Is the American Dream obsolete? Has the promise that people can “make it” in the United States better than anywhere else on the planet become nothing more than an illusion? That cruel conclusion, which seems almost to dishonor the world’s biggest economy, was punctuated this February inside Barack Obama’s White House.
On page 177 of the President’s annual report to Congress on the state of the economy, there is mention of the “Great Gatsby Curve.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, which so masterfully paints a picture of bourgeois vanity in 1920s America, has given its name to a graph on which data measuring the degree of income inequality is charted on the horizontal axis, and the link between a father’s income and that of his descendants – a barometer of social mobility – on the vertical.
What does this curve tell us? No matter what the frame of reference of the person examining it, its bottom line is unambiguous: the United States – not supposedly fusty Europe -- rates lowest in terms of this relationship in the distribution of riches and social mobility. Yes, Paris Hilton’s America ranks way below the Scandinavian countries, but also below France, New Zealand, Japan, the United Kingdom, and others.
French economist and historian Thomas Piketty has already demonstrated out how America’s wealth is as distorted as it is vast. But should you discuss this particular matter with an American citizen, you will be told that “the rich are rich because they deserve it.” The quasi Communist idea of taking from the rich to give to those in need is not a fair reward for talent.
If an American is tenacious enough, shouldn’t he or she be able some day to make it to the top of the heap? "No pain, no gain," as they say. But the Great Gatsby Curve says No. So much so that in the United States, as elsewhere, “having talent” may just be another way of saying "having inherited money."
Buffett, Barack and Mitt
The American system of education, at one time considered to be “the great equalizer,” is partly responsible for this state of affairs. A recent study conducted in Michigan and quoted by the New York Times shows that the discrepancy in performance levels between rich and poor students has risen by 50% since the 1980s – which means that wealth, more than race, is what makes the difference in school.
What now? The hopes of American workers of “making it” are waning. But the crisis and high unemployment, both factors that have a compressing effect on salaries, cannot explain everything. On page 65 of the President’s report is the “other most commented-on graph”: a curve showing that, since the 2000s, American workers are being increasingly badly paid as businesses amass larger and larger profits. The result, as Evariste Lefeuvre of the Natixis corporate and investment bank in New York points out, is that the profits of American companies amounting to 13% of GDP are at a historic high.
That this subject is addressed by the President’s report in an election year is no accident. By focusing on social inequality, the document offers supposedly irrefutable arguments that open the door for the Democrats to push a redistributive fiscal agenda that flirts with populism.
After praising the “Buffett Rule,” which takes its name from American billionaire Warren Buffett's call for the super-rich like him to be taxed more, President Obama goes on to attack high business profits – an audacious, even dangerous thing to do in a country where freedom of enterprise is sacred. So as not to make it too much of a shock he put another face on it, so it looked like a reduction of taxes on profits from 35% to 28%. What’s actually behind it, however, is a plan to get rid of most of the fiscal loopholes used by multinational companies to pay less taxes.
While this plan has no chance whatsoever of being approved by the Congress, with its Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it has however managed to reveal that American companies hardly ever pay their full tax share – a revelation certain to unleash its share of bitterness. And indeed: just two days later, on February 24, the USA Today daily published a feature on extreme poverty in the United States, reporting that the number of families living on less than $2 a day had more than doubled in 15 years, going from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.5 million in 2011.
But the argument most favorable to Barack Obama may well lie with the man he could be facing in the general election: Republican candidate Mitt Romney. A former bigwig in the investment firm Bain Capital, Romney is a walking example of American fiscal injustice. He pays 15% tax on the fortune he made thanks to his investment fund – which puts him in the category of businessmen who pay lower tax rates than their own secretary.
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Photo - Kevin Dooley