Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day, Then and Now

A version of this essay appeared on Stonekettle Station several years ago.  I was going to write a new post for 2013’s Labor Day, and realized I’d said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject. I’ve cleaned it up, changed a few words, and added some new thoughts. It amuses me when people talk about the good ol’ days.  //Jim

You ever stop to wonder what you life would be like if you lived a hundred years ago?


Imagine what it was like to be your great grandparents here in America.

A hundred years ago, the United States was in the middle of the Second Industrial Revolution. 

It was a time of wonder and ever advancing technology.

The first Industrial Revolution began in the 1830’s with coal and steam.  The Second Industrial Revolution began in the 1860’s and would last right up until the beginning of World War I. It began with steel, the Bessemer process to be specific, a cheap and easy way to mass produce strong and reasonably lightweight metals.  Strong lightweight steel was the skeleton of the modern age, the core of everything from the new cars to steamships and oil rigs to utensils and lunchboxes, to the machines that manufactured the future, to the finest handgun ever made – Colt’s model 1911, named for its year of first issue and still in production more than a century later.  In 1911 a tall skinny fellow by the name of Eugene Ely landed a Curtiss #2 Naval Pusher on the deck of USS Pennsylvania and took off again – and thus was born naval aviation, a profound moment that would change the very way wars were fought and thus change almost everything else too. Many of the pilots who, a few years later, would fly over the battlefields of WWI carried Colt’s Model 1911.  For the first time, you could buy a Cadillac with an electric starter – and despite the fact that there were still plenty of horses out there on the roads, the car had become so ubiquitous, affordable to almost anyone, that Michigan created the first modern roads when the state started painting white lines down the middle of the more heavily traveled avenues. Electricity itself was no longer a novelty.  Though many factories were still powered by steam, electricity was becoming increasingly common.  The first modern public elevator began operation in London, England, and soon became common everywhere – leading directly to the modern city skyline. 

A century ago America was booming. Her factories were churning out new products at a record pace. The western frontier had all but disappeared – oh, there were still a few bandits and cattle rustlers out there, but the wild wooly west was long gone.  The gold rushes, the boom towns and gun fights were long over.  Hell, Wyatt Earp was living in Los Angeles working as a “trouble-shooter” for the city police department.  He’d fought his last armed battle in 1910 and would soon move to Hollywood as a consultant for the new movie industry. 

It was certainly a marvelous time.

If you could afford it.

If you lived through it.

See, those churning factories were horrible places. 

Most were still powered by a massive central steam engine which drove an enormous flywheel, which in turn powered shafts and belts and pulleys, which finally powered the machines.  And though, as noted above, electricity was becoming increasingly common, most of those factories were gloomy dimly lit dungeons illuminated solely by the light coming in through skylights and banks of single pane glazed windows.  Often boiling hellholes in the summer and freezing dungeons in the winter – both air conditioning and central heating were still decades away – the buildings were filled with smoke and poisonous fumes from the various manufacturing processes, lead vapor, heavy metals, acids, chlorine, bleaches, all were common.  Normal working hours were from dawn to dusk, typically anywhere from twelve to fourteen hours a day, sixty and seventy hours per week for wages that would barely pay the rent and put food on a factory worker’s table.

Child labor was common, especially in the textile industry, though in some states there were supposed to be laws regulating it.  The kids toiled right alongside their parents.  The children typically worked the same hours as adults, but for a quarter, or less, of the pay.  Pictures of the time show children working barefoot among the machines, ragged sleeves flapping near the flying belts and spinning pulleys, squinting in the dim light, eyes tearing from the fumes.  Whole families hired out to the factories, the men doing the heavy labor, the women and children doing the more delicate tasks.

Towns sprang up around the mills, often controlled by the factory owners. Company towns, where workers very often became little more than indentured servants.  Life in a company town was often better than the alternative on the streets or in places like Hell’s Kitchen or out in the fields of the South. Company towns gave workers a higher standard of living than they would otherwise be able to afford.

But the running joke was that while your soul might belong to God, your ass belonged to the company. 

Mill towns and mining towns and factory towns and logging towns were common across America, places where the company owned everything from your house to your job to the church you prayed in to the store you bought your food from. And prices were whatever made the company the most profit, and there was no law regulating what the company could charge or what rules they could impose.  

In fact, in many places there were laws that prevented employees from renting or buying outside the company town. 

The company might pay you a decent wage for the time, but they got a lot of it back too.  Get crosswise of the company and you lost it all.  Get injured on the job and could no longer work, and you lost it all. Get sick, and you could lose it all.  Get killed, and your family was out on the street.  There was no workman’s comp. No insurance. No retirement but what you managed to save – and since you probably owed a significant debt to the company store, your savings were unlikely to go very far.

Of course, you could always take a pass on factory work and return to the land. 

