Up until now most of what we have written about has been my working career, but I have not really told about how it ended—which, of course, is the whole point of this narrative! I have to ask you to be patient a little longer, because there’s another story that has to be told. It’s not my unique story, though it’s a very important story to my life. In fact, it’s an important story to every American’s life, and it’s especially important to those of us belonging to that generation known as the “Postwar Baby Boom.” The “Boomers,” as we’re often called, are those who were born over period of approximately eighteen years, from 1946 to 1964; the birth rate in the United States during those years has never been equaled, not before and not since. We came into the world at a time when American society—and in fact worldwide society—underwent massive changes from the level of individual family relationships to the relationships of corporations, governments, and entire nations with their own people and with each other. There have been monumental changes since the late 1980s and early 1990s as well, but even so, they are not on the scale of those that took place in the second half of the 1940s.
Why does this story belong with mine? The answer is that it explains the worldwide economic catastrophe which is, in my opinion and the opinion of many economists, only in its early stages. It is this worldwide catastrophe which, more than any other factor, caused my career to come to an end. The technological changes in the graphic arts were contributors, to be sure, but their impact alone would not have been enough to cause me to lose my job and not be able to find another one.
The first half of the twentieth century, even more than the first half of the nineteenth, was a period of war, revolution, and upheaval. Capitalism, which was born in the economic upheaval called—with good reason—the Industrial Revolution, which coincided with the political upheavals of the American and French Revolutions, was seriously threatened in the early years of the twentieth century. The “Cliff Notes” summary—since I don’t really want to write a book here—is this: in the second half of the 19th century, the scramble of the industrial countries for colonial possessions in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East led to a catastrophic World War from 1914 to 1918. Also during the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, working people struggling to improve the conditions of their lives were organizing themselves in forms as varied as craft unions or revolutionary anarchist cells. As the catastrophic war in Europe was nearing its climax, one of the participants quite literally fell apart. The predominantly peasant Russian soldiers, underfed, underpaid, underequipped, and militarily defeated, deserted the front, walked back to St. Petersburg to discuss matters with the Tsar, and when the conversation was over there was no more Tsar. In the months that followed, the Russian workers, peasants, and soldiers had a conversation with each other about where they wanted their country to go and what they wanted it to be, and when that was over a faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party called the Majority—in Russian, bolshintsvo—proposed that the government be turned over to elected councils of the workers, peasants, and soldiers. The Russian word for council is soviet, and at the end of October 1917 (according to the Julian calendar, still in use in Russia at that time), the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic came into existence. The “spectre of Communism” that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had introduced in 1848 had taken material form. The attempt not only to prevent the spread of this revolution but to overturn it would dominate world politics for the next eighty-four years and was a key factor leading to a second world war which was even more catastrophic and destructive than the first.
The most far-sighted and astute of the business and government leaders of the first half of the twentieth century realized that to maintain themselves in power they would not only have to defeat the revolutionaries within the labor movement but at the same time improve the workers’ living standards so that revolutionary organizations would not be able to gain a following. This proved not to be possible until the aftermath of World War II, but in the postwar United States, the one industrialized country which was not devastated by the war, it was done with far-reaching effects, which changed the United States and the world in profound ways.
The United States went after the revolutionary forces in the labor movement with a repressive campaign that we remember as “McCarthyism,” named for Senator Joseph McCarthy (Republican of Wisconsin), who chaired a Senate committee investigating Communist “infiltration” of just about every aspect of American life. From 1947 until McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954 an anticommunist hysteria swept the United States that was often equated with the Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts of the 1690s. It was, of course, contradictory to every principle of individual liberty that has been part of the American tradition, but it was quite effective during those seven years. But at the same time, American society was being reorganized from top to bottom. The American worker was, for the first time, becoming—a homeowner.
In one of the iconic movies of 1947, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the protagonist George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) lends money to the workers of Bedford Falls (modeled after one of the small industrial cities of upstate New York) so that they can buy small but well constructed and comfortable houses for their families. The Bailey Building and Loan develops tracts of land just outside of town, one of them called “Bailey Park,” building little houses with cute little back yards and picket fences. There is a wonderful scene in the film in which Bailey’s wife Mary, played by Donna Reed, presides over a house blessing ceremony (probably borrowed from Capra’s Italian heritage) as a family moves in.
