THE NEW year requires an inventory of the old. Mostly, this is an individual impulse, leading to resolutions and renewal. Such reckoning can seem an intensely private exercise. But what of a whole society? Can we assess the year just past with an eye on the entire land? Morally, how fares the United States of America?
If a just society is defined by the relationship between the well off and the very poor, we have big trouble. US Census data for 2010 show the widest rich-poor income gap on record. In 1968, the top 20 percent of Americans had about 7 times the income of those living below the poverty line. By 2008, that disparity had grown to about 13. By 2010, it had grown even further, to more than 14. The poverty level in 2010 was put at $21,954 for a family of four. In 2010, the percentage of Americans living below half of the poverty line (or about $11,000) had grown from 5.7 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent. That the rich get richer while the poor get poorer can seem a timeless cliché, yet something is steadily corroding America. The mythic land of equality has the largest income disparity of any Western nation. How can that be?
These figures show that the shocking economic collapse of the last two years has been no collapse whatsoever for the most affluent, even while it remains traumatic for most, and catastrophic for many. Yet instead of generating a sense of moral urgency, this condition has produced a spirit of entitlement among the privileged, complacency among the struggling middle, and resignation among the impoverished. How else account for the most decisive judicial act of 2010 — the Supreme Court ruling in January that elite-protecting political spending by corporations must be unrestrained — and the most decisive legislative act — the December extension by Congress of massive tax cuts for that wealthiest sub-minority? And who can deny that the court decision led directly to the congressional act?
What’s worse, instead of prompting a reconsideration of the untrustworthy twin pillars on which America’s financial culture stands, the 2010 responses artificially reinforced them. The war economy is the first of these, with current annual military expenditures now exceeding $1 trillion — the most ever. Ironically, nothing undermines American security like the cuts in public spending (infrastructure, schools, libraries, etc.) made necessary by exploding budgets for outmoded weapons. Not guns over mere butter now, but over bread — and books and bridges. This monetary calculus leaves aside the most corrupting dynamic of the war economy, how the nation is driven into unnecessary wars simply by the unleashed momentum of hyper-war-readiness. Over-investment in arms leads to their use, period.
The second pillar of America’s economic culture is the reduction of the pursuit of happiness to shopping. A tragedy, classically speaking, is when something good leads to something bad. Early numbers suggest that retail sales over the last few weeks of 2010 are up significantly, as the economic stimulus pays off. This means job growth, mortgages paid, careers rescued — the Obama recovery taking hold. And who can bemoan that? Yet looking deeper, we see that consumer confidence remains a confidence game. Emerging from the economic meltdown, we are still chained to the hamster’s wheel of earning-in-order-to-spend. Manufacturing in America has faltered in all but the manufacturing of imagined needs which, once met, only manufacture more, leaving people consumed by consumption. Our idea of the good life, even as it sets up a next economic collapse, is destroying us.
This bleak inventory can extend to other facets of culture — how the once-proud institution of journalism increasingly confuses entertainment and politics, celebrity and news, with the result that, even as information explodes, the citizenry is less critically informed than ever. Hence the public gullibility to the Know-Nothing Tea Party movement, which so dangerously swamped the 2010 elections. What’s that odor in the air — harmless swamp gas, or the whiff of fascism?
The point of a dark reckoning like this is not to wallow in defeat, but to confront the actuality of the national condition. At New Year’s, the individual takes a good look in the mirror and resolves to change. So with our common life. America is better than this.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.