Financial Firms Have Been Hollowing Out America for Decades -- Now We're on the Verge of a Debtpocalypse
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But could this just be the familiar story of capitalism’s penchant for “creative destruction”? The usual tale of old ways disappearing, sometimes painfully, as part of the story of progress as new wonders appear in their place?
Imagine for a moment the time traveler from Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy’s best-selling utopian novel of 1888 waking up in present-day America. Instead of the prosperous land filled with technological wonders and egalitarian harmony Bellamy envisioned, his protagonist would find an unnervingly familiar world of decaying cities, people growing ever poorer and sicker, bridges and roads crumpling, sweatshops a commonplace, the largest prison population on the planet, workers afraid to stand up to their bosses, schools failing, debts growing more onerous, and inequalities starker than ever.
A recent grim statistic suggests just how Bellamy’s utopian hopes have given way to an increasingly dystopian reality. For the first time in American history, the life expectancy of white people, men and women, has actually dropped. Life spans for the least educated, in particular, have fallen by about four years since 1990. The steepest decline: white women lacking a high school diploma. They, on average, lost five years of life, while white men lacking a diploma lost three years.
Unprecedented for the United States, these numbers come close to the catastrophic decline Russian men experienced in the desperate years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, between 1985 and 2010, American women fell from 14th to 41st place in the United Nation’s ranking of international life expectancy. (Among developed countries, American women now rank last.) Whatever combination of factors produced this social statistic, it may be the rawest measure of a society in the throes of economic anorexia.
One other marker of this eerie story of a developed nation undergoing underdevelopment and a striking reproach to a cherished national faith: for the first time since the Great Depression, the social mobility of Americans is moving in reverse. In every decade from the 1970s on, fewer people have been able to move up the income ladder than in the previous 10 years. Now Americans in their thirties earn 12% less on average than their parents’ generation at the same age. Danes, Norwegians, Finns, Canadians, Swedes, Germans, and the French now all enjoy higher rates of upward mobility than Americans. Remarkably, 42% of American men raised in the bottom one-fifth income cohort remain there for life, as compared to 25% in Denmark and 30% in notoriously class-stratified Great Britain.
Eating Our Own
Laments about “the vanishing middle class” have become commonplace, and little wonder. Except for those in the top 10% of the income pyramid, everyone is on the down escalator. The United States now has the highest percentage of low-wage workers -- those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage -- of any developed nation. George Carlin once mordantly quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” Now, that joke has become our waking reality.
During the “long nineteenth century,” wealth and poverty existed side by side. So they do again. In the first instance, when industrial capitalism was being born, it came of age by ingesting what was valuable embedded in pre-capitalist forms of life and labor, including land, animals, human muscle power, tools and talents, know-how, and the ways of organizing and distributing what got produced. Wealth accumulated in the new economy by extinguishing wealth in the older ones.
“Progress” was the result of this economic metabolism. Whatever its stark human and ecological costs, its achievements were also highly visible. America’s capacity to sustain a larger and larger population at rising levels of material well-being, education, and health was its global boast for a century and half.