Part 1—The Wreck of the Whole 99: “The Wreck of the Old 97” is one of America’s most famous train songs.
You couldn’t make Johnny Cash stop singing it. When Vernon Dalhart recorded it in 1924, it became perhaps the first million-selling country music recording.
The song memorialized the wreck of the famous “Fast Mail” train, which had been trying to make up time heading south toward Danville. According to the famous lyrics, the engineer “was going down the grade making ninety miles an hour when his whistle broke out in a scream.”
That was The Wreck of the Old 97. In modern times, there’s the ongoing Wreck of the Whole 99, which Annie Lowrey described again in last Wednesday’s New York Times.
Saez and Piketty had released new information about the gains of the highest earners. As Lowrey began (headline included), she even referred to “a new Gilded Age:”
LOWREY (9/11/13): The Rich Get Richer Through the RecoveryIs this pre-tax or post-tax income? Lowrey didn’t explicitly say, although certain parts of her report implied that she was discussing income after taxes.
The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s total income in 2012, the highest level recorded since the government began collecting the relevant data a century ago, according to an updated study by the prominent economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.
The top 1 percent took more than one-fifth of the income earned by Americans, one of the highest levels on record since 1913, when the government instituted an income tax.
The figures underscore that even after the recession the country remains in a new Gilded Age, with income as concentrated as it was in the years that preceded the Depression of the 1930s, if not more so.
The income share of the top 1 percent of earners in 2012 returned to the same level as before both the Great Recession and the Great Depression...jumping to about 22.5 percent in 2012 from 19.7 percent in 2011.
Whatever! New records for income inequality are being set, Lowrey reported. You might even say that the top one percent has been making up time!
Lowrey wasn’t completely gloomy as she reviewed the new data. In this passage, she reported “a glimmer of good news for the 99 percent:”
LOWREY: There is a glimmer of good news for the 99 percent in the report, though. Mr. Piketty and Mr. Saez show that the incomes of that group stagnated between 2009 and 2011. In 2012, they started growing again—if only by about 1 percent. But the total income of the top 1 percent surged nearly 20 percent that year. The incomes of the very richest, the 0.01 percent, shot up more than 32 percent.Incomes grew by one percent last year! As an example of “good news,” you might file that under the heading, “seeing the glass one percent full.”
Different people will have different ideas about the meaning of these data. For example, should the federal government try to address this level of inequality?
Different people will have different ideas about that. Lowrey reported something the authors have said on that score:
LOWREY: Mr. Saez and Mr. Piketty have argued that the concentration of income among top earners is unlikely to reverse without stark changes in the economy or in tax policy. Increases that Congress negotiated in January are not likely to have a major effect, Mr. Saez wrote, saying they “are not negligible, but they are modest.”Should Congress try to level incomes a bit? That is a matter of judgment. But in the absence of some such action, it seems the trend toward income inequality will continue.
Mr. Saez and Mr. Piketty, of the Paris School of Economics, plan to update their data again in January, after more complete statistics become available.
By now, it hardly qualifies as “news” when such information appears. Indeed, Lowrey’s report appeared on page B4 of Wednesday’s New York Times. The release of these new data occasioned little reaction in the public discourse.
Nor will everyone agree about the meaning of these data. Do data like these represent a problem? Not everyone will agree, but let's make one basic observation:
In theory, progressives think that these data do represent a problem. But if they represent a problem, they represent a problem that is being felt on both sides of the tribal divide.
Within that 99 percent, the income of conservative voters is failing to rise; so is with the income of liberal voters. Then too, red and blue voters are all being looted through the massive overspending which characterizes American health care—a looting the liberal world has generally been too lazy to discuss.
At some point, you’d think the 99 percent might get mad at the one percent. You’d think the whole 99 percent might get mad about data like these:
Health care spending, per person, 2011:As compared with Finland, $5100 per person is disappearing every year in our health care spending. (For a family of four, multiply accordingly.) That’s money that isn’t going into the stagnant wages of the 99 percent.
United States: $8508
Where is all that money going? At some point, you’d almost think the whole 99 would want to figure that out!
In our view, data like these could be part of a modern-day song, “The Wreck of the Whole 99.” Incomes are stagnant for almost the whole population. Meanwhile, ridiculous looting affects this huge group in various obvious ways.
That said, something seems to keep the 99 percent from fighting against this type of looting and income stagnation. These problems affect red and blue alike, but The Whole 99 fails to unite and put up a fight.
What keeps the 99 percent divided against itself? Some of the division comes from the so-called right. This has been true for a very long time.
But some of the division comes from the so-called left. It seems to us that instincts toward division have been growing on that side of the aisle.
Why can’t The Whole 99 fight back? We’ll examine that question all week.
Tomorrow: Ways to divide, thus to conquer!
Through the miracle of YouTube: Through the miracle of YouTube, you can hear several versions of Vernon Dalhart’s historic 1924 recording.
For one such recording, just click here. Musically, we’ve come a long way since that time, as have the top one percent!