Brother, Can You Spare a 401(k)?

Nearly everyone has heard the plaintive tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Until recently, the song seemed to be a relic of a Great Depression long gone, when everything was in black and white rather than color, the breadlines stretched around city blocks, and a dime could actually buy something worth having. But ever since the cascade of events last summer and fall that led to our current worldwide recession, the song doesn’t seem quite so quaint anymore. Could our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ plight become ours?

The lyrics are poignant and moving, but they highlight the differences rather than the similarities between then and now. And those differences are not limited to the obvious fact that these days the question would be asked by Congress and large financial institutions. Nor are they limited to the fact that today the request would be for a few trillion dollars of their taxpayer “brothers” rather than a thin dime.

The music for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (based on a Russian lullaby) was composed by Jay Gorney, while the lyrics were written by Yip Harburg, who was later responsible for all the lyrics to the songs in The Wizard of Oz and the Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" became popular shortly before Roosevelt was inaugurated, when unemployment climbed close to the 25 percent mark.

So the main concerns of the protagonist in this song are jobs and food; the basics of life. There is no mention of the stock market crash of ‘29, or the failure of large corporations or banks, although these events had certainly already occurred. The focus is squarely on the individual worker of a particular type: the laborer. This corresponds to the reality of the Great Depression, during which job losses fell disproportionately on men rather than women, and on those in the manufacturing and building industries (mines, steel, autos, construction, agriculture, and railroads in particular) rather than in service, sales, or the professional spheres.

The labor force is a segment of our economy that has for some time now been much smaller than it was before and during the Depression. But it is the segment that strongly predominates in the  photographs of city breadlines of the era, full of men wearing the caps that were the badge of the laborer. These breadlines were run by private charities; there was no government dole at the time. There was also no unemployment insurance and no Social Security; in fact, there was no tradition of government help at all, no public safety net, and no expectation of it. There were neither entitlement programs nor a sense of automatic entitlement. The idea was that an individual ought to be able to fend for himself through labor. The changes in attitude from then to now are profound, and they are partly a result of the suffering experienced during the Great Depression and of the New Deal that attempted to combat it.

The protagonist in the song is a proud person who has been reduced through force of circumstance to begging from strangers. He counters his resultant sense of shame by using action verbs as he describes what he has accomplished in his life: building towers and railroads, plowing the earth, and soldiering.

Harburg, who was a socialist in his youth and was still a man of the Left, began the song by setting up a shadowy “they” who had betrayed a pledge made to the protagonist. What was that promise? Not a handout, but rather the American dream itself: the idea of an orderly meritocracy in which hard work would be rewarded, and where there would be enough to go around to provide at least the basics for all who were willing to sweat to earn them.

They used to tell me I was building a dream …

The lyrics describe the promises made of “peace and glory ahead” by a “they” never identified. Is it the government? The rich? The founding fathers? Employers? Did “they” intentionally lie and deceive, or was the whole thing an unfortunate accident?