Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Great Gatsby and the Rich Today

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Those words end the best novel written in 20th Century America, a novel that forever haunts you with all its implications.  The novel left obscure how Jay Gatz got to be Gatsby and where his money comes from. However, it introduces us to an emerging America and points out how the old, rich world of Tom and Daisy doesn't really value a symbol of the nouveau riche like Gatsby.

Things have changed a little in America. Upstarts get startup money and having an old family doesn’t mean anything. (When I was a child of a widow in America, living on social security checks, I would have traded being a Mayflower descendent for cash any day of the week) Now money and fame are all that matter.

We also no longer seem angry that laws passed under Clinton and little Bush (In China he’s called Xiao Bush) mean the people who live in the rich suburbs are going to be able to pass on all of their money to their offspring, while most Americans will die with nothing to pass on to their lower middle class children.

Now we know where these bankers and Wall Street Caesars come from. But they still go to the same rich place where Tom and Daisy lived.  When they help bring down the country they keep the money they arranged to be in their pay packets and option plans. The Republicans and New York’s senators still do their bidding. On Sutton Place, or in Beverly Hills, they use their money as a powerful tool to get what they want.

Our politicians (if this is possible) have become more corrupt and beholden to these rich people. I’m a capitalist American, whose ancestors fought in the Civil War and the Revolution, but I always expected my country to be a fair one and it no longer is. When the Supreme Court killed Mc Cain-Feingold I knew things were heading in the wrong way. (By the way I an Independent Voter, not tied to either party)

Under old inheritance laws the government took enough money so that others could, through pluck and luck, rise up the ladder through hard work and replace them. It’s not impossible now, but it’s harder every day.
Social mobility made this country great. For 28 years I taught at a University in the inner city, while living in a rich suburb in Los Angeles County. One day a society matron came up to me and said; “Rich, you talk to Black people…” Yes I did and do and suddenly I felt I was a link between two worlds. I also talk to electricians and plumbers when my toilet isn't clogged and my lights are on.. Are we being borne ceaselessly into the past? Did all the gains in social mobility from the 60s to the 90s mean nothing?

What will happen to the children of the 9.4 percent of our countrymen who are unemployed?

My mailman when I was a kid was in the first wave of Marines at Iwo Jima. He was a hero to me no matter what others might think about his social status.

I have faith in my country and in my countrymen. At some point  laws governing inheritance will seem so misguided  and be perceived as so unfair, that the people will demand a reinstatement of what I’ve always called “American values.” These values promote social mobility, reward hard, honest work, and allow our country to become a better place, generation after generation.

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