Of Clogs and Enron

by Susan Davis

“From clogs to clogs in three generations.”

(England, 1700 forward, variously.)

According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, this saying might have originated in Lancashire, one of England’s earliest industrial regions. “The clog, a shoe with a thick wooden sole, was commonly used by factory and other manual workers in the north of England.” I’ve seen clogs in English museums that look like flat wooden sandals attached to elevating metal frames, a kind of 18th-century platform shoe to keep the wearer up and out of the muck.

This proverb also turns up as “from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations,” and “clogs up, clogs down.” The idea is that families can fall in social scale as quickly as they rise, and this was apt in the English industrial towns of the 18th and 19th centuries, where some potters or weavers became factory owners very fast, only to lose their fortunes and see their children return to the factory floor. “Clogs up, clogs down” conjures a lively image of people in clumping uphill to live in a mansion, and clomping back down again, in search of more modest digs. There’s a suggestion of cyclical justice, that people who’ve gotten too big for themselves have been justly cut down to size, by some sort of generational logic. “Seldom three descents continue good.”

Shifting to the United States, it’s well-known among demographers and social historians that with the exception of some very rich American families, like the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts, wealth here churns more than it holds steady. There is a lot of stability, and very great concentration of riches at the top of society. Most people don’t rocket from working-class to leisure class, no matter what you see in the lottery advertisements, and most of the very wealthy don’t end up sleeping under cardboard on the Bowery, no matter what Manhattan tour guides tell you about the homeless. But in the middle there’s tremendous instability, and in any generation just as many people are downwardly mobile as are upwardly mobile. I should correct that and say that in recent years more people have been downwardly mobile, since two of the hallmark social changes of the last thirty years have been the the declining American wage and the evisceration of the “middle,” both due in large part to the loss of solid, well paying blue-collar jobs.

So I couldn’t help but think “from clogs to clogs in three generations” as few months ago when I read all the complaints about the Justice Department’s prosecution of Arthur Andersen. Enron took its giant auditor down with it. Andersen employees were laid off as as company’s big clients lost “confidence” in Andersen’s ability to produce reliable and trustworthy financial statements.

The argument in the papers and on CNN was that it was irresponsible to prosecute a company, no matter how criminal its behavior, because so many innocent families would suffer. Of course, huge numbers of former Enron employees are suffering because of Anderson’s creative accounting tactics. What the complaint in the press meant is that presumably innocent managers making $100,000 a year are being laid off, and it is the loss of their class security that is unacceptable.

During the 1980s and early ’90s hundreds of thousands of factory workers lost good jobs, and the government did nothing to intervene, nor did Lou Dobbs take the feds to task for allowing such miserable upheaval. In Philadelphia alone in the 1980s, 100,000 blue-collar jobs vanished. But that was” restructuring” and the new economy; what’s happening now is “irresponsible prosecution.” Managerial workers and professionals, Lou Dobbs included, always think it can’t happen to them. Of course there’s nothing in the least bit natural or generational about this economic upheaval, but it’s starting to look like it can happen to anybody.

Clogs up, clogs down.

Susan Davis teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu


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