From my parents’ teenage years in the 1930s and ’40s through my teenage years in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my grandparents were teenagers. But then all of a sudden, around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.
I didn’t really start understanding the nature and enormity of the change until the turn of this century, after the country had been fully transformed. One very cold morning just after Thanksgiving in 2006, I was on the way to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being bait-and-switched when their employee-ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.
When we got to the airport, I bought a newspaper at the little bookstore there that contains a kind of shrine to the local god Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway. In it I read an article about that year’s record-setting bonuses on Wall Street. The annual revenues of Goldman Sachs were greater than the annual economic output of two-thirds of the countries on Earth—a treasure chest from which the firm was disbursing the equivalent of $69 million to its CEO and an average of $800,000 each to everybody else at the place.