Growing wealth concentration threatens to end American opportunity as we know it
The American creed of equal opportunity is in danger of becoming Hollywood fiction. Wealth concentration, manufacturing's demise, and technology eliminating jobs are destroying upward mobility. We must invest in education, training, and R&D. We must also pay for it.
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There is a good chance Raphael Cebrian is going to make it. The handsome young Spaniard is already a rock star and accomplished actor back home. Now he’s moved to Los Angeles, where his generous talent is already being recognized in Hollywood. His native tongue is even a plus in the ever burgeoning Spanish language market – in the United States and globally.Skip to next paragraph
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Like so many before him, Mr. Cebrian says, “In the US, there’s hope, and the feeling that you can achieve whatever you want.” Indeed, this creed implicit in so many American movies has been one of the reasons for the sustained global appeal of Hollywood that attracts the likes of young Cebrian to our shores.
As the late director Sydney Pollack once put it: “American films say to people everywhere that you don’t have to be high and mighty to make it. You may be a kid with braces on your teeth in some small town who dreams of success and adventure in life. Movies tell you it is possible. You can write your own narrative. In a very fundamental way, this is what America itself is really all about.”
At the GOP convention in Tampa earlier this year, the last popular Republican, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, phrased this aspirational creed succinctly: “America is not about where you came from, but where you are going.”
Today, however, opportunity for everyone is fast becoming Hollywood fiction. Ironically, Hollywood may be one of the few pockets where upward mobility based on merit and talent is still a reality. Silicon Valley, where a kid in a dorm room with an algorithm can go to connect the world and make a fortune, is another.
But for the vast majority of Americans another story is emerging: a new plutocracy of the super-wealthy is cementing its hold on the top. Only low-wage jobs that lead nowhere are being created at the bottom. The middle class is being hollowed out because manufacturing has been shifted out of the country and new digital technologies, which outsource white-collar work to consumers themselves, are replacing everyone from bank tellers to airline clerks.
Just connecting the dots with a few key figures paints a clear picture of how America’s foundational creed is under assault.
Today, as Chrystia Freeland reports in her new book, “Plutocrats,” the top 20 percent of Americans own 84 percent of the wealth. And since the financial crisis of 2008, that skewed distribution has sharpened. While the income of the 99 percent has “recovered” by 0.2 percent, for the top 1 percent it has improved by 11.6 percent.