Wednesday, December 2, 2015

We've Gone Back to the Gilded Age

Paul Krugman recently linked to a fascinating 1955 article in Forbes that compares business executives of that much more equal era to those of the Roaring Twenties:
Twenty-five years have altered the executive way of life noticeably; in 1930 the average businessman had been buffeted by the economic storms but he had not yet been battered by the income tax. The executive still led a life ornamented by expensive adjuncts that other men could not begin to afford, a life attended by a formality that other men did not have time for. In Boston, which set the highest tone if not the fastest pace, the archetype of the high-salaried executive of 1930 arrived at his office in his chauffeur-driven Pierce-Arrow, uncompromisingly attired in dark suit and detachable stiff collar. For weekend lounging white flannels were de rigueur.

The executive’s home today is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small–perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths. (Servants are hard to come by and many a vice president’s wife gets along with part-time help. So many have done so for so long, in fact, that they no longer complain much about it.) The executive who feels, as apparently Robert R. Young does, that to be completely happy he needs a forty-room “cottage” in Newport and a thirty-one-room oceanside villa in Palm Beach is a rare bird these days. The fact that Young paid only $38,000 for his Newport place, Fairholme, which cost Philadelphia banker John R. Drexel nearly a quarter of a million dollars to build in 1905, demonstrates the decline in the market for such outsize mansions.
Forbes also says that the grand parties of the past were no more, shrunken to small, country club affairs where the food may be burgers and hot dogs. And consider the executive yacht:
The large yacht has also foundered in the sea of progressive taxation. In 1930, Fred Fisher (Bodies), Walter Briggs, and Alfred P. Sloan cruised around in vessels 235 feet long; J. P. Morgan had just built his fourth Corsair (343 feet). Today, seventy-five feet is considered a lot of yacht. . . .  The specifications of the boat that interests the great majority of seagoing executives today are “forty feet, four people, $40,000.” In this tidy vessel the businessman of 1955 is quite happily sea-borne.
Today, of course, we have gone back to the world of Mega-Yachts, Mega-Mansions, absurd salaries and even more absurd stock options.

Why did we let it happen?


G. Verloren said...


"Today, of course, we have gone back to the world of Mega-Yachts, Mega-Mansions, absurd salaries and even more absurd stock options.

Why did we let it happen?"

It's simple, really.

In 1955, the corporations were run by The Greatest Generation - those who had grown up in the poverty of the Great Depression, then fought through the worst warfare known to history in the Second World War, and then settled down to modestly make the best of the peace they had fought so hard to win, quietly trying to ignore the world going insane with paranoia and nuclear brinksmanship.

But as that generation grew old, the started to retire and be replaced, and their culture of hard work and modesty eroded rapidly, replaced by the mentality of their kids. A generation down the line, the corporations were run by The Baby Boomers - the most spoiled generation of Americans ever. I personally feel that George Carlin best summed up their most salient qualities:

"Whiney, narcissistic, self-indulgent people with a simple philosophy - Gimme it, it's mine! Give me that, it's mine!

These people were given everything. Everything was handed to them and they took it all! Took it all. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. And they stayed loaded for twenty years and had a free ride.

But now there staring down the barrel of middle age burn out, and they don't like it. They don't like it. So they turned self-righteous. And they want to make things hard on younger people. They tell them abstain from sex. Say no to drugs. As for the rock-n-roll, they sold that for television commercials a long time ago. So they could buy pasta machines. And Stairmasters. And soybean futures. Soybean. Futures.

You know something? They're cold, bloodless people. It's in there slogans. It's in their rhetoric. No pain, no gain. Just do it. Life is short, play hard. Shit happens, deal with it. Get a life.

These people went from do your own thing, to just say no. They went from love is all you need, to whoever winds up with the most toys wins. And they went from cocaine, to Rogaine."

And how did we get where we are now from the 80s and 90s? Again, simple.

Today the people in charge are the kids of the Boomers - Generation X. The dysfunctional offspring of dysfunctional parents. Like their progenitors, they enjoyed economic boomtimes during the Reagan administration; went crazy on sex, drugs, and the various replacements for rock and roll; and generally just steeped in a culture of greed, selfishness, entitlement, ruthless competition, and a total lack of responsibility.

G. Verloren said...


Now, maybe they're not fully to blame. Maybe they're just the product of their environments. The Cold War was a terrifying time - I mean, how is a person supposed to cope with the realization that a nuclear apocalypse could arrive at any time, without warning and without there being anything you can possibly do to stop it? That's the sort of psychological stress which is practically guaranteed to make a person neurotic.

Add to that a period of substantial economic and technological developments and general prosperity, and is it any wonder people eagerly distracted themselves from the looming spectre of atomic death by throwing themselves into the embrace of shallow materialism?

The Boomers tried to change the world and sadly failed, their revolution of love foiled by the brutality and insanity of nuclear brinksmanship. And then their kids looked around at the grim state of the world, and looked back on their parents' failed revolution, and said "Screw it, why even try?".

They never wanted to change the world - they only ever wanted to watch MTV and emulate figures like Beavis and Butthead. They just wanted to do their own thing, and they grew up in a time when that expectation wasn't unreasonable, with the economy looking promising and personal computing rapidly changing the country. But then the stock market crashed in '87, and the tech market crashed in the mid '90s, and suddenly times were hard again, and these already cynical kids got even more pessimistic and self centered than ever.