How America's rich betrayed their fellow citizens

April 25th, 2016  |  Source: The Guardian

Although America has the largest economy in the world, real wages have not gone up since 1972 because most workers have experienced stagnating incomes for decades. Across the country middle-income Americans face a precarious economic future. Median income has fallen in over 80% of America’s countiessince 2000, a trend that is accelerating. Even mortality rates reflect growing income inequality. Poor and rural Americans now die at rates well above that of wealthy and urban Americans.

Meanwhile the rich just keep getting richer. A study by the Pew Research Center found that the median net worth of upper-income families is now 70 times greater than that of lower-income families. As of 2015, the 400 richest Americans had a combined wealth of $2.3tn. Over 75% of the nation’s wealth is held by 10% of the population, and the gap between the rich and the middle class in the US is the highest ever measured.

America has become a nation of pervasive economic inequality. It’s no wonder, then, that the 2016 election has witnessed a populist uprising.

But class conflict does not flow only from the bottom up. It’s also a top-down phenomenon. Since the 1980s, rich Americans have maximized their share of the nation’s prosperity at the expense of the rest of the country. Adding insult to injury, a growing body of evidence suggests that many rich people today simply do not care about their fellow Americans. The old concept of noblesse oblige has declined among the wealthy to a disturbing degree.

To understand how the rich have changed, one needs to understand how the upper classes used to behave.

No single location encapsulates the worldview of “old money” families better than Harvard’s Memorial church, which stands in the center of Harvard Yard. The church’s walls list the Harvard students, alumni and faculty members who have perished in America’s wars since 1917.

The numbers are breathtaking. During the world wars, thousands of Harvard students and alumni served in the US military. In all, about 400 died in the first world war and nearly 700 in the second world war. The ranks of Harvard fatalities included Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt, and Joseph Kennedy Jr, the older brother of John F Kennedy.

Harvard’s military death toll is particularly staggering when one considers that in the early 20th century, Harvard’s student body was drawn primarily from America’s richest and most well-connected families. Those families could have pulled strings to ensure their sons stayed out of combat. But they did not, as powerfully demonstrated by the list of names at Memorial church and similar memorials across the Ivy League. During the world wars, the upper classes did their part to defend the nation.

Things could not be more different today. Only a small number of Harvard alumni serve in the military, and until recently, the university barred the military’s officer training programs from campus.

Harvard is not unique. Military experience is rare among America’s political and economic elite. None of the current presidential candidates has served in the military, and only 18% of members of Congress are veterans, thelowest percentage in generations.

As the children of elites have opted out of military service, middle-class andworking-class families have taken up the slack, providing the vast majority of the nation’s service members.

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