International Herald Tribune

Don't take the A train if you brood easily
By Richard Bernstein
December 16, 2007

NEW YORK: We are the huddled masses yearning to be home, waiting for the subway that doesn't come. The time passes. We crane our necks to look up the platform, hoping to see lights emerging from the tunnel. And when, finally, the train lumbers in, it's so packed that many of us are unable to get in.

Mumbai? Beijing?

No, we are inside the grimly gray 68th Street station on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a few meters above us the average price of a three-bedroom or larger apartment, The New York Times reports, is $6.6 million.

And so, still waiting for a train, thoughts inevitably turn to the much-discussed and widely bemoaned income gap in America, said by many economists to be as bad these days as before the Great Depression of the 1930s, an enormous concentration of vast wealth in few hands.

But, standing on the platform among my fellow members of the middle class in New York City, the thought is not so much about the gap between the rich and the poor, but between the relatively well-off and the fabulously wealthy.

One of the measures of that gap is in the modes of transportation used by people at different income levels. Most of us in New York suffer the subway, a vast and creaky network that serves the purpose, sometimes frustratingly, often quite well. The wealthier - not necessarily the very wealthy - take taxis or they hire Lincoln Town Cars with drivers. The very rich have full-time chauffeurs.

And then, of course, there's travel outside the city. The upper middle class travels to the suburbs by car, waiting in traffic and paying tolls. There are no traffic jams for the super-rich. They are lofted to Long Island or Connecticut by helicopter.

And speaking of air travel, when the middle class flies, it does so in what is euphemistically called economy class, experiencing that disheartening moment when they board the plane and pass through the first and business class sections of the airplane, where they fleetingly witness how the better off are, literally, cushioned from the travails of steerage - in exchange, of course, for paying two or four times as much for their tickets.

The extremely wealthy travel on private jets. No long waits, no mingling with the masses. It used to be that the wealthy paraded their wealth. Now the ultra-chic thing for the ultra-rich is to be invisible.

"Living in New York, of course, you're in the epicenter of that," Gary Burtless, an economist at the Bookings Institution in Washington, told me, when I remarked to him on the ever-increasing disparity between those who make what seemed until recently to be handsome incomes and those who make staggering amounts.

London is the other such epicenter, Burtless said, and what the two cities have in common is numerous big-league financial services industries, whose members have made, in very short periods of time, obscene amounts of money.

Obscene, I say, perhaps partly out of the envy of one who rides the subway every day and is unlikely to witness the interior of a private jet.

But there is also a certain violated moral sense at the spectacle of all that wealth being concentrated in so few hands, the sense that making the acquisition of great wealth the highest achievement is bad for social cohesion and private morality.

Or, to put this another way, the money culture has arranged it so that a starting associate at a big-time law firm in New York makes more money a year than the chief justice of the United States.

And then, of course, there is the spectacle of the captains of finance getting severance packages in the tens of millions of dollars after screwing up so badly that they had to leave their posts.

The statistics on this do not tend to dissipate the irritation of the ordinary well-off in New York who spend hours of their time trying to park their cars on the street, because a spot in a parking garage costs $6,000 or $7,000 a year.

If you are in the 90th percentile in family wage and salary income in the United States, your revenues increased by only 34 percent in the 29 years from 1972 to 2001, according to economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon.

But if you're in the 99.9th percentile of family income in the United States, which is pretty high up there, your wage and salary income increased on average 181 percent in those years, Becker and Gordon found. If you are in the 99.99th percentile, it went up 497 percent.

Similarly, two leading researchers on the topic of American income distribution, Thomas Picketty and Emmanuel Saez, found that the total share of national income received by the top 1 percent of the population doubled from 8 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2004.

There are commentators who dispute these figures, and a debate about them rages online and in print, but if you view the scene from the congested vantage point of the New York City subway, Picketty and Saez seem to be right.

Burtless remembers hearing Frank Carlucci, a former deputy secretary of defense, saying in a public forum in Washington that after years of public service, he had $500 in his checking account, his son's college fees to pay, and a 2-year-old daughter to provide for. Carlucci quit to make money in the private sector before returning to government as secretary of defense.

Maybe Carlucci sent his son to public school before he reached college age.

In New York today, the upper middle class agonizes over whether to spend the $25,000 or more it costs to send your kid to private elementary schools each year or stick with the public schools.

The rich, who, for the most part, simply ignore the public schools in this city, and the huge effort that has gone into them to make them better, don't agonize about that. They reach into their pockets and pay.

And, judging from the limousine-jammed scenes outside the private schools in the morning, their children are not riding the subway.