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America bifurcated

Cowboy hat By Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer - Tue., 12/6/11
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The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, "are different than you and me."

If you doubt it, go shopping. Specifically, make two outings into the wonderful world of retail. Start with middle-of-the-road stores, such as Bealls, Walmart, and Target. You'll find customers, but fewer than normal, and they're spending less than a couple of years ago. Paycheck-to-paycheck families are barely holding on, worried about their jobs, mortgages, gas and food, and other basics.

This is not going to get better anytime soon-- corporations aren't hiring, wages are stagnant or falling, prices of basics keep rising, and people's savings are depleted. In response, Walmart officials say they're not passing on price increases like they always have, and they're offering a lay-away payment program this season so their hard-hit customers can purchase a few holiday gifts. They note that many shoppers are saying they won't even have much in the way of special holiday meals this year.

Now, check the scene at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other upscale stores, where the stock market set goes for stylish shoes, designer gowns, and the like. Blessed with executive salaries and a good tailwind from the Dow, these high-end shoppers are flocking to their high-end retailers, and no one is rummaging for bargains or looking for discounts. "Full-price selling," exults the CEO of Saks, "is at record levels." Trying not to gloat, he adds: "I feel good about the luxury consumer."

The industry refers to this widening divide as "a bifurcated market." We're in a bifurcated America, with the hard-pressed many going one direction and the flush few going another.

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