This is the eleventh essay in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.
Of all the reasons given for the run-up to the Great Recession of 2008, few note an economic saddle point that flipped trajectory. In 2006, Maryland edged out New Jersey as the state with the highest median household income.
For decades, New Jersey and Connecticut vied for the number one and two spots: small states with wealthy suburban populations snug to New York City. So much money was concentrated on the isle of Manhattan; it leached across its rivers. To be sure, the money was not equitably distributed—consider Camden, New Jersey and Bridgeport, Connecticut—but Wall Street’s wealth flowed direct to its immediate surrounds.
Yet in 2006, at the apex of unprecedented speculation in housing and technology, during a so-called conservative presidency, households in Maryland eclipsed their metro New York counterparts. And they’ve never looked back.
Today, Maryland still has the highest median household income in our nation; the District of Columbia is second. The three wealthiest counties in the United States ring the Beltway. Follow the money in 21st century America, and it leads direct to Washington, DC.
I am old enough to recall stories of the Depression and World War II. My mother recounted how her uncle lost his job, so his family moved in with hers: seven children, four adults, three bedrooms, and one bathroom. Not in a Lower Side tenement, rather in the leafy town of Lyndhurst. My father recalled eating oatmeal for every meal, though given his flair in story telling, it might have been laced with whiskey. Nevertheless, I grew up on tales of hardship faced, sacrifices made, character formed; that developed the grit of fighter pilots, Navy seamen, candy stripers, and Rosie Riveters, all of whom blossomed from my family.
In 2019, more than a decade beyond own generation’s economic crisis, do we offer similar stories of burdens shared? Very few. The Great Recession of 2008, it turns out, was not a time to come together. Rather, it was a time for each of us to put his head down and beat out the other guy. Our president did not extol the virtues of shared sacrifice; he told us to go shopping. We did not sign up for a war that most of us believed in; we outsourced the longest (undeclared) war in our history to private contractors.
Humans are not good at heeding the lessons of history; Americans are particularly faulty in that trait. Hearing our parents’ stories does not imprint the same lessons as living them. The vast majority of us alive today have not faced the challenges that drew people together during the Depression and in World War II. Many of us have faced no real hardship at all, while those who have bear the additional weight of struggling alone, cheek-by-jowl against those succeeding. We are a society of haves and have-nots, uncomfortable with arbitrary luck or fate, trapped in the Puritanical belief that the have-nots are somehow insufficient, and therefore deserving of their fate.
How can we enlarge our shared experience? How can we value what each person brings to this life? Ideally, we would appreciate each other simply because we exist. We would celebrate our commonalities, and yet value our differences even more, since it is our cumulative talents that expand human potential. Unfortunately, the chasm between our mutual disrespect and that utopian mindset is too great for even these idealistic essays. And so, since our only shared value seems to be the almighty buck, we are going to have to start there. Money.
In order to illustrate in concrete terms our societal interconnections, we need to link each of our contributions in direct ways. That begins with compensation. First, establish living wages (which will happen anyway once Universal Basic Income frees people from mundane work that can be easily automated). Next, link the compensation within a company or institution. (Remember when Ben & Jerry’s had a 12:1 compensation ratio among everyone who worked there, CEO to janitor? That was a cool idea.) Then, link compensation across products and services. (This will require tricky regulatory vs. free enterprise balance, but we can better distribute the value-add in every step of food production, manufacturing, transportation, delivery…). Finally, a critical step is to link compensation between the public and private sectors. Let all boats rise and fall on the same tides.
Which brings me back to Maryland, the state with the per-capita highest number of Federal employees, ousting New Jersey as the state with the highest median household income. During The Great Recession, when many Americans faced lower paychecks (including me), many government workers did not share the shrink. Maryland’s affluence provides one symbolic measure of a government less and less concerned with serving its people, more and more concerned with serving itself. The lack of public initiative during the last recession, of New Deals that might bring us together instead of bailing out indulgent bankers, contributes to the ever-increasing disdain so many Americans harbor against our public sector.
I am a big fan of government, even big government. By definition: democracy is inefficient; giving everyone a voice is messy; only government is charged with the welfare of all of our citizens. Yet I want a government that serves all of us, one that looks out from the Beltway, across our nation, rather than tunnel gazing within the marble corridors of our capital city.
Therefore, let’s link compensation between the public and private sectors. Let’s make their health contingent upon each other. I don’t know what the specifics should look like. The connection must be broad—after all, one of the public sector’s responsibilities is to regulate the private sector—but I am confident that we can do it. If we want to.
Once we acknowledge that both the private and public sectors have important roles in our nation, we can stop denigrating them or pitting them against each other. We can embrace the truth that our true potential lies in each fulfilling their role. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that we have to start with economic links. But hopefully, one day, those links can transcend money, and we will appreciate what each of us brings to society simply because we are here, we matter, and whatever we contribute has value.