Director Baz Luhrmann’s version of “The Great Gatsby” jettisons jazz for hip-hop, puts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text in 3-D and has a modern multimedia-marketing campaign that might make even the jaundiced Jay Gatsby blush.
But the most notable special effect isn’t from Luhrmann, but from us. Eighty-eight years after “Gatsby” debuted as a novel, today’s America makes some of the themes seem as current as ever.
To be sure, these aren’t the Roaring Twenties. Today’s gentry consumes, but not as conspicuously. Youthful irrational exuberance might mean an Andy Warhol-themed Bugaboo baby stroller instead of Gatsby’s yellow Rolls-Royce. Weekend wear in the Hamptons (or, for Gatsby, “West Egg”) means bicycle-shorts spandex, not spats. And parties are more muted than the riotous, ribald versions in the film (maybe because they serve Bombay Sapphire — not bathtub gin).
But what seems so similar is the inverse equation between equities and inequality.
In fact, the day after “Gatsby’s” advance screening, stocks advanced, screaming past a 15,000 close on the Dow. And the housing bubble is rebuilding. Home sales just had their best quarter since 2008. The Wall Street Journal, newspaper to today’s Jay Gatsbys, has noticed. Its weekly homes section? “Mansions” (Gatsby wasn’t subtle, either). Last week’s “green homes” focus wasn’t the obsession Gatsby had with the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, but the separation from more modest homes, and lives, is essentially the same.
Yet concurrent with the bull market, bearish prospects for younger Americans — so celebrated in “Gatsby” — paint a much bleaker picture than the screen’s 3-D decadence.
The United States superseded Europe in the percentage of young adults without jobs, according to 2011 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data analyzed by the New York Times. Nearly 27 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are not employed — a larger percentage than countries usually associated with youth “on the dole.” This depressing decline accelerated during the Great Recession. As recently as 2000, the commensurate figure was 18.5 percent.
Of course, this isn’t the only misery metric, as evidenced by relatively recent Pew Research Center studies like “A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy; Declines for the Lower 93 percent,” which reports on the unequal “recovery.” Or “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier,” which says that 85 percent of those who describe themselves as middle-class say it is harder to maintain their standard of living since a decade ago. And echoing a famous Fitzgerald line, “Yes, the Rich Are Different” calculates that 65 percent of Americans say the income gap has grown over the last decade.
The gap may soon be a gulf for retirees. Ronald P. O’Hanley, president of asset management and corporate services at Fidelity Investments, made news when he warned of a “looming catastrophe.” Said O’Hanley: “I’m not sure what would be worse — millions of elderly unable to house and feed themselves … or the intergenerational strife that surely would erupt if young people are forced to lower their standard of living to pay for our failure to act in a timely manner to avert this crisis.”
Strife from income inequality is already present, according to a 2012 Pew poll, which said that “nearly two-thirds of the public believes there are ‘very strong’ or ‘strong’ conflicts between the rich and poor — an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009.”
These perceived conflicts, and the stark statistics about income inequality, haven’t resulted in political consensus. In fact, U.K.-style austerity, not safety-net spending, seems to be the centripetal force of Washington’s debate.
And, culturally, we seem to celebrate the invented Jay Gatsbys much more than James Gatz, the poor North Dakotan he really was. On TV, it’s Donald Trump and the Kardashians with reality shows, not nurses or teachers or civil servants. True, some working-class characters have come to symbolize society, but often because of danger (“Deadliest Catch”) or dysfunction (“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”) or deviancy (“Breaking Bad”).
The new “Gatsby” film reflects this, too. Sure, there’s the core moral about financial (and all-too-human) hubris, destroying livelihoods and lives. But what’s marketed aren’t the “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Instead, the enduring image is the excitement of excess and of wealth, not values. Or, as Fitzgerald more gracefully concludes: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And then one fine morning — so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the past.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter @ rashreport.