“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” –Alexis de Tocqueville
I like to listen to "old time radio," partly for nostalgia, partly to marvel over differences between attitudes and styles presented in these programs and those we live with today. As a child, I loved The Creaking Door, Suspense, and The Whistler: "You know, don't you, Charles, that you're going to have to kill her."
I loved too Our Miss Brooks and Eve Arden's acerbic wit. Less favored were The Great Gildersleeve and The Life of Riley, but all these programs kept pre-television audiences riveted in the evening.
The Life of Riley, in particular, addressed itself to a sector of society now wholly neglected by our entertainment industry, at least in terms of honest representation of its membership. Before poverty was a dirty word, or working people bordering on extinct, working class families took up some airtime. Jackie Gleason, the bus driver lived in a dingy three-room apartment. Lucy took assembly line jobs to cover her extravagances so her husband Ricky wouldn't find out they were broke. And Gildersleeve, as town water commissioner, might be a high-ranking civil servant but he's perpetually out of money and struggling to come up with $5 here and $7 there.
In one typical episode of The Life of Riley, Riley is four months in arrears on his rent. The landlord offers him the job of rent collector in exchange for forgiving the debt. Today's audiences see nothing wrong with this arrangement, but Riley's wife and his friends are horrified. He becomes a pariah in his neighborhood. At one point, after the landlord pressures him to evict someone "as an example", Riley whines, "I can't throw people into the street just because they're broke." Wouldn't Bank of America love to hear about that?
When at last Riley can't bring himself to choose a back-rent owing family to evict, he evicts himself. In exchange, his neighbors take up a collection to pay his rent and they gather to haul his ousted furniture back into the house. In other words, he has rejoined the clan. A Marxist would say he renounced being a traitor to his class.
The Life of Riley aired from 1944 to 1951, an era of rampant anti-communism and flag-waving patriotism. But working people had watched the General Motors sit-down strike unfold (1936-1937). This was a strike that labor historians assert created the American middle class. (http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2009-01-13-flint-striker-autoworkers-union_N.htm) Riley's fans or their parents had experienced abject poverty and grueling working conditions. Without analyzing their convictions, they adhered to the principle that in unity there is strength and without it, an individual worker would be crushed.
This morning's New York Times carries an article about the "failed" government program to prevent foreclosures. Foreclosure is a euphemism for kicking families into the street, whether they have anywhere to go or not. More about the government's failure to help the burgeoning numbers of unemployed—unemployed, mind you, because of the collapse of the financial markets, which are a direct result of greedy bankers and investors scamming and bilking the uneducated and the poor.
The gains of the GM workers have been eroded and we see mounting evidence that the middle class is disappearing in the United States. Since Reagan’s presidency, de-regulation (and "off-shoring") of American industry and financial institutions has gouged everyone but the wealthy, as the following statistics show:
1. 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
2. 61 percent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
3. 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.
4. 36 percent of Americans say that they don't contribute anything to retirement savings.
5. A staggering 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.
6. 24 percent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.
7. Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.
8. Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
9. For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
10. In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.
11. As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.
12. The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
13. Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.
14. In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.
15. The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America's corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
16. In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.
17. More than 40 percent of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.
18. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.
19. This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.
20. Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 - the highest rate in 20 years.
21. Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.
22. The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.
When the public expressed outrage over the handouts to bankers (the very criminals who had plunged the country into depression), the Obama administration at last tried to paste together some sort of relief for working families who had been duped into bad loans or lost jobs and fallen behind on their mortgages. The program showcased offered one billion to help jobless workers keep paying their mortgages, but it wasn't scheduled to help anyone until the end of the year. According to the Times, even so, the program has "yet to accept any applications."
Meanwhile, Republican congressmen and women, who never met a rich man they didn't love, have deep-sixed the program and are awaiting further developments from the Senate, where Democrats don't much like the idea of giving money to the poor either.
Mortgage restructuring, which the Obama administration refused to make compulsory for banks under given conditions (such as the ability to pay the re-structured mortgage) has resulted in just under 61,000 permanent re-structurings, of which 10% have gone into default. Someone explained to me that re-structured mortgages arranged by small banks are defaulting at a much lower rate. The reason? The big banks heap on hefty fees for the process, fees that in some cases result in a "re-structured" monthly payment that exceeds the original.
The goal, at the beginning, was to help as many of 4,000,000 homeowners. The reality is that bankers and financial market profiteers are riding high, while the families Riley couldn't have evicted are living in cars and trailers.