A Modern Economy steeped in Dickens’ Day

Posted by By at 19 December, at 13 : 16 PM Print

Philip Gimson

Comparisons to Dickens’ Era Are in Evidence Everywhere

Earlier this week, I started writing about how disturbingly familiar the similarities are between modern-day America and the stratified economic society of 19th Century England depicted by Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Then I picked up the Friday, December 17th edition of The Wall Street Journal only to realize that it’s hardly a coincidence that one of their guest columnists (Princeton University Professor Alan S. Blinder) was saying much the same thing.  Hats off to you Professor Blinder for getting to the keyboard faster than me on this theme though I hope you will accept a tip of my faded Yankees baseball cap in lieu of a Victorian top hat.

At first I figured the time had come to find a new subject but then it dawned on me that when multiple observers and writers covering the nation’s economy make similar Dickensian historical comparisons in describing the state of life in America today, we have indeed reached a very disturbing tipping point in our nation’s history.   A comparison of modern-day America to Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” would have been a preposterous, panic-stricken exaggeration just a few short years ago, maybe even as late as September 14, 2008.

And yet now, the trends of what can be seen all around us from coast to coast and in virtually every region of our country may make watching “A Christmas Carol” a bit too painfully realistic to enjoy right now.  I for one will probably pass on that one in favor of my 187th viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” knowing that no matter how many times George Bailey sends his stupid Uncle Billy to the bank that the envelope with the deposit in it will find its way into that grubby old Potter’s hands.  It hurts every time.

Are the ghosts of Dickens’ novels really haunting us again?  Well, just think of this: 1) the real national unemployment rate, if you count those whose unemployment benefits have run out as well as individuals who have stopped looking (the so-called “discouraged” jobless), stands at a minimum of 16 percent according to officials from the Federal Reserve; 2) the federal government’s own statistics show that real average hourly earnings have not increased since 1974.  Good lord, that’s a long time to wait between raises.  Scrooge himself – at least the character we saw prior to his three-ghost tour — would have approved of that one.  (Paying the little people some extra pennies now and then can eat into a rich employer’s frivolous cash fund; you never know when the Mercedes could use some new hubcaps).

3) Most employers aren’t planning new hires and polls conducted by employment firms show they won’t seriously consider hiring anybody out of work for more than six months — as if they deliberately chose to stay unemployed for that long.  4) Increasingly, since the Wall Street crash of September 15, 2008, working people are squeezed and bled by both the government and the private sector.    While the private sector may have reacted first by trimming workforces, freezing or reducing salaries, cutting or eliminating 401k programs or taking a higher percentage of health insurance premiums out of paychecks, the government has not hesitated to let the other shoe drop — right on the already bandaged toes of American workers.

Since the September 2008 market crash, Congress and the Executive branch immediately came up with ingenious, totally creative ways to help close our deficit (make Americans work longer and reduce or take away inflationary increases in Social Security, dilute Medicare coverage and/or cut funding to our schools and universities).    Thank goodness we can depend upon such brilliance and out-of-the-box thinking from our elected leaders. Their ability to come up with an infinite number of ways to screw the middle-class makes even the pre-Ghost-hosting Scrooge look too kind and generous by comparison.  It’s heartwarming to think that there’s no shortage of creative brainpower in Washington.  If we run out of reserves of oil one day, the surge of energy emanating from those great minds down there would probably generate enough hot air to power generators capable of lighting and heating all those Georgetown brownstones they live in.  And just like in the world of Dickens, hand-held lamps(perhaps running on batteries) would have to do for all the rest of us.  Hey, we all know it’s all about maintaining a good standard of living for our duly elected representatives.

I find the depth of their budget-cutting ideas to be just awe-inspiring.  Simpletons like me would have recommended horrible, unforgivable things like cutting foreign aid to countries that despise us, pulling troops out of countries we should not have set foot in, and mandating across-the-board cuts in every government department including defense.  I would have even been foolish enough to demand cuts in salaries for the President, every member of Congress and all officials and staff in government making more than $150,000 a year.  Call me cruel, but I would call for a rollback in Congressional salaries to $99,999 so that they would be able to relate truly to the tightening of belts experienced by all their constituents.   The president would take a $100k pay cut (he’d still be well over $300k) and no one running a U.S. department or agency would make more than $149,999, which would become the new salary for the Vice President.

Federal planes would sit in hangars, naval ships would be mothballed and members of Congress and the U.S. government would be strictly limited on the number of trips they could take back and forth to their districts along with vastly reduced expense accounts and meal allowances.   Would it really make a huge difference in bridging our federal deficit?  Hardly.  But you can damn well bet, a lot of federal lawmakers and administration officials would become sensitive to the problems of America’s working people.

