‘Frankenstein’, on Winning.
‘DeathRace 2000’ (1975)
“NOTHING GETS BETWEEN ME AND MY CALVINS.” ON A THOUSAND BILLBOARDS across the country, this line appeared over model Brooke Shields, provocatively posed closing the first (or was it opening the last?) button on her shirt. It was a taboo-busting ad, and not just because it invited us to imagine the still underage Shields minus her briefs. It was taboo-busting because it. was inviting American women to spend $50 on jeans at a time when a pair of Levi’s could be had for less than $25.
Blue jeans were adopted as the uniform of the young in the late 1960s, a time when young collegians felt—or felt, that they ought to feel—solidarity with the oppressed and toiling masses who (they imagined) wore these pants to work in fields and foundries. “The unvarying style of Yale today,” wrote Tom Wolfe in 1968, “is best described as Late Army Surplus —- Visible at Elm and York are more olive-green ponchos, clodhoppers, and parachute boots, more leaky-dye blue turtlenecks, pea jackets, ski hats, long-distance truck warms, sheepherder’s coats, fisherman’s slickers, down-home tenant-farmer bib overalls, coal-stoker strap undershirts, fringed cowpoke jerkins, strike-hall blue workshirts, lumberjack plaids, forest-ranger mackinaws, Australian bushrider mackintoshes, Cong sandals, bike leathers, and more jeans, jeans, jeans, jeans, jeans, more prole gear of every description than you ever saw or read of in a hundred novels by Jack London, .Jack Conroy, Maxim Gorky, Clara Weatherwax, and any who came before or after.”
Wolfe, naturally, took a deeply cynical view of the message these socially concerned young Yalies were trying to send. Was it entirely a coincidence that they chose to dress like a member of the working class of half a century rather than like the real poor a few blocks away? “They did it wrong! They did it lame! They never bothered to look at what the brothers on the streets were actually wearing!… A lot of the college boys, for example, would go for those checked lumberjack shirts that are so heavy and wooly that you can wear them like a jacket. It was as if all the little Lord Byrons had a hopeless nostalgia for the proletariat of 1910, the Miners with Dirty Faces era, and never mind the realities—because the realities were that by 1968 the real hard-core street youth in the slums were not into lumberjack shirts, Can’t Bust ‘Ems, and Army surplus socks. They were into the James Brown look. They were into ruffled shirts and black-belted leather pieces and bell-cuff herringbones, all that stuff, macking around, getting over, looking sharp …. If you tried to put one of those lumpy mildew mothball lumberjack shirts on them—those aces … they’d vomit.”
So when Calvin Klein hiked his prices, he was only admitting what everybody had quietly known all along: Jeans were not poor man’s clothing.
They were worn by the middle class not because they were cheap and durable, but because they were sexy. And the conclusion that Klein—and Gloria Vanderbilt and all the other designers of designer jeans—drew was that if they could be made sexier still, they did not have to be cheap at all. So Klein cut his jeans to flatter a woman’s hips and reintroduced the leggier stovepipe pant in place of the leg-hiding flare. The oldies who had never liked jeans in the first place and the young radicals who saw them as a political statement grumbled—when the Andy Rooney style of curmudgeonly humorist wanted to complain about money losing its value, designer jeans were always Exhibit B, right after the notorious $5 novelty “pet rock”—but the women of America quickly made Calvin Klein a very rich man.
Klein flourished because he spotted an important trend early. A generation earlier, the coveted objects of upper-middle-market desire had been cheaper versions of things only the very rich could have: silver tea services and pink-and-white Wedgwood teacups; Buicks with plastic dashboards printed to look like burled elm; antiqued brass front-door knockers copied in two-thirds original size from English country homes. Since the 1970s, the upper middle of the market has hankered instead after costly versions of things that everybody has: leather-upholstered trucks; $200 hiking boots; gigantic digital television sets with stereophonic speakers; coffee brewed from fine beans; white-truffle pizza. Once the upper middle aspired to look like the very rich, only on a more modest scale. Since the 1970s, it has aspired to look like everybody else—only much more lavishly.
