CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ever since the Reagan Republican administration, the elite 1 percent of rich Americans has reaped ever-greater wealth. Their share of U.S. assets stayed flat from the 1940s to 1980, then spurted upward like a rocket.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman coined the phrase, "the great divergence," for the spreading gap between the U.S. middle class and privileged millionaires. Journalist Timothy Noah spotlighted the disturbing trend in his landmark 2012 book, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis And What We Can Do About It. He wrote:
"All my life I've heard Latin America described as a failed society ... because of its grotesque maldistribution of wealth. Peasants in rags beg for food outside the walls of opulent villas. [But] income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua and Venezuela. ... Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States. Economically speaking, the richest nation on Earth is starting to resemble a banana republic."
He added: "Today, incomes in the United States are more unequal than in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. ... The Great Divergence may represent the most significant change in American society in your lifetime -- and it's not a change for the better."
Last week, writing in The New York Times, Noah said snowballing enrichment of the top 1 percent and decline of the middle class can be seen in the relentless disappearance of labor unions that once guaranteed good careers for high school graduates. Today, he said, "only about 7 percent of the private-sector labor force is covered by union contracts. ... Six decades ago, it was nearly 40 percent."
But another problem, he said, is the "growing skills-based gap" in the new Information Age. The computerized world economy lets people with good education and knowledge find high-paying specialized careers -- while marginal high school graduates face ever-dimmer prospects.
Noah urged universal preschool for 4-year-olds to boost their learning levels -- and he urged drastic reductions in the cost of college, to give more Americans opportunity to overcome the skills-based gap.
A grossly unequal society is disgusting and disheartening. Everything possible must be done to offer better opportunity to those being left behind.