If it weren’t for The Wall Street Journal, we might never know that 47 percent of the shoppers at Dollar Tree earn $25,000 or less a year while a secretive investor known as The Unicorn in Back Bay Boston makes billions of dollars.
At first glance there may seem to be no connection. In fact, there is no connection whatsoever. It is the glory of the Journal’s “money and investing” section that these two items were placed next to each other on the same page.
One story notes that dollar stores are in heated competition with each other and may be cutting prices below 99 cents. The other touts a hedge fund manager named David Abrams who started a “one-man cash machine” that manages $8 billion and himself has a billion dollars.
Is there anything more we need to know about the economy? Doesn’t that say it all?
There are so many poor people in need of cheap plastic items that Walmart, Target, Dollar General and others are fighting tooth and nail for their patronage. Meanwhile, a 53-year-old who has never spoken at an event open to the public is getting so wealthy the Journal is stunned and eager to find out more. How did a history major triple the returns of the S&P 500 in 15 years and how is it that a jazz fan owns part of the Oakland Raiders?
This column will mention the 1 percent only in passing because they know who they are and we apparently don’t. But as we get closer to the crucial, all-important, vital mid-term elections in November, income inequality is going to smite us in the face every day. The desperate Democrats, who live in mortal dread of losing control of the Senate, are hoping to give up daily updates on the unfair society we live in.
Certainly, we have become aware of the plight of fast food workers who earn an industry average of $9 an hour and no longer can feed and shelter their families without food stamps and other forms of government aid. Democrats hope to capitalize on the fight of food workers for a living wage.
But there are other aspects of the income inequality debate that haven’t gotten as much attention.
It is not true that Americans are as bad off as they were in the 1920 when robber barons controlled most of the wealth. Millions of Americans today have cars, televisions, smartphones and Internet access. The elderly have Social Security, as do the disabled. Even the poorest Americans have 50 percent more after-tax, inflation-adjusted income than they did in 1979. As economist/journalist Robert Samuelson notes, “We have not reverted to the 1920s.”
But we feel worse off than we used to feel, before we began paying huge cell phone and cable TV bills, before we assumed we would have meat on the table every night, before our cars were air conditioned, our children needed after-school care and a short stay in the hospital cost thousands of dollars.
Is it right that the top 1 percent have 13 percent of after-tax income? Of course not. Is that something an election can change? Not a chance. Is it realistic to think government will take away the wealth of the rich? Nope.
But here is where we need a serious, legitimate debate. What can and what should government do to create a better climate for jobs? Privatize Social Security? Give the rich more tax incentives? Deregulate big business? Let big oil and gas and coal companies destroy the environment for short-term gains? Gut food stamp programs? Reduce the numbers of people who qualify for Medicaid and cut funding?
Rightly or wrongly, too many people think that this bleak scenario is what Republicans now stand for, when they are not denouncing President Barack Obama.
Unless they provide new ideas, it may be that we will have another meaningless election that solves nothing and simply reinforces the polarization of our nation.
It may well be that David Abrams and Dollar Tree have nothing in common.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.