They would — as Bill Clinton is famous for saying – feel our pain.  And that my friends is precisely the point.  They don’t get it because they aren’t living like the rest of us.  At this juncture in U.S. history, more of them need to because they need to wake up to how serious economic survival has become for the average American.  Not all of them would feel it because many of them are quite wealthy; all the more reason for them to donate a portion or all of their salary back to the U.S. Treasury.   Why not?  New York Mayor Bloomberg apparently doesn’t collect his salary, nor did Tom Kean when he was Governor in New Jersey.  More of these elected officials should follow their distinguished examples.

How about imposing term limits and creating an online, secure log-in election system to save millions maintaining and repairing those curtained voting booths?  No more need to spend even more money counting hanging chads and doing election recounts.  (Of course the opponents of online voting would say, “what’s a few votes between friends matter either way, really?”   Does it really make a difference whether those infamous chads recounted in Florida in 2000 were hanging or not?  It would have simply meant the difference of getting Al Gore instead of George Bush, no troops in Iraq or Afghanistan versus “Mission Accomplished;” conducting real foreign policy rather than getting Rumsfeld and Cheney; nearly 6,000 young U.S. military lives saved and tens of thousands of permanent disabling injuries prevented, versus sending hundreds of thousands of our kids thousands of miles away to get blown to bits or become permanently traumatized; having Colin Powell continue to serve our country rather than forcing him to lie and ultimately resign after making him deceive the United Nations about American intelligence reports on non-existent Iraqi WMDs).  I realize I’m splitting hairs here. A chad is still a chad whether it hangs a bit to the left or to the right.  Sorry, I digress so needlessly.

Let’s face it members of Congress would probably say the problem with online elections is that would be people could sit right at home and vote and that candidates wouldn’t be able to go out and talk to would-be voters one last time on the way to the polls.  It would also cost them a photo opportunity.  Online elections: what an absurd idea – as unthinkable and futuristic as ordering our groceries, doing virtual Christmas shopping or attending college with the click of a mouse.   It’s just way too futuristic.

But you see, I know they’ve got it right, and I’ve got it wrong.  At the end of the day, it’s always easy just to pour all the pain onto the middle class.   The Americans who occupy that distinct, thinning rung in our society have always been the type to suck it up, suck it in and accept responsibility from what those mystically gifted minds in Washington come up with.  That’s why we’ll set our snooze alarms for 5:15 in the morning knowing it’s up to us just to work harder even if we earn less because we our “indebted” to our government.   Literally; and god are we ever in-debt-ed.

You see our forefathers may have had it all backwards.  They said that the real objective of serving in elective office should be for true leaders to earn a livelihood another way, you know doing actual work, and spend a handful of years serving in elective office, then go back to their farms, factories and retail boutiques (you see those actually existed in Dickens’ time) and let other democratic voices take over governing.  But the problem was our forefathers had no vision to see the career potential in all this.  They had no understanding of all the potential to enlarge their place in society – the $170k per year salaries, the junkets, the free gym privileges, the ego gratification that comes with constantly having your name in the press, and the chance to reach millions via electronic soap boxes.  (Hey even Eliot Spitzer has a show now so, my guess is once elected officials enter that special club, it doesn’t matter what they do.  Even if, scandal costs you a job, there’s always the chance to become the next Larry King, and if that route doesn’t work out word has it that Jerry Springer’s getting stale and is yearning for some real competition; hey that’s not a bad thought, Spitzer has the background I hear to give him a real run for his money).

In fact, when you come right down to it the pre-reformed Scrooge would have felt right at home today either serving in Congress or working as a top financier for one of the nation’s banks.  Or ideally, he would have been perfect to run the Federal Reserve (and more on that beloved, esteemed institution in my next column).

The reformed, Christmas-loving Ebenezer, well he probably would have become just like the rest of us.  He’d fit in with all the other enlightened small business people and hard working middle-class Americans wondering whether they’ll ever make a decent living again.

Charles Dickens was a citizen of England in the 19th Century.  But today, it seems the stratification he saw everywhere in Victorian society can be viewed as a historical warning to 21st Century America of what life may become like if we don’t start to turn things around.   The growing similarities are becoming disturbingly evident.  No wonder Professor Blinder beat me to it; I mean he does teach at Princeton.

(Today marks the 167th anniversary of  Charles Dickens’,  “A Christmas Carol”  was first published. If you would like to know more about Dickens follow Rock The Capital to a special place.)

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Phil is a career survivor now helping coach others through their own employment struggles. A recent search executive specialist for Management Recruiters International, he has an eclectic background. He worked in journalism, then later as a public relations manager for Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, a vice president for leading PR agencies, and a director of communications in both the NJ Senate and for the NJ State Bar. He now splits his time between his work as a career coach with business credit counseling. Phil writes creatively and is the author of a published murder mystery and two unpublished screenplays. He is also a big fan of absurdist theater, which is why he loves to write about Congress. These days Phil often mixes searches for fossils of dinosaurs with quests for our most endangered species: the middle class. He recently thought he found a middle class property paid off in full only to learn the modest carriage home housed rottweilers raised by one of Wall Street's leading hedge fund managers. - Email Philip Gimson

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