and India destroyed millions of labour-intensive factory jobs. Low interest rates artificially pumped up wealth and consumption, but didn’t steer enough investment into the roots of the economy.
Now, more than eight million jobs are gone, and the country is looking at the stark prospect of several more years of unusually high unemployment. Roughly half of the 14 million unemployed Americans have now been out of work for more than six months.
And for the first time on record, family incomes are actually falling. New figures this week from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the median income for working-age households fell 10 per cent between 2000 and 2010, even as women worked more hours.
In 1912, an Italian statistician and sociologist named Corrado Gini created the Gini coefficient to measure differences in income.
The U.S., in purple with a Gini coefficient of 0.450, ranks near the extreme end of the inequality scale. Looking for the other countries marked in purple gives you a quick sense of countries with comparable income inequality, and it’s an unflattering list: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, Ecuador. A number are currently embroiled in or just emerging from deeply destabilizing conflicts, some of them linked to income inequality: Mexico, Côte d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Serbia.
Canadians never had a “Canadian dream” so we/they don’t do a lot of hand-wringing over the loss of it. They’re used to higher taxes and lower salaries. They don’t have a constitution offering the promise — or the tantalizing lure of — happiness.
But this is why I’m taking Occupy Wall Street — or, perhaps more specifically, the ‘We Are The 99 Percent’ movement — seriously. There are a lot of people who are getting an unusually raw deal right now. There is a small group of people who are getting an unusually good deal right now. That doesn’t sound to me like a stable equilibrium.
The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.
They’re staying put, with many more on the way – to New York as well as every major city from sea to shining sea – and none of them are going anywhere else until people like you are taken from your citadels in handcuffs and made to pay for the ongoing rape of what was once quaintly called the American Dream…a dream that used to be something other than a dated metaphor, and can be something true and real and genuine once again, but only after we pave you under, and walk over you, on our way to a better, brighter future.
And here’s one of the smartest pieces I have ever read, originally published in a magazine written by academics, on how Americans keeping choosing to focus on gender as a safe(r) proxy for class when discussing the fallout of each recession. History matters!