We were discussing Arthur Miller the other day. Miller was born into the pre-income tax world of the Manhattan elite, a world where his family lived with servants and summer homes on the coast; a world that vanished overnight in the crash of 1929.
Miller's family became so impoverished, Arthur had to sell bread on the sidewalks while walking to school each day to earn a few pennies, (and they had no school feeding programs in those days, so the 14 years-old Miller could sell food and still go hungry himself the rest of the day).
Three decades ago, when I graduated high school at the age of 16, I worked a typical set of jobs for minimal pay, drove my car the many miles I needed to commute to work in my rural community, and paid for either cheap apartment, sublet, or rooming house on my scrape-by wages until I joined the army on active duty at 17. Often my work consisted of night shifts, small retailing like gas stations, or working construction, millwork, or cutting meat or kitchen work. Most of it was extremely dirty, loud, dangerous, or stoop labor.
Today neither I nor Mr. Miller would be able to make ends meet in America. Anyone attempting to sell items on the street in NYC without the plethora of permits and licenses--and all the necessary paper hats and plastic gloves--would find themselves in the bowels of the criminal justice system, firmly entangled in a never-ending slew of fees, fines, programs, and courts.
No sixteen-year-old today could ever pay for their state-mandated car insurance on the wages of any full-time, minimum wage job, let along pay for rent, gas, or necessities on top of all the other expenses. Strange isn't it? How auto insurance rates increased over 500% in the years since government passed legislation making it a criminal offense not to have it? As I recall, the law was supposed to lower costs due to everyone paying their share of the burden, instead, having the loaded gun of state authority pointed at consumer's heads, insurance companies have no incentive to do anything but profit.
No sixteen-year-old today could work full-time without a state permit, nor could they sign contracts for renting an apartment, purchasing aforementioned insurance, buying said car, or work at jobs like milling, meat cutting, or in a overnight gas station (all illegal now), oh, and I frequently sold cigarettes, tobacco, and alcohol, none of which a sixteen-year-old can do now.
Well, so what? You reply. A young person can still wait tables or something right? Wrong. My own friend's seventeen-year-old (high school graduate, attending college), was unable to work more than four hours a day at a local eatery, why? Labor laws forbidding "minors" to work more than a certain number of hours during a "school week". The fact that he wasn't a high school student didn't matter. Also, despite being in college, he was forbidden to do kitchen work, cutting meats or working around cooking equipment being too dangerous BY LAW, so he could only run a cash register, clean up, and serve tables...but only for three hours or so a day.
I hear complaints about a welfare society, but no one complains about the legal barriers placed against people pursuing their own work. Ordinances forbid families from operating home businesses, but cities and towns are watching as housing developments become ghost towns and zombie houses rot on their foundations. Business interests erect barriers to prevent competitors, yet bleed revenue because without income, no ones buying. Employers need workers, but can't pay to have someone work a third of a shift a day, who comes with the baggage of possible state legal action if they break some arcane regulation. Young adults particularly, are barred from meaningful employment, because "they're supposed to be" living some All-American Fantasy School Life that doesn't exist, where stay-at-home mommy and gainfully-employed, single job daddy are waiting at home at five for them to return from baseball practice after school.
The reality of the situation's a little more grim than that.
And freedom? When did you ever think you were supposedly free?