Social Justice – a Memoir

I am currently reading “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, the latest and likely the best of London’s

Snark, London's Boat

biographies.  Besides being the story of a famous author it has much to say about the social economics of his time which are remarkably similar to America’s current recession.

London was born poor, father unknown, in the San Francisco of 1876.  He could have done worse however in the stepfather he got and whose name he was given.  John London was a kind and hardworking man who loved his stepson, but his health was unfortunately fragile (he had lost a lung) and therefore so were his finances.

Jack’s early days were full more of work than school because he had to help support the family.  Most of his work paid the going rate of 10 cents an hour.  This was the Golden Age of industry and the time of the Robber Barons.  There were no safety

Robber Baron

rules or child-labor laws, or any other limits to abuse.  In his memoirs Jack named his youthful self “The Work Beast”, telling of endless hours of “brutish and dangerous labor to the point of physical collapse”.  Steinbeck’s stories of the Great Depression were no more poignant than London’s real life.

Other Jack London biographies have been written, but this account appears to be the most complete.  So much happened to him at such a young age.  At 16 he had not only been abused by the canning industry but had been an “oyster pirate” and sailed to Asian waters as a seaman, holding his own as a man among men.

When he was 16, desperate to help his family, he hired on to shovel coal for a railway power plant.  Having read Horatio Alger stories London believed that he “. . . could by thrift, energy, and sobriety, learn the business and rise”.  He received $30 per month, provided that he fulfilled a
minimum amount of coal shoveled.  His schedule was 7 days a week, with one day off a month.  His first day it took him 13 ½ hours to make his quota.  “Eventually one of the plant foremen took pity on the handsome teenager and confessed that in the job he was doing for $30 a month, he was replacing not one but two men who had made $40 a month — each.”  Upon hearing this, he quit in disgust.  In his efforts he had sprained both wrists and was to wear braces on them for most of the following year.

London’s story strikes a chord in me because my own father’s youth was similar.  He was

Jack London

Jack London, via Wikipedia

born in 1905, a child of an oilfield worker in Oklahoma and one of four siblings.  It was a rough frontier place and for a time they lived in a tent city.  His brother at age 8 was purposely drowned by a group of older boys who tied his hands and threw him into a “swimming hole”.  (I can find no evidence of an investigation, much less a court hearing, although if there had been, it is still sealed.)  His father (my grandfather) was an an abusive alcoholic whom my grandmother, who ran a boarding house for workers, eventually divorced.  She remarried, but my Dad’s stepfather and he did not get along.  Perhaps he was rebellious because they sent him to a “military” school.  He ran away during his ninth grade, age 15 or so, and made his way in the world alone, much as London had done.

London grew up in the so-called Golden Age.  When he was 16 the Golden Age ended with a thud in the Panic of 1893, the worst depression the nation would ever experience until 1929.  It was caused by overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads which, in turn, set off a series of bank failures and triggered high unemployment – by one estimate as high as 18%.  Eventually 15,000 companies went

Out of Work

bankrupt and 500 banks failed.  Many families walked away from mortgages that were suddenly “under water”.  The Democrats and President Cleveland were blamed and thrown out of office in the election of 1896 as a result.

This sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it?  The Panic of 1893 was caused by the failure of railroads, not housing, but otherwise it was remarkably the same.

Cleveland’s successor was McKinley, probably the most inept President we have ever had.  So much for voter judgement in blaming the incumbent.

Of course, in 1893 there was no safety net, no unemployment insurance, no UTube.  People were on their own.  One man, a Jacob S. Coxey, “began publicizing a plan for the federal government to print currency and use it to hire the unemployed on road construction . . . ”  This plan failed in the Democratic Congress.  “To the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, the prospect of the federal government undertaking a jobs program for the poor was anathema.”

In frustration, Coxey and a man named Kelly organized marches on Washington to protest.  London, now 18, decided to join Kelly and set out East, riding the rails and hitch-hiking his way.  Riding the rails, the rods beneath the cars, is dangerous.  It is a wonder he survived.  He met up with Kelly’s Army in Iowa, but there were further adventures to come.

His luck ran out in Buffalo, NY when he was arrested for vagrancy.  The constable, who made a small commission for each

On The Road

arrest, was on solid ground because Jack was penniless.  At his hearing before one Police Justice Charles Piper he attempted to plead not guilty, to which the Judge said, “Shut up”.  He served 30 days in wretched conditions, saved only by making friends with a more-muscular inmate.  Clearly, the existence of the Bill of Rights was no guarantee of proper enforcement in those times.

There is no question that drastic financial decisions were needed to cope with the current crisis, nor that we as a nation are much better off now than in 1893.  No one is wondering whether they will have anything at all to eat tomorrow, and there are now child-labor laws and unemployment pay (extension of which is being opposed by the Republican minority at this time).  Everything is relative, but to read of London’s experiences is a reminder of just how bad things can get without some oversight and regulation.  Those purists on the political right would do well to read such history and realize that extremism of political views on either end of the spectrum is fraught with serious consequences.

London was lucky in that he was able to complete much of his education, and that he had a talent that made him the most popular writer in the country for a time.  My father was not so articulate, and yet he survived his youth and gave us a stable life.  We never wanted for the basics.  It is notable that because he was always an hourly worker, he never collected a dime in company benefits and it was only because of Social Security that my mother, and my sister who is mentally handicapped, were left with viable means when he died at age 58.

I wish now in the perspective of these many years that I could compare notes with him and ask about the adventures he must have had.  He was 24 when the Great Depression hit.  My parents said they waited to have me until 1937 out of financial concerns.  That’s the kind of people they were.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Economics, Ethics / Morality, Fiscal Policy, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Social Justice – a Memoir

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    While fictional, I recently read a book by Dennis Lehane about Boston in the period 1918 -1920. Similar conditions of poverty, power brokers, robber barons, etc. No safety nets then as well, at least to any degree.

