A Brave New World

“Freedom From Want” by Norman Rockwell (between 1941 and 1945)

The letter to the editor in the New York Times literally jumped out at me in the early 1980s, within a short time after the ascendency of Reaganism and the Great Communicator’s rollback of everything that a part of my generation valued. My cohort of baby boomers wanted a better world with a hand extended to those in need and war shown in all its horror, thus lessening its appeal.

The letter came from a Long Island resident, a member of the generation of baby boomers, who expressed her shock at the appearance of many limousines in her neighborhood at the time of high school spring dances. She wrote that just over a decade earlier, she and her friends arrived at school dances either in their own cars, a rarity then, or were driven by a parent or a friend. She lamented at the glitz those limos represented compared to the more responsible and less well-to-do days of the 1960s, although those years had at its base a solid working class and middle class.

Over forty years later, I live in a rural area of the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts that is one repository of wealth that was heightened and magnified by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many with economic and social means could either relocate to the area, or purchase a second home here, thus driving up the cost of rents and housing prices through the roof. I could not even have guessed at the level of wealth I see when that Times letter was published during the early epoch of Reaganism.

The hurricane season of 2004 and its resulting devastation in Florida sent my wife and I on a trip through Canada and New England searching for a respite from the ravages of storms grown larger by increased water in the atmosphere enhanced by global warming. By chance, and a reference to the Berkshires in a travel guide, we traveled to the area around the magnificent grounds of the music center at Tanglewood at the border of the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge. We were fortunate enough to buy a small condo in a neighboring community and within a few years, transitioned back to New England, chastened by our failed work in the political system in Florida in 2004.

A few years later we needed more room for our growing family of grandchildren to romp in the countryside. Within a few years of moving permanently here, the effects of income inequality and unlimited income literally surrounded us. Housing prices skyrocketed, along with ours, and every single house visible to me changed hands and was occupied with people who had lots of disposable income.

Here are the figures showing income inequality in the US reported by the Pew Research Center as of January 2020. Two recessions since 2000 and tax cuts for the already wealthy have driven much of that inequality. The loss of much of the US industrial base has worsened this trend along with a reduction in union membership. Median household income was about the same in 2015 as it was in 2000, marking a substantial period of income stagnation.

Income inequality impacts those from minority groups harder than other groups. Normal Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” paintings from 1943 depict only white people. Housing, food, medical care, education, and a job are all areas where the glaring differences of income inequality hit hardest. The symbolism of Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” painting won’t make much difference to a child miseducated and not fed and housed properly.

Coming from middle-class roots in a town driven by the failing textile industry and a once-vibrant business district in central Rhode Island, the surrounding riches left me speechless. One nearby homeowner from the greater New York metropolitan area posted a picture of a well-known chef and his culinary creations at a dinner party she hosted during the height of the pandemic. I had many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from our self-imposed attempts to shield ourselves from the ravages of the pandemic since our cohort had devastating levels of the virus and its effects. We were successful at that endeavor, but the conspicuous consumption that began with Reagan and his tax cuts was evident all around. This was a new Gilded Age. We were living in the shadow of wealth. We began living in the age of hyperinflation.

On another nearby property that bordered us, containing acreage that I consider massive, the two houses on that property were renovated twice and another extensive structure was built. Three of the four nearby properties have swimming pools on them. Now, new construction involving the expansion of one of the twice-remodeled houses is taking place on the property with lots of open acreage. Of four nearby properties, only one has a full-time resident there. The property undergoing massive building and rebuilding is occupied by people who do not pay taxes to Massachusetts, and their primary residence is in a state with no income tax. The median and family income of people living here as part-timers does not show up in official records, so the area does not look as well-to-do on paper as it actually is.

The pandering to what seems to me to be massive outlays of disposable income harkens back to the days in which the Long Island resident first identified the turn toward glitz and conspicuous consumption that benefits people with high income.

What’s the complaint, as the symbolic rising of all boats because of the pandering to wealth has escalated in these hills? That may be true to a degree, but the income inequality here has driven the price of homes and rents through the proverbial roof. I could not even consider buying a home here today just over a decade after our purchase. Even repairs to an existing home have been driven up by the relative wealth of the area and shortages caused by the pandemic. There is a constant drumbeat in the media about how service workers in the area cannot afford rent and could never even dream about buying a basic dwelling.

Growing up in that small town in Rhode Island and working in public service jobs, I could not have imagined such opulence as my hometown town was battered by the twin engines of recession in the late 1950s and the exodus of the textile industry to the US South and then overseas. The hundreds of thousands of dollars I see spent in the Berkshires in projects of conspicuous consumption are beyond my ability to comprehend. A tax system with massive benefits to the already wealthy has created a class of people who live in the past opulence of kings and queens and nobility. It’s the Gilded Age of the late 19th century once again.

As a kid growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I delivered the state’s major newspaper every day. I had lots of spending money. I could not have imagined as a kid the orgy of spending I see now, but neither could I have imagined over a half-century later that both the speaker of the house and the vice president smiling (Guardian, December 22, 2022) and holding the Ukraine flag while trillions of dollars are spent on war with the popularity of war going almost unquestioned. I could not have imagined that human needs would take a backseat to military spending and war.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).