Of all the absurdities in the history of the Law of Unintended Consequences, this must be the grossest. The upheaval of the 1960s aimed—insofar as they had an aim at all—at democratizing social life. Every time a boss gets his own coffee instead of asking his secretary for it, or a professor chats chummily with a student, or a child calls an adult by her firstname, or a client wears an open-necked shirt to meet his banker, or a teacher overlooks spelling mistakes in her students’ work, the egalitarian spirit of those heady days wins a small retrospective victory. The great rebellion against stuffiness and snobbery was supposed to have finished off the absurd middle-class infatuation with the demarcations of status, the gradations and striations that supposedly distinguished them from the common herd. Bye-bye to the pink-rosed Wedgwood. Good riddance to the plastic burled elm. Off come the doorknockers. The bum’s rush to the relentless pursuit of gentility. Yet, barely a decade later, here was the Bronx- born son of Leo Klein and Flore nee’ Stern, reinventing gentility for the New Age.
One had to be subtle about it of course. To the undiscerning eye, the only difference between a pair of Calvins and a cheaper brand was the tiny white-and-black tag on the right-rear pocket where the red-and-white Levi’s insignia would otherwise have been sewn. As upper-middle-class Americans opened their wallets to purchase the trappings of the new gentility, they explained to themselves and their friends that what they were seeking was not status, but quality.
The wonderful thing about quality is its invisibility. Hand-roasted and home-ground $30-a-pound Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans yielded a drink that looks exactly like Maxwell House. Nobody could accuse the couple who drank it of preening. It was an expenditure known only to themselves—and the small circle of their friends who could taste the difference and understood how much that difference cost. Ditto for the greenish Tuscan extra-virgin olive oil and the crusty loaves of Eli Zabar’s bread. Ditto for the Timberland boots.
Better still, investing one’s surplus dollars in quality rather than in status avoided the need to keep up those uncomfortable old-fashioned appearances. One of the standard comic bits of mid-century was the plight of the ordinary Joe suddenly come into money. “Between ourselves,” an anguished wife in a P. G. Wodehouse novel laments of her husband, “Mr. Steptoe is a hick. … He hates dressing for dinner. He says collars scratch his neck and he can’t stand the way stiff-bosomed shirts go pop when he breathes I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Steptoe, if left to his own unbridled instincts, to show up in a turtleneck sweater.”15 But cast aside the ideal of gentility, and a man who came to dinner in a turtleneck was a positive Beau Brummel. No more stiff entertainments in what previous generations of anglophile Americans would bite their lips to remind themselves to call the “drawing room.” No more cooling disgruntled immigrant girls into trying a little harder to emulate milady’s maid. No more fumbling with black bowties for a night at the local symphony.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the home life of upper-middle Americans at the end of the century, as compared to fifty years before, is how very much more emphasis it puts on effortlessness. One reason for the shrinkage of the formal living room, architects explain, is that clients demand that their homes be arranged so that they don’t have to feel bad about shlumping around in their sweats—and who wants to shlump in sweats atop a Louis Quinze sidechair? Sipping beer out of the bottle, munching popcorn out of the microwave bag, and watching golf on a 72- inch screen: That’s luxury, yes, but it’s a very democratic luxury, one that Imposes on its beneficiary none of the irksome obligations to act his part that were shouldered by the well-to-do half a century ago.