    Since Roosevelt began building such government safety nets in the 1930’s conditions have change, for the better, in many cases. But given our commitment to entitlements over the last 70+ years, one must ask have we gone too far?

    Some say yes, some say no. Some call for NO safety nets at all and consider them unconstitutional. Some just want more and more. The boundaries in the debate are for sure extreme in my view.

    Yet I hear little rational arguments for the middle ground. Just look at mainstream parties ranting against one another from what seem to be extreme positions. While not quite all or nothing, they sure sound close to such extremes.

    As I recently wrote, “Where is the middle?”. More important, where is the candidate for whom to vote between such political extremes.

    That to me is sad and DANGEROUS. And in my view the real danger gets ever closer.



  2. Jim Wheeler says:


    I note that the 1918-1920 period you reference wasn’t even a period of official financial crisis, but rather the beginning of the “Roaring 20’s”. The existence of pockets of real poverty then would seem to make my point, which is a justification for limited government regulation and social programs. Those were significantly lacking then.

    I note in this link:

    that 31 Republicans in the House broke ranks with their party to support extension of unemployment benefits, even though the bill would have passed without their support. I take this as recognition, despite their leaders’ demand that the extension by “paid for” by cutting elsewhere, that cutting NOW doesn’t make sense. And yes, 10 Democrats voted against it, feeling safe, no doubt, that it would pass anyway. Maybe this IS the middle ground on this one??

    Based on your reservations expressed above I am wondering if you agree with the GOP leadership and, if so, what would you cut NOW, with the economy fragile as it is, to get the $34 Billion needed?

    (Note to Duane: I feel a little here like I’m wearing your hat on this one, but it feels rather too large for my head. 😉 Hurry back!)



  3. ansonburlingame says:


    Easy one, Jim (and Duane if you are lurking around). I will take a Democrat proposal (Davis at the forum last Tuesday) and cut the $34 Billion out of the Mac’s as a start for eliminating them altogether.

    Now where is my spell checker, Juan, on THAT one??



  4. Jim Wheeler says:


    I give up. I have looked and can’t find a ref for “Mac’s”. Maybe I erased it. Please elucidate.



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Sorry, it the Freddy and Fannie, the ones that started the GR.



  6. Jim Wheeler says:


    Aha. Well then.

    I fail to see the savings. Based on what I read in Wikipedia here, e.g., [ ] they ARE in government conservatorship and it IS costing us taxpayers billions. If the government dings them that hard, would not that virtually destroy the housing market (by raising the loan rates) just as it’s trying to recover?

    Maybe eventually. I’m thinking that divestiture could only take place gradually after the economy recovers. The challenge above however was to find the $34 Billion NOW. If I’m missing something here, please enlighten me.



  7. ansonburlingame says:


    YOU have been reading Duane too much. Raise interest rates and collapse the housing market??? What we are doing if not falsely propping it up with government money AND propping it up ONLY for those that cannot afford houses in the first place. What is wrong with renting when one cannot afford a house?

    Ah, you say, renting does not allow anyone to “build” an estate. Maybe when you and I were growing up in the Navy and we moved a lot. I made considerable money through little effort on my own by selling houses in an “up” market, moving to a better house at the next duty station and repeating the process for almost 23 years. While my ex wife now has it all, it was a financially rewarding opportunity, even in Washington DC where I was able to own a townhouse inside the beltway.

    Now neither you nor I could buy a pup tent inside the beltway. And if I had the money I would not do so with a level or declining market. Would you invest $500,000 in a declining or stagnant stock? I don’t think we will see a housing market as you and I did in our professional years for the remainder of our lives.

    And you think throwing federal dollars from deficit spending at Fannie and Freddie are going to fix or even modify that problem?

    What are you smoking these days. Now go read “Blistering” that I just posted. I’m on a roll today.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Boy, you really have your steam up all right. Good for you. I like it when the masked visionary stabs the windmills. However (and there’s always a however), the housing market is absolutely massive when it comes to the economy because moving into another house, new or old, always involves all those ancillary purchases and expenses. I know you know that, of course. If it weren’t for little things like public opinion and Congress (which is another form of the same thing), I think your solution would be great. You are actually waxing Libertarian here, I think, and that always has an appeal to me.

      When Duane gets back, I will slide back into the middle. Promise. Meantime, check out my own post – I feel on a roll too. 😀



  8. Duane Graham says:


    I liked your post. I especially liked the little background about your father, who was only four years older than my own. Your sentiment that you wish you could “compare notes” with your father and ask him about his “adventures” reminds me of my own wishes. Boy, there are times I regret not asking more and writing more down about my dad’s youth. I don’t even know what his father did for a living or how soon my dad left home. Virtually nothing do I remember about his early days, even though I am certain he told me when I would ask (I was much too young to commit it to memory, I suppose.)

    In any case, thanks for the piece on London and by extension your father, not to mention the sensible political views expressed both in it and in response to Anson’s dusty political views.

    As usual, Anson is not only misguided about Fanny and Freddy (a subject too long to address right now), he is also (perhaps, Jim, you are too) unwilling to see that Obama himself has staked out the middle ground on many of the issues. Oh, I know that’s too hard for your calloused eyes (you didn’t know eyeballs can have calluses?) to see, but as I have pointed out many times, the left wing is furious with him over several important issues (just look at HuffPo on any given day regarding the fin-reg law, for instance, or the war in Afghanistan). That is at least a clue that his positions are not extreme, even though they are to the left of, say, Glenn Beck.

    And I’ll have both of you know that my “hat” is adjustable, although it tends not to fit pinheads.



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