"Hunger Games"

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"Hunger Games"

Thom has mentioned "Hunger Games" recently, in the context that conservatives say it shows the dangers of big government, while it more accurately can be described as showing the dangers of corporatocracy. (Don't conservatives say that liberals want big government to redistribute income and wealth downward, i.e., make things more equal?)

What struck me most about "Hunger Games" was not the hunting and killing, or the plot at all, really, but the way the great mass of the people lived--right out of Dorothea Lange or "Grapes of Wrath:" the ramshackle buildings, the shabby clothing, the lack of any luxuries (except wide-screen TVs provided by the government to serve as mental tranquilizers). The point in the movie of course was to show how "The Empire," or whatever it was called, deliberately impoverished the vast majority of its citizens. (Perhaps as punishment for a long-ago rebellion?) While there is hardly anybody still alive who remembers it, the fact is that this is how most of the rural population lived until and through the 1920s and 1930s; and while urban populations of course looked different (slums and long hours of work for low pay vs. run-down farms), they also suffered the same pervasive poverty.

Over the few decades after the Depression and World War II, the US was completely transformed, from this widespread grinding poverty to the largest and most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. Now, as we see the middle class being wiped out, it is appropriate to think about how the creation of that class occurred, and what we can learn in order to stop and reverse its decline.

I believe the key factor in the rise of the prosperous, middle-class society was the ability to retain and harness the energy and creativity--even the creative destruction--of capitalism while moderating the accompanying negatives: the boom-and-bust cycle, the huge inequalities, the emergence and endurance of monopolies.

How was this done? There were a number of elements, working together, and it is hard to say which is or are most important. Certainly labor unions are important, helping to balance power in the workplace and ensuring that some share of the increases in productivity went to benefit the workers. (Note that non-union employees got many of the benefits the unions won.) Also important were regulations on the financial sector, to help prevent the regular panics that left millions unemployed and wiped out their meager savings--things like Federal deposit insurance and the Glass-Stegal act that separated commercial and investment banks. Working together, unions and financial regulation helped provide a measure of employment security to the average worker--a notable and crucial absence up until that time. The social safety net (Social Security, unemployment insurance, medicare, welfare, etc.), kept people from falling into poverty and dragging others such as family members and merchants with them. A progressive income tax code kept money in businesses rather than being taken out for risky speculation, thus preventing the bubble that eventually must lead to a crash. Finally education should not be underestimated--the GI Bill, state universities, and low-cost loans allowed an entire generation to move into the middle class after WW II, and more than repaid the cost of their education through increased income and resultant higher taxes paid.

Additionally governments at all levels spent heavily on infrastructure--roads, water systems, airports and air traffic control, etc. These projects kept people employed in construction and maintenance and enabled individuals and industry to be more productive (again leading to higher income and thus higher taxes).

As a result of all these factors working together, the US became a model for a prosperous, sustainable middle class. As they began to be disassembled in the 1980s, the middle class declined, and we see the result in the Great Recession, huge income inequality, and increased poverty.

Let's not overwork the analogy. Doctors will never make house calls again, nor will they ever charge just $5 for an appointment, much less for a house call. Much of the increased productivity that made the postwar prosperity possible was due to automation and mechanization; whatever happens, the gueling physical labor demanded of both agricultural and industrial workers in the early 20th century will never recur. But while the benefits of increased productivity were previously shared by workers, managers, and shareholders, they are now going almost exclusively to the latter two groups. This threatens to drop the first group back into the poverty of 100 years ago.

dorfman
Joined:
Jun. 20, 2011 10:05 am

You might be suprised!

The medical system has evolved around the financial demands of medical technology rather than focusing on the best ways to serve the needs of the patient," says Eric Baron, a physician based in Southfield, Mich.

As a result, a growing number of disenchanted doctors are finding a respite in a vestige of decades past: house calls. For each of the past three years, the total number of house calls has grown by 100,000 a year, according to Constance Row, executive director of the American Academy of Home Care Physicians. Some 1.8 million were made in 2003.

http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/dec2004/nf20041210_3699_db037.htm

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Bush_Wacker
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Jun. 25, 2011 7:53 am

After posting this I realized that today is the anniversary of the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did so much to establish the framework that enabled the middle class to prosper.

dorfman
Joined:
Jun. 20, 2011 10:05 am

Glad to hear that housecalls are making a comeback but I bet they cost more than $5

dorfman
Joined:
Jun. 20, 2011 10:05 am

One of the problems I had with the movie was the characterization of the the impoverished communities looking as if it were the 1930s. That wouldn't happen. Think instead of if you took the way our communities look today and then stop maintaining them for about 20-30 years. You would wind up with real run down looking neighbors probably ala areas of Detroit nowadays. Yup, people would still have TVs and possibly even big ones though that was a projection TV the mother had. It just wouldn't run like the 1930 but I think that was a literary convention that Gary Ross used because to make it look like run down Detroit might not have established things enough for the general public. But then I always think of Hollywood's idea of totalitarian societies to be a bit overblown if not corny too (think "Logan's Run" etc). Again that might work with the general public better.

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captbebops
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Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

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