Then and Now: how our economy changed

PHOTO: Duchamp, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The wealthiest member of the first Roman triumvirate, Gen. Marcus Licinius Crassus, was so rich that his enemies made a show of pouring molten gold down his throat. Today, you could fill a Roman legion with Americans who are richer than Crassus. Killing them with gold would be a logistical nightmare that only they could bankroll. So we elect them to high office instead.

Since the turn of the century we’ve seen more money flow through the American economy than at any time in the history of the world. Overall, people from top to bottom are far more prosperous on average than generations ago. We hardly ever eat each other and, as your right-wing uncle points out, everybody’s got a goldarn cell phone.

So why do we still argue about economic policy? Why do economic issues meld with cultural divisions to create the animosity and partisan divide we now see?

The answer is clear: rising inequality and decaying institutions. For some it’s more of one than the other. For most, however, it’s both.

The economy is unfair. Income squarely tilts toward top earners, creating a yawning gap. The middle class keeps shrinking. Americans seem near universally annoyed by this reality, but differ as to whether the problem is the money flowing to the already wealthy or the very nature of the people who are poor and powerless. No matter your opinion, it’s easy to see how this is happening and why opinions become so strong.

Consider the nature of how people worked a generation ago. People worked for big companies, often as members of a union, and could provide steady income, health insurance, and opportunity for a family.

Today, that still happens for some. I’m fortunate to be in that situation myself. But far more people work in a job economy — shorter stints at smaller companies, often working on temporary contracts. You buy your own health insurance, either hoping that you can afford it or that your income is low enough to qualify for help. Job security refers to whether or not you die in a mass shooting. And while people obsess about the 0.00000143 percent chance of that happening any given year, they are blindsided by the far more likely layoffs, pay cuts, and benefit reductions.

The case was made brilliantly in a Sept. 3. Neil Irwin piece in the New York Times blog, The Upshot. In the story, Irwin compares the stories of two janitors working for top U.S. companies, one for Kodak in 1987 and one for Apple today.

Both women came from in similar economic conditions. However, Gail Evans, who got her start cleaning floors at Kodak, enjoyed the benefits of full time employment and benefits that allowed her to seek education and gain promotion within the company. Marta Ramos does the same work employed for an independent contractor. No benefits. Catching none of the same breaks.

Here on the Iron Range, a generation raised on mining wages wonder what’s gone wrong with the younger generations. Heck, mining jobs are better than ever! The problem is that automated efficiency creates far fewer of those jobs compared with the rising number of lower pay, negligible benefit positions that everyone else must work.

There’s a better economy out there. But it’s not here. Or if it is, it requires an education and perspective that has been denied to the people who most need it.

This leads to my second point: declining institutions. My son built a football arena out of LEGO blocks the other day and named it “Budget Cut Stadium.” That’s actually a pretty solid piece of satire right there. Nevertheless, the sentiment came from somewhere. If he didn’t pick that up from the news, then maybe it was from our family dinner table.

Not long ago the church, the school, the city hall, the civic club and maybe even a live band on a Saturday night could help people from places like ours survive and thrive. Now all these institutions suffer for lack of participation, awareness and funding. People turn their eyes to the internet and television where tools of tremendous potential are instead used to make us stupid and fearful.

That which is precious seems constantly endangered and shrinking. That which is threatening grows more each year. That doesn’t excuse fascism — the use of fear and force to create order — but it predicts fascism. Only rebuilding or replacing the institutions that give our lives and our values meaning can turn back this evil.

People work harder, but aren’t rewarded. People reach for fairness, but see their hands slapped. We hold every book ever written in the palm of our hands, but no one wants to read them.

Some trends that strengthen our economy actually weaken our communities and the families who live in them. Valuing human beings and their works isn’t just “something nice we should strive for,” but rather an imperative defense against the fall of our republic. There are 1,000 potential solutions, none of which matter if we don’t intrinsically care about one another and our shared future.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. “The answer is clear: rising inequality and decaying institutions” – wrong. Those are at best symptoms. At worst, red herrings. The answer is clear: rising entitlement mentality and decaying morality.

  2. …sounding so casual in mentioning extreme violence such as killing our neighbor by pouring molten metal down his throat is a great example of the morality decline. No big deal. Next will be references to flaying alive. Next will be…. Then when it happens, we piously exclaim – OMG!