The villain of It’s a Wonderful Life is “Old Man” Potter, played by Lionel Barrymore. He wears a black suit with a wing collar and a top hat, like the stereotypical rich banker of the populist cartoons of earlier times. He calls the workers of Bedford Falls “idle riffraff” and charges them exorbitant rents to live in his slum properties. Boo! Hiss! In the climactic scene, George wishes that he had never been born, and his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) grants the wish. The Bedford Falls that he knew does not exist: it is a hell-on-earth called Pottersville, where working people live in slums and only ease their misery with hard drinking and other unsavory entertainment. George sees how important his life has been and asks Clarence to give him back his life, a wish which the angel also grants. As we all remember, Clarence is rewarded for his service with his wings, to the peal of ringing bells, for, as he told us, “every time a bell rings, an angel earns his wings.” Applause! Hip-hip-hooray! “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…”
As those of us of a “certain age” remember, Bailey Park may have been fictionalized, but there were thousands of Bailey Parks from one end of the United States to the other. In the United States, the one country whose interior had not been invaded or bombed during the war, the economy and infrastructure were intact. The United States’s factories were running full-tilt, producing automobiles, appliances, books and newspapers—and military weapons with which to fight the dreaded Communists—and American workers were all working overtime. Returning military veterans, including my own father, were offered educational opportunities under the GI Bill of Rights, and took their newly acquired education and put it to use in technological innovation the like of which the world had never seen before, everything from an electric device to open a tin can to a rocket engine that could propel human beings outside the earth’s atmosphere.
My father went to engineering school at the University of Oklahoma. After being awarded a Master’s Degree in electronics engineering, he had several job offers, and accepted one at Southwestern Power in Tulsa. He bought a little house for the princely sum of $8,500, and it was to that house that I was brought after my mother and I were discharged from the hospital after my uneventful birth.
After my father served a second stint in the Army, he accepted a job offer at Westinghouse Electric’s Space and Defense Center in Maryland, and we moved out East at the end of 1952. After a little over three years, he had put away enough for a down payment on a new house, not far from his office. By this time, spring of 1956, a three-bedroom house cost $16,000, nearly twice as much as in 1950.
House prices continued to appreciate steadily for the next several decades. It was the best investment any family could make. As the business cycle went through its ups and downs, the dislocation could be softened by borrowing against the equity that had been built up in people’s homes. Consumption could continue, and industry could continue to produce at a profit. During the recession of 1958 we began to see the emergence of revolving credit, first at department stores and gas stations. Later banks began issuing credit cards which could be used virtually anywhere.
In 1978 I bought my house in Sparta, NJ, a small three-bedroom ranch. The purchase price was $42,900, which I thought was severely overpriced for what I was getting. The last time I cashed out its equity in 2006 (a decision which I will regret for the rest of my life), my house’s market value was just south of $250,000. For my entire working life—and through the working lives of millions of other Americans—we had spent money borrowed against our home equity and bought everything from laptop computers and Disney World vacations to medical care and car repairs.
For nearly six decades, working people took on more and more crippling debt and worked continuously harder to keep up with it. They retreated behind their picket fences in their suburban communities, and with only a few isolated exceptions, the working-class solidarity that had so frightened the leaders of government and business was long forgotten. Working people had become accustomed to a standard of living that gave them the consciousness of being “middle class,” whatever that meant. The unions shrank from representing about a third of the working class to representing no more than an eighth. And in the world outside the United States, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, and the “People’s” Republic of China embraced capitalism with a Dickensian vengeance. As a Hungarian friend said, “There is no more Communism.”
Unfettered multinational corporations were free to plunder as they would, driving down labor costs by outsourcing work to countries where workers were paid ten percent or less of what they were paid in the United States. Retirement pensions were taken away, replaced by profit-sharing plans that depended on the fortunes of the employing company and the vicissitudes of the securities markets. Health insurance benefits and vacations were steadily chipped away.
At the same time Wall Street speculators were packaging the money which had been lent out to pay for home purchases into risky securities, sold like pari-mutuel racing tickets to other Wall Street speculators. In 2007, home prices peaked and began to depreciate. In 2008, the economy crashed. Thousands of jobs were lost and continue to be lost. Even the most conservative economists called it the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. What no one has yet acknowledged is that the means used to emerge from economic downturns of the past—a massive war at the beginning of the 1940s or borrowing against home equity as has been done since the 1950s—are no longer options. The eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room is that even if unemployed people return to work, they are returning at levels of pay and benefits that are seriously reduced from what they once were. They will no longer be able to buy goods and services as they once did, meaning that the companies making those goods or providing those services will never make the kinds of profits they once made. A lower standard of living and an uglier society is now being called by a new catch-phrase: “the new normal.”
I fell victim to the economic downturn on 19 November, 2010. The company had gone for two years with less and less work every year. My house’s market value by now was over $30,000 less than the mortgaged amount, and my credit card bills were out of control. Welcome to Pottersville.