Visiting family in California, and refreshing my impressions of the country where I met my wife, where our children were born, and which gave me most of my higher education as well as my start as an academic. Hardly surprising, then, that I resist simplistic criticisms of the U.S. by those who have never lived there and do not understand its complexity and variety.
However, some 30 years after my first American sojourn, things do have a different feel. In the city of Ventura, the homeless occupy spots at intersections, on the pier, near the beach, and in numbers I don't remember seeing before. Main Street has a number of vacant storefronts, and counts six thrift shops amongst its businesses - and this is by no means the poverty hotspot of the U.S.
This is the country which, in 2011, saw Spread Networks
run an 825-mile fibre-optic link between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange reportedly for a third of a billion dollars in order to save programmed trades a round-trip time of 3 milliseconds, and Alberto Pujols signed with the LA Royals for a 10-year deal worth a quarter of a billion dollars, equivalent when annualised to the average income of approximately 445 Aussies (or about 139,000 Burundians - we are relatively wealthy too...).
Wealth and comfort remain strongly in evidence for many and the nation remains immensely rich. What feels new in public and private conversation is a strong undercurrent (of which the Occupy movement is the visible iceberg tip) - that inequality has reached dangerous levels. You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you used the Republican candidate debates as any sort of guide to the national mood, but it's a definite theme as ordinary citizens and the commentariat take stock of the year just ended, and weigh up the prospects for the one underway.
It's evident in the organs of the left, obviously, (see this comprehensive graphic from Mother Jones), but elsewhere too. The rapidly growing and mainstream International Business Times, for example, lists the Occupy movement as the major story of 2011, concluding that "it has 'restructured the debate' to the point where income inequality is now on the mind of representatives and senators".
Reading Wilkinson and Pickett's "The Spirit Level", dented slightly, but by no means broken by right-wing critics such as Christopher Snowdon (it does have its share of statistical over-simplifications), the corrosive effects of excessively unequal income and wealth are brought home with stark clarity. We don't have the degree of inequality in Australia that is so confronting in America, although it exists and is associated with significant health and other challenges - see here for interactive Brisbane data.
Matt Cowgill offers an excellent summary of Oz's top 1% on his We Are All Dead blogfor those interested in reviewing where we stand in the inequality stakes.
A Happy, and Not Too Unequal, New Year, to All.