Maybe not so coincidentally, at exactly the moment when the upper- middle was modeling its behavior on those below, the lower-middle was being extended the perquisites of the classes above. What bank regulators call “revolving credit” remained very much a rich man’s privilege through the 1960s. As of January 1968, commercial banks carried only about $1.4 billion worth of credit-card debt on their books—about one-twentieth of the value of the U.S. auto-loan market. Between January 1968 and January 1982, consumers’ credit-card debt skyrocketed by almost 5000 percent, to $63.4 billion. (It’s now $576 billion, or about 25 percent bigger than the auto-loan market.)16 By 1980, there were more than three and a half cards in circulation for every adult in the United States.17
Moralists have been scolding Americans for over-borrowing since the days of Benjamin Franklin. But Americans figured out equally long ago that borrowing made good sense in their bustling country. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was financed with retained earnings. A cotton mill circa 1820 cost relatively little to start and in good years yielded such fabulous profits as to pay for itself in months. The industrial growth of the United States, however, was financed by credit on a scale never seen before, and not for nothing did the man who managed the flow of that credit into the United States from Europe, J. P. Morgan, become the most famous businessman of his day.18 Almost every great American fortune was earned by men who could borrow the equivalent of hundreds of millions of nineties dollars without a pang: Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison. One of the rare exceptions, John Jacob Astor, is said to have regretted on his deathbed that his aversion to debt had prevented him from buying even more of Manhattan Island than he actually did.
Borrowing is a means by which the future’s wealth is shifted into the present, and people’s willingness to borrow is an indicator of their faith in their prospects. As urban living standards bolted upward during the boom of the 1920s, the first form of consumer credit—buying on the installment plan—was introduced. The shock of depression taught an entire generation of Americans how dangerous borrowing could be, but as the long postwar boom rolled on and on, the specter of depression frightened them less and less. The Franklin National Bank in New York introduced the first credit card in 1951. The Bank of America unveiled the ancestor of today’s Visa card in 1958; a consortium of smaller banks rolled out the ancestor of MasterCard in 1966. Suddenly, you too could be a Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Edison—and with inflation every year repealing between 5 and 12 percent of the value of your debt, indebtedness to purchase furniture or other hard goods made sense even for the least well off. Self-denial was becoming downright irrational.
With demand for credit growing, it seemed more and more intolerable for the federal government to be choking off the supply. Since 1934, federal regulators had set a maximum permissible interest rate on consumer bank deposits. (In the summer of 1974, with inflation in double-digits, that maximum was 7.9 percent on a four-year deposit of a minimum of $1,000. Short-term and small depositors were paid even less.) This was the famous Regulation Q, and its effect in inflationary times was to prod depositors to withdraw their funds, forcing banks to squeeze credit, thus touching off a recession and, in theory, ending the inflation. But the politics of Regulation Q in a consumer-credit economy were unsustainable. Imagine telling millions of credit card borrowers that their maximum balance was being stashed because depositors were withdrawing their funds to protest low returns. Regulation Q was repealed in 1980; from then on, bankers could pay their depositors whatever the market would bear.
A new kind of consumer was creating a new kind of credit market, and that new credit market in turn was reshaping American society and law. American bankruptcy law has always been one of the world’s most forgiving, but the substantial revision of the law in 1978 pushed it so far in a pro-debtor direction that it was sometimes hard to figure out why any American paid his bills at all. (The law soon redounded on the left-of-center Democrats who had written it. Corporate managers figured out in the early 1980s that by declaring bankruptcy they could wriggle out of the generous contracts they had unwisely negotiated with their unions in the inflationary 1970s, without being obliged—as they would in Britain or Canada—to surrender control of their company to a receiver.) Bankruptcy law is one of those subjects whose colossal importance is disguised by its unbearable dullness. But the terms and conditions by which people can escape their debts shape an economy more totally than almost anything else does. The super-lenient terms adopted in 1978 go far to explain both the fantastic spurt of enterprise that enriched the United States in the final two decades of the twentieth century—because nothing so encourages people to take risks as the assurance that, failure will not destroy them forever—and also the often-low character of American commercial morality. Why not make glib promises of repayment? If you fulfill them, you’re a hero. If not, you’re always entitled to a second, or third, chance. It seems an unresolvable dilemma: You cannot empower the creative without emboldening the hustlers, and you cannot constrain the hustlers without stunting the creative. The United States chose the first option, and though it may have cost bank shareholders’ tens of billions in bad loans, it ignited the most convulsive explosion of entrepreneurial innovation seen on this continent since the Roaring Twenties. As tradeoffs go, this was a grand winner. And thanks to it, nothing, not even being flat, broke, need stand between you and your Calvins.