    • Jonathan Swift wrote a piece about using Irish babies as a food source that I’m sure you’d find equally repugnant, Bob. Of course, he was using satire to make a point about the value of Irish lives under British domination. But that’s not important. The important thing is that he wrote down that we should eat babies. How awful! Call your local school board to report that it’s being taught in the schools.

      • You’re rationalizing Aaron – It’s shocking how far we’ll go to make ourselves feel better about ourselves, our beliefs, our comments..

        • I’m fine with what I said. You entirely and deliberately misinterpreted it following your internet troll guidebook. You’re still trolling. When I leave you’ll troll again. You can’t help yourself. It’s well established that abusers typically accuse their prey of the things they’re doing. That’s exactly what this comment thread is. I’ve read thousands of your comments over the years, Bob. Your pattern is clear. I see it. And I’m not interested in having a real debate on false pretense.

  3. Violent crime has gone down considerably since the early 1990’s. And while racism and other forms of systemic oppression definitely exist, compared to the days of actual Jim Crow, actual laws against homosexuality and legalized wife beating, one could argue that our culture has much higher morality now than the time we had legalized chattel slavery. Or perhaps laws against drunk driving, which used to be treated as a problem of now knowing when to stop, rather than the deadly practice we know it to be now. Or perhaps that mess people drink to excess or smoke now. Or that making fun of disabled people might be considered anti-social, or that we now have a law requiring public spaces be designed for increased access for these people. But then, that wouldn’t fit your narrative of “decaying morality.” Or, one might discuss the entitlement mentality of older rangers who got used to doing nothing for good money at Taconite plants , where as one cousin described it, a job was ok if you could find a quiet place to sleep next to a steam line so you could stay warm while you napped, and now rail against anyone discussing reality outside of their talk radio universe. One must remember the tax and international trade system the examples Aaron used came from; the post WWII system that targeted full employment by heavily taxing incomes extracted by executives and investors out of companies and forcing them into actually using the money for re-investment, ot limited currency speculation as foreign investment, both which ended under Reagan. But of course these are not moral questions, much like burgeoning online porn industry, which apparently is a non-profit rather than the purest form of capitalism without external limits one might find.

  4. Ah, Ranger, spot on again with picking one line out of the article to misinterpret and argue your beliefs while missing the point of a pretty neutral article that should be thought provoking for any reader. You always fill us with such wisdom with your insight.

    • Actually I single out two lines Paul…
      Line one, Aaron not so subtly suggests brutal violence against his “rich” neighbors. That’s evil.

      And line two, the premise of his whole article…suggesting are our problems are due to inequality and “rotten” institutions is laughable. The rest of his article is hot air due to basing it on these false premises…not worth comment.

      • You honestly think he’s calling for pouring molten gold down people’s throats? You read this article, and that’s the conclusion you drew?

        • Aaron’s delves in communications daily Ryan. Don’t think for a moment it was a accident he opened this article the way he did. With a wily message, that as you read on, the seed has been planted that your rich neighbor is devilish, sub-human, not worthy of being alive. He has a cornucopia of communications subsets in trying to influence people…

          • I melted the gold, then realized I never had a rich neighbor in my life. Dang it!

          • Observing what has happened in history and comparing it to contemporary conditions is not calling for the action to occur. Your logic is flawed and you are doubling down on your trolling, which is what you do when your argument is weak. It’s only logical if your goal is defeating me personally, not the argument that we see historically high inequality in our economy, which is observable fact.

  5. Then don’t , Ranger.

  6. Sounds like your neighbors know their neighbor well John…and respectful to not ask of your net worth as well!

  7. I think it’s important to note that when comparing the old Kodak to the modern Apple that Kodak all but doesn’t exist anymore. They were a technology company that couldn’t adapt to their own inventions. Apple is more nimble.

    The same thing happened to most of our hated steel companies. If the same practices continued today that existed in 1970, they would all be gone now. As it is, most are, loosing to more nimble companies that could do things better and cheaper.

    I think it’s also worth noting that that Kodak janitor probably spoke English, where the first language of the Apple janitor is likely to be Spanish. No comment on good or bad, just a statement of fact.

    For the Apple janitor, things are probably a lot better here than in the old country and he or she is probably glad to have the job.

    • The NY Times article explains the difference in the companies and why Apple (and many other companies) use a new model. That’s precisely the point. The drive for efficiency has created masses of “redundant” people who have few opportunities.

      I really hope you didn’t notice the Hispanic name and assume they don’t speak English. We have had Hispanic people here for generations. If you think that’s the reason you can substitute my white Ranger cousins who work contract jobs instead of full time positions.

