Thursday 21 May 2015

Second Gilded Age

Change come slowly like the ocean
But it keeps on coming nonetheless
Take my hand, oh dear companion,
We may not find happiness,
But peace and then some real contentment
And a measure of social justice;
Change come slowly like the ocean
But they can’t stop the tide
And they’re never ever going to stop us.

            I wrote that song in 1994 just as the US was heading into Clinton overdrive - an unprecedented era of optimism and job growth. Alas, we’ve had two recessions since in our boom and bust economy. Change, how are you!

            I need hardly mention that the last Great Recession destroyed the financial security of millions, culled the middle class, and seemingly cemented income inequality.

            One would imagine there would be a broad-based movement to redress these wrongs and restore a cherished American ideal - that “all men are created equal.”

            It’s not that the subject is under wraps – far from it, politicians of all ideological shades condemn income inequality. Republicans trot out their usual tired panacea of cutting taxes, regulations and the deficit; much of this has been tried in Europe with alarming consequences.

            Indeed, had President Obama not pushed through an anemic stimulus back in 2008 we’d still be mired in our own low-growth recession. It’s hard to understand why the US has not been borrowing money at the current low rates and investing it in the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Rates will rise, bridges and buildings collapse, and it will all cost a whole lot more to repair them in the future.

            And what of the Democrats? Many talk a good game but the closer it gets to election time, the faster they bolt towards a fiscally conservative center.

            The battle against income inequality will not be easy when it’s finally joined but the sooner we get a start on it – the better.

            Raising the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour ($8.75 in NY) is a no-brainer.  No recipient will hit the jackpot even if the rate is increased to $15 as demanded by some. Should you think this increase too drastic then consider that the aggregate of Wall Street bonuses last year was nearly double the total earnings of all Americans working full time for federal minimum wage. Talk about a gilded age!

            Even an annual increase of a dollar an hour to the minimum wage would help drag many workers above subsistence level, eventually reduce the cost of programs like food stamps, increase the tax base, and inject some much-needed spending into the economy.

Costs would rise, but most economists now agree that a reasonable increase in inflation would actually be advantageous for the economy. More than anything, though, it would restore the notion of the American Dream, an aspiration badly missing in so many sectors of current society.

The recent Great Recession has allowed corporations to ride herd over the vast majority of their workers. Think about it! How long since you received a raise? Or rather, how long since you even thought of requesting one?

            Adjusting for inflation, a majority of workers were better off in the 1960’s. The constant drive to cut workers and wages has decimated the middle class.

            This is no anti-Capitalist rant! Despite an almost constant upsurge in corporate profits over the last six years, stockholders – on the whole – are not reaping commensurate higher dividends. Multi-nationals prefer to park their profits overseas rather than repatriating them and paying the requisite taxes - and dividends.

            Is this all a new phenomenon? Hardly, the robber barons of the First Gilded Age cut a mean deal for the masses. However, Americans in the Progressive Era did elect politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt to challenge these titans and enact legislation that led to regulation and change. 

            Teddy Roosevelt was no radical. He was an aristocrat who saw that the system would buckle if it didn’t promise every American a “square deal.” We’re approaching the same watershed moment.

Politicians will talk about income inequality until the cows come home. Our job is to demand a detailed plan from each of them on how they intend dealing with this cancer of income inequality that’s eating our society in this Second Gilded Age.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Roy Orbison Changed My Life

            The word spread like wildfire up the narrow streets and down the mucky lanes – Roy Orbison was coming to Wexford! 

            It wasn’t that we were unsophisticated; Brendan Bowyer and Dickie Rock had jammed the Parish Hall on many occasions. But Roy Orbison was a horse of a different color – wasn’t he the next best thing to Elvis!

            However, we were uncertain of the etiquette for such an occasion; normally we danced to showbands for four continuous hours. The Parish Hall Committee soon set us straight: a local band would play until Mr. Orbison arrived from Arklow where he was engaged to do a similar 40-minute show. He would then move on to Waterford for a final late night performance.

            We were informed that we should not dance while this legend was performing but give him the same rapt attention and reception we afforded President John F. Kennedy on his visit in 1963.

            I was very relieved by the non-dancing edict as I was going through a rough patch with the fair sex. “Hooking up” was tremendously complicated in those distant days, as 99% of this activity was initiated in dancehalls where a strict protocol had to be observed.

            It began with requesting the pleasure of a lady’s company for a set of three dances. In those scant ten minutes of twists, two-steps or waltzes you were expected to beguile her with your manliness, comedic chops, and career prospects. Should she have found your presentation acceptable it was then incumbent upon you to request her company for a further set.  

Unless she had fainted from boredom during this second set you then inquired if you could buy her a “mineral;” if she accepted, you escorted her to the balcony. It was usually plain sailing from then on: you walked her home at the end of the night and were rewarded with the chastest of kisses.

            I knew the routine; the problem was – none but the lame, the overweight, and the criminally insane would dance with me. It wasn’t just me – most girls wouldn’t dance with any of my friends.

            To be declined thirty times in the course of an evening was routine for a young man. Many of these refusals were courteous enough, although I remember one lady stating that she would be delighted to dance - if I could find her a partner. Another was more to the point, merely muttering, “Would you ever shag off!”

            I don’t know why women of that generation were so choosy. My grandmother proclaimed that she had never refused a gentleman a dance. My mother too seemed puzzled but reassured me that I’d “grow out of it.” 

The Parish Hall was packed when Mr. Orbison’s backing band took to the stage. They were obviously English for they gazed upon us much as my grandfather did when appraising poorly castrated bullocks.

            They then began the intro to Pretty Woman and we craned our necks as Mr. Orbison strolled on stage followed by an assistant bearing his guitar. A vision in shades and gold lamé suit, the legend stretched out his arms not unlike Jesus on the cross. The guitar was slipped over his shoulders and he began to sing.

            Oh, what a voice! At the song’s conclusion he stood stock still while we cheered as though Wexford had just wiped the floor with Cork in the All Ireland Hurling Final. Mr. Orbison then proceeded to string together one after another of his hits.

            He never acknowledged us and it was hard to say if he was enjoying himself but we were exultant. Some even compared the experience to witnessing the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes.

            The set built to a climax with a rousing reprise of Pretty Woman, and suddenly Mr. Orbison was gone without a word of farewell. A committee member later confided that he was at least 2 miles down the road to Waterford before we gave up roaring for an encore.

            I looked around the hall. The mirror ball still spun and the local band had begun playing. But something had fled and with it my ability to accept thirty refusals a night.

            Soon after I emigrated to New York City. Roy Orbison had apparently set me free.