Lessons Learned but Too Soon Forgotten

The poignant, featured image of this post was taken in late 1930 or early 1931, when my mother and my grandmother found themselves caught in the claws of the economic catastrophe that crashed into the post World War I euphoria through which many in our country—like my mother and her extended family—were coasting.

A recent trip to Texas to visit family provided an opportunity to experience, first-hand, a dramatic view of the current state of the American economy and the fate that may await: the very evident and demonstrable gap between the wealth held by the very richest of Americans, and that held by the rest of us. The last time the wealth gap was as great as it is today was during the few years before and during the Great Depression. The disregard of the poor by the wealthy and the gap in wealth between the two, the economic protectionism practiced by the Republican administration after The Crash, and the irrational exuberance of investors prior to The Crash resulted in an economic disaster, the personal consequences about which many Boomers learned at the knees of their parents and grandparents.

Their universal message is conveyed by what you see in the expressions of my mother and grandmother who had descended in a veritable flash from a life of plenty to a life of ketchup sandwiches and well-worn hand-me-downs: Don’t ever take anything for granted that you now possess because it can be gone in a figurative heartbeat.

Until they crashed into the realities of Covid World, relatively few middle-class Millenials have had the opportunity to experience (first- or second-hand) the causes of the depth of emotion conveyed in the featured image, so their apparent cluelessness regarding the consequences of conspicuous consumption and disregard for financial planning might, at some level, be understandable, but we Boomers (and Gen Xers) have no such excuses. Instead of respecting the possibility of another great, economic disaster and by practicing compassion toward those who are poor, Boomers were the first to exploit and replicate M.B.A. programs that began in the 1970s and then exploded in the two decades that followed; programs that began as and continue to be reptile-shielding rocks from beneath which today’s cold-blooded capitalists emerge.

The too-common, atrophied consciences of Boomer Capitalists and their Gen X hatchlings over the past 40 years have created the cabal that controls our country—the secretive-but-in-plain-sight group that controls We The People, a conscience-less group composed of the heads of government and key industries (especially financial institutions), who are linked by informal connections connived by lobbyists into an extra-governmental and somewhat amorphous group that has, in the past four decades, fostered a cadre of Welfare Kings who far outstrip—in terms of their exploitation of America’s wealth—the racist images of Welfare Queens that the Reagan Boys fabricated to cast themselves (the advantaged white folks who they clearly believed are the only citizens entitled to suckle at the breast of Mother America) as poor souls downtrodden beneath the feet of a Deep State that sucks them dry by taxation.

Alan Greenspan, who was 82 and an exemplar member of the Silent Generation when he testified in a Congressional hearing in 2008, “acknowledged under questioning that he had made a ‘mistake’ in believing that banks, operating in their own self-interest, would do what was necessary to protect their shareholders and institutions. Greenspan called that ‘a flaw in the model … that defines how the world works…(He also)…conceded the meltdown had revealed a flaw in a lifetime of economic thinking and left him in a ‘state of shocked disbelief’.” (Greenspan admits ‘mistake’ that helped crisis)

Having grown up Boomer, I too find myself in disbelief from time to time, wondering what happened to my memory of, “We thought we could change this world/with words like ‘love’ and ‘freedom’,” as those Boomers, the Eagles, had lamented in “The Sad Cafe.”

The causes of the Great Depression and its impacts on individual Americans as depicted by our Boomer grandparents, as well as by sources like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or John Ford’s cinematic version of it, have not found their way to those youngsters who are our financial planners and who seem to have no emotional connection to the fragility of economic systems. Their religious reliance on computer algorithms gives them false faith in the power of “the system” to keep the economy rolling despite the fact that the vast majority of the pundits in government, academia, and business media were totally flummoxed by the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008.

And as to the Generation Xers who are following us in the financial industry, some of whom were responsible in 2008 for Alan Greenspan’s concern about bankers behaving badly, many of whom were influenced by Boomer professors in conscienceless M.B.A. programs, and who are now in even more influential positions than they were a decade ago: those folks are still behaving badly.

But I have digressed “bigly” from my mention of our Texas trip, which turned out to be a four-day exposure to the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of us. In Waco, a city of 137,000 made popular by Chip and Joanna Gaines’ HGTV show, Fixer-Upper*, and despite its valiant struggle to emerge from beneath the effects of a 1953 F5 tornado that remains the 11th deadliest tornado in American History, in some ways, Waco still reflects a time more reminiscent of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties than it does the present. Much of the housing we saw appears extremely worn and in need of fixing up—hence, the show—and but for the efforts of the Gaines’, much of what we saw reflected Waco’s median household income of $32,864/year.

Two days later, we were in Plano, a corporate center just north of Dallas that has nearly tripled it’s population since the Eighties. In contrast to Waco, which is only a two-hour drive away, Plano has a median household income of $79,234/year, as well as the housing, shopping, restaurants, and business headquarters that reflect a city of over 250,000 with a median income that is 60% higher than the national average. Waco and Plano: the Haves and the Have-nots displayed in a plain and unabashed way. Or looked at through another lens, Waco is a city that seems to be on the razor’s edge of emerging from decades-long economic stagnation, while Plano is a city that seems to be ignoring the possibility of catastrophic loss.

I do believe it has been our collective responsibility—as it has been for all generations—to always be cognizant of the possibility of catastrophic loss and have that memory drive us to be sure that we have left our country a better place for our children and their children. Unfortunately, despite all that our generation has discovered and disseminated about how to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world, we have failed dismally to deliver; instead, we are leaving our progeny an extremely precarious economic structure that ignores the possibility of catastrophic loss, a rage-driven political environment that is on the precipice of dissolving our 232-year-long democratic experiment, and a physical environment that has begun to spiral out-of-control toward a world that will likely surpass the horrors imagined by fatalistic science fiction authors. I guess it will do little good to apologize to those who are doomed to follow us, but I am truly sorry that our generation has failed to live up to the expectations we had for ourselves, expectations we shouted out to the World when we were young and were certain that we knew every truth. 

We are not far from being a country where circumstances like that portrayed in the Depression-era photo below have become common. It is time for We The People to wake up and start changing the “great lie” in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” into a phrase that rings true; it is time to start bringing words like love and freedom into our world to guide how We The People live our lives.

(Picture from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, in The Story of the Great Depression in Photos by Jennifer Rosenberg, 2019)

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(No copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image in this post; the featured image is from Pixabay)

Please consider visiting Jeff Lee Byrem Creations to discover additional literary endeavors such as the novels of the Myers/Benton Chronicles

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