Old-fashioned arithmetic books would probably have phrased it best. Thus: “If it takes one very important chief executive 365 days to make a pile of 4,964,000 pounds, how many days would a worker on £27,195 per year need to work to make the same neat pile?”

Answer: (allowing a couple of hours for counting the money) 66,625 days. Or, as the High Pay Centre, a think tank devoted to the depressing business of calculating these things, would have it: Britain's top CEOs earned on average 183 times the median pay for a full-time employee in 2014.

This is barely news, of course. It scarcely registers that the median pay multiple was “just” 160 as recently as 2010. We no longer flinch when rewards outstrip company earnings, stock market performance, European comparisons, or credulity. We fail to notice that executive pay has gone on climbing despite economic turmoil. When George Osborne decides that the one thing the Five Million Smackers Fraternity need is a tax cut, we nod and move along.

Still, we're not daft, not like the Americans. As Robert Reich, once Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, recorded in a recent Newsweek article, CEOs of the biggest corporations in the United States got by on 20 times the average worker's pay in 1965. Today the multiple exceeds 300. In the early 1990s, big corporates were devoting 5% of income to pay their top five executives. When last tracked, the figure was 15%.

But here's a thing: in 1965, 50 long years ago, the phrase “in-work poverty” was unknown. Zero hours contracts existed, but they were not facts of life. Job security was the rule, not the exception. Half a century ago in the UK the post-war consensus over the welfare state met no serious challenge. In the US 50 years back Lyndon Johnson had just inaugurated the Great Society with a “War on Poverty” at its heart.

LBJ took action because the poverty rate in the Eisenhower years had reached 19%. In 2007, just before Barack Obama took office, the rate was down to 12.5%. It's 15% now and has been stuck at that level for several years, trapping 50 million Americans. Fully 47 million of them receive food stamps.

On either side of the Atlantic quibbling over definitions of poverty is a grand old right-wing tradition. Tinkering with methodology is meanwhile a British specialism. Nevertheless, the Department for Work and Pensions has conceded that those on “absolute low income” - below 60% of the median – rose by 900,000 to 10.6 million in 2013. Given that Osborne means to cut benefits for those in work yet condemned to low pay, the trend will continue.

Here's another thing: isn't Britain supposed to be in the middle of a jobs miracle? UK employment figures for the last quarter have taken the shine off the claim, but Tory ministers are still entitled to say that a 5.6% rate is a lot better than the average – of 7.23% - over the past four decades. It is, too, and yet poverty continues to increase.

Poverty increases, indeed, whether victims are in work or not. It increases, by no coincidence, while a chancellor wages war on benefits, food banks proliferate, and CEOs pick up salaries worth 183 times an ordinary employee's earnings. The idea that the poor are special cases and benefits claimants of a different species is long gone. Poverty is normal now.

For those with their heads above water, pay is certainly going up, but the rate of increase – if you don't happen to receive bonuses – has stuck on 2.8% this year. At this point in a recovery growth, if the historical record is a guide, should be in the 4% to 4.5% range. But history has more to say.

In the 1970s and 1980s, wages in the UK went up by an average of 2.9% a year. In the 1990s, the figure was down to 1.5%. In the 2000s – and this, according to the Office for National Statistics, was before the Crash – pay growth was just 1.2%. In the four years after 2008, as most know, real wages fell.

In the US, things have been still more drastic. While executives have piled up their compensation, household income was 8% lower in 2013 than in 2007. That Crash again? Not at all. According to the Census Bureau, real median household income was 9% higher in 1999 than in 2013. In real terms, in fact, American families have seen no improvement in their incomes since Reagan was asleep in the White House.

As in Britain, workers were – and are – expected to pick up the tab for the bankers' fiasco. They were – and are – expected to form a lynch mob and pursue the luckless while CEOs make their getaways. They are expected to be grateful for any job and forget job security, real employment rights, or state help. They are trained to blame the poor, migrants, whichever politician held the national chequebook last, and – it never hurts – themselves. The credit boom engineered to conceal falling real incomes was just national fecklessness.

Old attitudes to the world of work have gone. Employees are cost units handing their lives over to the corporate equivalents of North Korea while someone on Question Time sheds a few virtual tears over that distressing inequality business. Earnings suppressed, rights eradicated, political participation reduced to low comedy, denied social protections: modern workers are pioneers of a new serfdom. Increasingly, they know it.

Quite how capitalism is supposed to flourish in this new dispensation is a question those well-rewarded CEOs have yet to answer. How many of the “fulfilment” drones in an Amazon warehouse shop at Amazon? If incomes are squeezed year upon year, where does any business find its customers? If the New York Times expose of Amazon's treatment of even its white-collar employees is a guide, the modern corporate world regards its workers – also its potential customers – with all the warmth of 19th century mill owners.

An “executive” won't prosper long with “lean, nimble” Amazon, according to the NYT, if she is foolish enough to have a miscarriage, if he is daft enough to have a family, if either has a relative with cancer, or if they quibble over totalitarian “management”. Absent from the report – and of no apparent interest to the company – is any suggestion that any employee could ever have rights of any description. And these are the white-collar sorts.

In the land of the welfare state, DWP assessors have meanwhile been asking the terminally ill when – when precisely – they expect to die. The department has been training staff to deal with difficult people who threaten suicide when they are sanctioned. Poverty goes up and “the welfare bill”, calculated in lives, comes down. It's the kind of strategy of which Amazon could be proud.

A vanishingly small minority is waging a war for control over the majority. The ostensible argument is over work, money, budgets, productivity and all the other bits of reality best expressed in dull statistics. In truth, it is a war for the modern world, and for liberty.