Incomes Rise — Are Happy Days Here Again?


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Wait, what? U.S. household incomes are way up. That’s right, you’re not hallucinating — new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show the median American household income rose 5.2 percent in 2015, to $56,500 (The Wall Street Journal). That’s lower than it stood at the most recent economic peaks, in the mid 2000s and the late 1990s, but still, it’s impressive — and the fastest growth rate on record, too (The Washington Post). The poverty rate is also down, as is the percentage of the population without health insurance. The long tide of recovery is finally lifting a whole lot of boats, with the gains spread widely across the population. The one major exception? People who live outside of metropolitan areas aren’t gaining. Here, as in so many other realms, cities are driving the future. The big questions now are: Can we keep these gains up? Will they make a difference in the perception of inequality stoked by long-term trends in income distribution? And will populist discontent simmer down — or will we face a “revolution of rising expectations,” as people who get a little taste of economic betterment demand a fuller portion?

Sugar’s road to pariah-hood. Industries like the tobacco business don’t become pariahs overnight: The lengthy process starts with a demonstrated danger to the public and ends with strict regulations and a lot of corporations giving themselves new names. One of the most important in-between steps is the revelation that the industry manipulated scientific research to hoodwink the public. Big Sugar just checked off that box (Bloomberg). A new paper in JAMA Internal Medicine documents a successful 1960s-era effort by the sugar lobby, which paid Harvard scientists to emphasize the heart-health dangers of fats and minimize links between heart disease and sugar. Yes, those were different times, but we’re still living in the world these policy influencers shaped. If the sugar-beverage industry hopes to escape the dead end that swallowed up Big Tobacco and threatens the fossil fuel industry, it needs to come clean and demonstrate that it’s not still polluting our data supply. (For more on the sugar story, see our NewCo Shift Dialog with Dr. Jordan Shlain and our piece on sugar here.)

Women in the Obama White House “amplified” one another. The White House is, among other things, a workplace, and, like so many others, it has historically held women’s voices in check. In The Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin traces how women on President Obama’s team gradually shifted the male-dominated structure that Obama’s first administration started with to one where more women sat at the table and made themselves heard. One tactic: “When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author.” That built a foundation for more equitable decision-making by foiling men who would habitually claim women’s ideas as their own. Of course, November’s election will determine whether we’ll finally see a woman running the Oval Office — and maybe render “amplification” obsolete.

There’s no magical innovation room at Apple. The unveiling of the new iPhone triggered a now-predictable cascade of reactions, from “Apple has lost its way” to “it’s not a game-changer” to “Apple’s still selling gajillions so what’s the trouble?” What everyone is missing, writes Paul Ford (Track Changes), is just how rare the iPhone’s success was — and, even more, just how unlikely it is to be duplicated. “There’s an odd public assumption that seems to go: There is a magic room called ‘Innovation’ at Apple and Steve Jobs was buried with its key. But there is no magic innovation room anywhere in the world,” says Ford. Once you reach Apple’s size, you’re more likely to produce Edsels than iPhones. It’s time we all stopped expecting Apple to somehow fulfill our dreams of techno-fulfillment — and started trying to make them happen ourselves, even if none of us is ever going to bring home a Jobsian-scale win.

The magic of employee stock plans. One out of eight employees in the U.S. private sector works for a business that’s substantially or entirely employee-owned (The Atlantic). This approach isn’t just for small fry and idealists; it’s also being taken by giants, like the Publix supermarket chain. The structure’s prevalence is unique to the U.S., and it brings benefits: On average, these companies grow faster, pay better, and move more nimbly than their more conventional counterparts. The concept of employee ownership — legally and financially distinct from Silicon Valley’s beloved stock-option grants — seems to draw support from both sides of our bitter partisan divide, too. One reason it’s not more widespread is that the process of deploying it, through Employee Stock Ownership Plans, is complex. With some fine-tuning and political muscle, though, it could be unstoppable.

Featured in NewCo Shift: A Hundred Million Strangers Sleeping in Other People’s Homes. Airbnb cofounder Nathan Blecharczyk moved out of the apartment he shared with two friends, and when they rented out his room, Airbnb was born. In the latest NewCo Shift Dialog, Blecharczyk, now the company’s CTO, talks with NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle about Airbnb’s rise, its tangles with local governments, and its mission of helping “anyone feel like they belong anywhere.”

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