There is an old Chinese curse that when spoken, does not conjure any horrible or sickening images, it seems rather like a benevolent blessing than a curse; “May you live in interesting times”. How nefarious a saying could that be? How bad could living in interesting times be? It’s not as if we want to live in boring times. Interesting times are…interesting, what could be so bad?
Well my friends, we are living in “interesting times” and I never run out of things to write about. If you are a writer, these times are great, if you are trying to raise a family, or instill values into your children, or stop a runaway government, or even to retire from your job, these “interesting times” are a lot to handle. Just making a living wage is difficult. These times we live in are indeed interesting, so interesting in fact, you may look around your house and say “if I have all of this “stuff” than why do I feel so damned broke, and scared. Why indeed. Let’s take a little walk into these “interesting times” we are living in.
My father was a 1st generation Italian-American. His father came to America in his late 20’s to find a better way of life. He arrived at Ellis Island and was promptly offered a job in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. My grandfather was pretty smart. He realized that staying in the coal mines was not where he wanted to be, so he picked up his family and they moved to Long Island, where he worked in different jobs, none too consequential, but he managed to raise his 9 children.
He wanted his kids to be Americans. He forbid the kids to speak Italian too each other. They only spoke it to him, as he never learned to speak English very well. He made the kids go to school. He also made each kid learn a musical instrument. None of the nine children ever got in trouble with the law, they all worked after school, and they all made their way into middle-class America. My father became an auto mechanic, opened his own gas station/auto repair, bought a three bedroom house on Long Island after living in rentals with his wife, who's family went back to the early days of Concord, Massachusetts. My Dad worked six days a week, sometimes five, bought a new car every few years, and we went on a two week vacation every year.
We had a good life. I can never remember needing anything I couldn’t get. Every year we went school clothes shopping, Christmas was magical, and I left the house in the summer at 8AM and came home at five o’clock. I had my dog, my bb gun and my fishing pole and some worms. My mother didn’t worry about where I was, it was a magical time. My family didn’t know much about stocks, bonds or mutual funds. They had a life insurance policy on my father but that was about it. Life was good. We went to school and received the educations that our parents never had a chance to get. And some of us went on to college, some like me, joined the Army. I’m not writing a biography here. I’m just telling you how it was. If you look back, I’m sure those years, if you are my age (a boomer), were probably pretty much the same for you.
Now I find myself, after retiring from the Army after finally putting together a little less than 21 years (getting out three times). I see people that I know working two, sometimes three jobs, while the mom also works. It seems as if every other person I talk to either has no pension, or the pension they do have has been cut because the company that offered the pension has either been sold, moved overseas, or has gone out of business. I see people working for less now than they did during their 20’s. Very rarely do I see anyone doing well, most people are barely making it.
The Evening News Tonight with Katie Couric had a segment tonight on “Planning for Retirement” I sat in my comfortable lazy boy, out of work because I just had open heart surgery, and the State College that I had worked for could only offer me a job walking three miles a night on the graveyard shift because some girl that was hired after I was had my old job, listening to the reasons why my generation is having a hard time retiring. They told me that most people my age had failed to plan for retirement. Imagine that, we had failed to plan. It’s our own entire goddamned fault! The rest of us, I was told, were so educated, and because we didn’t raise families like traditional families, we intended to work as long as we can because we liked it. Not only that, but since we are living longer, we don’t have enough savings to last.
What the segment didn’t mention was that millions of people saw their pensions gutted by companies that couldn’t keep them afloat after borrowing from them to keep the company itself in business. They didn’t mention all of the companies that went belly-up or moved offshore to a more business-friendly atmosphere. They didn’t mention all of the people that borrowed against their 401K’s to send their kids to college or to pay for medical bills because they had no coverage or the coverage ran out. What really set me off was the next story they had.
The disparity between the executive salaries and the worker salaries, with the executive salaries paid amounting to hundreds of times more for one day than the worker’s salary for one year. They made an example of Yahoo’s Terry Semel who is paid 133 million dollars a year, even though Yahoo’s stock has dropped over 35%. Look, I’m not against anyone getting rich, I’m really not. Everyone should have the opportunity to get rich in America. Isn’t that what capitalism is all about? Still, I don’t see why this Terry Semel should be paid 133,000,000.00 a year to run a company that lost 35% of its value. Meanwhile, I’m worrying about my electric bill because my old job wants me to run a marathon three months after open heart surgery! The Family Medical Leave Act doesn’t apply to me because I didn’t work there a full year. Just what the hell is going on here?
Why is it that this guy can lose 35% of his companies’ worth and still get paid a hundred million dollars and I get fired because I can’t cover three miles a night? Why is it that 10% of the people in this nation control 90% of the wealth? Look at our lawmakers in Washington DC. Almost every Senator and almost every Congressman is a millionaire.
So we go along trying to get along. They start a war nobody wants. They get our middle class kids killed to get their kids a better luxury car for their graduation from their Ivy League schools. We have a President that brags about being a “C” student. We find that our hospitals have two different schedules of fees, one for those that have insurance, and another higher fee schedule for those without insurance. We find that the sub-par mortgage market bubble has broken because those people needing a bit of extra help signed on for adjustable mortgages that started off low for the first few years, and then jump way above prime. The poor people that lost their houses are looked at as people that don’t know how to manage their money, but the truth is, the predatory lenders put them there in the first place. The old maxim, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer has never been as true today at any other time in our country’s history.
Now we are being told that other countries are unloading dollars as fast as the market will allow. Since the day I was old enough to comprehend the world I was always taught that America was always number 1 in everything. Now I find that America is number 1 in the way that it exploits its own people. Things are so much different than they were when I was growing up. We always had the “moral” advantage in world affairs. People that scoff at America forget that it was America that came up with the Marshall Plan. This was a win-win plan for all of Europe. The fact that the old Soviet Union wanted no part of it eventually became the reason for the failure of communism. The Marshall Plan proved that you could be moral and still work towards a profit. We realized that if we didn’t get Europe back on its feet, eventually we would have no one to buy our goods.
It was a simpler time. People could still be as duplicitous as they are now; they could still be as evil and self-centered. It seemed to me that the American people wouldn’t accept some of the things we are so willing to accept now. I have the feeling that we either have people that are freaking out with wild imaginings and that spew out conspiracy theories 24/7, or that what is happening behind the scenes in government and in business bodes badly for the majority of us that just want to live a decent life.
May you live in interesting times.