The More Things Change…

Things have changed a lot in my lifetime, so imagine how much things have changed in the last hundred years. Turns out, for all the computers, internet, rap music, women’s lib and online porn of our time, the answer just might be “not as much as you’d expect.” Or at least that was my takeaway from my most recent read, Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells. It was a book I picked up at a dollar store recently, a compilation of articles from Vanity Fair magazine in the early-20th Century.

Vanity Fair at the time seemed to be one of several eclectic magazines which published serious articles, short stories, poetry and I believe photography, though that aspect was missing from the paperback. The book presents a selection of all of the above that were published between 1914 – 1936. As such it gives an interesting time capsule look back from the time of my grandparents. It features some big names, before they were big names – the first published works by Dorothy Parker, essays from Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. Cocteau can be found in the pages within as well as DH Lawrence, pondering “Do Women Change?”. Of course the current events dictate a fair bit of the content – Leacock ponders somberly on the human cost of World War I (to them, just “the Great War”) ; several stories chronicle the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent depression.

Now, I will say that humorous senses were a little different back then. Some of the articles clearly meant to be laugh-enducing satires like Pooh-creator AA Milne’s “Autobiography” left me bored and a bit weary rather than rolling on the floor guffawing. Likewise Dorothy Parker’s series of poems (“Actresses – A Hate Song”, “Our Office – A Hate Song”) and her short story about why she chose to remain single left me thinking she was a great * cranky self-centered person who might possibly rhyme with ‘witch’ * rather than a tremendous wit. But for all that, the one thing which stood out to me was how seemingly current some of the topics were a hundred years later.

In our age of the War on Drugs, British poet Arthur Symons ruminated on the effects of hash and opium on one’s senses. Several stories looked at how to get around prohibition when alcohol was taboo. Those who figure that “Women’s Lib” started with the Pill and burning bras in the ’60s might be surprised to read the Anne O’Hagan story from 1915 entitled “New York Women Who Earn $50 000 A Year”, a description of the many women she knew making that amount or more annually (in excess of half a million dollars in our money) stressing how women don’t have to rely upon men for their keep. And of course, there’s fashion. Sure, women in 1920 didn’t dress precisely like today’s gal-on-the-go, but the changing fashions and in particular the length of skirts was an issue as far back as 1923 – the writer liked the short skirts (which one might guess would be quite modest by today’s standards) – “what the feller in the streets wants is legs” he comments, but he noted how the industry seemed to change the in vogue style from year to year forcing ladies to buy more clothes. Sound familiar?

Likewise, the Wall Street crash led several of their writers to question the wisdom of the “system”, noting among other things bankers always make themselves rich even when their firms bankrupt the masses and how those playing the stock market who get rich point to their acumen and intelligence while those who went broke blame “bad luck.” Not unlike columns we would have read only a dozen years back. Another man tells the story of being an Afghan fitting into American society, something he accomplished but with a stumbling block or two along the way.

Of course a few things are different. There are articles about the wonder of the new form of entertainment known as “moving pictures” and a long essay on that new kids fad, Jazz music, “the only distinct and original idiom (Americans) have”. Even there though, one imagines a twenty-something kid from the city today might write a similar piece about Rap.

I didn’t find the book to be all that entertaining, yet I did read through it though with interest. It presented a good look at life a century back and left me thinking “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” In today’s climate, I can’t make up my mind as to whether that is comforting or terrifying.

Will Big Money Biden Mean Burgers For Billionaires Only?

“I guess Biden’s gonna undo all the good Trump did,” a Republican said to me with a straight face on Inaugaration Day. I resisted the urge to query as to what in the U.S.’s decreased respect around the world or Covid death rate two and a half times higher per capita than neighboring Canada’s there was that was good. “He’s going to raise the minimum wage to $15, then it’ll be $15 for a hamburger.”

There are many things wrong with that assumption. Many, many things, but I find it is a fairly common assumption among the right-wing segment of the population, so I figured it was time to look at the theory.

