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Published: Wednesday, 5/23/2007

Wealth, civility gap is widening in United States

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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THE GAP between the rich and poor in both the circumstances of living and the level of civility is widening. And the two may be related.

It is hard for a media person to see. We are employed, paid a living if not an excessive wage, and have enough education and, thus, information at hand not to feel helpless. If we are in a bad economic situation, we are well-enough informed to know that our situation is, at least in part, of our own making.

But what about the others? There are still enough remnants remaining of the so-called Protestant Ethic at the core of American society for some to say that if people are in trouble, it is because they deserve to be in trouble. The absolutely feckless way that some people - even employed people - get themselves mired in debt beyond their ability ever to dig themselves out serves as illustration.

Many Americans have tons of credit-card debt. Banks, airlines, and almost every other American business entity that markets anything offer people credit cards with no idea whether they can handle more debt or not.

Now it's mortgages. Sub-prime mortgages - offered to people who can't afford to pay them back just to move houses or apartments off the market - are now trashing people's lives in ever-increasing numbers.

The lender has bundled and sold the mortgage to some company in another state that doesn't care, having written off the mortgage as a bad debt and reclaimed the property through foreclosure. Ask what happens to the person evicted from the property. Who knows? He has to rent now. It's his own fault anyway for having taken out the mortgage without having paid attention to the terms.

What then happens to the American dream of homeownership? Some among the well-to-do cleaned up on the deal - the builder, the seller, the lender, the forecloser, the evictor, or maybe all of the above. But what of the person whose belongings are put out on the street, and who loses whatever he put into the property? How does he feel?

Those of us who follow economic news are told all sorts of cheery things to keep us from thinking about those on the raw end of the deals that, collectively, keep us on top of the heap.

The stock market is hitting new highs. We are supposed to rejoice if we hold stock.

We might ask ourselves how it is that the stock of company "X" continues to rise in price: What is that company doing, exactly, that makes its stock worth more and more? The answer is that it probably is benefiting from being manipulated by traders, or that we, collectively, are looking at a much higher rate of inflation than the numbers say. There are a lot of factors that go into the official rate of inflation. One is the Producer Price Index, but it doesn't include food or energy - in other words, what you pay at the supermarket and gas station, where gas has passed $3 a gallon and is galloping like a racehorse toward $4.

Another element in assessing the state of the economy is the unemployment rate and, perhaps more important, the rate at which the economy is creating new jobs. Not only has the economy's record in that regard been abysmal since 2000, one cannot even have much confidence in what we are told about it.

The real unemployment figure would have to take into account people who have simply stopped looking for work or are working outside the recorded economy. As for the dubious job-creation rate, the economy has to generate an average of 150,000 new jobs each month just to accommodate new workers. In April, it added a miserable 88,000.

Then there's health care. America has 47 million people without health insurance. A recent study ranked America 37th of 191 countries in terms of quality of health care, even though we were tops in health-care spending. Worse, we were 51st in fairness of health care. That's the access piece, the place where the rich are separated from the poor in terms of access to quality care.

On the "measuring civility" side, we see drug abuse, identity theft, home invasions, the burning of churches, petty and grand thievery, extreme religiosity, gambling, and child and elderly abuse that defies belief. Some of it looks like urban Victorian England. But so do our rich resemble the lords of those days in their economic distance from the poor.

Is there a connection? Are they, as the West Side Story gang the "Jets" told Officer Krupke, depraved because they are deprived? Who knows.

America is probably revolution-proof, no matter what anyone does to the poor. And it has been made more revolution-proof by post-9/11 security measures.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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