It's time I faced it. There some things that are just beyond my limited understanding. Like the latest hubbub over the concentration of wealth in American society. It happens every time the economy has a growth spurt. Naturally those at the top, often enough the entrepreneurs and investors who made the growth possible, reap the benefits. As in the 1920s, aka the Roaring Twenties. Or throughout the late 19th century as the country underwent perhaps its most intense period of economic development. The more wealth is created, the more envy.
The latest report from the U.S. Census Bureau confirms that there hasn't been so great a difference between the incomes of the richest and poorest Americans since, well, since the Census Bureau began measuring income inequality some 40 years ago. The highest-earning fifth of the American population now accounts for slightly over half (50.4 percent) of all U.S. household income, while the bottom fifth earned only 3.4 percent of total U.S. income in the year being measured (2005).
Yet real median annual household income the midpoint of all American incomes rose in 2005 by 1.1 percent to $46,326. The income of the top fifth of American earners rose by 2 percent, bringing their mean annual income up to $159,583. While the mean annual income for the bottom 20 percent of American earners rose 0.6 percent to $10,587. Result: the percentage of Americans living below the poverty level fell slightly by 0.1 percent to 12.6 percent of the population.
What these figures mean, if anything, or how fair or accurate they may be, or how much they reflect the effects of immigration or single-parent households or technological change … all that can be left to economists and sociologists to argue over.
But this much is for sure: Separate but equally partisan politicians and pundits will make the most of the numbers they carefully select to buttress their own prejudices. The only thing this flood of data means to me is that the rich keep getting richer while the poor … get a little richer, too. So this is news in America?
Others may get excited debating the significance of these latest stats, but my first reaction to them was to get another cup of coffee in a vain attempt to stay awake. I know there is something about economic inequality that is supposed to rile Americans, and indeed it does, almost instinctively. But I find it hard to summon up the expected ire. What does it matter to me if other folks' income is up so long as mine increases, too?
Of course great wealth, like great power of any kind, can be abused. That's why we have criminal laws and a plethora of economic regulations. But it is the very existence of great wealth that seems to offend some of our politicians and various others with a gift for agitation. Me, I figure all those wealthy entrepreneurs and successful investors are providing more jobs, higher incomes and greater opportunities for the rest of us.
There must be something wrong with me. I find it hard to resent the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets of the world, or the Tysons and Waltons here in Arkansas, for that matter. I just wish we had more such. On the theory that we'd all benefit by their investments and philanthropy.
Tocqueville depicted democracy in America as a constant tension between liberty and equality. Things haven't changed all that much since the 1830s, when he pointed out that policies which favor liberty for the individual tend to discourage equality in the whole society.
It would take a far-seeing statesman like James Madison to argue in the Federalist Papers that a proper constitution would restrain democracy's leveling tendencies so it might support rather than subvert individual liberty.
Whenever figures likes these from the Census Bureau come out, we're all supposed to be disturbed about the growing gap between rich and poor, or even upper-middle and lower-middle, but I'm still waiting for someone to explain why. And not just repeat vague pieties about the need to keep everybody roughly as rich, or rather as poor, as everybody else.
A professor at Syracuse University, Arthur Brooks, notes, "income is just one item of importance in the lives of Americans. There are many others from love to faith to happiness that we care about, some of them far more."
Certainly no one sane cares about only money. Whatever the distribution of American income, Professor Brooks notes, survey after survey indicates that Americans are among the happiest and most optimistic of peoples. Maybe because most of us know money is important but not all-important.
The view that life is good in these United States must be widely shared, for so many elsewhere are trying to make it in while few if any Americans are rushing to get out.
No wonder the politics of envy doesn't work as well here as in other places. Are we really supposed to be unhappy because somewhere in this country others are richer or happier than we are?
It may not be done to admit it, but Americans are basically a forward-looking, enterprising and confident lot who aren't much for envying the rich. Especially since we hope to join them someday.