labor Downton and Downward
Like everyone else with a perverse curiosity about a castle-bound community fussing over whether to use a bouillon or a melon spoon, I've been consumed by the turns in "Downton Abbey," the latest export from England to keep American public television afloat.
In a season of haute-soap plot twists, the story of the working-class Irishman, Tom Branson, whose marriage to Lady Sybil gives him a life leap in upward mobility, is worth examining for what it says about class, then and now. Branson is still "the chauffeur" to a family living on moldered wealth, and his brother the car mechanic is "a drunken gorilla" for asking if there's any beer in the House of Lord Grantham.
But if someone with grease on his hands and an accent from a workaday neighborhood can rise to an estate management position in the rigid British class system, what, by comparison, are we to make of the American experience nearly a century removed?
Oh, but we are a nation free of class conflict, we tell ourselves daily, and live with the illusion that everyone with a job is somehow middle class. Our core, motivational narrative is that anyone with gumption and good luck can rise to a comfortable tier. They don't call that the British Dream.
And yet, a raft of recent studies has found the United States to be a less upwardly mobile society than many comparable nations, particularly for men. One survey reported that 42 percent of American boys raised in the bottom fifth of income stayed there as adults. For Britain, the numbers were better by 30 percent. Just 8 percent of American men made the jump from the lowest fifth to the highest fifth, compared to 12 percent for the Brits.
The fictional Branson, of course, marries upward in a country that George Orwell called "the most class-ridden society under the sun." Their world, in which a tuxedoed toiler's main job in life is to dress a grown man and wipe the dandruff from his collar, is part of the archaic draw of "Downton Abbey."
But shocking though it is for a chauffeur to marry into a post-Edwardian estate, can you imagine an American cab driver tying the knot with a Hilton, a Rockefeller or a hedge fund manager's daughter? On "Downton," upstairs and downstairs are in close, albeit strictly defined, contact. Rich and poor seldom encounter each other in the United States.
It's painful to read that Britain, much of Western Europe, and Canada are becoming more socially and economically fluid while the United States hardens its class arteries. Even in our bleakest time, the Great Depression, the presidential aide Harold Ickes said, "Life for us would not be worth living if we did not have this urge to reach for what will always seem beyond our reach."
The urge remains. The character is unchanged. What's different now are the opportunities, and the hard fact that too many of those born at the bottom of the economic ladder are likely to stay there.
Class stagnation was the underlying theme of President Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday. He called on us to "restore the basic bargain," and outlined a few things - universal preschool, more help for college students - that are proven elevators to a better station in life.
The Republican response, from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was illustrative of Obama's point - though unintentionally. This son of a bartender said, "More government isn't going to help you get ahead. It's going to hold you back." The Rubio story proves otherwise. He said he couldn't have gone to college without financial aid. He made his money by leveraging a government job in politics. His Cuban-born parents can live in elderly dignity, as he noted, because of that great government product, Medicare.
As a footnote, Rubio noted that he still lives in "the same working class neighborhood I grew up in." Not for long. The four-bedroom home with a pool is on the market for $675,000. Good for him. But please, don't make the preposterous claim that government "limited" his jump in class.
Short of winning the lottery, education is the best route to a change in class status. Yet, because of the obsolete, factory-like nature of high school, which fails to propel at least a third of its students, and the confiscatory cost of college, the next rung up for 18-year-olds is becoming another haven for the rich.
"Education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them," my colleague Jason De Parle wrote in one of many terrific pieces on the decline of the American Dream. The affluent, by a whopping 45 point gap, are more likely to finish college than those without means. While family income has been flat or has fallen, the cost of attending a public university has risen 60 percent in the past two decades.
Obama mentioned a vague plan for more flexible college grants, and a "scorecard" so parents can get more bang for their buck - a small start. The ambitious call to make preschool available to "every child in America," shows more promise.
Republicans have expressed little interest in fixing the class divide, and are likely to block every Obama initiative, just because they can. Despite Rubio's protestations, his party is the defender of a status quo that has made the United States a case study in income inequality.
They would do well to remember the words of Andrew Carnegie, the capitalist who gave away his vast fortune. Carnegie was born in a single-room weaver's cottage in Scotland, and saw the British class system at its worst before he moved to America. "There is no class so pitiably wretched," he concluded late in life, "as that which possesses money and nothing else."