In 1911, millions of Americans were farmers.  Farming was hard back breaking work (it still is, just in a different way) – so hard that seventy hours a week in a smoke filled factory with a high probability of getting maimed or killed looked pretty good in comparison.  The majority of those farmers, especially in the South, didn’t own their fields. They were tenants or, worse, sharecroppers, living in conditions little better than slavery or the serfdom of the Dark Ages.  Of the small farmers who did own their own land or rather owed the bank for their own land, more than half lived in abject poverty.  In the coming decade, the decade of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, most would lose everything.

Most of America was powered by coal in those days and if there was anything that would make life in a factory town or in the sweltering fields look good – it was working in a West Virginia coal mining town. 

It was a race to see what would kill you first, explosion, cave-in, or the black lung.  And just like in the fields and factories, children worked alongside their parents – if they had parents, orphanages were also common. And orphan labor was even cheaper than the average child, both in life and in pay. Renting out orphan labor was a good gig, if you could get it.

You could always become a merchant seaman, if you were a man, though life at sea was damned rough.

You could move west and become a logger, though you’d probably live longer in the mines of West Virginia.

You could still be a cowboy, or a cop, or carpenter none which paid worth a good Goddamn and had the added benefit of a short lifespan.

Since people got sick and injured a lot, and most couldn’t afford even rudimentary medical care, many turned to patent medicines.  The pharmaceutical industry was only loosely regulated, but by 1913 there were some few laws in a handful of states regulating the more outrageous claims for the various elixirs. The big medicine shows were gone, but  there were still plenty of drug store shelves stocked with hundreds of varieties of patent medicines. Some were mostly benign – like Coca-Cola – and some were downright toxic – like Radithor, made from water and radioactive radium.  As late as 1917, The Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, was still making Stanley’s Snake Oil (and now you know where that phrase came from), a poisonous mixture of mineral oil, turpentine, and red pepper. Stanley fleeced sick people out of their money by making them yet sicker and there wasn’t much the government could do to prevent it.

Hell, as late as the 1960’s TV commercials touted the benefits of smoking for sore throats. And, as late as 1970 there were still devices in use in a handful of shoe stores across America that used massively powerful unshielded X-ray beams to measure your foot but could also give you a terminal dose of ionizing radiation in the process.

In 1913, only a few states mandated that your kids attend school, and then only though elementary grades, the factory owners weren’t interested in an educated workforce.

In the South segregation and Jim Crow Laws were in full force and civil rights were decades away. By the first part of the last century, lynching wasn’t exactly common, but it wasn’t exactly uncommon either.  On the other hand, women could actually vote in six states. 

Maybe three out of ten Americans could ever expect to own a home, most would pay a landlord their whole lives. Few had any rights in those relationships either, you paid the owner and you lived with what you got or you got thrown out. Period.

A lot of Americans were hungry. More than fifty percent of seniors lived in poverty, but then the average lifespan was only about fifty-five, maybe sixty if you hadn’t been breathing coal dust or lead vapor all you life.  Few of those seniors had pensions, most lived on the charity of their families – if they were lucky enough to have families.  Sanatoriums were a common place for the aged and infirm to spend their brief final years. 

If you had ten kids, you might expect six of them to survive to early adulthood.  If you were lucky. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, pneumonia, whooping cough, hard labor in the mines and factories and fields, lack of social safety nets, lack of proper nutrition, lead paint, food poisoning, poverty, orphaned by parents killed by the same, would probably claim at least four of those kids. Likely more.


People from that generation always wax nostalgic for The Good Old Days – and then they immediately proceed to tell you why life was so much harder and more miserable back then.


The simple truth of the matter is nowadays, even in this time of economic downturn, we Americans live a pretty damned good life. 

And we live that good life because we’ve put systems and laws and regulations in place to improve life for all of us. 

Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable effect on how long we live, and how well. Regulations governing working conditions and workplace safety have a direct and measurable affect on the probability that we’ll survive to retirement.  Laws that prevent the rich from owning a whole town, or abusing workers, or turning them into indentured servants, or hiring children at pauper’s wages to maintain the machines in their bare feet, have directly benefitted all but the most greedy few. 

The American dream isn’t dead, far from it. 

I’ve been to countries where dreams have died, America is far, far, far removed those hellish places. 

It is a measure of just how far we’ve come, and just how big an impact that those laws, regulations, and social safety programs have had that those who directly benefit from those very same laws, regulations, and programs can complain with full bellies just how terrible they have it.

Things like Social Security, Medicare, Workman’s Compensation Insurance, The Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance, child labor laws, federal minimum wage, occupational health and safety standards, the Environmental Protection Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, The departments of Education and Health, Labor Unions and workers’ rights, and yes, even Welfare, all of these things were created for a reason. For a good reason. For a compelling reason. 

