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It will come as no surprise that I am a fan of old movies, but my wife and I have a special fondness for the films of William Powell (and his often co-star, Myrna Loy.) I was rewatching one of my favorites of his recently and it got me thinking about our current economic woes.
The film is My Man Godfrey, and it was filmed in 1936, seven years after the stock market crash, when the economy was still trashed and the gap between the rich and the poor was almost as dramatic as it is now. It was pitched as a screwball comedy, in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934) where Clark Gable (a rough and tumble reporter) and Claudette Colbert (a spoiled heiress) are tossed together on a wacky road trip and fall in love. A simple formula, but the chemistry and the writing was so good, it swept the Oscars.
In an attempt to replicate their success, My Man Godfrey starts much the same way. Where they part, is the striking commentary on class and poverty. In Godfrey, Carole Lombard, playing a spoiled rich heiress, pulls up next to the city dump. She and her sister, who follows moments behind, try to find a "Forgotten Man" to collect as part of their scavenger hunt. After telling them off for trying to play games with people, William Powell, their choice for a Forgotten Man, decides to come along with them anyway out of curiosity.
After making a bit of a spectacle at the scavenger hunt, it quickly becomes apparent that Lombard's family, while benevolent, is completely scattered and self-absorbed. Protected by their wealth and privilege, they have no idea what life is like for those who are having difficulties, and see only their trivial pursuits.
Upon learning they have trouble keeping servants, he asks to be hired as their butler. He's a clever man, and learns quickly. The love story slowly unfolds from there, but interwoven is the idea of the "Forgotten Man" who lives on the edge of the city, unable to get work, unable to do anything other than barely hang on.
Right now, we live in similar times. But instead of it being the "Forgotten Man," it is the "Forgotten Generation"—a swath of young people, struggling to get by in difficult times. I've touched on this before, and so have many others (one recent example.) We have a generation, living on the edge, unable to get work, unable to move forward. Most will not have the career trajectory of those who came before. And continued de-funding of education and work opportunities offer no respite or even a glimmer of hope.
Halfway through the film, the city decides to push the dump into the river. The forgotten men, who make it their home are outraged, but unable to do anything about it. At this juncture in the movie, Godfrey delivers the central message of the film:
Godfrey: The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.
When I hear Republican candidates talk about the "Welfare State," and the unemployed as lazy, living off the sweat of others, I want to shake them and scream, "You have no idea what you are talking about!" Have you tried looking for work? There isn't any to be had for so many of us. It is not lack of effort, but lack of jobs that is keeping this generation's labor force participation at a record low. And without jobs, this generation will slip away as derelict and forgotten.
The President has proposed the "American Jobs Act." While not perfect, his proposal creates a quarter of a million jobs dedicated to low-income applicants. Our nation gains key investments in infrastructure, on-the-job training programs, and simple tax cuts aimed at those who are struggling to get by, not board members and stockholders. A great deal of the money flows down to the states to prevent layoffs. Over 8,500 teachers and first responders will be saved in Washington state alone. Read more about Washington's chunk here (a pdf).
The clock is ticking on this generation. We need jobs more than we need a balanced budget. If you want to have a workforce capable of balancing the budget in the future, you have to get this generation as fully employed as possible. The only difference between a lost generation and a generation that can pay the bills in the future is a job. Lots of them. Listen to my man Godfrey. He's right.