You were once Jed Dawson, a farmer in Kansas in 1886 when
nearly half of Americans worked on farms. You�re tough as a leather boot with about
5 percent body fat and hard, stringy muscles. Your wife can drive a team of
horses with her left hand while she cradles the new baby in her right arm. Her
cheeks have hollowed out again since she delivered the third child. The two
boys are old enough to help their mother with the vegetable garden, the
chickens, and the pigs, but neither one is big enough to handle the mules and
You�ve got some acreage in wheat and corn, a small barn, and
a two room cabin you built yourself with a porch and two rocking chairs you
brought all the way from northern Mississippi in 1879 when the furnishing
merchant, Elias Scruggs, took your farm. Scruggs wanted you to stay and work
the farm as a tenant. You wanted to spit in his fat red face, but you didn�t. You
took two of your horses he claimed were his, and your wagon, which he also
claimed was his, and the rocking chairs your wife�s father made, and you never
looked backed. You cursed the crop lien and Elias Scruggs all the way to
But when you think about it, things aren�t much better. As
it stands, if the wheat and corn come in as expected, you�ll make your payments
on the binding machine you had to buy with a chattel mortgage at 28 percent.
You�ll be able to pay what you owe Ewan Tevits at the general store. Then
you�ll have maybe $90 to carry you over to next year and you�ll be back to Ewan
Tevits, hat in hand, paying twice as much on credit as you would for cash. If
the crop comes in as expected, that is. When you look into the future your best
hope is just to hang onto the farm. Unless corn and wheat prices rise, you�ll
never get out of debt. In spite of all this, you are filled with cheerful
resolve and purpose.
Now you�re reincarnated again as a foreman in a poultry
plant outside Kansas City in 2008. Your name is Glen Davis. They gave you the
foreman job because you�re white and you can speak a little Spanish. You�re
big, your wife says, about 32 percent body fat, according to the Weight
Watchers scale, but she�s bigger. She never did lose the extra pounds she put
on after the third child was born. She�s not happy without gardening space for
vegetables and flowers, and the boys complain about the new school. You knew
you were taking on too much house when Dale Scruggs down at Countrywide signed you
up, but she was working then and real estate prices were rising 10 percent a
year. Look at it as an investment, Scruggs said. Better than the stock market.
Real estate prices never fall.
The rate on your no-money-down ARM was due to reset about
the time your daughter was born. You refinanced and then started drawing down
the equity in the house because your mortgage payment doubled. You tried to
sell and get into a smaller house, but no one was buying in �06. You got behind
on the mortgage. When some financial outfit you never heard of started
foreclosure, you wondered whatever happened to Dale Scruggs and Countrywide.
You always thought Scruggs would cut you a little slack if push came to shove
because you went to the same high school, but it was actually some �private
equity group� in California that owned your house. You finally lost it and had
to move into an apartment. You felt like you were on the up escalator going
down. It was a nightmare!
That�s when you started to listen to get-out-of-debt financial
evangelizer, Dave Ramsey, and realize the error of your easy credit ways.
Tevits Toyota World came and took your wife�s new car. She cried more than when
she left the house because it was insult to injury, she said. She�ll go back to
work for the dentist when she can find some affordable daycare, but as you look
into the future, even with what she�ll bring in, you can�t see how you�re ever
going to be able to pay down your debt and get into another house. You never
order out for pizza anymore. Your credit rating is about the same as your belt
size. It�s truly depressing paying off the credit cards you can�t use anymore.
You cut them up, but it didn�t make you feel righteous or liberated because now
you don�t have credit. The co-pay on health insurance is ridiculous. And the
gas prices! You car pool when you can. That�s what Jesus would do, most likely.
At least you have a job, and food stamps.
One hundred twenty-two years have passed, you�ve put on some
weight, you�ve got electric lights, a computer for the boys, a big screen TV,
central heat and air, and a five-year-old Chevy S-10 pick-up that nags you when
you don�t buckle your seatbelt, but you�re still just one of �the people�
clinging by your fingernails to the last rung of the lower middle class. Sometimes
you daydream about living in the Old West, your Colt revolver on your hip, free
as a bird, with some worshipful little kid calling after you, �Come back,
Shane!� That shows what a lousy memory you�ve got. It�s truly just the same old
sour wine in a new bottle and the same cast of characters in different outfits.
So, what�s the problem, Everyman? How do you manage to screw
things up life after life? Did Dave Ramsey save your financial soul by helping
you make a budget, lower your expectations, drive hard bargains with the
collection agencies, and get on a path to a debt-free future? And what about
old Jed Dawson who used to farm the land that your quadruplex sits on today?
Would Dave Ramsey�s sage financial advice have helped him in 1886? Not likely!
It�s also doubtful whether it actually helps you, either, because you�re just
not having any fun and going no place fast.
Jed Dawson worked from dawn to dusk every day and could not
afford to buy his wife some cloth so that she could make herself a new dress
for Sunday church meetings. By and large, Jed and his wife produced what they
consumed. In our mass consumer economy we find it difficult to imagine such
poverty (or such self-sufficiency!), and yet in your technological bubble that
buffers you against the extremes of heat and cold with all the amenities of
cheap and abundant food, indoor plumbing and hot showers, swift and comfortable
transportation, and entertainment with the press of a button, you are not as
well off as Jed Dawson in an important way. In his day, in spite of his
grueling labor, lack of creature comforts, and consumer deprivations, he had
great expectations you do not have. He cherished a hope for real democracy and
believed there was a fighting chance it might come about.
You, on the other hand, do not even have the hope for a real
democracy because you have been told and you obediently tell yourself that
you�ve already got it; therefore, you are not inclined to hope for a democracy
you believe you already have. This is the real reason you are so bummed out,
Glen Davis. Your indebtedness is just a symptom of your underlying life
dilemma: you are told to take responsibility for a life you don�t actually
control. Your mind has been sabotaged and you have been politically castrated
and you don�t have a clue.
The basis for Jed Dawson�s great expectations was an
organization called the Farmer�s Alliance that was just beginning to gather
steam in 1886 and would eventually take on the character of a social movement
called �populism.� Populism advocated policies that were intended to benefit
the people as a whole in a time historians call �The Gilded Age,� when the
power of corporate monopolists dominated the government that was originally
designed to be by and for the people.
Populism does not exist today except in wet dreams which we
forget when the alarm goes off. In the mind of Glen Davis, sabotaged as it is,
the interest of �the people� is served by government programs such as Social
Security, Medicare, and welfare, the so-called entitlement programs talking
heads on television are always saying must be cut. Glen believes he is
generally better off than Jed Dawson because there is a �safety net.� If you
lose your job, you can get unemployment and maybe get some money to get
training for another line of work. If you get injured, you can get workman�s
compensation. And so forth. The safety net is a people catcher. The rich don�t
need a safety net because rich is a synonym for �safe.�
The Democrats assembled this safety net when Franklin Roosevelt
was president during the Depression. These people-loving Democrats call
themselves �progressive.� They advocate programs and policies to benefit the
people who aren�t rich or moderately wealthy, which is about 80 percent of the
These progressives, who are usually members of the
Democratic Party, sometimes call themselves �populists.� They are not, nor are
Part 2 of this essay will explore the reasons why this is
Joseph Danison is a novelist and commentator in
Western North Carolina. Contact him at www.renovationpress.com.