Recent findings shed new light on the increasingly unequal terrain of American society. Starting at the top executive level, you may have thought, as I did, that the guys in the C suites operated as a team-or depending on your point of view, a pack or gang-each getting his fair share of the take. But no, the rising tide in executive pay does not lift all yachts equally. That latest pay gap to worry about is the one between the CEO and his-or very rarely her-third in command.
According to a study by Carola Frydman of the Massachusetts Institute of Tecnology and Raven E. Saks at the Federal Reserve, thirty orf forty years ago the CEO of major companies earned 80 percent more, on average, than the third highest paid executives. By the ealy part of the twenty-first century, however, the gap between the CEO and the third in command had balloned up to 260 percent.
Now take a look at what is happening at the very bottom of the ecomomic spectrum, where you might have pictured low-wage workers trudging between food bank or mendicants dwelling in cardborad boxes. It turns out, though, that the bottom is a lot lower than that. In May 2007, a millionaire couple in a woodsy Long Island suburb was charged with keeping two Indonesian domestics as salves for five yers, during which the women were paid $100 dollars a month, fed very little, forced to sleep on mats on the floor, and subjected to beatings, cigarette burns, and other torments.
This is hardly an isolated case. If the new top involves pay in the tens or handreds of million, a private jet, and a few acres of Marin County, the new bottom is salvery. Some of America's slaves are captive domestic like the Indonesian women on Long Island. Others are sweatshop or restaurant workers, and at least ten thousand are sex slaves lured from their home countries to American brothels by the promise of respectable jobs.
CIOs and slaves: these are the extreme ends of the American class polarization.Not a paralled splitting is going on in many of the professions. Top ranked college professors, for example, enjoy salaries of several hundred thoousand a year, often augmented by consulting fees and earnings from their patents or biotech companies. At the other end of the professoriate, you have adjunct teachers toiling away for about $5000 a semester or less, with not benefits or chance of tenure. There was a story a few years ago about an adjunct who commuted to his classes from a homeless shelter in Manhattan, and adjuncts who moonlight as waitresses or cleaning ladies are legion.
Similary, the legal profession, which is topped by law firm partners billing hundreds of dollars an hour, now has new proletariat of temp lawyers working for $19-25 an hour in sweatshop conditions. According to an article in American Lawyer, a legal temp at a major New York firm reported being corralled in a windowless basement room lettered with dead cockroaches where six out of seven exits were blocked.
Why is it so hard for the people at the top to graciously acknowledge their dependency on the labor of others? We need some sort of gravitional force to counter the explosive distancing brought about by greed-before our econmy imitates the universe and blows itself to smithereens.