By now the evidence that a bifurcated economy has risen out of the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis—its upper branch expanding and healthy and its lower branch contracting and seriously ill—is overwhelming. The news stories documenting this reality come like pulses of blood from the lower depths: Price increases of only a few cents on basic necessities at Walmart lead buyers to stop purchasing products; a quaint sales technique from the distant past, layaway plans, are back; and consumer confidence has crashed to historic lows. Conversely, like showers of gold and jewels out of the high heavens, comes news of skyrocketing prices on luxury goods, feverish sales in high end Manhattan apartments, and the best market in years in yacht sales.
These facts get repeated often enough, but like peanut shells thrown at the rhinoceros in the zoo, they bounce off harmlessly. The news of—shhhh—endemic inequality is almost a new kind of fact, a ghost fact that ought to be of normal density and opacity yet somehow becomes weightless and transparent.
This invisible density, like dark matter, affects the public discourse, but in a distorted way. A discomfort seizes its denizens who react by longing for a return to a mythic status quo ante that in fact endorses the status quo hic et nunc.
Facing the truth means first facing—I started to say elementary economic reality—but it’s more basic than that. Call it simple math. Here’s the formula. The accrual of wealth at the upper margin—driven in significant measure by a transfer of money from the lower and middle registers—collapses the markets that those in the middle and at the bottom might otherwise compete in. To put this another way: The old route to social mobility was to build a better mousetrap. But the rich have no need of a better mousetrap, and the rest of us can’t afford one.
Is there hope? Well, it turns out there is, and it was hiding in plain sight all along. I discovered the solution to our economic woes indulging one of my favorite pastimes: thumbing through the endless mounds of old yellowing New York Times editions I keep stacked in my living room. I stumbled upon the following headline on this article dated November 27, 2010: “Some Very Creative Economic Fix-Its.”
In the article, Professor Andrew Caplin of New York University speculated about a new economy that he believes is emerging in the U.S. He told the Times: “Unfortunately, there will be income inequality. But enough people will make money that those who don’t would do well, in as much as they understand the needs of that group.” (italics mine)
The phrasing is somewhat convoluted, but the meaning is clear. If all the money is at the top, then the rest of us will survive the Darwinian free-for-all best by learning to enjoy servicing the rich. The Times went on to summarize Caplin’s views: “[The professor] says he expects a rise in what he calls ‘artisanal services,’ like cooks, nutritionists, small-scale farmers. He sees services emerging that aid the wealthy at the intersection of health and genetic science. He imagines a rise in technology services, too—experts who keep clients current about technology which can advance their interests in business, in the media, on search engines and so on.”
So memo to the rehashed flower children of Occupy Wall Street: Put down your pitchforks, and take up a broom—no, I don’t mean the kind you sweep the streets with but the smaller variety used by valets to brush the coats of their masters. Make yourself useful to the Wall Street grandees, the kind who were seen drinking champagne from a balcony during the early days of the misguided OWS protest. There are shoes to be shined and champagne glasses to be replenished. Whole new industries and specialties will spring up: Nose hair trimmers to the rich and famous. Ear wax removers. Foot massage specialists whose hands have been specially softened by nightly dips in hog lard. Highly skilled experts will make very satisfactory livings managing the rectal well-being of the elite. Additional favors will no doubt pay favorable rates. As for artist, some adjustments will be necessary. For musicians, soothing ditties with modest dance beats; for painters, a new vogue in heroic portraiture; for satirists, scathing portrayals of the lazy poor.
It’s quite simple really. Everyone agrees the country needs a course correction. Professor Caplin has given us the bearing. So quit your griping; there’s money to be made out there, y’all. Forward, then, to our glorious future.