Not long ago, the world's fourth-richest man did something very unusual: He demanded to pay more taxes. "[W]hat I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income -- and that's actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office," Warren Buffett announced to a chorus of hosannas in the New York Times.
One person who enthusiastically took up the call was U.S. President Barack Obama, who made "Warren Buffett's secretary" part of his stump speech amid a growing debate over skyrocketing inequality in the tax code and most other facets of the American economy. He soon proposed a tax plan known as the "Buffett Rule," which would impose a minimum 30 percent tax on individuals making more than $1 million annually. (Republicans in Congress were decidedly less enthusiastic about the idea.) In Obama's State of the Union address in January, when he came to the line, "Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary," the camera flashed on 56-year-old Nebraska native Debbie Bosanek, a living symbol of tax inequality. The modest Bosanek, who has worked for Buffett for two decades, says merely, "I was representing just the average citizen who, you know, needs a voice and wants to be treated fairly in the area of taxation." But it's clear that the Sage of Omaha and his assistant have sparked a long overdue conversation about economic fairness in the United States and the public policies that undermine it.
Charles Murray thinks that the United States is splitting at the seams, and the culprit is a widening gap between the country's wealthy and its poor. But it's the yawning cultural gulf between the two white Americas that he's most worried about, as he writes in his 2012 book, Coming Apart, which paints a sad picture of the decline of the white working class in the United States amid the rise of a globally empowered wealthy new upper crust.
To examine this divergence, Murray devised hypothetical Fishtown and Belmont, the first corresponding to a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood and the second to a wealthy Boston suburb. In Fishtown, marriage rates plunged from 84 percent to 48 percent between 1960 and 2010, the violent crime rate sextupled, and the number of disabled quintupled. But in Belmont, a full 83 percent of the adult population is married and 84 percent of children live with both biological parents. In other words, Murray's conclusion is that those Volvo-driving, latte-sipping coastal liberals got where they are today by embracing conservative "family values," not rejecting them.
Even some critics of Murray -- whose lightning-rod views came to the fore with his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve -- have called Coming Apart a compelling portrait of a new problem that American politics has yet to grapple with. "The word 'class' doesn't even capture the divide Murray describes," New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote. "You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them." Rich and poor Americans used to engage in the same leisure activities and live in the same ZIP codes, but today, as Murray notes, it's inconceivable to imagine Belmont's 1 percenters turning up at Applebee's or a NASCAR race. "The problem I describe isn't a conservative-versus-liberal problem," Murray said. "It's a cultural problem the whole country has."Reading list: Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley; Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden; A History of Britain, by Simon Schama. Best idea: Using a palm scan as a replacement for all computer passwords. Worst idea: The National Security Agency's new Utah facility that will effectively capture everything U.S. citizens do electronically, encrypted or not, and store it indefinitely. American decline or American renewal? If Obama wins, American decline, perhaps abrupt. If Romney wins, perhaps stabilization (at best). More Europe or less? Monetary union without centralization of fiscal policy was doomed to fail, and Europe is deep in the endgame. To tweet or not to tweet? For me, it has turned out to be an acquired taste. I have fun with it.