This morning, Rich provides insight into our collective national moment by highlighting the resurgent play, Our Town, the famous 1938 play performed by many talented and/or under-resourced theatres because it requires no set and a large cast of extras (a prescription for high school and community production if there ever was one).
But this morning Rich reminds us why the play is also enduring - its timeless call to a collective sense of ourselves and our nation, captured in these times by Barack Obama's famous refrain, "We are the United States of America," that has resonated with many Americans. Sometimes, though, we could do well to "remember" history so that we are not condemned...
“WHEREVER you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” says the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Those words were first heard by New York audiences in February 1938, as America continued to reel from hard times. The Times’s front page told of 100,000 auto workers protesting layoffs in Detroit and of a Republican official attacking the New Deal as “fascist.” Though no one was buying cars, F.D.R. had the gall to endorse a mammoth transcontinental highway construction program to put men back to work.He continues to frame our current moment with references to Warren Buffet, AIG, and Bernie Madoff:
We’re still working our way through the aftershocks of the orgy of irresponsibility and greed that brought America to this nadir. In his recent letter to shareholders, a chastened Warren Buffett likened our financial institutions’ recklessness to venereal disease. Even the innocent were infected because “it’s not just whom you sleep with” but also “whom they” — unnamed huge financial institutions — “are sleeping with,” he wrote. Indeed, our government is in the morally untenable position of rewarding the most promiscuous carrier of them all, A.I.G., with as much as $180 billion in taxpayers’ cash transfusions (so far) precisely because it can’t be disentangled from all the careless (and unidentified) trading partners sharing its infection.
Buffett’s sermon coincided with the public soul searching of another national sage, Elie Wiesel, who joined a Portfolio magazine panel discussion on Bernie Madoff. Some $37 million of Wiesel’s charitable foundation and personal wealth vanished in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. “We gave him everything,” Wiesel told the audience. “We thought he was God.”
Rich argues next a fundamental point discussed on this site. The American economy has no hope of recovery until we see a massive return of jobs and job confidence to restore broad-based consumer-driven markets, the cornerstone of real estate spending and values as well. A primary driver of the severity of this current crisis is the concentration of so little of our collective national income in the vast middleclass and working Americans, which I personally define as those earning less than $250,000 taxable income per year. Rich:
The simplest explanation for why America’s reality got so distorted is the economic imbalance that Barack Obama now wants to remedy with policies that his critics deride as “socialist” (“fascist” can’t be far behind): the obscene widening of income inequality between the very rich and everyone else since the 1970s. “There is something wrong when we allow the playing field to be tilted so far in the favor of so few,” the president said in his budget message. He was calling for fundamental fairness, not class warfare. America hasn’t seen such gaping inequality since the Gilded Age and 1920s boom that preceded the Great Depression.
From the link behind "such gaping inequality" above is the following chart demonstrating the magnitude of the widening gap:
The chart shows the share of the richest 10 percent of the American population in total income – an indicator that closely tracks many other measures of economic inequality – over the past 90 years, as estimated by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. I’ve added labels indicating four key periods. These are:Penultimately and for fun here, Rich doesn't miss the opportunity to pile on to the emperor clothes of CNBC and the righteous skewering by Jon Stewart shown earlier on this site. What's troubling is that the clips Stewart assembled were presented in full context and told a broader tale of CNBC and Wall Street insiderism that has become all-too-apparent now, and which CNBC is terrified to have revealed broadly.The Long Gilded Age: Historians generally say that the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era around 1900. In many important ways, though, the Gilded Age continued right through to the New Deal. As far as we can tell, income remained about as unequally distributed as it had been the late 19th century – or as it is today. Public policy did little to limit extremes of wealth and poverty, mainly because the political dominance of the elite remained intact; the politics of the era, in which working Americans were divided by racial, religious, and cultural issues, have recognizable parallels with modern politics.
The Great Compression: The middle-class society I grew up in didn’t evolve gradually or automatically. It was created, in a remarkably short period of time, by FDR and the New Deal. As the chart shows, income inequality declined drastically from the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, with the rich losing ground while working Americans saw unprecedented gains. Economic historians call what happened the Great Compression, and it’s a seminal episode in American history.
Middle class America: That’s the country I grew up in. It was a society without extremes of wealth or poverty, a society of broadly shared prosperity, partly because strong unions, a high minimum wage, and a progressive tax system helped limit inequality. It was also a society in which political bipartisanship meant something: in spite of all the turmoil of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, in spite of the sinister machinations of Nixon and his henchmen, it was an era in which Democrats and Republicans agreed on basic values and could cooperate across party lines.
The great divergence: Since the late 1970s the America I knew has unraveled. We’re no longer a middle-class society, in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared: between 1979 and 2005 the real income of the median household rose only 13 percent, but the income of the richest 0.1% of Americans rose 296 percent.
Last week Jon Stewart whipped up a well-earned frenzy with an eight-minute “Daily Show” takedown of the stars of CNBC, the business network that venerated our financial gods, plugged their stocks and hyped the bubble’s reckless delusions. (Just as it had in the dot-com bubble.) Stewart’s horrifying clip reel featured Jim Cramer reassuring viewers that Bear Stearns was “not in trouble” just six days before its March 2008 collapse; Charlie Gasparino lip-syncing A.I.G.’s claim that its subprime losses were “very manageable” in December 2007; and Larry Kudlow declaring last April that “the worst of this subprime business is over.” The coup de grâce was a CNBC interviewer fawning over the lordly Robert Allen Stanford. Stewart spoke for many when he concluded, “Between the two of them I can’t decide which one of those guys I’d rather see in jail.”
Led by Cramer and Kudlow, the CNBC carnival barkers are now, without any irony whatsoever, assailing the president as a radical saboteur of capitalism. It’s particularly rich to hear Cramer tar Obama (or anyone else) for “wealth destruction” when he followed up his bum steer to viewers on Bear Stearns with oleaginous on-camera salesmanship for Wachovia and its brilliant chief executive, a Cramer friend and former boss, just two weeks before it, too, collapsed. What should really terrify the White House is that Cramer last month gave a big thumbs-up to Timothy Geithner’s bank-rescue plan.
Finally, Rich brings it brilliantly together so as not to ruin our Sunday morning coffee:
In one way, though, the remaining vestiges of the past decade’s excesses, whether they live on in the shouted sophistry of CNBC or in the ashes of Stanford’s castle, are useful. Seen in the cold light of our long hangover, they remind us that it was the America of the bubble that was aberrant and perverse, creating a new normal that wasn’t normal at all.
The true American faith endures in “Our Town.” The key word in its title is the collective “our,” just as “united” is the resonant note hit by the new president when saying the full name of the country. The notion that Americans must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to reclaim, and that a majority voted for in November. But how we get there from this economic graveyard is a challenge rapidly rivaling the one that faced Wilder’s audience in that dark late winter of 1938.