Small World: Look back in envy

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our continuous presidential campaign has one overriding value: It puts before the public the failings of our national enterprises. Of course, candidates don’t probe deeply — who knows what self-incrimination might be turned up? Nor do they want to strain the public’s capacity for studying evidence and coming to judgments — who knows where that might lead?

All this is leading to my opinion that two giant flaws in our economic system have been discovered and discussed — or sort of. They are: (1.) the enormous gap between the extremely wealthy 1%% and the struggling 99% of our population. And (2.), the revealed fact that other developed countries (northern European mostly) surpass the United States in the upward mobility of its citizens. Taken together, these two systemic failings signify the fading of the American dream — of a nation of citizens able to compete fairly and lift themselves through hard work above their parents’ level.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up during the Depression years, my parents were determined that my brother and I would do better than they had in life’s contests. Basically, that meant playing by the rules of society (not cutting corners), staying healthy and getting prepared with an education through college (which they and most of our family lacked).

Our town didn’t have an economic elite with wealth valued in the billions. What town did? It did have its well-to-do and its down-and-out classes (not counting African-Americans who didn’t count in those days down South). Unlike today, there were connections between the upper and lower sets: in the neighborhoods and in the schools (except for private schools for rich girls and the Catholic schools). Kids from all backgrounds were thrown together in the local junior college, which was cheap and respected.

Our American dream was vivid. And not just for youth. In our neighborhood, there were small (convenience) shops, one run by a Greek immigrant who removed the canned goods and slept on a shelf at night, another run by the German émigré Oscar, who cursed kids lifting candy or comic books without paying, two small markets run by Jewish families, whom my mother wouldn’t patronize because they sold inferior (she said) goods to Blacks and a drug store run by two Cracker brothers, who sold patent medicines to all. The champion of the entrepreneurial dream was Mr. Gernatt and sons, who operated a bottling and ice cream shop with milk brought in from the nearby farms. A Hungarian, he discovered that he could make sweet frozen popsicles in paper cups and sell them for a nickel at high school recess from his jalopy. The neighborhood success story!

There were no supermarkets, as we now know them, in that world. The closest version was Smith Brothers, which sold meat from their farm and carried a few groceries as well.

We, the customers, were the families of equally small time men: barbers, clerks, insurance salesmen, bank employees and railroad engineers. Alas, those who worked for local enterprises unhappily found after the 1950s their worlds began to contract. Railroads and banks merged. Big stores appeared and jobs disappeared. Mothers went to work as secretaries and telephone operators when their husbands became unemployed.

Graduating from high school, I had my first job as a helper in a Westinghouse Supply warehouse. My pay was the minimum wage, 75 cents an hour, jacked up that year from the original New Deal’s 40 cents. In later summers, I worked two seasons at the Union Bag paper mill with a 50% higher wage. One summer of recession, I could only find work in a Thom McAn shoe shop and was paid by the number of pairs sold.

Meanwhile, the phalanx of mighty American companies was moving in on our homemade economy buying out firms or merging them into national enterprises. Wall Street took over from Main Street and owners and shareholders counted more with Congress than ordinary folk back home. Taxes for the rich were cut substantially by Republicans and the 1%-99% gap began yearly to widen.

During the presidential campaign, you’ll hear talk of this gap and you’ll be told that it can be bridged by education and assorted gimmicks. But a better-balanced economy won’t be restored until a fair tax system gives everyone a fair start and a realistic hope for the American dream.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer

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