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The New Inequality

by James Lileks

For about 47 minutes the president successfully moved the conversation to income inequality, the very existence of which proves that the fundamental transformation of America into a grey smear of equally compensated workers has a long way to go. The news cycle, whose attention span makes a housefly look like a Galapagos turtle, was Very Concerned for a while, but then a sign-language guy at Mandela’s funeral was revealed to have been miming the instructions for complex nautical knots, and that was that.

In a few months the president may indeed be informed that incomes are still unequal, and make no mistake — and for the love of all that is good and decent, let him be clear — no one will be angrier than he is. He made a speech, for heaven’s sake.

It’s worse than he may suspect. When it comes to income levels, the bad news keeps getting worse. According to an AP “analysis” — i.e., a few facts extruded through the Play-Doh Fun Factory of preconceived wisdom — it’s this bad:

Fully 20 percent of U.S. adults become rich for parts of their lives, wielding extensive influence over America’s economy and politics, according to new survey data.

These “new rich,” made up largely of older professionals, working married couples and more educated singles, are becoming politically influential, and economists say their capacity to spend is key to the U.S. economic recovery.

That would seem to be good news. Let us now drop a BUT like an Acme safe on the coyote’s head: “But their rise is also a sign of the nation’s continuing economic polarization.”

Why? Because! Let’s look at how one paper headlined the study: “More Socially Liberal, America’s New Rich Are Wielding Power but May Foil Income Equality.”

Ask yourself how the foiling will be done. The left hand votes for Democrats, but the right hand cuts checks to the Cato Institute? There are several possibilities:

1. The “new rich,” including older professionals, will go into poorer neighborhoods and take their money, shouting “Yoink!” and cackling as they prance away with the sawbucks.

2. By pooling resources and forming solid economic units that can maximize the fruits of their labor, “working married couples” may make more money than other people, and may refuse to get divorced no matter how it might help the statistics look better.

3. “More educated singles,” leveraging their skills in competitive industries, may make more money than people who graduated from college with a master’s based on heteronormative assumptions in 19th-century translations of Sumerian tablets, have $97,000 in debt, and work at Starbucks, where they draw a cuneiform script that says “Bleep you” in the foam of the latte.

4. Socially liberal people who clear $200K, then watch the state gather half of it like a croupier scooping in everything you put on a losing number, realize that the guy who said he wanted to “spread the wealth around” not only meant their wealth but would make their annual salary with one speech once he got out of office.

You make the call. The AP analysis continues:

In a country where poverty is at a record high, today’s new rich are notable for their sense of economic fragility. They rely on income from their work to maintain their social position and pay for things such as private tutoring for their children.

We’re in uncharted territory here: People who make money rely on work to continue to make money. It’s that vicious cycle you’ve heard about.

That makes them much more fiscally conservative than other Americans, polling suggests, and less likely to support public programs, such as food stamps or early public education, to help the disadvantaged.

“Support” is not defined. It could mean “funding at current levels.” It could mean “an ever-increasing claim on your property to prop up a dollar-gobbling Brobdingnagian bureaucracy that abets multi-generational dependency.”

The article, to be fair, cites a Nigerian immigrant who did the bootstrap thing and thinks others can help themselves too, but of course now he wants to reduce public subsidies for ladders and cut back the budget for the Bootstrap Awareness Council, which got awards for its viral Facebook ads. Demon. More:

The group is more liberal than lower-income groups on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, according to an analysis of General Social Survey data by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But when it comes to money, their views aren’t so open. They’re wary of any government role in closing the income gap.

Got that? If you’re gung-ho for abortion, it ought to follow that you embrace the efficacy and morality of redistributing property by force. Otherwise you’re the “new” rich. Why, you’re probably the sort of fiend who doubts that the Center for Public Affairs Research coordinates with the Public Affairs Research Center, and whether the former organization’s AP-NORC data, generated by the General Social Survey, jibe with the UPI-CRON Socially General Survey, produced by the Research Center for Affairs of the Public.

The article chatters on with experts and data and quotes from the mulish “new rich,” as if they never existed before and will be rich forever. You can’t help but feel grim delight: Many of these people believed that striking the proper moral pose insulated them from the hand that scrabbles in their back pocket. But I believe that married gay couples should be able to have an abortion, and it should be covered by single-payer. Isn’t that enough? Why am I bad? Because the president made a speech. Put your money where his mouth is.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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