These things were created because when you leave it up to the church and charity to fed the hungry and clothe the poor and heal the sick, a hell of a lot of people go hungry and cold and ill.  It is really just that brutally simple. 

These things were created because when you leave it up to charity and family to take care of old people, a hell of a lot of old people end up stacked like cordwood in institutions. The moldering remnants of such places are all around us.

These things were created because when you leave it up to people to save for their retirement or a rainy day or for accident and infirmity, a hell of a lot of them don’t, or can’t, or won’t.

These things were put in place because when you leave it solely up to the market to weed out poor products and fake medicine and unsafe machines, they don’t, or can’t, or emphatically won’t. 

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to industrialists and share holders to treat their workers with dignity and respect and to pay them a living wage for their hard work, you end up with indentured servitude.

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to devoutly righteous people who go to church every Sunday to decide what is right and proper and moral, you end up with lynchings and segregation and Jim Crow.  You end up with minorities as less than second class citizens. And that is a Goddamned fact.

These things were put in place because when you leave it up to the benevolence of industrialists to decide fair pay scales and safety and working hours, you get child labor at a pauper’s wages. When you leave it solely up to bankers and the factory owners and the CEOs, well Sir, then what happens is they end up owning it all and you get to pay them for the privilege of eating out of their garbage can.

And right up until very recently that’s exactly how it was.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m as big of capitalist as any American, I believe in the free market and I’m opposed to regulation for the sake of regulation and government interference in business for the sake of interference, but fundamentally government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless, otherwise what damned good is it?

The question you need to ask yourself, on this of all days, is what century do you want to live in?


Happy Labor Day folks.


Caveat: One thing to note, no matter how our future goes from the this point forward, good or bad, sooner or later, we’ll be calling the present the good old days. 

I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t maybe try a little harder to make this time, right now, worthy of that distinction.


  1. thank you for that, Jim! i'm a reenactor who is very interested in the sociological side of history, and you've stated in a nutshell EXACTLY why "the good old days" WEREN'T. only the strong survived, and not many of them had much regard for those who were less hardy.

  2. With you til the last paragraph. Capitalism itself is a very delicate dance between greed and governance, free markets don't really exist... I'm not sure why it's so ingrained in us to equate Capitalism with Patriotism, since almost everything you talk about in this post runs directly contrary to the tenants of the most common understanding of such system; but it's agreed, we have come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.

    1. Sure, we like to call it Capitalism but as far as I can tell in our modern era the profits are privatized but the risks are socialized and born by the public whether they're the highways and byways, the bank bailouts or Dick Cheneys' Haliburton.

      Capitalism is one of those terms that must be reclaimed and reframed. It's, quite frankly, a lie.

    2. The word "Capitalism" is being used the same way the word "Christian" is: it sounds good enough to make a good front to cover and/or excuse one's excesses and other non-virtuous actions, AND to smear your opponents.

  3. Thank you once again. I have only one issue with this: at the end of the fourth full paragraph, you refer to women and children doing the "more delicate" tasks. May I respectfully suggest you amend it to something like "less backbreaking"? Because there aren't a lot of delicate tasks in Hell.

    1. I agree, the tasks weren't backbreaking necessarily, but often women and children were used for more dangerous jobs, because of their size. This is seen particulary in the Weaving Mills were children could go between the beaters and the looms picking up all the loose bits of cotton fluff (which reeked havoc on everyone's lungs) and making sure that the loose fibers didn't cause random fires that might cause the Mill to burn down. Many children between the ages of 6-9 years old died when they didn't move fast enough to avoid the beaters. 3-4 year olds were used to climb up chimney stacks to clean them, broken necks from falling 2-3 stories was common for these babies... When I hear some idiot spouting about how kids today don't know how to work, I usually say "Thank the Lord, because they get a chance to be a kid."

  4. This should be required reading today of all days. Too many people don't realize how popular history has be sanitized and are not taught what life was truly like for the majority of people.

    I'm the great-granddaughter of Pennsylvania coal miners.


    1. So am I! My great grandfather worked in the coal mines when he was 9. He eventually moved to Butte, Montana and worked for the union in the late 1800's.

  5. We seem to have forgotten the term "stakeholder." Each of us, no matter what we do for a living (or any other task for that matter) puts a part of ourselves into the tasks of life and soceity. The placement of individual contribution and relative values has become horribly skewed.
    "Community" is not a dirty word - - - though some would like us to think so.

  6. "The question you need to ask yourself, on this of all days, is what century do you want to live in?"

    The 30th...if we survive that long.

  7. Thank you! I always get a massive migraine-grade headache when someone starts waxing nostalgic for life in their great-grand-daddy's time. We need to do some work to make things work better and keep what IS working and care about the poor as much as some apparently care about the rich; but mostly, yes, we don't know how fortunate in time and place we really are!

