Income Inequality Hits Post-WWII Record

President George W. Bush
President George W. Bush, 10/05/2007

The Skinny is Keach Hagey's take on the top news of the day and the best of the Internet.

You know America's embarrassingly little income inequality problem has gotten bad when even President Bush is blushing.

New IRS figures out today reveal that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americas earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005, the Wall Street Journal reports. That's up sharply from 19 percent in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8 percent in 2000, at the beak of the previous bull market in stocks.

The IRS only started keeping these kinds of figures, which include capital gains, in 1986, so there's some guessing involved. But academics say the rich haven't gotten such a big slice of the pie since the Roaring '20s.

Meanwhile, the median tax filer's income fell 2 percent between 2000 and 2005, to $30,881. Median, of course, means half of Americans earn less than that.

In an exclusive interview, the paper grilled the President over these numbers.

"Do I think some of the salaries are excessive at the top? I do," Bush said. "I don't think it's the role of the government to regulate salary. But I do believe it's a role of boards of directors to be very transparent with shareholders about these different packages, the employment packages that these executives get."

Excessive executive compensation "just sends a signal of unfairness, and the people in America want ... fairness," Bush told the Journal.

Yes, ideally, fairness. But in the meantime, one suspects a lot of Americans would settle for health insurance.

Kicked Off Welfare, Japanese Man Dies For Want Of A Rice Ball

America has income inequality issues, yes, but today's most galling story of wealth disparity is set in Japan.

The New York Times reports on the sad tale of a 52-year-old Japanese welfare recipient whose partly mummified corpse was discovered alongside a thin notebook detailing his last days.

His last entry: "My belly's empty. I want to eat a rice ball. I haven't eaten rice in 25 days."

A rice ball costs about $1. The man starved to death because he had been kicked off the welfare rolls by the city of Kitakyushu, which had held up its handling of his case as a "model." Several other destitute men have starved to death in similar circumstances in other Japanese cities in the past few years, but it took the diary to draw attention.

Japan has traditionally been hard on welfare recipients, and with no religious tradition of charity, it has few soup kitchens or places for the indigent. Welfare applicants are expected to turn to their relatives or use up their savings before getting benefits. Welfare is considered less of an entitlement than a shameful handout. And the pressure on cities to keep their welfare rate flat is intense.

"Local governments tend to believe that using taxpayer money to help people in need is doing a disservice to citizens," said Hiroshi Sugimura, a professor specializing in welfare at Hosei University in Tokyo. "To them, those in need are not citizens. Only those who pay taxes are citizens."

Generation Q (For Quiet) Shouts Back

On Wednesday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered his assessment on what's wrong with kids these days. They're too quiet, man! They'd rather launch a Facebook page for their favorite cause than get out in the streets and raise a ruckus. And so he dubbed them Generation Q.

Today, some of those 20-somethings respond on the Times letters page. Taken together, the letters presented a portrait of today's young people as very, very self aware -- and more than a little square. Maybe that's true; maybe it's the interpretation of the letter page's editor. In any case, here are some highlights:

"Today's college students may not be as outwardly radical as their 1960s counterparts, but their passion to change 'the system' is still alive," writes Shannon Cox Baker, a sustainable-building consultant from Boulder, Colo. "Protests, sit-ins and boycotts brought much-needed attention to the hot-button issues of the 60s and 70s, but these measures fell short of achieving their intended goal: change."

"Students have learned from these shortcomings and recognize that paradigm-shifting change does not result from outside pressure. It must be pragmatic and must come from within."

"That is why students today who desire to make a difference in the world are pursuing engineering, law and business instead of -- or in addition to -- philosophy, religion and political science."

Ouch! Hitting a columnist right where it hurts -- in the liberal arts.

Will Bates, a 20-something from Manchester, N.H., responded to Friedman's complaint of youth's over-reliance on the Internet by dropping some websites. But wait, he pleads, before dismissing this generation as "too online," please check them out. So here they are: and

"More than anything, we want our movement to take on global warming -- to express our outrage and also hope that we can do better," Bates writes. "We're not blogging and harnessing the power of online networks; we're trying to inspire on-the-ground political engagement."

That's fine for issues like global warming, on which there's a rapidly developing consensus (see Al Gore's Nobel Prize). But what about more controversial ones, like, say, the one implied by the lead item of this column?

Melissa Sullivan of Boston hints at the Internet's perils for those who take these kinds of issues.

"As a 20-something, I'd like to express this unfortunate truth with which I live: in a world built to make sure I succeed to the best of my ability, I am also warned to be cautious."

"Don't show your affiliations, we are urged, lest your ideology keep you from that school or job that would be the best for you and your future. So purge your essay, resume and Facebook page of any connection that might be unpalatable to potential employers and sacrifice part of your identity to the murky "what ifs" of the future."

"Maybe, in the worship of caution, we've lost our connection to those passion-inspiring causes and have become the quite, inoffensive and ultimately employable Americans."

A NOTE TO READERS: The Skinny is available via e-mail. Click here and follow the directions to register to receive it in your inbox each weekday morning.