Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Of the thousands of story assignments in my career to this point one stands out as something of a bay-window-sized view into misplaced human calculation.

Editors at The Palm Beach Post in South Florida, where I worked for a time in the early 1990s, sent me to do a state lottery story. The prize money was up, and in the earlier days of lotteries this was big news. I dutifully found a convenience store in one of the more economically troubled communities around Palm Beach. Try this out for a shopping list: one can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and $100 worth of lottery tickets. That was one patron’s haul.

This, after all, is America, and at some point we all get rich, right? So went the reasoning of the lottery player. Damn the basic math on the infinitesimal odds increasingly just infinitesimally, whether you buy one or 100 Florida Lottery tickets.

Through lotteries and reality TV and the narratives advanced by the Republican presidential candidates of a generation much of the poor believe at some point they will make the move from trailer to subdivision.

“Higher income inequality would be less of a concern if low-income earners became high-income earners at some point in their career, or if children of low-income parents had a good chance of climbing up the income scales when they grow up,” said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White House Counsel of Economic Advisors in a Jan 12 speech. “In other words, if we had a high degree of income mobility we would be less concerned about the degree of inequality in any given year. But we do not.”

Krueger went on to point out the following: The share of all income accruing to the top 1 percent increased by 13.5 percentage points from 1979 to 2007.

“This is the equivalent of shifting $1.1 trillion of annual income to the top 1 percent of families,” Krueger said. “Put another way, the increase in the share of income going to the top 1 percent over this period exceeds the total amount of income that the entire bottom 40 percent of households receives. A consequence of the momentous shifts in the income distribution that I have just documented is that the middle class has shrunk.”

But the “What’s-the-Matter-With-Kansas” effect is still alive and well. People vote against their economic self-interests because of identity politics and trumped-up fears of homosexual teacher plots aimed at conversion of our youth. More wickedly, an awful lot of poor folk truly believe they one day will be rich simply because they are Americans. It’s a psychological entitlement that perverts politics.

What separates the rich and poor is, of course, money, lots of it, as Krueger tells us.

But that doesn’t paint the starkness of the divide in compelling enough terms.

Which brings me to the 2011 movie “In Time,” one that more than any I’ve seen in the last year, is for our times.

In the film, Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas lives in a future United States in which aging has been cured. Aging stops at 25 years. You’ll never look older than that — which is kind of creepy when you first see Timberlake hug his movie mom, Olivia Wilde.

Once you hit the quarter-century mark, a highlighter-green-colored clock with years, months, weeks, hours, minutes and seconds appears on one of your arms. You get another year of life. Want more? You earn time at the workplace or buy it. It’s always ticking, this personal expiration date.

In Timberlake’s dystopia, working-class residents struggle day to day to keep hours on their life clocks. Some fail and just die in the streets, leaving beautiful, tragic corpses.

Meanwhile, in the heavily fortified sector for the wealthy, using market gamesmanship and political muscle, the 1 percenters populating this imagined world have accumulated thousands of years on their life clocks.

They think in terms of immortality while the masses are in a hand-to-mouth existence.

As advanced medicine accessible to the haves increasingly extend lifespans, the world’s have-nots, like Timberlake’s Salas, will hear their clocks ticking down as potential Republican vice presidential candidate Marco Rubio tells us, “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it, and people who will make it.”

Now let me be clear. I’m a capitalist who believes in winners and losers. The participation trophies our kids get in too many of our schools truly are the subtle instruments of communism.

But as I told a friend of mine on Wall Street: How bad do you want our nation’s losers to lose?