When President Bush expressed amazement last week at a supermarket's electronic checkout scanner, he was ribbed for being so out of touch with American life. Commentators went on to remark that high government officials as a group, with their chauffeured lives, are cushioned from reality.
Fair enough. But the episode of the president and the unfamiliar supermarket suggests a broader point, a much more serious one. Upper-income Americans generally, whether in public or private employment, live not just a better life but one quite removed from that of ordinary families. They hardly experience the problems that weigh so heavily today on our society. And that fact has dangerous political consequences.
Health care, for example. The possibility of serious illness without insured care is now said to be the No. 1 worry of Americans: not just the 30-million without any health insurance but the many millions more who have inadequate coverage or who are afraid to change jobs lest they lose protection.
Bush does not have those concerns. He gets socialized medicine: care at public expense. Congressmen and other top officials may also be treated in government hospitals. Nor is health insurance likely to be a concern for private Americans with incomes in the top 20 percent. Comprehensive coverage goes with the territory for them.
Or consider education. Public schools are among the most depressing features of contemporary life in this country, turning out young people unable to cope with the demands of a technological society. Better-off families simply opt out of that problem by sending their children to private schools.
Crime is a menacing fact of daily life for millions of Americans. Of course the better-off may also be victims. But they can protect themselves with alarm systems or private security guards.
All this refers not just to the super-rich, the Lee Iacoccas whose inflated earnings have lately been so much discussed. The top 20 percent income bracket includes business and financial people and professionals of all kinds: lawyers, doctors, journalists.
A friend of mine, a writer and editor, was at an economic conference in Switzerland recently. He is certainly not among the American rich. But he said he realized during that meeting how people of his professional class had come to have a qualitatively different life from most Americans.
"For the elite, life really is sweeter than it used to be," he said. "Food is so much better. Hotels are more sumptuous. The variety of amusements available, the sports, the travel _ It's a cornucopia. For the few." And there's the rub. The top 20 percent of Americans now get 47 percent of the country's total income. The bottom fifth get 3.9 percent.
The gap between rich and poor in America is far and away the widest in the developed world. It has widened dramatically in the last 10 years, both because real incomes have grown at the top and shrunk at the bottom and because Reagan-Bush policies have exacerbated the differential.
The rich and the upper-middle-class families in the top 20 percent have the most political influence in this country. They care, they vote, they contribute to politicians. And quite naturally, not out of evil, they will tend to favor their own interest.
No one should really be surprised, then, that tax rates on upper incomes are so much lower in the United States than in Japan or European countries. It is not hard to understand why George Bush talks about the need to improve public education but puts no money where his mouth is.
In a democracy where a substantial top slice of the population is insulated from the country's most corrosive problems, it is politically very difficult to deal with those problems. And the rest of the people, the majority who live with them, become increasingly cynical about government and politics.
It is not a recipe for a healthy democratic society.
New York Times News Service