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Roland Merullo

An unaffordable future

If the trends continue, there won’t be any room left for a middle class

istockphoto/heather hopp-bruce/the boston globe

I sometimes have a nightmare vision of my kids’ America. In this dark dream, 20 years from now the country bears a terrible resemblance to the America of 1900. There are a small number of bankers and entrepreneurs with opulent mansions on the Newport shoreline (and every other shoreline on all three coasts). And then there are millions of men and women toiling in factories with no OSHA regulations, no such thing as pensions or 40-hour-maximum work weeks. The children of the very wealthy attend college and inherit their parents’ businesses, investment accounts, and summer homes; everyone else finishes 10th grade and goes to work for survival, struggling with poor quality health care or none at all, going to the polls on Election Day with the grim awareness that the political system is controlled by the 21st-century equivalent of cigar-smoking men in back rooms.

These powerful figures — there will be a few women among them, and the cigars will have been replaced by a healthier habit — are the majority shareholders in the five or six enormous corporations that control everything from food production to the cost of cancer drugs, from television and radio news to the price of gasoline. They gather for secret meetings at luxurious resorts. There they calibrate the extent to which the working masses can be squeezed before they rise up and form unions again, and demand some kind of benefit plan, some recourse if they lose a hand in the assembly line.

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This vision might very well be the product of an overactive imagination. I admit that possibility. Imagination is how I make my living, and it occasionally overflows its banks. But my dark dream might also be a plausible extrapolation of actual current trends. I recently had the pleasure of staying with friends on Cape Cod. What a wonderful place, our Cape. What a gift it is to have those spectacular beaches, that luscious salt air, roads like the tree-lined 6A with its bookshops and eating places, its well-tended old wood-frame homes in a landscape of meadows, inlets, and ponds.

My friends took me for a morning walk to the nearby beach and pointed out the huge houses that have been built along it in recent times. They told me a tale I’d heard from other friends on Martha’s Vineyard: Members of the new American elite buy modest shoreline homes, tear them down, and replace them with modern-day mansions. On the road where my friends lived — not one of the Cape’s wealthier enclaves — even cottages hundreds of yards from any beach view were selling for half a million dollars and more.

People with deep pockets have always built vacation retreats in nice places; that’s not a problem for me. The problem comes when I look at the other Cape Cod houses: humble, gray-shingled cottages owned by ordinary middle-class New Englanders who worked hard, saved up, made a smart purchase, and cared lovingly for their 1,000-square-foot retreat. These people were teachers and electric company workers and local contractors and nurses. Will a similar possibility exist for the middle-class working people of my girls’ generation? Will a college education be affordable for their kids? Will laws protecting clean water and air — and our health — have been eviscerated by the votes of desperate masses who just wanted to be able to pay for gasoline and bread?

Crazy to worry about these things, maybe. And yet, I can’t seem to forget my visit to the National Historical Park in Lowell, and the few deafening minutes I spent in a room with working textile looms. Driving through old New England mill towns, I can’t seem to ignore the magnificent Victorians on one side of the brick factories, and on the other side, sagging row houses where the workers lived in something close to squalor. I can’t turn my eyes away from the statistics that show huge jumps in income for the new American royalty, while the middle-class luxuries my generation hoped for — college, nice vacations, a comfortable retirement — slide toward the realm of fond memory. Those luxuries were the direct result of hard battles fought against the greed and rapaciousness of a controlling few. In my darkest dreams, our children fight those battles again.

Roland Merullo’s essay, “What a
Father Leaves,” was released as an ebook in June.
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