Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Gambling With Your Livelihood

Writer Kurt Andersen compares the "new economy" to a casino where a handful of high-rollers make a fortune, while the vast majority lose out. The vast majority are, of course, the ordinary workers of America, both blue collar and white collar. As Andersen notes, this beleaguered class grows daily, creeping up the income scale, tax bracket by tax bracket. He relates his own experience overhearing airline pilots, heroic to look at, but nonetheless grousing about their CEO's obscene salary hike and how their own pensions were tanking. What, he wonders, could turn such erstwhile demigods into "disrespected, sputtering, whining losers"? The casino economy that's shafting the rest of us mortals, that's what. The American economic system, which in the mid-20th century had built-in restraints and mores that kept everything on an even keel for everybody, has mutated in the last quarter century in a world of unchecked extremes. While executive compensation is soaring, the median household income has risen just 15 percent - and for the last five years it has actually declined. Why do Americans put up with this inequity? He says it's "because it happened so quickly and for the same reason that the great mass of losers in casinos put up with odds that favor the house: The spectacle of a few ecstatic big winners encourages the losers to believe that they... might get lucky and win, too. We have, in effect, turned the U.S. into a winner-take-all casino economy, substituting the gambling hall for the factory floor as our governing economic metaphor, an assembly of individual strangers whose fortunes depend overwhelmingly on random luck rather than collective hard work..." Oy, vey! Ain't it the truth?

Casinos give Andersen himself the creeps, and he adds, "Risk-taking is fabulous, central to the American ethos - but not when it's involuntary. Too many Americans have been too suddenly herded into our new national economic casino, and without debate turned into the suckers whose losses become the elite's winnings." He goes on to recommend The Great Risk Shift by Jacob Hacker - which I got for Christmas and will soon read. Hacker succinctly quantifies the enhanced risk that most Americans now face - the chance of a family having its income drop 50 percent in any given year was 1-in-14 in 1970, but 1-in-6 today. 'Nough said.

Andersen contrasts the Republican nostalgia for the God-fearing, "family values" orderliness of the 1950's - which they have played to great effect since the 1980's - with what he thinks should be the nostalgia of the Democrats now in power. He envisions this as a yearning for the economic security, the social safety nets and the overall sense of fair play that pervaded U.S. culture during the Roosevelt era and perhaps even later, during the nascent days of The Great Society of the 1960's. What's wrong with sharing the wealth a little? he asks. After all, the rich will always be rich enough.

(Incidentally, although Kurt Andersen is a sharp guy, he has never been known for his love of the little people. His millennial satire Turn Of The Century sniped a little archly at ordinary folks, and he himself exhibited considerable entrepreneurial ambition when he founded the pay-to-read media weblog If even a dude like this is stumping for the man in the street, you know that something's in the wind.)

"American Roulette" from New York Magazine

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