Is Our Future Going to Be Keeping Rich People Happy in a Servant Economy?
2012-11-13 0:00

By Sam Pizzigati |

Fire fighter, basketball player, lion tamer, teacher, nurse: Ask little kids what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll get all sorts of answers.

But you’ll never hear this one. You’ll never hear youngsters say they want to devote their careers to serving rich people.

Today’s youth might want to reconsider. They’re facing an American economy where serving rich people increasingly seems to offer the best future with real opportunity. Or, as the economist Jeff Faux puts it , we’re well on the way to becoming a full-fledged “servant economy.”

We’ve had “servant economies” in the world before. At times, people even rushed toward servant status. In the early industrial age, jobs in mines and factories would be dirty and dangerous and pay next to nothing. Domestic work for rich families could seem, by comparison, a relatively safe haven.

But that calculus changed as workers organized and won the right to bargain collectively for a greater share of the wealth they were creating. Over the first half of the 20th century, America’s super rich lost their dominance, and fewer and fewer Americans worked as servants for them.

This state of affairs didn’t last long. Since the late 1970s we’ve witnessed an assault on the building blocks of greater equality — strong unions, steeply graduated progressive taxes, regulatory limits on business behavior — that has hollowed out the American middle class.

Good manufacturing jobs have largely disappeared, outsourced away. Most Americans no longer make things. They provide services.

We could, of course, have a robust “service” economy, if we built that economy on providing quality services toall Americans. But providing these quality services, in everything from education to health to transportation, would take a significant public investment — and significant tax revenue from America’s rich.

A half-century ago, we did collect significant tax revenue from America’s wealthy. No longer. Tax cuts have minimized that revenue and left public services chronically underfunded. That leaves young people today, as economist Jeff Faux points out in his new book The Servant Economy: Where America’s Elite is Sending the Middle Class, with a stark choice.

Young people can become engineers and programmers and spend their careers in “pitiless competition with people all over the world” just as smart and trained but “willing to work for much less.” Or they can join the servant economy and “service those few at the top who have successfully joined the global elite.”

In this new “servant economy,” we’re not talking just nannies and chauffeurs. We’re talking, as journalist Camilla Long notes, “pilots, publicists, art dealers, and bodyguards” — a “newer, brighter phalanx of personal helpers.”


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