The 46-Pound Toupee

How can America hold its head up? That 46-pound toupee inelegantly perched on its crown must make it hard.

What the hell am I talking about? This past Sunday, Frank Rich tossed out a line in his New York Times column that gave me pause. He noted that “the top 1 percent of American earners now take home nearly a quarter of Americans’ total income — perhaps the single most revealing indicator of how three decades of greed and free-market absolutism have eviscerated America’s fundamental ideals of fairness.” The sentence was linked to the first part of a series by Timothy Noah in Slate on the Great Divergence, a term coined to describe the post-1979 period of broadening income inequality in America. Noah cites research from 2007 indicating that “the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income.” Over the last century, income inequality has ebbed and flowed:

It dropped a bit in the late teens, then started climbing again in the 1920s, reaching its peak just before the 1929 crash. The trend then reversed itself. Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s. Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this midcentury era the “Great Compression.” The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality. Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably was no better time to belong to America’s middle class. The Great Compression ended in the 1970s. Wages stagnated, inflation raged, and by the decade’s end, income inequality had started to rise. Income inequality grew through the 1980s, slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the aughts.

Vengeance, indeed. During the Great Divergence, specifically “from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent.” Now, according to statistics compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency, “income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic.” Despite this trend, the issue of income inequality has “barely entered the national political debate.” Yet it is “a topic of huge importance to American society” and has become a cause for worry among many economists and political scientists. “Even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Board chairman and onetime Ayn Rand acolyte, has registered concern. ‘This is not the type of thing which a democratic society—a capitalist democratic society—can really accept without addressing,’ Greenspan said in 2005.”

So how can America permit such gross inequality and hold its head up? How can a democratic nation stand tall with the equivalent of a 46-pound toupee upon its pate? (If an average adult male in the US weighs 191 pounds and 24 percent of that weight is concentrated at the very top, that would make for a 45.84 pound hairpiece.) We are dangerously top heavy. If the country were an SUV (and our fondness for the gas-guzzling behemoths makes that an apt analogy), we would be at risk for a rollover. How long before we topple? How long before the chasm between the top one percent and everyone else in America swallows us whole? What are we doing?

8 thoughts on “The 46-Pound Toupee

  1. What do you suggest?
    The idea of a “classless society”is counterintuitive to human nature.
    It has never worked.
    Animal Farm by George Orwell says it well.
    When will Jack McConnell and Sheldon Whitehouse,Ira Magaziner,the Weinstein al start eating and living like the “ordinary” people?Never.
    It seems like it’s easy to suggest someone else lower their standard of living to equalize things.It’s when it comes home to you(the general “you”) that things get a little,um, complicated?
    We used to share more than now with strangers because we have some people in our family in a jam financially,and not from gambling,overspending,etc.More like from unemployment and underemployment.We take care of our own first-don’t you?

  2. You are right on target, and this is the heart of the tax debate going on at this very moment: the Republicans are refusing to vote to extend the middle-class tax cuts unless the Democrats cave and extend tax cuts to millionaires.

    I write about the last Great Depression, and I never thought I’d be doing it during a new one.

  3. One in seven Americans living in poverty. Concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few works against free enterprise and democracy— especially in the wake of a Supreme Court that decided that corporations are persons and their money is speech.

  4. Ninjanurse-so,are unions persons?What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
    I’d say neither are “persons”.
    I won’t hold my breath for an honest answer because you’d probably wind up feeling compromised and that’s not good for overly empathetic people.

  5. It was meant to be exactly what it says-if you’re going to apply a rule,do it across the board-a union is no more a “person” than AIG is.
    I would be very satisfied with both entities restricted from political contributions.
    I just notice that you often get empathetic and replace logic with emotion.That’s your nature-you’re not gonna change,but it does tend to diminish your arguments sometimes.

  6. You know, this false equivalence of unions & corporations betrays your lack of honesty.

    The Supreme Court in the late 19th Century twisted the 14th Amendment–written to ensure the rights of newly-freed slaves–to apply to corporations. This was done because business owned the government, and the result was that business became even more powerful.

    Union membership is under 10% today. This is the direct result of business lobbying and renewed corporate ownership of gov’t. So, union membership has plummented at precisely the time that business control of society is stronger than it’s been since the 1920s.

    Ergo, even to isinuate that unions are anywhere near as powerful as corporations is simply foolish, if not mendacious.

    And, during this past year, when the Dems in Congress were making valiant efforts to create new finance laws, which party was huddling with corporate lobbyists to make sure that the laws were as ineffective as possible? Hint: it rhymes with “mepublican.”

    And which frequent commenter here is consistently spouting the Republican line, despite all protests to the contrary? (Hint: see the slam at the Clintons in the ‘gummint’ thread.)

    Given your political leanings, Observer, you have nerve suggesting that our hostess is less than honest. Anyone who acts as if unions have some huge affect on the US after 30 years of Republicanism is not looking at facts in any rational way.

    Rather, I’d suggest that person is flying off the emotional handle.

    1. You are a bag of wind.How long were you a union member?I was for 27 years.
      Our “hostess”as you call her has a tendency to avoid answering questions that make her feel like she’s being put on a spot.I thought that was what blogs were about.
      I know who you are,by the way,but of course blog etiquette prevents me saying more.
      You have a tendency to lecture-I wonder from what lofty perch?
      Don’t accuse me of being dishonest because I state my opinion.I may not be someone you’d enjoy knowing(actually that’s not even questionable)but I tell it as I see it with no ulterior motives since no corporation gives ME anything.
      I resented unions taking my money and spending it on candidates I couldn’t stand.
      The unions became that which they railed against.

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