CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A new study found that the richest 1 percent of West Virginians got 53.3 percent of all income gains between 1979 and 2007. The report is further proof of the ever-spreading gap between the elite few at the top and everyone else: the 99 percent.
Disturbingly, several economists say this "rich get richer" trend is unstoppable, because the snowballing Information Age, driven by computers and robots, rewards mostly privileged plutocrats.
In a commentary titled "When Work Disappears," conservative columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times wrote last week that "the developed world might adapt to automation, computerization and the disappearance of low-wage, low-skilled work."
Douthat said "deprivation at the bottom, the experience of Appalachia, among other blasted landscapes, suggests that it's very easy for the absence of work to intertwine with social pathologies" and produce "a society with more alcoholism, more drug addiction, more obesity, lower lifespans, more social isolation, and less human flourishing overall."
In a previous column on the same topic, he wrote that "the digital economy delivers rich rewards to certain kinds of highly educated talent, while revolutions in robotics eliminate many of today's low-skilled, low-wage jobs." He added:
"Across the left and center-left, there's agreement that an unequal society requires a thicker social safety net and that as technical changes undercut low-wage work, government should help those left behind."
But he said his fellow conservatives oppose expanding the safety net.
As retired University of Charleston professor John Palmer wrote last week, a new book titled Average is Over warns that computers are producing artificial intelligence that enables top specialists to control ever-greater economic output -- while low-wage workers face diminished prospects. They play "musical chairs," trying to grab available jobs, but someone always is left out as the employment pool shrinks.
The new Information Age seems unstoppable. Trying to cope with its grim consequences poses a challenge that all American leaders should address.