This week, I got a lot of traffic from the query “what is a ‘Downton Abbey’ economy?” The question was linked to a Sunday op-ed written by Larry Summers for the Financial Times, “America risks becoming a Downton Abbey economy.” In his article, Summers addresses inequality and the “excess of a privileged few” in the United States today; themes that are quite apparent in Downton Abbey.
While Summers makes a comparison between the two, his article focuses on today’s American economy and does not go into detail about that of early twentieth century Britain. For the past two seasons, I’ve been writing about a mix of specific economic and social issues brought up in Downton Abbey – the Grand Trunk Railway failure, for example – and broader issues, like the general lack of social and economic mobility in early twentieth century Britain. Below, I take a quick look at how the ‘Downton Abbey economy’ relates to today, using Summers’ op-ed as a guide.
Summers cites strong inequality as an issue currently plaguing the US. In the four seasons of Downton Abbey, spanning from 1912 to 1922, inequality is certainly the status quo, both economically and socially:
Inequality during this era was an accepted part of life. At Downton we see the servants and the Crawleys use terms like ‘upstairs’ and ‘below stairs’ with ease, delineating a stark geographical separation between classes. Servants go about their work under the assumption that they will be servants for their entire lives. Economic mobility was not assumed nor encouraged among the lower classes; a servant was expected to know his place.
Downton Abbey demonstrates this characteristic of the economy quite well. Since the beginning of the show only two main characters below stairs have managed to change to a better career: Gwen in Season One takes initiative to successfully become a typist and Alfred heads to culinary school in Season Four.
On the show, Tom Branson did climb the social ladder when he married Sybil. The Crawleys now consider him (and his daughter) as part of the family. Yet, he still remains in an awkward middle ground, committing social faux pas, and preferring to spend time working as estate agent.
In his op-ed Summers argues for tax reform to close loopholes and adjust policies that currently favor the rich. While the crux of Summers’ comparison rings true, I think it is more appropriate to cite the first two seasons of Downton Abbey when discussing tax policies that favor the rich.
As we’ve all seen on Downton (and you’ve heard me talk about ad nauseam) the tax structure changed during the war, and heavy tax burdens were levied on landowners and those with high incomes. Death duties on large landed estates more than doubled from pre-war rates in 1919. Runciman (1993) notes that the tax on incomes above £10,000 remained four times higher after the war than it was in 1914. Currently on Downton, the Crawleys are making big changes to the running of their estate to be able to pay the high taxes stemming from Matthew Crawley’s untimely death. (Don’t worry, they are still living quite the luxurious life – Runciman writes that, while the tax burdens increased for the upper classes, most did not see their lifestyles affected by changes until after World War II.)
Things aren’t all bad in the ‘Downton Abbey’ economy.
Larry Summers writes that stagnant wages are holding the US economy back. This was perhaps a feature of the economy in earlier seasons of Downton Abbey, but it is certainly not the case after the war. While unemployment was quite high in the interwar years, the historian D.H. Aldcroft writes that there was in fact a rise in real incomes, in part due to new industries. This increase in real incomes “gave a boost to the demand for new products” (Aldcroft, 1967, p. 323), and helped fuel economic growth in Britain during this time period.
Furthermore, while the US today is cutting government expenditure on social services (with the notable exception of the Affordable Care Act); social services in interwar Britain were actually increasing. The war, and the returning soldiers in need of help, made social support acceptable. Government expenditure on services like the dole and health and housing services for those in need increased during this time (Aldcroft, 1967 and Runciman, 1993). Runciman even notes that, following the war, for the first time working classes were receiving more in social services than what they paid in taxes, indicative a signficant change in how those in the working classes were treated.
What is the ‘Downton Abbey’ economy? An economy where inequality is high, social mobility is low; yet it is also an economy where glimmers of change can be seen. In this regard, I look forward to where Season Five takes us.
It’s been a pleasure blogging this season of Downton Abbey. I am looking forward to tonight’s finale and hope to have a post up next weekend with book recommendations. Thanks for reading.
Aldcroft, D. H. (1967). Growth in Britain in the Inter-War Years: A Reassessment. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 311 – 326.
Runciman, W. G. (1993). Has British Capitalism Changed Since the First World War? The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 53 – 67.
Summers, L. (2014, February 16). America Risks Becoming a Downton Abbey Economy. The Financial Times.