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America's Downton Abbey Economy

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The BBC's Masterpiece series Downton Abbey certainly gives us a moving picture of how the top one percent in England lived before, during and after World War I in the early 20th century. Putting its family soap-opera aspect aside, it also gives us a refracted but nonetheless useful metaphor for how the U.S. economy has been evolving as we have entered a new century. Put simply, we too are facing changing times but for the moment, like Lord Grantham, our top one percent is fighting hard to hold on to the "old ways" that have brought them over 80 percent of the economic benefits generated by our economy over the past decade.

In the Downton Abbey world, the basic premise of the landed aristocracy's privileges parallels the "trickle-down" approach to economic growth promoted by the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, the Koch brothers and other propagandists for what they view as today's downtrodden rich. Lord Grantham honestly and earnestly feels a responsibility for the economic welfare of his tenants and staff, and understands his duty to carry out those responsibilities primarily by providing them employment (but not at any particular minimum wage). Instead of unemployment benefits, the social "safety" net of Downton's time was the workhouse. Today, advocates for trickle-down economics deny that extending unemployment relief is necessary, propose to turn schools into workhouses for the poorest children so that they could pay for their hot lunches and learn the benefits of a free-market economy.

Lord Grantham laments the hit to his estate caused by the English death tax due on his son-in-law partner's demise, just as Stephen Moore rails against today's estate tax on CNBC as an excruciating burden on those with accumulated wealth of over $5 million that somehow was left out of the various family and other trust structures that avoid death taxes altogether on billions of dollars of capital gains -- recently highlighted in the Wall street Journal.

The Downton women (both upstairs and downstairs) still lacked the right to vote, but the Downton advocates in U.S. state houses like Texas busy themselves passing voter ID laws that create voting roadblocks for any woman who has changed her name due to marriage -- a strange strike against conservative values in a state known for embracing them politically. Downton lived by an ethos that denied employment to homosexuals and forced those on staff with such inclinations to live in stifling secrecy and fear. Today -- despite much progress on extending basic human rights to the LGBT community -- many states still legally permit employment and other discrimination based on sexual orientation. Forces in American society continue to fight on talk radio and other forums for a sort of Restoration of Downton values: just as the Abbey's one Irishman must overcome routine, blatant anti-Irish bigotry, today we hear the star of another TV show about a Dynasty ("Duck," in this case) speak out on how the blacks he knew were better off when they were officially segregated from whites.

Confronted by a new Pope who raises hard questions about the oppressive effects of free-market economics on the poor, today's Downtonites openly attack his good faith and knowledge of economics. Note that Lord Grantham was horrified by the idea that his own granddaughter might be baptized into the Roman Church -- even though he had grudgingly accepted her father as his estate manager -- but at least in his case his antipathy to Catholicism wasn't based on its support for an economic safety net for those not living in castles or owning all the land.

Today's kings of their castles object strongly to raising the minimum wage for the first time in nearly a decade during which real incomes of the middle class and poor actually declined over nine years. The proposal is timid enough for even Victorian times: per hour pay of $10.10 by 2016 would only amount to a constant dollar equivalent of 1960s wages, according to The Financial Times of London. That newspaper also noted that the average age of those earning today's minimum of $7.25/hour is not in the low 20s as many assume but rather at the "family breadwinner" age of 35 -- about the average age of the downstairs staff at Downton!

To expect heads of households to get by on $10,000 per year in the free market in America is roughly equivalent to the oblivious expectations of the castle class in England of 1914. Yet many of the same political leaders who warn of the dangers to a free economy of paying low skilled workers beyond that $7.25 pittance, and urge putting poor (notice not rich) school kids to work with no compensation but their lunches, are the same ones who are the most anxious to involve U.S. military in the Mideast to prevent Al Qaida's turn-back-the-centuries agenda from putting women and children back in their servile place.

Lord Grantham didn't understand fundamental economics. Neither do those who today argue that higher minimum wages kill jobs growth. No such thesis has ever been proven certainly didn't do so in the Bush Administration, which lost jobs only when the Wall Street system collapsed. The hedge fund players who enjoyed the privilege of phony "capital gains" carried interest tax rates when they had no capital at risk turned out to be far more dangerous to the free market than overpaid McDonald's kitchen staff. Mrs. Patmore, as it turns out, is not the enemy of capital preservation. It was rather Lord Grantham or more precisely his high class economic advisors who talked him into improvident "sure ting" investments. The good Lord was in fact "bailed out" by his American wife, and taught economics by his middle class heir and Irish chauffer son-in-law (no doubt a minimum wage employee).

In the most recent Downton chapter, the erstwhile but clumsy Mosely must get his unemployment benefits from the generosity and ingenuity of the ever-ready Bates. Rand Paul, staunch opponent of extended unemployment benefits, would call Mosely 'lazy" for having lost his valet job when his boss died in an auto accident. But Mosely did seek work assiduously and wound up serving not tea but asphalt as a pothole-filler to make the streets of Yorkshire safe for the one percent-er's new cars. But alas that work was at the 1920's "minimum wage"!

America needs a Bates.