The best of times -- and the worst

Robert Kuttner

April 30, 1992|By Robert Kuttner

&TC THE Federal Reserve's new figures on income distribution are the latest confirmation that the very rich really did get a lot richer during the 1980s. According to the Fed, between 1983 and 1989, the richest 1 percent of the population increased its share of America's total wealth from 31 to 37 percent.

For America, this is oddly the best of times and the worst of times.

It is the best of times because of extraordinary technical progress. For example, medical science can work new miracles thanks to drugs created via genetic engineering, to new diagnostic machines, and less invasive high-tech surgical procedures. My own life, as a writer, has become much more productive and efficient because of computer technology, and so has the life of anybody who works with data. Technology has made daily life more convenient in countless small ways, from electronic bank card machines to microwaved meals, telephone answering machines, car phones and home movies on the TV.

Yet, at the same time, daily life has become more arduous for most people. Through some weird alchemy, all these spectacular technical breakthroughs have not translated into a superior standard of living or quality of life. That is a rather stunning paradox -- perhaps the basic paradox of our time -- and it invites more than a moment's reflection.

How can things be getting more technically efficient and daily life generally be getting worse? I can think of four related reasons.

The first reason for the failure of technical invention to translate into better lives is the collapse of large systems on which ordinary people depend. More money is going into private gadgets and less into social systems.

Trivial conveniences like microwave ovens are no match for larger economic forces that impose massive social inconvenience. Indeed, microwaved fast food at dinner is necessary only because mother and father (if father is present) are so strung out from the day's work in a society that still refuses to recognize that the vast majority of parents are in the labor force and to provide either parental leave or child care.

Likewise, high-tech medicine is of little use to people without health insurance. That the welfare office is computerized doesn't offset massive numbers of homeless people. Snazzy electronic signs on buses mock the fact that transit systems are falling apart. The failure of social systems to keep pace with the needs of ordinary people is another reflection of the division of society into haves and have nots, and of the decay of public remedy.

The second reason is the widening inequality of income and wealth. As a result, most benefits of these inventions flow to the top few percent, as most of the people have less income with which to buy them.

I occasionally get invited to speak at conferences in very nice places. As someone who is part of the working middle class, it always stuns me to momentarily be a guest of the upper class and to realize just how lavishly the very wealthy live. The accommodations are more splendid, the food more delectable, the conference technology more clever, the exercise machines in the health spa more ingenuous -- and most Americans will never get to live this way.

Thirdly, this widening inequality has political consequences that reinforce the basic trend: The more that very wealthy and powerful people live in their own splendid isolation, the less they will support basic amenities for society as a whole. Why pay taxes for public schools when your own kids are in private school? Why support mass transit when you have a limo? Why back public parks when you have a country club? Why fight for day care when you have a nanny?

The flip side of the economic withdrawal of the rich is the political withdrawal of the middle class. Just as the wealthy retreat into private comfort, the middle class retreats into depressed cynicism. And the more the working middle class is too stressed out to function as citizens -- and too politically burned out to trust public remedy -- the less will the political system be able to restore some degree of social balance.

The final, deeper source of the degradation of daily life is that in the 1990s nothing seems to stay put anymore. During the great postwar boom, institutions were far from perfect, but they were relatively durable.

The local bank was unlikely to collapse. The health insurance plan was unlikely to deny you medical care based on a contrived technicality. The local public school was unlikely to be closed and reopened as a condominium.

Ordinary people could make commitments to their employers, and those commitments would be roughly reciprocated. If you took a job at the auto plant, or the gas company, state university, TV network, phone company or the bank, it would be there next year and next decade.

Nowadays, any big institution is just as likely to fall abruptly into a black hole. Ordinary people can't plan, can't count on their futures, even if we play by the rules -- for the rules don't stay put either.

All of this uncertainty, stress and degradation is in some way connected to the shift from a broadly based society into a casino economy with a few big winners and a lot of frustrated and perplexed losers. All the technical invention in the world can't cure that. The cure lies elsewhere, in a revival of politics and social remedy.

Robert Kuttner writes a syndicated column on economic matters.

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