Eat the Rich

The rich are richer than ever, but don't ask them for help

If you want a true picture of New York's current economic plight, take a look at a remarkable graph showing the share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners over the past 100 years.

The chart is the product of the Fiscal Policy Institute, the labor-backed group that is one of the lone voices trying to be heard over the ever-growing roar demanding that wages and benefits for workers be knocked down as low as possible.

If you look at this chart for a while, an image comes to mind: It is a long hammock with a slumbering tycoon stretched out in blissful repose. His head is tucked comfortably on the years right before the Great Depression when he and his pals controlled almost 25 percent of all income earned. His back and posterior then slide down in a long graceful arch from the late '40s through the '70s. This is the period considered the Golden Age of America's middle class, when workers managed to capture a greater share of the pie, standards of living rising accordingly. Back then, our upper strata did just fine, too, enjoying a robust 10 percent of the pot. Then, in the '80s in the Reagan era, the graph starts to climb again. From there, it spikes up and up. This is where the snoozing baron now has his feet comfortably planted atop his magnificent wealth, while the rest of us tread water.

The numbers on the chart show that nationally, America's top earners are now taking in 24 percent of the income, back to where they were just before their gluttony crashed Wall Street in 1929. But they are pikers compared to New York. Our state's most privileged class holds 35 percent of the dough. Here in the city, the fat cats do even better, with a whopping 44 percent. This is why New York State ranks last in terms of the income gap between rich and poor. And it is why New York City is the most polarized of the nation's 25 biggest urban areas.

"If New York City were a nation," reports James Parrott, economist for the institute, "its level of income concentration would rank 15th worst among 134 countries, between Chile and Honduras. Wall Street," he adds, "with its stratospheric profits and bonuses, sits within 15 miles of the Bronx—the nation's poorest urban county."

Yet while this income inequality grows by the hour, the talk in Albany and City Hall is that we cannot ask this luxury class to carry any more of the burden. These politicians hold that the only acceptable solution to an estimated $10 billion state budget deficit is to cut programs that mainly serve the poor and middle class, while asking state workers to do more with less. The no-new-taxes zealots are so wedded to this notion that they are even looking to immediately shut down the modest so-called "millionaire's tax," which expires at the end of this year.

If you make the rich pay more, this argument holds, they will vote with their feet and head to Florida and places where they get an even freer ride than they do here. Mayor Bloomberg makes this point every chance he gets, even though when he won his own high-income tax measure to meet the post-9/11 fiscal crisis, he dismissed that same argument as so much nonsense.

Then we have this new group of millionaires and business representatives that is being hailed by the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and which calls itself the "Committee to Save New York." A better name would be "Committee to Save Our Advantages." One of the co-chairmen of this group is a young man named Rob Speyer who is heir to one of New York's great real estate fortunes. I am sure he has matured enormously since then, but some 15 years ago, when we were reporters working in the same newsroom, his idea of a big investigative scoop was a sting on cab drivers: He left wallets with $100 bills in the back of taxis, and then waited to see if drivers returned them, cash safely tucked inside. Those that didn't pass this test got their pictures in the paper, labeled as rip-off menaces. You read the stories and wondered, if the tables were turned, how many photos of reporters, editors, and real estate tycoons we might see.

Speyer's most recent foray was to buy Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in hopes of replacing rent-regulated middle-class tenants with free-market apartments filled with upper-income residents. This enormous greed resulted in default and the biggest real estate debacle in recent city history.

All in all, this group does not inspire great confidence, and it is fairly frightening to think they may be setting our state's agenda. Cuomo has much smarter people right around him who hopefully have his ear.

This kind of broadside at the ruling elite seems as good a swan song as any. I could just as easily write again about the alleged leader of New York City's unions who is supposed to be leading the people's charge against these forces, but who is too distracted trying to cover up his own earnings. Or I could reminisce about my very first Voice article, co-authored in 1985 with Wayne Barrett, which recounted how city housing funds for the poor were secretly spent to build a lush, mob-controlled restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. That story, too, links back to today's debate about the way forward for New York, but I will leave it in the archives for now. Suffice to say that it has been an honor to have held the floor this long in an honored institution. Many thanks to many wonderful readers.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

 
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15 comments
Joanne R. Pacicca
Joanne R. Pacicca

This just about sums it up, +Then we have this new group of millionaires and business representatives that is being hailed by the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and which calls itself the "Committee to Save New York." A better name would be "Committee to Save Our Advantages." Thanks for telling it like it is Mr. Robbins.

guest
guest

The American middle class has become the "useless eaters" of this new age. The corporatacracies simply shop the world for the least expensive labor and production processes they can find, and only rarely do they find what is adequate for their self serving needs here in the USA.

