The blogosphere (as well as the New York Times) has been (once again) buzzing today on the topic of income inequality and, most notably, why there isn’t more uproar among the American public. You can read the Times conversation, but in short, some contributors suggest that people of similar economic background spend the majority of their time with each other and aren’t actually faced with the signs of inequality (true). Others offer that even though there is obvious income disparity, most still feel “wealthy” as they still have access to modern conveniences like HDTV, air conditioning, and the occasional night out (also true). Still others make valid points regarding the American use of debt as a supplementary income. It’s obviously easy to buy luxury items if someone else is footing a bill you intend to pay at some point before you die. The one argument I really don’t buy is that most Americans assume they are more socially mobile than they appear to actually be. I don’t have any evidence, but I do not believe people support lower tax rates on the top percentile because they one day dream to be one of them. I know, personally, I would love to give away lots of money in taxes if it means I have…well…lots of money! I think it’s more of a comfort with the status quo, which is a symptom of the greater issue of American Exceptionalism.
American Exceptionalism cannot be ignored in the economic disparity debate because I believe it’s the reason most Americans strongly assume we will bounce back from our current economic conditions to the point where both rich and poor can have their cake and eat it too. Since the 1980’s and the introduction of supply-side economics, our economy has definitely been on a thirty year roller coaster, but has always bounced back (even if only artificially in bubbles). In that time, though many have lost their homes, jobs, etc, most of Americans were never asked to make a country wide sacrifice in the way other countries have had to. Plus, remember what we were asked to do during 9/11? While many other governments (even past American ones) might use a disaster as an opportunity, Americans were asked to go shopping and not sacrifice a thing (like we were previously forced to do during previous wars.) And even though the normal bankrupt person will not be “bailed out” by the federal government, I believe many Americans assume, if even subconsciously, that there is a safety net that will save our country from extreme peril (much like how the government handled the banking crisis of 08). Essentially, during the past thirty years, the national conscious in regards to all things economic has been in kind of a cruise control (or a malaise). That’s not to say there aren’t outbursts of dissent (the Tea Party for example is, at least, partially fueled by economic anger…though its severely misguided), but we have been taught by our government and media that the rules of the world do not apply to us. We’re told that yes, we had a financial crisis, but no we are not Japan (who experienced a similar crisis in the 90’s). We constantly hear our president refer to us as the best country in the world, essentially reminding us that even though things aren’t necessarily on course, they will be OK soon. Essentially, we’ve produced entire lazy generations who just assume Dad will figure it out.
But the fact is, Americans live in the past. The American dream and the social mobility that comes along with it are long dead. Hell, even Scandinavian countries and their highly taxed social democracies feature more social mobility than America currently does. We may rest on our laurels, perhaps we just don’t read the news, but the truth is that our empire will not last forever (in fact, China should have a bigger economy than the US in the next 10 years). And by 2050, who even knows if we will be the world’s predominant superpower. But until that happens, until Americans realize that our country is fallible and that a safety net may not exist, we probably won’t get too bent out of shape about economic inequality.
After all, we have video games, TV, and Charlie Sheen to distract us anyway.