Outgoing President Herbert Hoover and incoming President Franklin Roosevelt ride together for the inauguration in Washington, January 1932. Photo: AFP / World History Archive

There are times when the few get rich. And times when the masses get their share. It happens over and over again.

Feudal lords leached on the serfs. Then the plague made the serfs scarce allowing them to increase their share of the harvest to buy goods made in town.

Townsmen built factories and hired surplus farmers. Worker wages declined during the Industrial Revolution because the factory owners could squeeze them.

Then a volcanic eruption, cold weather, Napoleonic wars and emigration made workers scarce again. That led to better wages, the rise of cities and the bourgeoisie.

The age of conspicuous consumption and the Charleston collapsed into the Depression. But FDR paved the way eventually for the common man to buy a car, a house and vacations.

Americans were convinced the post-war age of rising disposable income was their destiny. The rest of the world followed. More people – billions of people – saw their living standards raised above poverty than at any other period in history.

Then something happened. 

For three decades, American wages did not increase in real terms while the price of housing, education and medical care kept rising. The average American was being squeezed again.

As happened during the feudal times, the Industrial Revolution, and the Gilded Age, the top 1% hogged the rewards of increased productivity.

We have seen this before. Income inequality in the US the past decade is said to have approached that of the times of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers and the other notorious robber barons. 

America had moved from a period of more equatible income distribution to a period of worsening income inequality. The turning point was perhaps the Reagan presidency.

History suggests that after a sustained period of squeezing those who sweat to make a living, things get unstable and something unforeseen happens.

Trump may have been one manifestation but he has no clue.

How can America switch back to a course where income distribution becomes more equitable again?

Because of Covid-19, that question is being asked at a time when possibly 10% to 20% of American households may seek protection in medical bankruptcy.

We are about to witness how income inequality and lack of safety nets made the US the least prepared and the most fragile nation among peers to face a pandemic.

Stock markets crash, unemployment soars, blame-placing substitutes for political leadership – and the deaths. This has got to be a plea for a new age.

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