  8. Thank you for your well written post. I have no desire to go back to the days of unregulated medications, impure food, and employers who don't have provide the most basic of protections for their workers. Labor unions arose for a reason. If the conditions hadn't been so bad for so many people they would have never formed labor unions.

    Carol Griggs

  9. Another fine essay Jim. I read the original a while back and like the update. In many respects it's even more important today to remind people how well off they are as a Society compared to previous eras.

    However, as a European I do find the USA to be a Country of almost institutional dichotomies.

    Before anyone get's their knickers in a twist, let me say that I spend a lot of my time in the USA (and have done during and since my time in the RAF), and visiting is something I love to do. I find the American people to be an open and friendly bunch with far more manners than I tend to experience here in the UK.

    And therein is an underlying dichotomy. American people seem to CARE about one another personally (and certainly me as a foreigner), yet American Society seems NOT to care for its members.

    I am lucky I guess, having grown up with a Healthcare System that is free at first point of use, an Education System that (historically) has been open to even the poorest student (including Further Education at University), and a Welfare System that (ideally) guarantees that no-one falls through the cracks.

    I don't see this in the USA, or at least not to anything like the same level. It seems to me that what we take for granted over here, your Society still sees as profit-making. For example, to me, having Lawyers and Insurance Companies involved in Healthcare seems madness since it must divert funds away FROM the actual caring for the patient.

    Sadly the UK seems to be wanting to follow the USA in this (the unholy make a profit despite any human cost), while the USA appears to be lurching further into the hands of the 'Haves' and screw the 'Have Nots'.

    Finally, for shits and giggles I have to take issue with your assertion:

    "the finest handgun ever made – Colt’s model 1911"

    As an ex- Firearms instructor, Range Officer, and competitive pistol shooter, I would have to say that John Browning's development of the basic 1911 idea was a far better pistol. Furthermore, in terms of reliability, capability, and accuracy the the SiG 210 and its derivatives beat the 1911 hands down.

    I'd say the 1911 is the greatest pistol ever made purely because of its longevity and despite it's many limitations! :)

    Jim, I hope You and Yours have a Happy Holiday .

    1. Every time I field-strip one of my 1911s I'm amazed at the simplicity and straightforwardness of its design. My Les Baers may need a bushing wrench, but my Colts need no tools whatsoever.

    2. I've carried the Sig, and it is a damned fine weapon no doubt. But I prefer the 1911A1 any day. I own three of them. Frankly, if I have to depend for my life on a side arm, I'd rather carry a revolver such as the Colt .357 Python. Given a choice, I'd take a Colt over any other weapons on the market, which is why my gun safe is full of them. But then again, it's a personal thing. I know folks who prefer an M9 Beretta. There's no accounting for taste (or lack thereof in the case of Beretta, bah).

      I say that the 1911 is the finest handgun ever made because nearly every semiauto that came after owes something to John Browning's original design in one fashion or another ... also, it's a good way to find the gun people who read my stuff ;)

    3. @Jim Wright: I have to go with the Browning Hi-Power, mainly because my hands are a bit too small to handle the 1911A1 comfortably, at least off-hand. (The Hi-Power has an undeserved reputation for a "fat" grip, but I recently handed mine - which has Pachmayr grips even "fatter" than the originals - to a friend with seriously tiny hands. His immediate reaction was "OOooh yeah"...being an ex-intel type who'd carried the .45 and an assortment of Air Force revolvers over the years, but somehow never got to play with NATO's favorite.)

    4. I'm with you on this one, Jim. The 1911, hands down, is the finest handgun ever made. I fired my first one in NTCOrlando, in a .22 cal (To save money on ammo and making it easier on those who had never fired a gun before), and have carried one my entire professional life under arms. It has never failed me, and when the Army tried to force the M9 on me, I admit I rebelled. I did petition, before deployment to Bosnia, to carry the 1911 instead of the new M9 (we were transistioning between the two when we deployed). My 1911 had ZERO malfunctions and issues, despite the mud and blood and weather extremes, those who took the M9 had many, cracked slides not the least of them. So yeah, Meh to the Beretta.

      Jeff Lamm, AO3 USN, MPI USArmy

    5. On edit: The only 9mm I'd consider carrying would be the Hi-Power. Browning really knew his stuff.

    6. When i comes to hand guns I too like the 1911 Colt. It has been my friend for many years. It is jealous though because I have a model 28 S&W in .357 that I also like. For most purposes though I'll take my Colt.

  10. As always, sir, you are a genius. Well-written, insightful, and accurate. Thank you.


  11. Has there ever been such a thing as a free market? It seems to me that someone is always going to be laying down the rules - if it is not We The People, then it is the guy with the most bucks or the most guns (or both). The company towns you cite above are perfect examples. The owners made the rules, workers had no power to negotiate or to sell their services elsewhere.
    Today large companies still try to write the rules the rest of us have to live by, and thanks to Citizens United they now have an easier time of it.

