I just got through watching Cinderella Man featuring Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger. Mr. Crowe plays James Braddock, a light heavyweight boxer whose best days appeared to be behind him. The story takes place in New York, New York and parts of New Jersey during the Great Depression. Economically speaking it was probably the worst time in United States history. Like most people during the time Mr. Braddock has hit hard times. He stands in soup lines. He begs from his friends. His health suffers. The last fight he had was so appalling that the promoter, Jimmy Johnston played by Bruce McGill, didn’t even bother to pay him for his performance. Unable to pay the electric bill the lights get turned off. Unable to pay any bills his children go hungry. Mr. Braddock tries to work on the docks unloading pallets but with his hand injured he’s in danger of falling behind schedule and being fired.
His hand heels, but he is still struggling like most of his peers. One day Mr. Braddock’s old boxing manager, Joe Gould played by Paul Giamatti, comes knocking on his door. A fight is scheduled to take place the very next night and one of the boxers can’t make it. They need a last minute replacement. Mr. Braddock doesn’t hesitate and despite the very long odds and absolutely no training he knocks his opponent out. This is the break he’s been waiting for. The victory sets him up for another fight. Mr. Braddock has a string of victories and gets a shot at the champ Max Baer, played by Craig Bierko. During the press conference for the fight James Braddock tells the reporters and photographers something similar like, “We live in a great country, the type of country that will help a man when he is down.” It’s not an exact quote but close enough. And truer words were never spoken.
We do live in a great country that will help a man when he is down. The only problem is that this country doesn’t help every man when he is down on his luck or most men when they are down on their luck. When Mr. Braddock went down to the docks for work there would be hundreds of applicants for each vacancy that needed filling. The American economic system of capitalism is setup to help only one or a few and discard the many. We are constantly hearing rhetoric like pull yourself up by your bootstraps and such. Get good grades and you’ll be a winner. Hard work will eventually be rewarded. But if every kid in grade school got straight As from now until they graduated from college, there’s only going to be so many openings for attorneys, so many openings for doctors, so many openings for engineers, managers, and such. The rest will have to settle for jobs as clerks, cashiers, tellers, janitors, dishwashers, drivers, and such. And even then there will only be so many jobs available. It is a fact of life that a certain amount of unemployment is necessary to keep salaries in check and to keep a good sized pool of replacement talent at the ready when industry comes calling.
For almost any given job opening there will be a multitude of candidates. The employer nearly always has the advantage and their pick of the litter. The only time the candidate has the advantage and a multitude of opportunities to pick from is when unemployment rates have hit rock bottom or when a candidate has gained notoriety and they can capitalize on their fame.
Notoriety is a particularly skewing perception. It’s kind of like when a puppy falls down a storm drain. The networks will broadcast live reports of the dog’s condition coast to coast. The fire department will use the jaws of life and Caterpillar’s most powerful back hoe to break open concrete to rescue the pup. Once rescued people from across the country and their grandma will inquire about adopting that particular dog. But tons of dogs in pounds across America go to their death everyday because no one wants them even though they may be smart enough not to get trapped in a storm drain.
People like to accuse people who criticize the system as lazy looking for a handout. I don’t know if they say this because they actually believe this well worn rhetoric or if they are just so full of revulsion for the message that something is wrong that they are quick to say anything hateful to make the people down on their luck appear unworthy or undeserving or selfish or someone unwilling to work or unwilling to do what is necessary to get and maintain a job. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes it is true that the unemployed and many of the employed but struggling need help. There are people with degrees with phenomenal grades. There are people with years of experience. For whatever reason all they need is an opportunity to do a job. Unfortunately, these people have to compete in a job market full of other people who are looking for a job. It appears that the only way anybody is going to get an opportunity is if something happens to someone else. Like vultures swooping in on the fresh carcass of road kill people will do their best to reap the benefit of someone else’s misfortune.
Until then, like James Braddock, people may have to stoop to begging on the street until they can find that one opportunity that will get them back on their feet. Hopefully, someone will break their leg soon so I can have a job. We live in a great country, the type of country that will help a man when he is down. Unfortunately, that help up that I need is likely to come at the expense of somebody else slipping downward into hard times.