US has own version of 'Downton Abbey'

By JOHN HAVELOCKFebruary 2, 2012 

Aren't we all having fun watching "Downton Abbey," the English soap that traces the squiggles of English class structure in the early 20th century? Well, study it well because an American version of the same is in the making as real life.

The national administration may actually do something about the extremes of wealth and poverty that have been our lot the last half dozen years or more, though it seems improbable even under Obama and impossible under any of the alternatives. Whether or not this inequality is addressed through reinstated estate taxes, serious adjustments to tax rates, or what have you, the class of billionaires and multi-millionaires that has been created in the last decade is here to stay and there are half a million of them who are fabulously rich.

For Americans, the models closer to Downton Abbey are the characters generated by the "Gilded Age" of late 19th Century America when similar tax structures and social policies (or the absence of them) led to an equivalent variety of multimillionaires whose life styles mimicked the English but with greater extravagance and reduced sensitivity to good manners.

For all the Carnegies, DuPonts, Harrimans and Rockefellers, there were hundreds more, characters sketched in Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," who lived lives pampered by servants, yacht crews, hotel and restaurant staffs. In a bash typical of the over-wealthy, Cole Porter imported the Ballet Russe for a birthday party. While some left money to memorialize the family name in charitable foundations, they rarely forgot the need for multiple millions for their children, grandchildren and more remote descendants.

These are now the "Old Money" aristocrats of wealth, some choosing to live relatively modestly, others less so. It is not as "in" as it once was to crowd the shorelines of Narragansett Bay near Newport, Rhode Island, with a giant mansion for summer escape from New York City, since (private) air travel has opened global opportunities, but those long driveways up from electrically controlled gates to 10,000 square foot mansions are now common throughout the United States if only a few examples exist in Alaska.

We are in for a wave of "New Money" newly minted aristocrats that will commandeer ranches of thousands of acres, retain armies of security guards, gardeners, exclusive personal trainers, stable attendants, caretakers, chauffeurs and hundreds of more categories of servants to suit the pleasures of both the idle and not-so-idle rich. The incomes of these servers will be listed as part of the Gross National Product as if they were actually producing something.

There is plenty of money to carry wealth from generation to generation. It remains to be seen whether the world of nonprofit foundations will grow when donations are not driven by the belief, still around in Carnegie's time, that spreading a little money greased the eye of the needle.

By what mechanism did the new rich get such a vast advantage on the rest of us? Did they work harder, said to be the way for a good American to get ahead? A few maybe, but not that many in the sea of people who work very hard but do not get ahead. Are they more brilliant?

A few examples come to mind who happened to get to an idea first and with the help of a grandly generous American patent law, were able to establish a monopoly. The ordinary path to wealth is through figuring out how to squeeze money out of an enterprise in which those who do the work are given a minimum share of the value produced. Nobody gets really rich without exploiting the labor of others. That's the way it happens.

But as "Downton Abbey" shows, or pretends to show, we are all, or almost all, quite happy to participate in the trickle down economy that, over time, creates firm class distinctions, often recognized in official titles. There is a certain comfort in knowing one's place as the butlers, cooks, maids and servants who manage servants in this popular TV show illustrate.


John Havelock, a former Alaska attorney general, is picking up tips for the new world from his cousin, actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham in PBS's Downton Abbey.

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