Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Oct. 8, 9 or 10
The privileged ride in comfort; the rest abide.
Don’t misunderstand. I love trains almost as much as I love America, and TCM’s nine-film showcase has some gems, like “Canadian Pacific,” “Terror on a Train” and “The General” (Buster Keaton’s wonderful 1927 silent comedy about a hang-dog Rebel locomotive engineer trying to retrieve his train from Union soldiers who seized it). And, as I wrote in a chapter in my 2003 book, “Video Almanac,” there are dozens of terrific train movies, such as “The End of the Line,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Silver Streak,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Union Pacific.”
But the socio-economic train metaphor is deeply troubling.
Amtrak’s “business class” lets those passengers board first, get free newspapers and beverages, and relax in really roomy seats. (And a couple of times en route to Wrigley Field, I’ve indulged myself there.) But compared to the U.S. economy, the income-inequality parallel is gloomy.
America’s superrich – the 1% – has seen its wealth rise for decades, but the 99% back here in “economy class” are afterthoughts, though they’re essential. Worker productivity back here in coach is up; that’s made little difference in take-home pay.
The “fares” to ride this economy aren’t getting better. Poverty rates haven’t improved, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which last month released a report showing that only Colorado and North Dakota have poverty rates at or better than their 2007 levels. The other 48 states are as stuck as working people’s wages: derailed.
“The poverty rate in most states was largely unchanged,” EPI says. “As of 2014, 38 states had lower median household income than in 2000; 47 states – nearly the entire country – had higher poverty rates in 2014 than in 2000.”
In Illinois, the change in poverty rate from 2013 to 2014 changed 0.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau, and from 2000 to 2014 it worsened significantly: 3.3 percent to 14.4 percent of Illinois’ people.
The debunked “trickle-down economics” enabled the problem.
“What trickle-down economics was all about was saying to the rich and powerful, ‘The government will help you get richer and more powerful’,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on NBC-TV “Late Show” last week.
“Starting in 1980 … deregulation cut taxes for those at the top, which means there was less to invest on education, on infrastructure, on basic research,” she continued. “So, what’s happened from 1980 to 2012? The answer is the 90 percent – everybody not the top 10 percent – how much of the growth did they get? That GDP kept going up. How much of the income growth did they get? And the answer is zero! None. Not a bit.
“One hundred percent of income growth in this country since the 1980s has gone to the top 10 percent,” Warren added. “That’s not only wrong, that is going to destroy our country unless we take our country back!”
Maybe a start to taking back the economic train would be taxing Wall Street transactions, making the whole “car” as comfortable as the elite riders enjoy now. Even a tax of 0.01 percent, as has been proposed, would raise billions for the country, helping fix roads, fund schools and employ people.
Instead of an economy that’s “The Great Train Robbery,” the system should embrace friendly conductors’ call: “All aboard!”
[PICTURED: Amtrak's "business class" must tempt those passengers to think, "I wonder how the peasants are doing back in coach?"]