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America’s Tale of Two Cities, Redux

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Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, required reading in secondary school, is the second biggest selling single-volume book of all-time at 200 million copies. Twenty-First Century America is that story.

A Tale of Two Cities is historical fiction. Dickens’s richly developed plot of complex relationships amongst the characters Charles Darnay, Lucie Manette, and Sydney Carton of redemption, rebirth, love, and violence layers onto a background of the French Revolution, which embodies those same issues on an historical basis, as French peasants fight for freedom from the lingering shackles of feudalism.

Today, America is a tale of two cities as depicted in pre-revolutionary France, especially on a metaphorical basis, as when Marquis Evrémonde runs down a plebian child with his golden carriage. The Marquis, displaying the typical attitude of aristocracy, shows no signs of regret but instead curses the peasantry and hurries home to his chateau.

That one cogent Dickensian scene says it all vis a vis America today, which is two separate economic and political worlds as exquisitely explained by Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT in his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.

Temin’s work depicts a dark reality of America that is not one country any longer; rather, two distinctly separate countries with vastly different resources, contrasting personal expectations, and divergent personal fate. Thereby a frightening sense of doom and gloom overhangs Temin’s central premise. America has a remarkable commonality of socio-economic-political similarities to King Louis XVI’s France (beheaded at Place de la Concorde, Paris, Jan. 21, 1793).

Lynn Parramore of the Institute for New Economic Thinking reviews Temin’s book in an article under her name: “America is Regressing into a Developing Nation for Most People,” April 20, 2017.

Parramore readily admits the loss of America’s middle class is not new news. After all, Bernie preached all about it. But, “what America is becoming” is Temin’s book. He describes two Americas: One America is 20% of the population. These are FTE citizens, meaning finance, technology, and electronics. They enjoy topflight educations, best jobs, social networks that work on their behalf, and plenty of money, lots and lots of money, children tutored, and first class travel. The whole enchilada is at their fingertips, ready to go.

FTE’ers see economic growth all around them and a very bright glowing future. They directly, powerfully influence politics and proudly wear an American flag lapel pin, unless they’re trying too hard to be cool.

Rarely do FTE’ers visit the country where 80% of Americans live, i.e., the low wage sector in and around cities, whether suburb or inner city. This totally different world lives in shrinkage, not growth. Its inhabitants wear an anvil of burdensome debt, vanishingmiddlework insecurity, sickness without decent medical care and dying younger than parents. This 80% of America is stuck with crumbling public transport whilst indebted to cars and plastic. College means heavy debt and little fanfare upon graduation. They do not see a future because today’s survival is already too much of a burden.

According to Parramore: “The world in which they reside is very different from the one they were taught to believe in. While members of the first country act, these people are acted upon.”

Along those lines, Temin describes two worlds that have entirely distinct financial systems and distinct residential environments and distinct educational opportunities. And, when they get sick, quite different things happen, the same with law. In fact, the 20% and 80% move entirely different and apart from each another, as if they do not exist on the same landscape.

Not only do they live wholly different life styles, there’s a lid on advancement by the 80% into the 20%, as the Low-Wagers find the path of upward mobility fraught with obstacles, almost impossible to achieve and getting more difficult with time.

“The richest large economy in the world, says Temin, is coming to have an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. We have entered a phase of regression, and one of the easiest ways to see it is in our infrastructure; our roads and bridges look more like those in Thailand or Venezuela than the Netherlands or Japan. But it goes far deeper than that, which is why Temin uses a famous economic model created to understand developing nations to describe how far inequality had progressed in the United States. The model is the work of West Indian economist W. Arthur Lewis, the only person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize in economics. For the first time, this model is applied with systematic precision to the U. S. The result is profoundly disturbing” (Parramore).

Here are the check points for the low-wage sector or the 80% of America found in Lewis’ model of a dual economy: (1) Low Wagers have almost no influence over public policy; (2) High Wagers work at keeping Low Wagers’ wages low; (3) Mass incarceration is used to prevent Low Wagers from challenging policy; (4) High Wagers have a primary goal of low taxes; (5) Social and economic mobility for Low Wagers is almost nonexistent. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, High Wagers skew expenditures for quality education by defunding public schools and establishing policies that layers student debt over certificates of achievement, a stranglehold for decades.

High paying jobs come easily for High Wagers via networks of peers and relatives. However, as for women and blacks, social capital and economic capital are challenged by America’s long deeply imbedded history of racism and sexism, obstacles to both kinds of capital and an obstacle to advancement.

What’s happened to America? And, why is it similar to Dickens’ tale of two cities? Temins says it all started after the ’67 Summer of Love, which is a likely starting point because worker productivity started separating from wages in the 1970s, or in short, increasing levels of productivity were not followed by commensurate increases in wages. Politicians were increasingly influenced by FTE’ers and turned from advocacy of public-spirited universalism to free-market individualism, thereby inserting a knife deeply to the heart of worker interests. The Investment Theory of Politics, as explained by Temins, accelerated thereafter, wherein the needs and dreams of Low Wagers increasingly suck dust, forever more, as big time money buys public policy, not democracy.

Interestingly, the majority of Low Wagers are white, but politicians learned to talk the talk as if the low-wage sector is mostly black, explained by Temins: “The desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks has motivated policies against all members of the low-wage sector.”

At the end, Temins discusses the 2016 presidential race, which for the first time publicly exposed anger by Low Wagers because of a glaring imbalance of class welfare in America. Beforehand, low-wage whites were largely invisible in public policy, and indeed remain as such, but Bernie’s and Trump’s campaign messages brought them out of a long slumber, opening their eyes to an America of spectacular wealth in the hands of so few versus everybody else. Ironically, America’s tradition of political stumping for the first time opened new vistas to the 80%, but interestingly and tellingly only in the 2016 election cycle, not in previous election cycles.

Still, as stated by Temins: “Unfortunately, present trends are not only continuing, but also accelerating their problems, freezing the dual economy into place.”

As a result, a new age in America dawns that is fraught with the unknown amidst credible signs of real serious danger for the first time ever since the American Revolution of 1775-83, which served as the model for the French Revolution of 1789-99.

All of which begs the obvious question of whether history repeats. Metaphorically speaking, is Dickens’ scene of Marquis Evrémonde’s golden carriage running down a plebian child without showing any regret similar to Donald Trump hoodwinking America’s 80%?

Marquis Evrémonde was murdered.

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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