I also thought: Mea culpa. For those past two decades, I’d prospered and thrived in the new political economy. And unharmed by automation or globalization or the new social contract, I’d effectively ignored the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans weren’t prospering or thriving.
In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of our boats stopped rising at all. Economic inequality has reverted to the levels of a century ago and earlier, and so has economic insecurity, while economic immobility is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.
What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal. And I and my cohort of hippie-to-yuppie liberal Baby Boomers were complicit in that.
The Yuppies Versus the Proles
At a dinner during my first visit to Washington, D.C., in June 1972—on the very evening of the Watergate break-in, as it happened—a mod young Department of Education bureaucrat informed me that the liberal political era in America was ending. To a 17-year-old fresh from Nebraska looking forward to wearing my McGovern for President button to a White House reception with Vice President Spiro Agnew the next day, this was a shocking revelation.
The guy turned out to be right, of course. And that fall, when I started college, I saw firsthand that the youthquake and student movement and greening of America, everything I’d spent the past few years getting stoked about, was palpably, rapidly ending. The Vietnam War was winding down and nobody was getting drafted, so fighting the Man started to seem like a pose. My senior thesis argued that more and more white-collar jobs, thanks in part to technology, were apt to become more and more proletarian, and it discussed whether workers in such professions might follow the lead of federal air traffic controllers, who had recently unionized.