    On a note possibly more in keeping with the spirit of this article, just the other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook about a minor frustration of hers ans amended it with the notation: "Yes, this is a first-world problem if ever there was one".
    I now look forward to the opportunity to use the phrase "first-world problem" in a condescending tone.


    1. Free markets were defined in my sophomore economics classes as ones in which all participants were functionally equal in bargaining power and knowledge. I can't think of a single instance in which a modern consumer (or employee) is bargaining with a large company on anything like equal footing. Free markets would be a great thing. We'd probably have to have a much stronger central government to be able to implement such a novel experiment though.

    2. "Free market" is simply used as a code word for "NO REGULATIONS" to allow corporations to do as they place.

      Since nobody would ever say being AGAINST free market, the "no regulations" crowd uses it over and over.

    3. Sorry, I obviously meant "to allow corporations to do as they PLEASE".

  12. Thank you, Jim. We in the U.S.A. and in Canada, where I live, need this reminder.

    May I suggest that we think about whether we are somewhat in the position of the rich and powerful of a century ago, in relation to the poorly paid workers in unsafe factories overseas who spend long hours making products that we insist on buying as cheaply as possible? We can do something about it - we can question where our stuff comes from and support moves to improve wages and working conditions for the workers who supply big corporations with the products we buy from them.


    1. I think you're right; If no one asks, if no one questions, if no one stands up for each other, they'll keep on taking it back.
      Union = community. The basic idea is that a group standing together can speak to power and they must listen. As long as the group is big enough.

  13. Powerful and spot-on. We need to be grateful for child labor laws, OSHA, workers' comp, fair wages, and a host of other hard-won boons.

    I have little patience for people who wax poetic about some golden past -- as your post illustrates, the past had its share of horrors.

  14. Don't forget to accompany the "first-world problem" with a sneering invitation to "check your privilege!"

    That seems to be currently popular here in the UK amongst the twitterati.

    Happy Labor Day to all you fine folk here at Stonekettle,and particular thanks to Mr Wright for sharing his thoughts with us all.

    "Sixteen Tons" seems appropriate (to this Brit, at least.)


  15. Hear, hear!

    One small quibble: "Programs like Social Security and Medicare have a direct and measurable affect on how long we live, and how well." The word should be "effect," because affect as a noun is a psychological term meaning a feeling or emotion (or the expressed or observed emotional response).

    1. Thanks, it's fixed. After I become Emperor of the Universe, first thing I'm going to do is outlaw 'affect' and 'effect' and make everybody spell both words as xffect goddamnit.

    2. I hope it happens soon Jim. I'm getting very old and can never get it wright. Have problems with some ones but we can work that out after you become Emperor, OK? There/their, to, too, two need some work also,too/to. I enjoy enjoy your writing so much and don't care how you right your words. I've lived a lot of those good old days and saw how it affected my parents and grandparents and stories of my ancestors coming to America to have a better life back then. I lived thru the measles, mumps and Polio. Not many of us Post-Polio survivors are left and it is back to affect us again. Just been the last 20 years that the AMA finally realized it was an actual side affect 50+ years later. Their are young adults that have no idea what polio was. Many of these are the ones who are objecting to the vaccines that will stop their children from having to suffer or die from these diseases. Post-Polio Syndrome is just like having polio all over again without the fever and neck pain....the muscles are wasting away and again useless after years of getting them to work and many are back to the braces, crutches and wheelchairs to get around. There is still much ignorance in our first world country. The most ignorant are the people voting these idiots into office taking money from the corporations to vote how they want them to. Those who want to take away all the life saving laws people have worked/died so hard to make laws for our safety and unions that made the work place better for everyone. It won't be long we will be living like our ancestors did and working for the company store!

  16. Just watched repeat of MEN WHO BUILT AMERICA on History 2 channel..should have been titled...Men who OWNED America...as one of them...Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan had an income larger than the U.S budget...and the wages of their average worker was 50 cents..nothing well paid about it...thanks for re-publishing this...Thank heaven to my ancestors who came from Ireland, England and the Ukraine to get a better life...and I am sitting in an a.c. home that I was able to pay for and maintain...and no one is shooting at me...and my water is not poisoned...and my roads are paved...any of those makes the environment better than many other countries...

