New Part Three - May 11:
Part Two - May 4:
Part One - May 2:
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Blood Rites; The Worst Years of Our Lives (a New York Times bestseller); Fear of Falling, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award; and eight other books. A frequent contributor to Time, Harper's, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times Magazine, she lives near Key West, Florida.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996). His new book, Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel will be published next month.
Atlantic Unbound | May 11, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Barbara Ehrenreich
Subject: Daily life among the "invisible class" - Part Three
You answered my questions so thoroughly in the first two rounds that I don't think there's a vast new avenue to explore. My only remaining concern is a vague one, which will lead us into the tricky terrain of futurology.
Let's again assume the best: that many people in the "upper 20 percent" read this book and that it gives them a new awareness of what daily life is like in low-wage America. From that point on they resolve to refold clothes in the department-store changing room, to leave extra-large tips in restaurants and for hotel cleaning crews, and in general to act with heightened sensitivity toward those for whom life is unfair. (By the way, I am totally with you on the paradox of tips. In principle I find them embarrassing and demeaning. And even when considered as a social-justice, income-transfer mechanism, they're hopelessly inefficient and scattershot. Nonetheless I chronically and deliberately overtip, not because I want the recipient to like me but on the principle that the extra $3 matters more to the person getting it than its loss does to me.)
But then... so what? I understand, and on most points agree with, your action plan for low-wage America—medical coverage, union rights, and so on. And yet I see almost no evidence in current American politics that any part of this plan will be adopted anytime soon. Indeed the indications are just the reverse. The minimum wage, as you're well aware, has stagnated in real terms over the past decade. In health insurance, collective-bargaining rules, tax rates, and so on, the trend again is just about directly the opposite of what you would recommend.
I don't ask you to restate the case for the measures you're recommending. People understand the arguments—although, to say it one last time, your book makes the theoretical points newly vivid. Instead I'm asking for your realistic assessment of what you think will happen on the "inequality" front over the next decade or two. It would be easy enough to come up with a "house divided cannot stand" polemic, or a similar warning that ever-intensifying contradictions will tear the nation apart. Those are effective rhetorical tools for pushing a reform case, and at certain moments in history—most notably and recently the civil-rights movement of the mid-twentieth century—the contradictions and tensions did actually force a change.
From The Atlantic Monthly:
"The Return of Inequality" (June 1988)
The great bulk of Americans are losing economic and political power, while the affluent are gaining both. This is not a recipe for social comity. By Thomas Byrne Edsall
But my guess is that this won't happen on wage-equality issues. You can argue that a democracy "can't" tolerate such extremes of income and daily living circumstances, but the reality is that we tolerate it now, and for most people the economy and the political and educational systems work just fine. So as a hypothesis, I'll set out for you a future trend: steadily increasing levels of inequality, but nothing much done about it. Can you realistically make a different case—not about what you hope will happen, but what you actually think will occur?
Thanks in advance for this final reply, and sincere congratulations on this book.
What do you think? Join the conversation in