Yes indeed, the rich are getting richer, into extraordinary, unimaginable plateaus of wealth and power, while the rest of the world, that at one time had been members of a relatively recent social entity known as the middle class., are simply discarded as inconvenient leftovers from a previous time.

In current times, the middle class are essentially of little or no value to this new form of corporate royalty and the empires they build. Their only value is that they still consume products and services, which of course, translates into profits.

But, at a certain point, even though this inconvenient leftover middle class still does represent a market of sorts, the cost of their existence management has already exceeded their potential usefulness; in essence, a liability rather than a net profit center.

The trans-national corporatacracies could care less about the American middle class . . . at best, they are seen as an annoyance, constantly pestering the powers that be for various forms of support, which translates into more taxes, more regulations, and so on.

This mainstream members of the middle class social strata are being discarded and abandoned, like farm animals that have outlived their usefulness and reason for existence.

Are there still some people out there who still don't get this, or are perhaps in profound denial?

Yes, of course.

I would venture it's mostly the older folks, who came from a different era, when American labor and the products they produced were considered to among the best on the planet, it was a time when they were the standard that the rest of the world would be compared by.

For those folks who lived in that era, in that culture, the American middle class quality of life really was the best example of its type on the planet.

It must be simply incomprehensible to some, to see how drastically the American dream has been crushed, the US treasury looted of more than $14 trillion, our American culture and quality of life, though it suffered from many flaws, was at one time the envy of the world . . . all gone, simply vaporized.

I would venture the younger folks are much more connected to understanding the current reality, which is this -

The election process is all about raising money, the laws that are passed by Congress are simply bought and paid for by corporate lobbyists. Any delusions about America being a supposed "democracy" are simply absurdly wishful thinking.

What we have now is basically a return to an earlier era, a much earlier era which was fairly consistent around the world at that time, when the kings and queens and their royal courts were the authority of law, and there were the select few who had made fantastic fortunes, and lived the lifestyles of the kings and queens.

The vast majority of ordinary citizens lived a life of crushing hardships, poverty, and struggling to find work that they could support themselves and their families with.

The only difference now is that the "kings and queens" of this new era are the corporate CEOs and their inner circles of comrades in crime.

In this context, we have essentially gone backward by a century or more . . .

That's the snapshot of reality that I see

JoelB
JoelB

Tom, I've read your column for years. Very sad to see you go.

biffula
biffula

This article is melodramatic and worthless.

StarsGazer
StarsGazer

The Village Voice has ceased being relevant

Jlatour
Jlatour

So long, farewell, we hate to see you go! Good luck Tom and thank you for all of your indispensable work over the years. I know you will surface somewhere else and continue to give us great work. The Voice without you and Wayne is so diminished!! Say it ain't so!! Jane

CARPENTER
CARPENTER

Never farewell to Tom Robbins, A reporter thar always wrote about the truth and was fearless in his writings, the news and the voice have lost out on one of the few good reporters. BUT WE ARE THE LOSERS! I picked up the voice not to read personals or blood for sale on the back cover but to read Wayne or Tom and a good article that had to do with our city, We have lost alot and best luck to you an friend for years as a unionman..

SylviaE
SylviaE

Farewell, sir, and to Mr. Barrett as well. Will look for you on NY1.

bronx bomber
bronx bomber

love you robbins. safe passage wherever you go.

Robbins fan
Robbins fan

The honor has been all ours, Tom Robbins. Thank you. Bravo.

Cassidy
Cassidy

Wow, sorry to see you go, but a very good swan song it is. And now that the Voice has truly jumped the shark, the only thing I look forward to are the half-nude photos of some oh-so-chic debauchery or other going on around town!

Jim
Jim

You must be rich.

 
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