    Marilyn Ciucci

    1. You must not be in Texas - where we have the largest population of people without insurance and all the suffering and needless deaths that go with that, where we are a "right to work" state and Texas now has the largest number of low wage jobs, where, if you are injured on the job, your workmen's comp does NOT allow you to sue the insurance company that deals with you in BAD FAITH! (so, companies deal in bad faith frequently) and many people have lost and are losing their homes and become homeless, where we currently have about 30 towns with NO WATER (fracking poisons water and long term drought depletes stores rapidly), where our paved roads are being turned back to gravel roads because the state can't afford to maintain the paved roads (no one is talking about the fact that it is MORE expensive to maintain gravel because it constantly must be replaced!), and where our State Education Board likes to rewrite history (truth telling and scientific facts aren't important, religion and ideology, racism and hate ARE) and they demand text books be written to their specifications, so we have an increasing ignorant and hateful citizenry (and our textbooks are used in YOUR state too!) who elect increasingly ignorant and hateful politicians. As for air conditioning, as Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan famously said in 1866, "If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell".

      Before I give the wrong impression, I am a sixth generation Texan. We are NOT a "first world country" here because even the wealthy must live in a society full of the unwashed "lazy" or in some other way "undeserving", poor. We are an "occupied" state. We are occupied by malovent avarice. We are the dog that consumes its own tail, so the hunger is never cured.

    2. Well, RHM, its still better than Texas in 1913. Even with our crappy education you can still drop out of school at 16 and get a job on an oil rig for a far better wage than fast food. At 21 and with same dropout level education you can still drive a truck or repair HVAC (there's a stable profession and marketable skill in Texas). As for the Jesus-stan folks, poor white trash voting against their own ignorant self interests, etc.,it could be worse....you or I could live in Oklahoma. Even when Texas was dominated by Democrats it was still pretty conservative. That won't likely change. I'm generation 5 in Texas and hopefully have raised Gen 6 to be a good citizen of her state. Twain said I'll take Heaven for the weather and Hell for the company. I'll take California for the weather and the politics, but Texas for the brisket and enchiladas. Think I'll stay.

      And Jim, I'll have to agree on both the 1911 and the Colt revolver, provided I can find ammo (still hard to get in Texas).

  17. My mother was born during the Great Depression, and all of her immediate family worked chopping cotton and picking whatever crops that were available. She never let us (three Baby Boomers) forget where we came from, nor how easy it would be for us to go back to. This seems to be a lesson far too many of us have chosen to forget.

    Great Essay, Jim.

  18. Carly Simon said it repeatedly: "These are the good old days."

  19. What really pisses me off is hearing working people, actual dues-paying union members, in fact, talking about how labor laws are strangling America, and how unions are no longer necessary. Well, I guess if you pay no attention to history, are proud of your ignorance and deal in faith-based labor theory that you've been fed from those who would love to take it away from you, hell, who ARE taking it away from you, then I guess life is . . . good. Go ahead, I say - give up your overtime pay, your weekends, your eight-hour work day and any paid vacation, worker's comp, health insurance, pension or retirement or sick leave you might have and please take a look at how real income is declining against the cost of living. Go ahead, I say. As Jim would say - "I'll wait".

    1. People used to look at unions and say "Look what they've got- how can I get that too?". After years of propaganda, now it's become "Look what they've got- how dare they have what I don't?". And that's a damn shame.

    2. That is exactly how the argument has been twisted; as I said - I've met union members who are anti-union. I implore them to resign and negotiate their own wages and benefits, and wish them luck. The conversation sort of peters out at that point. They simply can't see the obvious good it's done them and haven't thought it through. They have bought the conservative fairy tale wholesale.

    3. Drives me nuts to hear some of my fellow union members bad mouthing the "cost" of the union.

      I see a war underway between the public and private sector, and union and non-union. We will soon be a nation of uneducated serfs, working only for the convenience of the wealthy if we don't take some serious action.

    4. I grew up in Florida and lived much of my life in Texas. Unions aren't really a thing in either of those places. And still I have always had the benefits of a regulated work week, overtime pay, workman's comp, etc. I sincerely thank the men and women who marched and fought and not infrequently died to establish those things for us. I'm ashamed that this country has forgotten how much those socialist unions did to make this a fit place to live.

    5. "actual dues-paying union members, in fact, talking about how labor laws are strangling America, and how unions are no longer necessary".

      Reminds me of taking daily prophylaxis while working in Africa to prevent malaria: when one is NOT sick, taking daily medication can become easy to forget at times, and it can even become deemed as an unnecessary drag after a while.

      One is still NEVER immune against the problems without it, no matter how long it's been in place!

  20. Jim, when I come to power, I shall appoint you Secretary of Outstanding Essays. You shall have the entire might of the US DoD at your disposal. Unfortunately, it isn't looking so good for that, despite my earnestness, so - in the interim, carry on.

  21. Excellent article.

    As a comment, I believe that when people long for the past, it's because they usually see themselves as one of the "haves"--I mean, it's not so nostalgic visualizing oneself as a child who loses an arm in a cotton mill at 9 and is dead by the age of 12, or a sharecropper who's sick with tuberculosis.

