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Roland Merullo

An unaffordable future

If the trends continue, there won’t be any room left for a middle class

I sometimes have a nightmare vision of my kids’ America. In this dark dream, 20 years from now the country bears a terrible resemblance to the America of 1900. There are a small number of bankers and entrepreneurs with opulent mansions on the Newport shoreline (and every other shoreline on all three coasts). And then there are millions of men and women toiling in factories with no OSHA regulations, no such thing as pensions or 40-hour-maximum work weeks. The children of the very wealthy attend college and inherit their parents’ businesses, investment accounts, and summer homes; everyone else finishes 10th grade and goes to work for survival, struggling with poor quality health care or none at all, going to the polls on Election Day with the grim awareness that the political system is controlled by the 21st-century equivalent of cigar-smoking men in back rooms.

These powerful figures — there will be a few women among them, and the cigars will have been replaced by a healthier habit — are the majority shareholders in the five or six enormous corporations that control everything from food production to the cost of cancer drugs, from television and radio news to the price of gasoline. They gather for secret meetings at luxurious resorts. There they calibrate the extent to which the working masses can be squeezed before they rise up and form unions again, and demand some kind of benefit plan, some recourse if they lose a hand in the assembly line.

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