Five years into the Obama presidency, we are further from the Great Recession but also closer to a new normal—economic dystopia.
Yes, the unemployment rate has edged down to 7.6 percent, but America is well on its way to becoming a nation of part-timers and full-time temps. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of involuntary part-time workers rose by 322,000 to 8.2 million in June, while the ranks of temporary-help services employees have swelled to a record 2.68 million. Meanwhile, the employment-population ratio, the percentage of adult Americans who hold a job, has dropped nearly 2 percent to 58.7 percent since Barack Obama took office.
Remarkably, both political parties are accommodating to this new reality of “Brazilification,” a term coined by Douglas Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X and defined as the “widening gulf between the rich and the poor and the accompanying disappearance of the middle classes.” On a good day, Brazilification looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, a party for the well-heeled, well-dressed, and well-coiffed under the dazzle of blinding lights. But, on a bad day, Brazilification is bankrupt Detroit, post-Katrina New Orleans, or the shuttered mining and mill towns 24/7, except bleaker.
For now, see the grim world of Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. For the future, look for pockets of wealth surrounded by functional despair, where the “haves” are cocooned or walled-off from the “have-nots.” As Sherman McCoy said in Bonfire of the Vanities, “Insulate! Insulate!” And the Masters of the Met do just that.
One might add the firing of thousands of Chicago public school teachers and the simultaneous hiring of Teach For America interns to replace them as another sign of Brazilification.