Remember a TV show called Leave It to Beaver? It ran from 1957 until 1963, and it’s still on in reruns. The series was about growing up in the suburbs during the height of the Baby Boom. Every week Wally Cleaver and his little brother Theodore — better known as “the Beaver” — got into some mortifying scrape. Once, on a dare, Beaver’s head was stuck between the bars of a wrought-iron fence. Another time he found himself on top of a billboard, in what was supposed to look like a steaming bowl of soup.
A recurring theme on Leave It to Beaver had to do with peer pressure. Beaver and Wally were constantly being tempted by their friends — the smarmy Eddie Haskell and his dim-witted sidekick, Lumpy Rutherford — to do things that put them in jeopardy. Luckily, our heroes’ parents, Ward and June, were usually close at hand and could be counted on to get the boys out of whatever jam they’d gotten themselves into, albeit with a thoughtful scolding.
Ward and June, of course, were members of what has come to be known as “The Greatest Generation.” Although we were never told what Ward did during the war, we could safely assume that he, like the rest of the dads in that neatly kept neighborhood, probably had a dress uniform in mothballs up in the attic. And though we never knew exactly what Ward Cleaver did to pay for the middle-class affluence his family enjoyed, we implicitly believed that every bit of it was earned thanks to the sacrifices in his generation’s backstory.
If Ward and June were alive today, they’d be shocked to see the wreck their boys have made of the U.S. economy.
It’s as if Eddie Haskell has been our country’s CEO. Eddie was always looking for angles, shortcuts, easy ways to outsource his problems. As far as he was concerned, people were chumps. There was no rule of conduct that couldn’t be bent or broken if it meant that Eddie gained an edge.
Eddie wouldn’t have given a second thought to lending money to someone at terms they couldn’t really afford — and then selling that loan to a bank too lazy to determine whether the loan was sound or not.
And Eddie would have thought turning Social Security into a roll of the dice on the stock market was a great idea.
Eddie would have been nudging Wally and Beaver in the ribs if they ever expressed doubts about the need to regulate financial institutions. “That’s for saps,” he would have said.
Eddie would have believed that markets take care of themselves.
Except that, as we are now finding out, that can mean a lot of people end up losing their homes, their savings and their ability to pay for health care. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “The Impact of the Housing Crash on Family Wealth,” shows that the bursting housing bubble has had a devastating effect on the net worth of most American households. The combination of the fall of housing prices combined with low savings rates has left most Americans in the lurch, completely dependent on Social Security and Medicare for their later years.
This wouldn’t bother Eddie Haskell. No matter how many reckless deals he made, no matter how far in debt he slid, Eddie knew one thing: As long as he was spending other people’s money, he’d be fine.
He knew this because he grew up in a world made by people like Ward and June Cleaver. If Eddie made a mess, the Cleavers — otherwise known as grown-ups — always bailed him out. Eddie knew the Cleavers would never let him fail.
But, as with most episodes of Leave It to Beaver, Eddie has forgotten something crucial: Ward and June and their generation aren’t in charge any more.
It’s Wally and the Beaver who have to put up with the consequences of Eddie’s bright ideas now. In the old days, Eddie had an excuse for everything. Whatever went wrong was somebody else’s fault. When they were kids, this seemed like a kind of joke. But that’s not true anymore; today when they think of Eddie, Wally and the Beaver just feel used.