In the 1936 film My Man Godfrey, an oddly well-spoken “forgotten man” whose temporary lodgings are a city dump, finds himself the object of a game played by a pair of rich sisters, one of whom takes a fancy to him. Seeing in Godfrey a project, or “protégé,” the more likable sister decides to give him a leg up by making him the family butler.
Wackiness ensues, which is why films like Godfrey were called “screwball comedies” and were particularly popular during the Great Depression as a way to mock the well-off and console the not-so.
I was put in mind of this minor classic after reading the Forbes magazine list of the 400 Richest Americans. The biggest news is not that Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is No. 1, which constitutes the worst-kept secret in the history of subterfuge, but that a former reality-TV star fell off the list for the first time in 25 years.
Sure, celebrating mega-success is as American as defaulting on your student loans, but what is the real purpose of such a list? To rub the working class’s collective nose in its relative destitution? To sow envy? Is this a kind of upper-crust gossip?
Or could it be a way to celebrate creativity, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the American Dream?
There’s nothing wrong with extolling success, even excess success. After all, kids will always need role models and Bond films will always need villains.
But what if some intrepid journalist were to do something counterintuitive and highlight those who have the least among us? What if Forbes – or for that matter The Atlantic or Mother Jones or Portable Restroom Operator – in a whimsical mood decided to publish a list of “The 400 Poorest Americans.” No explanation as to why. No hint of virtue-signaling to those who believe there shouldn’t be billionaires to begin with. Just a list. With the listees’ permission, if obtainable.
What do you think the reaction would be?
The Left: “This is poverty porn … The 1% needed a new high … We have a new scarlet letter, but instead of A for adultery, it’s D for destitution … This is exploitation, humiliation for entertainment purposes … They’re only poor because the Gateses and Bloombergs are rich!”
The Right: “Oh boo-hoo. The poorest Americans are actually richer than most Europeans … This is what a life of drugs and booze will get you … There are skatey-eight hundred entitlement programs out there, that my taxes pay for … Where are their families? … Why don’t they just get a freaking job? Businesses are desperate for help!”
And so on.
Let go of knee-jerk judgments for a minute, because I’m betting most of us can think of a critical time in our lives when if just one thing had gone terribly wrong, we could easily have found ourselves, if not under a bridge, certainly under someone else’s roof because we could no longer afford one of our own. Just one thing, like a devastating autoimmune disease that struck like a thief in the night. Abandonment by a spouse. Loss of a well-paying job because of management’s mismanagement. A pandemic that resulted in having to shutter the small business you had poured every last dollar into.
Assume there are Americans whose reactions are not so predictably party loyal or ideologically committed, and who could see in such a registry of the threadbare an opportunity. An opportunity for encounter.
Let’s say Jeff Bezos came face to face with the No. 1 guy on the Poorest Americans list. Let’s call him Bob. Bob used to be a pretty mean carpenter until an accident severed his hand from the rest of his body, and, having no insurance and no union, he currently sits on a milk crate at the corner of Market and Broad asking passersby for coffee money. Oh by the way: Bob was a pilot in the Air Force many moons ago.
Now Bezos doesn’t owe Bob, a complete stranger, anything. But I’d be curious what that encounter would be like. Who would be more uncomfortable? What would they talk about? Space flight? Well-made bookshelves?
“A lot of people hate me,” Bezos might say. “A lot of people hate me too,” Bob might reply.
What if Bezos and Bob hit it off, and the former took the latter under his wing. And what if it turned out that Bob had a thing or two to teach Bezos. The interesting question is, who would be the protégé of whom? Maybe each would see a little of the other in himself.
You see, the interesting twist to My Man Godfrey isn’t that a down-and-outer ingratiated himself with the idle rich, and vice versa. It’s that Godfrey was both himself.
Spoiler alert: Godfrey (played inimitably by the late great William Powell) is a Harvard grad and was a man of some means, until a broken heart left him suicidal. But just as he’s about to throw himself into the East River, he encounters a community of “forgotten men,” what Americans of the era would have called hobos or derelicts. But they were not always so. This is the Depression. Some are in dire straits owing to no unforced errors.
“The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job,” Godfrey tells a friend.
Godfrey’s encounter is not really with fat cats but with himself. By living among both the very rich and the very poor, he sees possibilities he would not have discerned previously. By using untapped resources, he’s able to employ an entrepreneurial and market-oriented solution to at least one short-term but nevertheless severe problem.
So what if the 400 richest “encountered” the 400 poorest? What ideas could be sparked or conversations started? What would it take to make the poorest less poor? Not rich. Just stable. Coping. Un-desperate.
We’re living in a really remarkable economic time. There appear to be more jobs than workers. Yet the number of homeless-populated tent cities seem to be increasing. Despite the rise in the minimum wage, about 37 million people still exist below the poverty line. What’s really going on? Surely, as Joseph Sunde has written, these strange incongruities predate COVID. Is there a more, I don’t know, human element at play that macroeconomics can’t detect, but a little empathy and less blame-gaming could?
What if my Encounter Project became so successful, each one-on-one connection bearing fruit over time, that different 400 Poorest names popped up the next year because each listee from the previous year had done too well, thus falling off the list? And what if that kept happening year after year? The 400 Richest would probably stay more or less the same, with the occasional Social Media Influencer making a debut. But the 400 Poorest were all vanishing like Baptists in a Left Behind novel or waiters at my local diner.
Yes, the poor we will always have with us. But the poorest?
I know, I know. That stuff only happens in the movies.