the thousands of story assignments in my career
to this point, one stands out as something of
a bay-window-sized view into misplaced human
Editors at The Palm Beach Post in South Florida,
where I worked for a time in the early 1990s,
sent me to do a state lottery story. The prize
money was up, and in the earlier days of lotteries
this was big news. I dutifully found a convenience
store in one of the more economically troubled
communities around Palm Beach. Try this out
for a shopping list: one can of Chef Boyardee
Ravioli and $100 worth of lottery tickets. That
was one patron’s haul.
This, after all, is America, and at some point
we all get rich, right? So went the reasoning
of the lottery player. Damn the basic math on
the infinitesimal odds increasingly just infinitesimally,
whether you buy one or 100 Florida Lottery tickets.
Through lotteries and reality TV, and the narratives
advanced by the Republican presidential candidates
of a generation, much of the poor believe at
some point they will make the move from an east
Des Moines neighborhood to a south-of-Grand
“Higher income inequality would be less of a
concern if low-income earners became high-income
earners at some point in their career, or if
children of low-income parents had a good chance
of climbing up the income scales when they grow
up,” said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the White
House Counsel of Economic Advisors in a Jan.
12 speech. “In other words, if we had a high
degree of income mobility, we would be less
concerned about the degree of inequality in
any given year. But we do not.”
Krueger went on to point out the following:
The share of all income accruing to the top
1 percent increased by 13.5 percentage points
from 1979 to 2007.
“This is the equivalent of shifting $1.1 trillion
of annual income to the top 1 percent of families,”
Krueger said. “Put another way, the increase
in the share of income going to the top 1 percent
over this period exceeds the total amount of
income that the entire bottom 40 percent of
households receives. A consequence of the momentous
shifts in the income distribution that I have
just documented is that the middle class has
But the “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kansas” effect
is still alive and well. People vote against
their economic self-interests because of identity
politics and trumped-up fears of homosexual
teacher plots aimed at conversion of our youth.
More wickedly, an awful lot of poor folk truly
believe they one day will be rich simply because
they are Americans. It’s a psychological entitlement
that perverts politics.
What separates the rich and poor is, of course,
money, lots of it, as Krueger tells us.
But that doesn’t paint the starkness of the
divide in compelling enough terms.
Which brings me to the 2011 movie “In Time,”
one that more than any I’ve seen in the last
year, is for our times.
In the film, Justin Timberlake’s Will Salas
lives in a future United States in which aging
has been cured. Aging stops at 25 years. You’ll
never look older than that — which is kind of
creepy when you first see Timberlake hug his
movie mom, Olivia Wilde.
Once you hit the quarter-century mark, a highlighter-green-colored
clock with years, months, weeks, hours, minutes
and seconds appears on one of your arms. You
get another year of life. Want more? You earn
time at the workplace or buy it. It’s always
ticking, this personal expiration date.
In Timberlake’s dystopia, working-class residents
struggle day to day to keep hours on their life
clocks. Some fail and just die in the streets,
leaving beautiful, tragic corpses.
Meanwhile, in the heavily fortified sector for
the wealthy, using market gamesmanship and political
muscle, the 1 percenters populating this imagined
world have accumulated thousands of years on
their life clocks.
They think in terms of immortality while the
masses are in a hand-to-mouth existence.
As advanced medicine accessible to the haves
increasingly extend lifespans, the world’s have-nots,
like Timberlake’s Salas, will hear their clocks
ticking down as potential Republican vice presidential
candidate Marco Rubio tells us, “We have never
been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are
a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people
who have made it, and people who will make it.”
Now let me be clear. I’m a capitalist who believes
in winners and losers. The participation trophies
our kids get in too many of our schools truly
are the subtle instruments of communism.
But as I told a friend of mine on Wall Street:
How badly do you want our nation’s losers to
Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa
newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily
Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.