In yesterday’s NY Times Op-ed, Kristof apologized for comparing US income inequity to that of “Banana Republics” – that is, for insulting other nations by comparing them to the US, which has now achieved wholly unprecedented levels of economic injustice.
My point was that the wealthiest plutocrats now actually control a greater share of the pie in the United States than in historically unstable countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. But readers protested that this was glib and unfair, and after reviewing the evidence I regretfully confess that they have a point.
That’s right: I may have wronged the banana republics.
You see, some Latin Americans were indignant at what they saw as an invidious and hurtful comparison. The truth is that Latin America has matured and become more equal in recent decades, even as the distribution in the United States has become steadily more unequal.
The best data series I could find is for Argentina. In the 1940s, the top 1 percent there controlled more than 20 percent of incomes. That was roughly double the share at that time in the United States.
Since then, we’ve reversed places. The share controlled by the top 1 percent in Argentina has fallen to a bit more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, inequality in the United States has soared to levels comparable to those in Argentina six decades ago — with 1 percent controlling 24 percent of American income in 2007.
This places Obama’s terrible cowardice on the subject of the Bush tax cuts into context, and I encourage you to read it. But I also think you should read Charles Leduff’s essay “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones” from this month’s _Mother Jones_. In many ways, it is the sort of piece that gets done a lot. But what’s interesting about it to me is that Leduff actually asks the really pertinent question – if this can happen in Detroit, can it happen to other places that were once middle class, and aren’t any more?
No one cared much about Detroit or its industrial suburbs until the Dow collapsed, the chief executives of the Big Three went to Washington to grovel, and General Motors declared bankruptcy–100 years after its founding. Suddenly, Detroit was historic, symbolic–hip, even. I began to get calls from reporters around the world wondering what Detroit was like, what was happening here. They were wondering if the Rust Belt cancer had metastasized and was creeping to Los Angeles and London and Barcelona. Was Detroit an outlier or an epicenter?
That’s a good question.