To begin, let’s look at that idea that he’s bound to do so. While it is true several prominent Democrats like Bernie Sanders made a $15 minimum wage a major plank in their platform, Biden didn’t. And his rise to power was largely facilitated working as Barack Obama’s Vice President. Obama had eight years to increase the minimum wage and ended up raising it by … 70 cents an hour, or about 10%. For better or worse, the last Democrat president did very little to increase the pay of the lowest end of the workforce. It takes a leap of faith to assume that his second-in-command will thus radically change course and more than double it.

However, Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order today regarding a $15 minimum wage. But it won’t raise the national minimum wage to that amount. Instead it only mandates federal contractors to pay their employees at least that much. As long as McDonald’s or Dollar Tree aren’t federal contractors, they can continue business as usual, paying as little as $7.25 an hour in much of the country. Because that, $7.25 an hour, is the federal minimum wage, although a number of states like Florida and Massachusetts have raised their minimums state-wide with no ill repurcussions. In California, the minimum is already $14, so a $15 wouldn’t really make a great deal of difference. Even staunchly Republican Alaska recognize that $7.25 isn’t a living wage and have their floor set at $10.34. For a point of comparison, to the north, Ontario in Canada has a minimum wage of $14, which converts to about $11 when currency exchange rates are factored in, and across the sea, Britain’s is 8.72 pounds per hour, or around $11.75 American.

The $7.25 might have been an adequate, though mediocre, minimum wage when it was set – in 2009. Back in 1968, it was $1.60 an hour… but a buck sixty bought a lot more then than it does now. Back then, gas averaged 34 cents per gallon, the average American car to put it in cost $2800 and the house with the driveway you’d park it in would be in the range of $20-25 000. If the wage had kept pace with inflation since then, it would now be around $19.33 an hour. Little wonder there’s a common perception that the rich keep getting richer and the poor, poorer.

But what about that $15 hamburger? Who could afford that? Well, obviously that would be rather prohibitive and no doubt cut into the viability of fast food chains, if nothing else. But at McDonald’s the golden standard for these types of hypotheticals, I find, the cost of a Big Mac, their prize burger, is $3.99. So even if it doubled, along with the minimum wage, it would be around $8. Still pricey to be sure. But…

…that argument somehow assumes that the cost of your two all beef pattied, sesame-seeded lunch is determined by the wages of the cashier and fry cook and nothing whatsoever else. In fact, needless to say, many factors come into play – the cost of the food itself (beef ain’t cheap!), the rent or mortgage on the restaurant building, the chunk of money the franchisee pays head office to cover advertising, the electricity, and of course, if things work out properly, a tidy profit. In fact, in their fiscal 2018 year, the Golden Arches reported total revenue of $21.1 billion, with a profit of some $5.9 B. That’s a lot of french fries!

It’s also a 28% profit. Google tells us that 10.6% of the fast food giant’s expenses go to wages. Since after profit, 72% of their total money is money they have coming in ends up going out, that means about 7.3% of the total pie (an apple one, of course) goes to the employees. And that includes everyone from managers on down. Their usual starting wage in states with the $7.25 minimum is $8, and many floor staff make more than that. As you can see, even if the minimum wage was doubled overnight, it would still only increase the cost of your Big Mac by 7%, or about 28 cents. And that would be if all their workers were making minimum, which clearly isn’t the case.

So that $15 hamburger… don’t worry about it. In a worst case scenario your four buck Big Mac might become a $4.25 one. In places like Texas or Alabama. In California, the added cost would be far less since they already pay their people far more. But on the positive side, the Congressional Budgetary Office say some 17 million Americans would benefit from such an increase. That might be underselling it, because if 17 million low wage earners suddenly get substantially more pay, they’re going to go out and put it back into the economy. They’re not notoriously big on stashing extra bucks in bonds or 20 year term deposits. It will have a side effect of generating a lot more business for retailers and realtors, and create ripple effects from there. Stores selling more means more work for truckers, more warehouses being built, more warehouse workers being hired on, to spend more in stores…and so on and so on.

