And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong
- Paul Simon,
"American Tune" (1975)
The great artists always see it coming before the rest of us. Paul Simon saw it coming way back in '75. His lyrics never seemed more relevant than they do today. With increasing frequency I hear friends, acquaintances and colleagues of my generation say, "I don't think our kids are going to have it as good as we did." I myself have said many times that the second half of the 20th century in America will be remembered as a golden age. Never you mind that those five decades included two wars, several notable assassinations, and numerous riots. Most Americans of my generation had it really good. It had never been easier to get a good education, find a decent job, and enter comfortably into the vast American middle class.
We came out of World War II as a superpower. And we were the only one of the "great powers" to have escaped - Pearl Harbor aside - the devastation of the previous eight years. Trenton, New Jersey, said right on the main bridge into the city: "Trenton Makes, the World Takes." Every American metropolis could accurately say the same thing. Mighty American corporations retooled from war production to peacetime products. Mighty American unions made sure the guys (yes, it was mostly guys) on the assembly lines got their fair share in the form of wages, benefits and pensions. (In the 1950s, the average Fortune 1000 CEO took home, after taxes, only 12 times what Joe Lunchbucket down on the line netted annually.)
By 1975, the erosion had already begun. When I was a kid, "Made in Japan" was synonymous with cheap junk. Then along came Honda and Toyota and Sony. Germany, too, rose from the rubble and regained its historic place as the economic powerhouse of Continental Europe. Today, China overshadows and challenges both them and, more importantly, us.
The great American corporations have gone global. Capital seeks out the cheapest labor pools and sets up shop wherever they are: China, Southeast Asia, Mexico. In 2010, General Electric paid no federal taxes on $14 billion in profits. The giant unions are pygmies now. Fewer than one American worker in ten in the private sector today is represented by a labor organization. India competes against Silicon Valley. A software engineer in southern India can live luxuriously on half the salary her counterpart in California demands in compensation.
When I tell my students in class that, when I was their age, the world population was half what it is today, their jaws drop. Theirs will be a flat, crowded and highly competitive world, to borrow from one of Journalist Thomas Friedman's recent book titles. Crowded not only with people, but also with robots. Last October, Computer World reported, "Computers and robots will replace humans in enough jobs that they will dramatically change the economy, said industry watchers and MIT economists at a robotics symposium Monday. And, they said, the transition has already started."
Claire is in Los Angeles this week, combining a little business and pleasure. She's staying with a high school friend, who works for an agency that represents a lot of actors you might recognize if you watch the soaps. Some of these "almost famous" folks earn hefty six-figure incomes from their TV gigs. Claire's friend squeaks by on a salary in the low twenty-thousands. Her grandparents are helping her handle her hefty college loans. Her situation is a microcosm of post-Great Recession America.
Paul Simon's net worth is estimated to be about $45 million, according to a website called (appropriately enough) "Celebrity Networth." He amassed that fortune writing and singing insightful tunes, such as the one quoted above. He spoke for a generation that had it pretty darn good… not as good as Paul himself, but pretty darn good all the same.
Justin Bieber's net worth is pegged at $105 million. And he's more than half a century younger than Paul Simon. The lad is well on his way to baby-faced-billionaire status, like the youthful founder of Facebook.
Most in my generation felt, I think, that we were sharing in the largesse, along with the Paul Simons and CEOs. I doubt that most in my daughter's generation are able to feel the same about Justin Bieber and Mark Zuckerman.