      This is endemic in our economy. Pretending that economic trends aren’t real is a disaster in waiting … for all of us, rich or poor.

  8. Inequality is inherent and God given Aaron. Put your trust in Him. Put your trust in government to make us all equal and what do you get? Venezuela.

  9. I recently attended a reunion. Fun time. Spoke with a logger, couple of teachers, a dentist, an engineer, UPM employee, Clay Boswell guy, two pastors…many others. No one was complaining they weren’t making the same as each other, no one expected they should be. All had different skills, all respected each other’s skills. Nobody is buying this Bernie Sanders inequality crap Aaron. As I said earlier, it’s a red herring. The real issue is you believe I owe you something, something I’ve worked for and you haven’t…entitlement mentality.

    • So you spoke with a group of comfortably middle class people and none of them were worried about inequality. Well, I’m not shocked. I hear different things from my students, acquaintances, siblings and cousins who are paycheck to paycheck. Besides, I thought part of the appeal of Trump was that he would address the economic unfairness facing “working class voters.” It seems to me that the rhetoric is useful when it serves your interests but when you start talking about “equality for all” you get your undies in a bunch. Ultimately you view poor people as being poor because God is punishing them for immorality. You’ve said as much. If you want to talk about wicked, evil philosophies that’s one that I consider beneath the dignity of Christian teaching.

      • You lie Aaron. I’ve never said God punishes the poor… for any reason.

        • You cast moral judgement on them. You say people feel entitled for wanting bread or fair wages. You cast them aside. You ignore their plight and fixate on the safety and comfort of your world. I’m not going to relitigate 50,000 words of comments you’ve posted over the years, but on the off chance you’re simply not aware that you send this message, let me inform you that you do.

          We disagree about the moral question of poverty. It is my belief that correcting negative behaviors associated with poverty won’t happen unless we offer opportunity. That’s all I can say for now. I have to go to work.

  10. You left me, my friends, my family, my neighbors off your list Aaron. We’re all paycheck to paycheck as well. The difference is, none of them expect you or your friends owe us something. Oh…my parents & grandparents were also paycheck to paycheck. Tell me, why should it not be that way??

    • Ah ha….just figured it out. I’ll bet you’re thinking you can save up, take some with you when you go. Jesus doesn’t work that way Aaron.

      • Oh Brother. Another fallacious dodge. You know I’m talking about security. Yes, we’re all “paycheck to paycheck” under your definition but I’m talking about the relative security of knowing that if you keep working you can keep your home, pay for necessities, keep a car on the road, and be covered if you get sick or suffer a disaster.

        You DO expect things, Bob. You expect your world to continue on just as it is and for everyone to conform to your view of it. Your contempt for people who work JUST AS HARD who don’t have what you have is my problem with your philosophy. The whole reason our grandparents suffered, and it was suffering, the early years of Iron Range labor — including the threat of death and company reprisals — was so that YOU would be secure. And you are. You’re an engineer. I’m a college instructor. We don’t have to worry. But more and more people in our society do, and the opportunities available that allowed me, for instance, to escape poverty are going or gone. It’s almost like I wrote a column about that OH I DID IT’S RIGHT UP THERE.

        • Not many will be a billionaire, a millionaire or even a thousandaire. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone can do better. Everyone can improve their situation. Opportunity always abounds. When you slip into fatalism as you have, telling yourself the game is “rigged,” you’re done. You become bitter and envious…entitlement mentality. As Morgan Freeman said – “A bus leaves town every day”.

  11. No Ranger, everyone cannot improve their situation no matter how hard or long they try, no matter that they do all the “right” things. That old fallacy that “you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps” if you just have enough determination, character and work ethic falls apart if you have no boots to begin with.

    One of the most head smacking thing I’ve heard from people many times is that they grew up poor, their families were poor but they made it out of poverty and beyond so why can’t everyone else do the same. They say those who can’t (or won’t as they believe) are lazy, unmotivated and just want entitlements. I know the people who say these things weren’t quite as poor as they thought they were, not compared to folks in deep poverty and they had at least some family members who were good role models and gave them love and any support they could. They had teachers and other adult mentors that helped them emotionally/financially along the way. And they had luck. Something totally unexpected drops into their lives, something not due to their own efforts and suddenly they have a leg up the ladder.

