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Jay Fleitman: ‘Downton Abbey’ conservatives

For the uninitiated, “Downton Abbey” is a dramatic PBS series now popular across the U.S., Europe and Israel. It is a fictional portrayal of one of the dwindling numbers of noble English estates in a world in transition during the early decades of the 20th century. Lord Grantham and his family try to hold on to a way of life and adjust to a society rocked by modern technology, World War I, Irish socialism and nascent feminism.

This season, they are trying to come to grips with Lord Grantham having mismanaged the estate, which is on the verge of bankruptcy and may have to be sold.

John Sheirer, in a guest column on this page (“ ‘Downton Abbey’ liberals,” Jan. 31), writes of why liberals love the rich nobility of the program. He writes, “the Granthams understand that the primary purpose of their wealth is to create jobs for members of their community. ... In contrast, the wealthy in America today, our corporate elite ... have been hoarding their wealth and cutting jobs, pay and benefits rather than hiring at a rate commensurate with their income. ... Those few unelected individuals sitting on vast corporate wealth have shown no such concern.”

Because of Grantham’s poor financial management of the estate, he is about to be forced to sell his family legacy. His new son-in-law, Matthew Crawley, a war hero and established in the story as perhaps its most ethical personality, steps in to save this estate. In reviewing the accounting, Crawley realizes that different management decisions need to be made to keep the enterprise solvent. He knows that if the estate goes under, so does the livelihood of all of those employed as well as the nearby town.

This is no different than the decisions now being made by businesses throughout the U.S. Business leaders are not investing money in the U.S. because they simply realize that to do so, under the current regulatory and economic conditions, is to risk losing that money and being burdened with real estate and personnel resources that will be costly to maintain (see Obamacare) and a burden on the entire enterprise.

Sheirer clearly doesn’t understand corporate structure, as most businesses are run by boards of directors and CEOs who are employed and salaried, and don’t have the corporate wealth to hoard.

Why do liberals make the assumption that these business leaders are ignorant and venal? Corporate leaders fully understand that if their enterprises fail, wealth is destroyed for their community and nation. Jobs and benefits would be lost, and wealth for their shareholders dissipates.

Sheirer and the liberals he represents must know that most of those shares are owned by institutions, such as the mutual funds kept in personal 401ks, and the retirement funds of teachers, police and unions.

If our corporate leaders make poor investments in their businesses and their businesses become less competitive, then the Chinese and Germans will out-compete them and wealth will flow overseas.

We can expand the allegory of “Downton Abbey” beyond that of a corporation to that of our government. Sheirer writes that “the Granthams understand the liberal proposition that we are all in this life together, so wealth exists mainly to benefit as many fellow human beings as possible, not just an elite few.”

This is in fact a very conservative notion, only conservatives understand that wealth doesn’t grow on trees. Wealth is produced by hard work and has to be nurtured. More wealth is produced for all when all members of society are free to innovate and incentivized to be industrious. The economy is democratic. This is called capitalism.

We at present have a government that is like “Downton Abbey” — noble in impulse, perhaps, but mismanaging the estate. We have a momentous and unsustainable national debt, now at $16.5 trillion, papered over by a Federal Reserve that simply prints more and more money. We have Medicare and Social Security near bankruptcy.

Yet we have a president who is very much like Lord Grantham. He doesn’t even want to talk about these problems (see the inaugural address), and vilifies others when this economic jeopardy is even brought to his attention, much as Grantham won’t talk to Crawley when the latter raises the issue of the financial peril of the estate.

Sheirer writes that liberals love the rich folk of “Downton Abbey” because “they’re human,” which implies that he doesn’t like our current business leaders because they are not human.

Here is a difference between liberals and conservatives: Liberals believe that conservatives are heartless monsters. Conservatives believe that liberals are simply wrong.

Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.

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