high desert sketches
Watching the decline and fall of the middle class
By GEORGE A. COVINGTON
The final days of the Roman Empire bears a striking parallel to the impending fate of the American Middle Class. Edward Gibbon wrote the six volume “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1776-1789) and it would take an individual wrapped up in the armor of pure hubris and with great oracular skills to attempt the following column, but here goes!
Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Unfortunately, Jefferson did not live in an age with the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, and the phrase “well-informed” dissolves before the impact of “alternative facts” and “alternative news”. In Roman Times you did not know if the Empire’s Legions had won or lost because the Roman Senate’s proclamations often included “alternative facts”.
Toward the end of the Roman Empire, all the people of Rome cared about was free bread and the bloody sports of the Coliseum. Today, all the peasants care about is free entertainment on their digital devices and the next gladiatorial confrontation between teams of the National Football League.
Wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America’s gross domestic product. Until 1975, wages nearly always accounted for more than 50 percent of the nation’s G.D.P., but last year wages fell to a record low of 43.5 percent. Since 2001, when the wage share was 49 percent, there has been a steep slide.
“We went almost a century where the labor share was pretty stable and we shared prosperity,” says Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. “What we’re seeing now is very disquieting.” For the great bulk of workers, labor’s shrinking share is even worse than the statistics show, when one considers that a sizable — and growing — chunk of overall wages goes to the top one percent: senior corporate executives, Wall Street professionals, Hollywood stars, pop singers and professional athletes. The share of wages going to the top one percent climbed to 12.9 percent in 2010, from 7.3 percent in 1979, and it is still going up.
As the middle class makes less, it is seeing a shorter life span. Experts have long known that rich people generally live longer than poor people. But a growing body of data shows a more disturbing pattern: despite big advances in medicine, technology and education, the longevity gap between high-income and low-income Americans has been widening.
The poor are losing ground not only in income, but also in years of life, the most basic measure of well-being. In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, according to an analysis by the Social Security Administration. Fast-forward to 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.
Looking at the extreme ends of the income spectrum, economists at the Brookings Institution found that for men born in 1920, there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10 percent of earners and the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled, to 14 years and continues to rise.
Medical statistics are even scarier when it comes to the poor. Texas has the highest death rate among expectant mothers in the entire developed world. Last summer, the University of Maryland study found that Texas had the highest maternal mortality rate in the U.S. The study also found that the U.S. rate was higher than all other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries reporting maternal mortality data, except for Mexico.
Like many old empires, our infrastructure is beginning to crumble. Everybody is aware that our streets and highways are disintegrating but so unfortunately our bridges and dams. The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older. More than nine percent of the nation’s 56,007 bridges were structurally deficient in 2016.
Dams provide vital service and protection to our communities and economy. The average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years. As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016.
Many readers will remember the legend of Emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned. If President Tweet mentions that he is taking violin lessons, run for your life!
George A. Covington has worked in the fields of law, education, journalism and disability rights. He considers himself retired from every one of them with the possible exception of journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Texas schools of journalism and law. He moved to West Texas – Alpine – in 1997 after a 20-year career in Washington, D.C. where he once served on the staff of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Democrat) and shortly thereafter served as Special Assistant to the Vice President of the United States (Republican) 1989-93.
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