Al the Coward
George Szamuely
New York Press


America’s elite is fortunate in having a buffoon like the Rev. Al Sharpton as its chief adversary. Thanks to him, it can go on enjoying its riches undisturbed. Sharpton’s racial tomfoolery serves to reinforce the most cherished dogma of our media pundits: America’s economy has delivered riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Therefore, the only problem left to be solved is the perennial one of the blacks. But since we have already rehashed that one umpteen times, why not enjoy some harmless tv-sized antics?

Last week at the Apollo Theater debate, Sharpton–whose endorsement today is as critical as Mayor Daley’s once was–had the honor of asking the first question. "Many in our community have to live in fear of both the cops and the robbers," he intoned. "What concrete steps would you make if you were elected President to deal with police brutality and racial profiling?" Since policing is a local matter, there is nothing that Gore or Bradley will be able to do about it. It was a wasted question. But Gore and Bradley do not need to be asked twice to indulge in sententious moralizing. Bradley spouted some drivel about how "a wallet in the hand of a white man" is a wallet, but "in the hand of a black man" it will look like a gun. It made no sense. But he felt good. Sharpton seemed happy. And the audience wandered off contentedly afterward.

Now imagine what Sharpton could have asked but did not. He could have asked about America’s growing inequality. How come America’s apparently inexorable economy and booming stock market rewards a tiny minority but leaves everyone else, at best, no better off than they were decades ago? From 1977 to 1999 the income of the poorest fifth of households fell by 9 percent. The income of the top 1 percent, on the other hand, more than doubled. During the same period the income of the top 20 percent of households increased by 43 percent. In 1998 the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans earned 21.4 percent of the nation’s aggregate income–considerably up on the 16.6 percent they earned in 1973. Higher profits mean higher stock prices and more money in the pockets of shareholders. The incomes of CEOs, however, have more than doubled between 1989 and 1997. They earn now more than 116 times what the average worker makes with U.S. CEOs earning, on average, more than twice as much as CEOs in other advanced economies.

That’s very nice for them. But what about everyone else? Sharpton could have talked about falling incomes and growing poverty. As I’ve noted berfore, in 1973 the mean income of the poorest fifth of black households was $5684. In 1998 it had actually declined to $5194. More than a quarter of blacks–26.1 percent–live in poverty. The poverty rate of black families with children in 1998 was 30.5 percent. This is a small improvement on 1973 when it had been 33.4 percent. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the real wage of the median worker was 4 percent lower in 1998 than in 1979. Wages for the bottom 80 percent of men were lower in 1997 than in 1989. Over the same period, real hourly wages stagnated or fell for the bottom 60 percent of workers.

The average hourly wage in 1973 of someone with less than a high school diploma was $11.21. By 1997 it had gone down to $8.22. Doubtless, Bradley or Gore would have droned on about how our high-tech-information-superhighway-cyber-wired world requires our getting college degrees. The trouble is, university graduates are not doing so well either. In 1973 the average hourly wage for someone with a college degree was $18.60. By 1997 it had declined to $18.38. In 1973 the entry-level wage of a man with a college degree was $14.82. By 1997 it was down to $13.65. The hourly wages of entry-level college graduates fell about 7 percent from 1989 to 1997.

Since hourly compensation has been falling, the only way families have been able to make ends meet is by working longer hours. The annual hours worked by all family members in the typical married-couple family with children grew 326 hours per year (more than nine weeks of full-time work), from 3278 hours per year in 1979 to 3604 hours per year in 1996. American workers, unlike their counterparts in any other industrialized country, are working longer and longer hours. In 1997 Americans worked 1966 hours–an increase of 4 percent since 1980 when they worked 1883 hours. In France workers put in 1656 hours in 1997 as against 1810 in the 1980s. In Germany workers put in 1560 hours in 1996 as against 1742 in 1980.

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Then there is America’s staggering prison population, an issue Sharpton should have some thoughts on. It has been growing at an annual rate of 7 percent over the last decade. In an economy in which almost all of the benefits go to a tiny minority while everyone else is scarcely better off than they were three decades ago, the likelihood of social disturbance is high. Hence the need to maintain a permanent threat of imprisonment. During the past 12 years the incarceration rate has more than doubled. In 1998, the United States had 668 prison inmates per 100,000 residents (it was 313 in 1985)–a rate 10 times higher than most other industrialized countries. The percentage of black adults under some form of correctional supervision is 9 percent.

This is why Europeans practice social democracy. Americans think they can skip the egalitarianism, and simply use fear to keep everyone in line.

Sharpton would never raise any of these issues. He knows that if he did, he would no longer be welcome in the tv studios. The economy grew by 5.8 percent in the last quarter. That means we are all 5.8 percent better off. That is what we are told. And that is what we must believe however much it flies in the face of common sense.

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