I’m not sure I actually would advocate a quick jump to $15 an hour, but a substantial increase is necessary. Perhaps to $10 right away, $12 next year, $14 the year after. It’s not only the kind thing to do, it’s the economically sensible thing. That’s my two cents worth… even if it means I might indeed need to pay about two cents more for every takeout coffee I get down the road.

Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.

Our Towns – Steinbeck Revisited At 10 000 Feet

My latest read has been Our Towns, a travelogue by James and Deborah Fallows. The 2019 book (a slightly updated version of the original which was released two years prior) owes a lot to a favorite of mine, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. It’s an obvious comparison and one the writers acknowledge early on. Both are essentially diaries of jaunts across the length and breadth of the U.S., stopping along the way to see interesting towns and talk to ordinary people. However, for all the obvious similarities, there are differences aplenty too, most obviously the 50+ years which passed between the two.

While Steinbeck famously traveled in his camper-back pickup truck with his faithful dog, James Fallows travels by air, piloting his own small plane, with his faithful wife and writing partner. That in itself leads to some big differences. For instance, while Steinbeck lamented how (even in the early-’60s) cities and landscapes were all becoming homogenized and similar from the road with lookalike fast food places and strip malls, the Fallows wonder at the differences of the landscape from the air. They simplify, for instance by noting that from a plane, the eastern third of the country is forest, the central part nothing but farm fields and the west all desert and mountain, save for a dense cluster of cities along the California coast. The mode of transport also affected how they encountered the land. Steinbeck, driving his own bed and breakfast could move around freely and quickly and often met memorable people at campsites or along the road; the Fallows usually stayed in hotels in their towns and spent a few days exploring, often on foot, talking to educators and business people as often as not.

The Fallows visit a range of cities and towns ranging from tiny – Eastport, Maine, for example, a fishing town and the easternmost point in the country and closer to Canadian cities like Fredericton than the nearest largish American one – to mid-sized ones like Riverside, California and Charleston, WV, and even a couple of large urban areas like Columbus, Ohio. For good measure they also visit a Prairie nature preserve in Montana and a lake in Texas being rehabilitated largely due to the work of rocker Don Henley. The one common thread is that all of the spots they stop at are areas on the move upward; areas which are getting better whether they were not bad to begin with or written off as almost dead and uninhabitable.

They strive to find the small stories of success in those places, and the reasons why. They find some fundamental similarities, but one isn’t political leanings. They note that they stopped in one of the most Liberal towns in America – Bernie Sanders’ home of Burlington, Vermont – and some in the heart of Republican red America, like Dodge City, Kansas. Surprisingly, the successes are similar, and one is an ability of local leaders to put aside national and partisan politics to work together for local good. Allentown, PA for instance, tends to be Republican but went against all “conservative” practises during the recession of the early-2000s and voted to increase local taxes, enabling continuation of the level of social services and policing as well as spend on redeveloping the downtown area. The counter-intuitive strategy worked.

The Fallows find some common threads in the cities doing well. Among them, a good community college training people in job skills that lead to good paying work in the area, a good public library system, public schools which adapt to local situations (whether it’s having expanded ESL classes in areas with high populations of refugees and immigrants or having local high-tech industries bring in people to help work with the kids on real world projects involving science and technology) , and a dedication to reinvigorating the downtowns , which usually leads to a number of cafes, boutiques and art galleries. Art too, is a common denominator, they find, although they admit neither of them were especially artistic types. Cities which thrive have a lively arts scene, from galleries and wall murals on old buildings to small theatre companies.

All that and beer . Yep, local microbreweries or taprooms were the last common feature they found in almost every city they visited; something that improved civic pride, usually resulted in a popular local gathering place and of course, some fine quaffs as well.

Cheers to that, I say, and cheers to the book which is interesting and makes me interested in seeing places I never would have imagined could be interesting, like Charleston and Dodge City. A book I recommend for anyone as entertainment, and to civic leaders for ideas.

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