Downton Abbey Economics

Downton Abbey is a soap opera in period dress featuring an appealing cast of easily recognizable stock characters involved in absurd relationships set against a background of cartoonish social mores.

The show is a hoot. I love it. I find the underlying economics of the show’s Crawley family especially fascinating.

The Crawleys live in their ancestral home, a monstrous heap of stone that any sensible person would leave in a flash to escape the heating bills. The number of Crawleys who actually dwell in this white elephant varies at any given time from four to seven. By a rough estimate this comes out to about one Crawley per 5- or 6,000 square feet of living space.

To fill the vacuum of their days in this palatial pile these puffed up aristocrats do occasional social work, go to funerals, and anguish about personal misfortunes the rest of us can only aspire to. Mostly, however, they spend their time changing outfits to go places where they associate with others of their kind, shoot hapless birds, ride small animals to extinction, and get mixed up in the affairs of their employees.

These employees are also the economic justification for their existence. The Crawleys don’t work, you see. They don’t manage property. They don’t manage other assets either, tawdry stuff done by stuffy professionals they employ to do it for them. Their only visible means of support comes from marrying rich foreigners (Americans mostly), inheriting directly from their own clan, or somehow glomming the undeserved inheritances of other people.

And what do the Crawleys do with this money? The activity they prattle about that in their view helps the economy? The economic justification for lives that might otherwise seem, even to themselves, flagrantly parasitic?

They hire personal and household servants, Maids who clean. Cooks who prepare meals. Footmen and butlers who open doors and serve at table. Personal body servants who bring breakfast in bed to m’lady in the morning and fix her hair when she’s going out, and male equivalents who not only get m’lord’s jacket from the closet, but assist him getting his arms through the garment’s sleeves.

It’s a soap opera, right? So why do I find this kind of economic activity so interesting? Because I think I might not just be seeing a bit of Old England’s past, but a preview of America’s own future.

What we have going on these days on these shores is the gradual squeezing of wealth and opportunity from the middle class, a gradual further impoverishment of the poor, and an ongoing enrichment of a relative few on the top.

When enough is squeezed from the bottom and the middle to enrich the few above, there will naturally come a time when doing household and personal service to jumped up money-based aristocrats becomes preferable to less desirable modes of prevailing employment. Preferable, at least, with service to families like the Crawleys. who have a rather paternal attitude toward “their people.”

Sound like a future at odds with everything our national past has led us to hope for and expect? That’s only because the intellectual hirelings at conservative think tanks have still not managed to convince an absolute majority of Americans that such service is the real Morning In America, the Real Opportunity Society, and the only real bulwark against Socialism.

I have seen the future. It’s on PBS on Sunday nights.

Oops. Have to go. The downstairs bell is tinkling. M’lord needs someone to pour his nightcap and help him on with his jamies.

I mustn’t displease. I don’t wish to lose my place — here at a secure bottom.

(Two novels by this writer, Fifteen Feet Beneath Manhattan and The Bellman’s Revenge, are now available from Amazon)

5 Comments

  1. While I agree the plutocrats would like to take us in that direction there is a big difference between England then and the United States. The servants of Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs was they had never known another way and in fact “service” was an aspiration.

  2. RB, while I tend to agree that service was an aspiration it is all in the way you frame the work.

    Say you just sold your internet business to a major player for a payout in the mid-to upper- hundreds of million dollars. But the acquiring company didn’t want everything, so you, having the nice pay out, decide that you will keep that portion of the business going even though you know it will never make any money. Since you live in a small town and were a major employer you’ll try to keep as many of your old, loyal employees on at the new company as you possibly can.

    The employees are free to leave the new company of course, but you ask them to stay and help build the new company. Since there are so many employees and not enough work to keep them all busy at the new company you might ask them to do some things that are a little outside the general business of the new company. You ask a couple of the employees that use to maintain the lift trucks and other company vehicles if they could maintain your growing stable of cars, and the old grounds keeper if he could stop by the home a couple times a week and mow your lawn since the new, smaller facility doesn’t require as much keep up. All paid, of course, by the new company. Before they realize it almost all of the 40 or so employees at the new company are doing some work around your growing estate.

    I wish I could say this was all just hypothetical, but this is what an acquaintance has done. He sold his B2B internet company several years back for an unbelievable amount of money, and decided to be the benevolent business owner and try to keep as many people employed as he could, all it would cost him was a couple of million-a-year or so. As he put it, those employees made him more money than he could have ever imagined, it was the least he could do for them.

    He expanded his home to some 12,000 sq. ft, built the 30 stall “garage mahal” (all those construction jobs), and has a “staff” of around 40 that now include a full-time housekeeper and chief. The last time I visited him the “chauffeur” parked my car, washed and vac’d it out while we visited. I was met at the door by the “butler”, and met with his “personal secretary” to schedule the next meeting. It wasn’t anywhere near the level Mr. Carson would expect from the Downton staff (closer to Willie Loomis from the recent Dark Shadows remake), but I was shocked how many people were working there, and how happy most of them were to be doing it. And the really incredible part? His new business, the one that at would never make money, will probably break even this year, and he already has an experienced staff that knows what to do, even if a few of them have expressed interest in staying on at the house rather than the company. Now if he can get by without the chauffeur…

  3. What we have going on these days on these shores is the gradual squeezing of wealth and opportunity from the middle class

    So stop squeezing? Rein in the entitlement state, and emancipate the middle class from the increasing burden of paying social security benefits to rich retirees, pouring trillions into an unaccountable health care system, lavishing pensions on government workers, paying college tuition for the upwardly mobile, and subsidizing super-size mortgages for well-off homeowners.

    Or don’t. Keep screeching in horror about any such proposals, and look at the bright side: at least those butler jobs won’t be at risk of being moved offshore.

  4. Hi Dr. J,

    I hope you’re not implying that the writer of the above post — me — is just a screecher who follows an officially programmed agenda.

    You say “rein in the entitlement state.” Well, that’s a meaningless phrase so we’ll just move on.

    Cutting Social Security benefits to rich recipients? I love that idea. Been saying it for years. Great way to make Social Security less regressive.

    Reforming the unaccountable healthcare system? Sure. That’s what Obamacare is doing to a limited extent. Not enough, but a start.

    Cutting retirement benefits of government workers? I can maybe go along with that — if you can be more specific. Which benefits. By how much. Which workers.

    Paying college tuition for the upwardly mobile? If only we really did that instead of making a debt-based class of our young people.

    Cutting taxpayer subsidies for super rich housing. Another proposal I favor.

  5. Michael, no, I don’t mean to imply you personally screech against entitlement reform. It was more a characterization of Democrats generally, and frustration with the urgency and political stalemate we have over fixing any policy that benefits some sympathetic constituency, no matter how much of the middle class’s money it siphons to the rich or simply wastes.

    If I’m going to take you to task, it’s over the implication that a private aristocracy is the main thing keeping the middle class down.

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