But the departure from our past is visible not only in rising inequality and resultant pessimism – it is also apparent in the institutions that increasingly define our nation. Corporate conglomerates are replacing local and craft economies in almost every sector, including agriculture. America’s rugged individuals struggle against the loss of identity, autonomy, and mastery as they are subsumed into the anonymous labor of hyper-consolidated corporate machines and forced to pool meager wages to make ends meet. Corporate monopolies have hoarded profits and gained unrivaled economic influences through a wave of mergers. Because of corporations’ outsized power, workers’ leverage has eroded, and capitalists cite their responsibility to shareholders and market forces as justification for keeping pay low. Corporations search at home and abroad for ever-more-vulnerable populations to employ at ever-lower wages.
In important ways, life is much improved at the bottom of American society, which makes some commentators optimistic that things will only get better. But these gains have come mostly at the price of long hours in insecure low-wage work. Slavery has been abolished, of course, but the still ruthless reality of structural inequality condemns many people of color to a life of intergenerational poverty, and in some ways the situation of black Americans is actually worsening. And women still struggle to participate equally in a society that manifestly favors male wage earners. The economic well-being of the middle class is eroding, and soaring private debt has become a common buttress to lagging incomes.
The economic power of corporations has in turn become political power. While profits mount, so, too, does corporations’ creativity in evading financial and ethical responsibility to the public systems that allow them to flourish. Commercial giants successfully fend off feeble efforts to regulate them by buying off politicians and parties. Politicians collect exorbitant amounts of money from wealthy donors which they use to win elections, creating a dangerous mutuality between wealth and power. Interest groups also relentlessly pressure elected officials both to prop up corporate agendas and, paradoxically, to get out of the way of the free market. Thus, huge swaths of an increasingly interdependent economy go largely unregulated, and the system as a whole occasionally careens out of control. But the stratospherically wealthy remain insulated, even though their reckless actions often contribute to the crashes.
From “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again” by Robert D. Putnam