    There are a lot of people who grow up with no family or other human support system, in very dysfunctional families and neighborhoods, have only low wage jobs, often working two jobs which don’t pay enough to get any further education let alone to clothe, feed and house themselves. It’s extremely difficult to climb out of these situations and most will never be able to without some helping hands from somewhere.

    Believing opportunity “always abounds” for everyone is not reality and never has been. It’s just a fantasy people use to discount people who do actually need a hand up as not deserving of it. It’s interesting how people set higher standards for those who strive hard to improve their situations than they do for themselves.

    • I agree, there are a handful of people needing others help, but not by the government. We’ve spent $24 trillion on the “poor” since LBJs war on poverty. What’s it accomplished? Nothing. Poverty (as measured by government standards) was 15% in 1965. In 2016 it was….15%. Giving money, either by you, me or government programs to the poor obviously isn’t the answer. Let’s try encouraging self-sufficiency, education (learning a skill), hard work and not having kids outside of marriage for the next 50 years. I’ll bet the results will be much better.

  12. The War on Poverty led to Head Start, Work Study, Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid which I assume you think should all be abolished. Might as well do away with Social Security too.

    As far as not having kids outside of marriage, that ship sailed long ago.

    • We’re in agreement kissa…get the government out of entitlement programs. The massive amount of money left in people’s pockets will go a long way in allowing them to help out the poor….in the way each person sees fit. Plus, it eliminates the grossly ineffective middleman.
      Regarding having kids outside of marriage, I know many, many folks who’re not as pessimistic as you. This attitude can be changed.

  13. Not pessimistic. I merely made a statement. Teen pregnancies are down but that will probably change Trump adm cutting funds for prevention. At least a third of single mothers are over 30, many of whom can afford it. It’s their business, not mine nor yours.

    I thought you said you live from paycheck to paycheck yet imply it wouldn’t bother you if Medicare and Social Security was abolished. Lucky you.

    • Wrong kissa. If Medicare & SS are no longer taken out of my check, my paycheck goes up. We’d all be much better off financially.
      “Cutting funds for prevention”? You mean cutting funds being used to murder.

  14. You have no idea what TPP, Teen Pregnancy Program is, do you? It was grants for education programs used in high schools and communities that have been proven to lower teen pregnancies, sexual activity, STD’s and higher use of contraceptives, not what you instantly concluded. Some programs are rural outreach affecting areas like ours. Teen birthrate has dropped dramatically since 2010, 41%, since there has been countrywide efforts to educate teens. Dept HHS dropped funding because they say there is no proof but the evidence is the opposite. Oh well, too bad if teen birthrate goes back up, the government needs more money for Tom Price’s charter plane travel.

    • What you describe is the job of the parents. Government, especially the federal government, has no right, no role in our sexual activities. They’re the last ones I’d look up to for sexual advice.

  15. So all parents are capable of giving good sex education to their teens, lol. A lot of parents could use some sex education themselves. Decades ago, very few parents even discussed sex with their teens. 1957 was all time high teen birthrate, 96 births per 1,000 women age 15 to 19!

    A shame you don’t think teens need sex education, particularly sexual health education and just say no.

    • Where did I say sex education isn’t useful? Just keep the likes of Bill Clinton out of it. Parents, and teachers (with local school boards in control), yes. But Nolan, Franken, Dayton…& especially Bill, yikes, no way. Not in their job description. Can you picture it?

  16. Once again , Ranger has brought a thread to the point of ridiculousness. Legislators do not design the content of sex education programs . At least, real ones, although the Right loves to promote that “Abstinence only” nonsense.

    • I wasn’t planning to expose your fallacious comment Jackie but being I’m boycotting the Benedict Arnold idiots working for and running the NFL, I’ve got time.

      Elected politicians might not design the content of sex education programs but they appoint the bureaucrats who do, therefore the buck stops with those we elect. (No longer do we have to wonder what Bill Clinton was thinking when he appointed Richard Wilson “Dick” Riley to Education Secretary).

      I think you & I are fully capable of educating our kids on sex verses Bill. If we wish to defer that job to our teachers, I’d trust Bill Hoeft, chair of the Greenway school board, to come up with a sex ed curriculum verses having the likes of cigar toting Bill…who appointed “dick”. I’d put flyover country gun toting, bible thumping values/morals ahead of elitist ivy league coastal values any day.

      Why we need a Dept of Education employing 5,000 people spending $68 billion annually is what’s ridiculous. What of waste of 5,000 peoples talent and our hard earned $68 billion. Unbelievable..

  17. Blather on, Ranger.

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