  22. The truly frightening thing is that a certain portion of the political spectrum is trying to take us right back to those "good old days". and they have been moving us in that direction as real wages go down, more people work part-time, and more are denied benefits.

    Henry Ford famously opined that he needed to pay his workers enough that they could afford to buy his product. Walmart and their ilk have twisted that philosophy back to the company-store model: pay them so little they can't afford to shop elsewhere.

    But what can you expect from a company that changed their corporate logo from a happyface to an asspucker?


  23. Also the system of economic and financial regulation which allowed—for about 30 years in the period 1950-80, and to a lesser extent for nearly 30 years following—the vast majority to have enough economic security to plan their lives without fear of a sudden depression impoverishing them, or a boom leading them to overextend themselves and leaving them high and dry when it ended.

    The idea that "government exists to protect the weak from the ruthless" is a modern one; you won't find it in the political literature prior to the 19th century, I think. Or else it is a very old one: noblesse oblige. And the idea that people could organize, and have their government protect them from the boom and bust of an unregulated economy is 20th century. Before Keynes, it could be observed, for instance, than austerity didn't work, or that booms were destructive, but no-one understood why, and economic advice--usually coming from the rich to the powerful--all ran the other way; instead of healing the problems of an unregulated economy, it aggravated them.

  24. Jim,

    I think your essays will become required reading at our house. The 13 yr old, will now be required to read and think. Just think if your essays were required reading maybe we wouldn't have to put up with advances in stupidity brought to you by greed!

    By the way my favorite rifle is the M1. I know she is old and heavy. What I like about her is what you hit stays down. If you don't hit your target just the sound of the incoming rounds is enough to make you take cover.


  25. Reading your column and the comments that accompany it has introduced me to some book titles old and new that I have enjoyed. What comes to mind is "We The Living" by Heinlein written in 1938-39 and not published until after his death. Preachy, teachy about economics as are most utopian fictions. Interesting what he saw looking forward. One of the others is Fred Reed "Nekkid in Austin" who writes lovely rants. Thanks to you and your commenters.

  26. I find it interesting that when I posted a link to this article on Facebook it was like and shared by people on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Maybe there is hope.


  27. I think you may be partly wrong; that several parts of the dream HAVE died. The problematical bits are:


    Part of the dream is about opportunity, "Work hard and you will get ahead". Now while it is almost always necessary to work hard in order to get ahead, there is even less assurance that you will (in your lifetime) be fortunate enough to do so. You also now have to be lucky enough to be gifted with intelligence, or successful parents, or just that "being in the right place at the right time" thing that successful people who actually have worked for it, talk about so often.

    More often people are ahead because they started with a huge head start and didn't blow it fast enough to lose it entirely. This has to do with that economic sacrament of "increasing productivity" which gives us growing production with diminishing employment. More of it isn't always a good thing for a society, and LESS isn't always good either. Balance is good but what is the stability equation?


    We aren't in anything like a participatory democracy anymore. The words of Franklin "a Republic, if you can keep it" have proven out. We didn't keep it. One might attribute the loss in several places; the cost of our elections is merely a symptom. Personally I regard the most important cause of this to be the adoption of debt backed money and the fractional-reserve banking system. Others may point at the Supreme Court ruling that permitted corporations to have the same "free speech" as actual citizens. The first-past-the-post balloting arrangement comes into it for still others. There are a number of contributing factors, but it matters little now; the result is that we have lost the ability to elect and retain good leaders. The choices are almost invariably between bad and worse and cream isn't the only thing that floats.

    Yet you aren't wrong in spite of those points. Most Americans still BELIEVE in the dream and aren't aware of what they've lost. Sleeping and Comatose states may both support dreams. Will we wake up?


    (Andrew Jackson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild ; what did these men have in common?

    All in one way or another told us that bankers should NOT be in control of the creation of our money. )

  28. Uh, oh, Jim.

    Grammatically speaking, "I’m as big of capitalist as any American" should be "I'm as big of A capitalist as any American" or "I'm as big A capitalist as any American."

    On the other hand, no you're not. None of us are. Thinking that is the unfortunate effect of years of unopposed corporatist propaganda, to make the little guy think he is part of the power structure.

    Jes' sayin'. :-)

  29. Fully agree on the 1911, sometimes you find something that just "feels right". Besides any machine where maintenance can, at times be reduced to "run string through trigger guard, dunk vigorously in kerosene (or MEK)" has a lot going for it, from the start.

    Also, for all their problems, I like modern life and times. One of my grandfathers went from driving mules on a farm, to mining coal (that and cigarettes finally killed him) to working in a factory and got see men walk on the Moon. I like my life much better, even if it appears kind of crazy it could be far worse.

    Thought for a minute you were going to launch into a monologue about "the real Navy", if you find it, let me know, I've been hearing about it for decades but haven't caught up to it, yet.


