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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Are we so different from the Crawleys?

Jim Carter in "Downton Abbey."

Jim Carter in "Downton Abbey." Credit: TNS/Jaap Buitendijk

Starting Friday, fans of “Downton Abbey” will hit theaters for the new movie. The TV program is coming to the cinema, extending the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and its servants beyond the original six seasons and up to 1927, because the series' creators know it’s bad luck to pass over easy money and a worshipping fan base.

My wife and I will see it Saturday, because Friday we have one of those “it’s the close, personal relationships that give life value” nightmare social events. When the lights go down, as I burrow into a manatee-sized tub of extra-buttery popcorn, I’ll wonder whom Bates is going to kill, whom Mary is going to scorn and whom Robert is going to grimace at in stuffy befuddlement.

I’ll also mull outsider Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and his plan to give $1,000 a month to every American adult.

Throughout the TV series, which ran from 2010 to 2015 on the BBC and PBS, "Downton Abbey" was a magnet for social commentators. The take-away was often that a new gilded era of servitude was coming to the United States, as income inequality reached a level over the past decade not seen since the Great Depression.

Downton's seemingly infinite workers caring for the Crawley fields, homes and bodies can make you think, “Would prosperous folks ever pay for so much personal service again?” In fact we already do. The employers just demand that the workers be hyperspecialized and live off-premises. 

Where once personal staffers took care of every need, today rich and even middle-class people prevail on dozens of workers for personal services, a little bit each. The manicurist and masseuse and hairstylist and spin trainer and yoga teacher and landscapers and cleaners and designers and aestheticians and restaurant chefs and servers and painters and roofers and mechanics do their specialized tasks for 1,000 different masters now, and no one boss is responsible for these workers’ well-being. This responsibility is a key plot point in “Downton Abbey,” along with the responsibility the workers feel for the family. Certainly, many aristocratic families in the Edwardian era didn’t care about the staff, but they usually did feed and house them, something a lot of service workers today have a hard time doing for themselves.

In between the years of "Downton Abbey" and today came a five- or six-decade burst of prosperity in the United States and western Europe in which many humans worked in manufacturing and production, making big wages on medium-skill jobs. Then the machines started doing these tasks more cheaply, erasing high-paying jobs, and more people found themselves working low-wage gigs serving the personal needs of the moneyed class.

With his $1,000-a-month pledge, Yang, an entrepreneur turned politician, is addressing a future in which society produces plenty of food, clothing and shelter for all, and the only real shortage is of jobs that pay well enough to let workers buy those things. Do we let humans starve and suffer because robots are doing all the valuable work?

The idea of paying for Yang's $3 trillion-a-year giveaway staggers the imagination and seems impossible. But we're going to hear a lot more about such ideas, because in the end, a stable society does have to provide for its most economically challenged members. In theaters Friday, the Crawleys will pay their people a few quid, but also feed them and let them live in the house.

And I'm guessing that today, most folks with money would rather pay a new tax than welcome a raft of hungry new housemates. 

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.