America’s Dystopian New Normal

America was supposed to be different. Now economic inequality seems insurmountable. By Lloyd Green.

Five years into the Obama presidency, we are further from the Great Recession but also closer to a new normal—economic dystopia.

Yes, the unemployment rate has edged down to 7.6 percent, but America is well on its way to becoming a nation of part-timers and full-time temps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of involuntary part-time workers rose by 322,000 to 8.2 million in June, while the ranks of temporary-help services employees have swelled to a record 2.68 million. Meanwhile, the employment-population ratio, the percentage of adult Americans who hold a job, has dropped nearly 2 percent to 58.7 percent since Barack Obama took office.

Remarkably, both political parties are accommodating to this new reality of “Brazilification,” a term coined by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X and defined as the “widening gulf between the rich and the poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle classes.” On a good day, Brazilification looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, a party for the well-heeled, well-dressed, and well-coiffed under the dazzle of blinding lights. But, on a bad day, Brazilification is bankrupt Detroit, post-Katrina New Orleans, or the shuttered mining and mill towns 24/7, except bleaker.

For now, see the grim world of Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. For the future, look for pockets of wealth surrounded by functional despair, where the “haves” are cocooned or walled-off from the “have-nots.” As Sherman McCoy said in Bonfire of the Vanities, “Insulate! Insulate!” And the Masters of the Met do just that.

In all fairness, the relationship between Brazil and Brazilification has diminished over two decades. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “since 1993, Brazil has experienced a sharp and continuous decline in inequality,” together with “improved economic and financial stability.” The U.S., in some sense, has moved in the opposite direction.

But America was supposed to be different, and for a long time, it was. Now, in the charged words of Charles Murray, “America is coming apart.”

According to Murray, “for most of our nation’s history, whatever the inequality in wealth between the richest and poorest citizens, we maintained a cultural equality known nowhere else in the world—for whites, anyway.” But not anymore, as Murray describes an ever-widening gap that is not simply spatial, but an ever more insurmountable one that runs from cradle to grave.

Yet, neither party seems terribly disturbed by this trajectory, as the president and the Democrats hike payroll taxes on American workers and threaten to means-test government benefits to the detriment of the middle class. And we might also ask: Where’s the 21st-century equivalent of the Civilian Conservation Corps? Where’s the contemporary updating of the Tennessee Valley Authority? Where’s the American Democratic president who cares about the broad middle of the country? Sorry, but Solyndra just doesn’t cut it.

Meanwhile, the Republicans natter about deficit spending, but nobody but those on the highest end of the electorate pays the issue real mind. As Ed Luce trenchantly observed in the Financial Times, “with the exception of America’s richest 1 percent, no other income group rates the U.S. budget deficit among the country’s biggest threats, according to polls. The remainder rank unemployment and stagnant incomes as bigger problems.”

So what’s going on? It seems that both parties are still hypnotized by Pete Peterson and the donor class’s vision of America, one in which holders of Treasury bills sleep soundly and the 99.9 percent come to embrace the belief that “the enormous and growing income inequality in the United States is not a sign that the system is rigged,” but instead is evidence that the “economy is working.”

It might not be that surprising that this is true of Republicans, and a view unabashedly embraced by Mitt Romney’s former partner, Edward Conard. No doubt, but that Romney heard plenty of denunciations of “moochers” sitting around the Bain boardroom.

More surprising, though, are the Democrats, and their overriding priority in making America ever more cosmopolitan, while nurturing the underlying cultural shifts that have transformed America into a polychromatic polyglot. In neither case is it about the middle class.

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Right now, the costs to both parties in pursuing this strategy are minimal, and over the long haul, for the Democrats it looks like a winning hand. Barack Obama captured the White House and won reelection aided by the less-than-fond memories of his predecessor, but also boosted by his ability to surf across America’s changing cultural topography with masterful aplomb. The tables have been turned, as yesteryears’ outliers having matured into today’s political dominants. Forty years later, George McGovern’s 1972 Coalition has ultimately prevailed.

A recent joint appearance by Chicago mayor and ex-Obama enforcer Rahm Emanuel and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is as good an indicator of the elite political class’s consensus. Per the National Journal: “There’s an easy answer to whether to take up immigration reform, according to both polar-opposite power players. And it’s yes.”

Meanwhile, Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball and Brazilification await. As Springsteen sings, “Now sometimes tomorrow comes soaked in treasure and blood/Here we stood the drought, now we’ll stand the flood/There’s a new world coming, I can see the light.” Springsteen is on to something, about the drought and the flood—except that he is sardonic and angry, and the light is like the beam cast by an oncoming freight train.

As ProPublica explains, “Temporary work has become a mainstay of the economy,” with temp jobs in Chicago, Newark, and Boston replicating the feel of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The underside of globalization has come to us. Blame it on Rio, I guess.