  30. I have kids in school. My youngest, in 3rd grade, my ex wife's step kids (We're a close knit family in spite of the divorce) in 8th grade, and my graduating High School daughter. I'm very involved in their schoolwork, and the thing I've noted in that an NONE of their levels, in their studies, is the discussion of the history of the labor struggle in this country. Theres no mention of the aerial bombing of Pro Union workers, the machine gunning of innocent women and children in the tent cities, not even a mention of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire for goodness sake! And to a child, when I tell my kids about these things, they're flabbergasted! They want to know why they're not learning these things!

    It's no goddamned wonder we're having to fight these civil rights battles again every 50-100 years, because the 1% are actively killing the teaching of our history for the purpose of returning to the Gilded Age.

  31. My Mother always responded to the 'old saw', them were the good ol' days with but one statement! Just what the hell were they good for. Growing up in the Depression, she endured corn mush for breakfast and fried mush for supper. No lunch.
    I worked for a time in a foundry. The sun entered the skylights and never made it to the floor. Then the dust collectors were mandated, BY THE EPA. Sun now could penetrate to the wood block floor.
    I retired from the coal fired electric generating industry. I have COPD and nueropathy, from coal dust and flyash, airborne ash from the burned coal. This crap polluted my lungs and my blood stream in the form of heavy metals.
    I was a union member all my working career except for the last 12 years during which I was a supervisor. I also served as a representative of my Union.
    I don't suppose many of these anti-union folks understand just what a union is. ALEC is a union. The Chamber of Congress is a union. A marriage is a union.
    Congress is a union, of sorts, that is what a gathering of baboons is labeled.

  32. I believe you meant "Workers' Compensation", because women can use it, too.

    Other than that, excellent article.

  33. I wouldn't consider anything from that time the "good old days" simply because of today's modern advances in dentistry (and medicine, of course). All of the above-mentioned are paramount but I shudder to think of what butcher my mouth would've subjected me to, IF I had been able to have even seen one. Knowing my ancestral genes have likely never been part of the "haves" class, my teeth would have been dealt with in a fashion that scares the bejesus outta me just thinking about it.

    Pam in PA

  34. Those "good old days" you talk about is what nowadays corporations call "FREEDOM"... Just consider a recent discussion on Fox: "If we live in a free country, companies shall then be allowed to discriminate"


  35. As Billy Joel said in one of his songs: "the good old days weren't always good and tomorrow isn't as bad as it seems."

    I'll stick with trying to improve today and not trying to turn back the clock.


  36. Whenever I hear someone talk about how great, or free, or just how much better it was back in the old days, I ask them to specify a time and place. Often, this is where the conversation ends, as most people don't like to examine such things closely with someone like myself who actually can do so. People remember the good things of the past (especially if they didn't live through those days themselves and got their info secondhand), and often selectively forget all the BS. This is true for 'serious' things ("the economy was so much freer and better before all those pesky regulations") and 'not so serious' ("music was a non-stop series of brilliance back in the [X decade]ies")

    Also, it's good to remember that many times, a statement like "I just want to go back to the '50s/'00s/whatever" really translates to, "I just want to go back to when (pick your minority or outgroup) knew their place."

    Lastly: Jim, I just discovered your blog a few weeks ago via link from either LGM or Balloon Juice. I am enjoying it immensely. Keep up the great work!

    Captain C

  37. @Anonymous/Captain C:

    I gotta admit, I'd like to go back to some of those years.

    I'd like to go back to the pre-Depression '20s, when my working-class grandparents were able to buy their own house on one salary (in the LA/San Fernando Valley area, no less.)

    I'd like to go back to the mid-'50s, when both of my parents could attend a premier university (UCLA) virtually for free (living costs aside), regardless of their wealth and social class.

    I'd like to go back to the '60s, when our country was the leader in technological advance...and simultaneously, at the younger level, realized that that wasn't all there was to life.

    I'd like to go back to the '70s, my childhood, where even in the aftermath of Nixon and the watery, unfocused future of Carter there was a burgeoning recognition of racial, sexual and social equality that is still imprinted on my brain and soul.

    I'd even like to go back to the '80s, my teenage years, where you could still dance to the music and guys' clothing didn't all look like it was dipped in Navy coffee before sale or wear.


    I don't want to go back to the hideous conditions that produced the Depression in the late '20s.

    I don't want to go back to the smug insularity of the '50s.

    I don't want to go back to the Vietnam War and the brutal racism of the '60s.

    I don't want to go back to the shallowness and malaise of the '70s.

    And I damn sure never want to see another Reagan. (Or Zubas. At least on me,)

    We can acknowledge, and seek to regain, the best in our past, without ignoring the worst. But we'll never regain the best without shedding the worst.


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