By lex, on November 6th, 2011
I had a wild notion to go on a hike this morning, but the skies were gray in Fallon, Nevada, with gritty snow flurries settling down reluctantly before dying and turning the streets wet and inhospitable. Cooped up in yet another motel room now for what seems quite a long time between breaks at home, I was left with too much time to think and not enough to act. And my thoughts turned, as they have throughout the chattering classes high and low, to the “Occupy” phenomenon here and abroad.
It’s been too easy, really. Too easy to pillory the paucity of real ideas emanating from the “leaderless” movement that wants, well: Something else. Too easy to point out the venality that re-occurs within every human movement of more than modest size. Too easy to point out the cranks who lie on societies fringes, waiting to latch on to the next procession and beat their bongo drums. Too easy tar the fresh-faced ingénues too easily preyed upon by those who have made their own modest way through life accurately identifying members of the victim classes. Far too easy to compare the kid gloves the “mostly white” Occupy set have been treated by the national media compared to rabid pillorying the “mostly white” tea party middle class received.
Still, something is going on here. Something troubling. I think it’s worth talking about, and for my own part, I believe the heart of it lies in fear, and that fear is turn fed by envy.
Our rising generation was told by their parents, their school teachers, the broader culture that the ticket to success in this country was to work hard in school and get a college degree. Do this, and this alone they were told in an era that preached self-actualization as the highest personal duty, and your success would be assured. Success, it was never quite said out of doors, being measured in various ways.
But with the dumbing down of portions of the academy, and broad access to what ended up being crippling loans, virtually anyone could get a college degree given five to six years. Whether that would be time and money well invested, well: I think we’re watching the result of that experiment play out now in New York, Oakland, Los Angeles and outside Saint Paul’s cathedral in London.
The kids are waking up to something that we’ve understood in San Diego now for at least a decade, perhaps more: The concept of an “hourglass” economy.
Historically, we were stepped in both the mythos and ethos of a pyramid economy, one in which given at least a modicum of talent and drive, one could over time climb the ladder of whatever hierarchy one chose; corporate law or business, medical, military, ecclesiastical. The mythos of the pyramid was what we taught our children was possible, and the ethos of hard work is what made it possible. You had to believe to achieve.
But climbing the corporate ladder was such a bore. So you could opt out of the rat race if you so desired and become an artist if that’s where your muse led you. In fact the counter-culture of the 60s and 70s mythos actively encouraged you to bail on the man, lest you be thought a square. Do your own thing, and so on.
Some of the aging hippies who either foisted that ethos upon others or else bought into it themselves moved into academia, where they started their own contributions to the Gramscian march through the institutions by passing along their youthful whimsies to the next generation, if not always their own pathway towards genteel academic shabbiness: There are only so many tenure track positions in our universities. The more ambitious among them became entrepreneurs if they had the risk tolerance, since even by the 70s the words “starving artist” had already become cliché. Think of Steve Jobs dropping out of college and building personal computers in his parents’ garage.
But there are variations in the entrepreneurial dream, aren’t there? There’s a vast perceived value as well as economic difference between developing a successful Silicon Valley start-up in the San Francisco Bay area and owning a chain of Maaco dealerships in the San Joaquin Valley. This is true notwithstanding the fact that there is a much greater likelihood for those of modest talents – as most of us are, if we were both truly honest and truly modest – to make a comfortable living and pass something along to the heirs going the Maaco route than there is inventing the next killer app or device. Virtually anyone could run a dry cleaning business if they chose to, there’s good money in it, and everywhere there is a need. Fewer and fewer people seem to want to.
Non college-bound high school seniors could work just about anywhere to get a little stake before starting a trucking business or setting up as an independent contractor, either as an electrician or plumber, trades both essential and lucrative. And there were safe union and government jobs – sometimes both – which promised an ever increasing degree of both modest prosperity in the medium term and secure benefits over the longer horizon. This was work for those who thought too well of themselves to work with a hammer, but who lacked either the talent to make it on their own, or the gritty ambition to climb a corporate ladder. I do not deprecate this final class. Indeed, I count myself among them.
In San Diego’s hourglass economy by contrast, there was not a single pyramid of economic success, but rather two of them, a conventional one consisting of the service economy; a broad base of dishwashers and maids with English-as-a-second language challenges, used car salesmen, hairdressers, tourist trade employees and fast-food servers. Atop the apex of this relatively flat pyramid was another, smaller one. But this second pyramid was inverted. It consisted of the wildly successful moneyed classes; businessmen, doctors, lawyers, real estate executives, biotechnology scientists and engineers.
(It’s also too easy to say, well: The OWS should not have wasted their academic careers on comparative literature or gender studies and instead gone to MIT, UCLA, Stanford. But not everyone, as was pointed out in comments earlier, was meant to be an engineer. Indeed, I was not: I studied political science at the Naval Academy, and were it not for the happy fact that I was offered the opportunity to do what it appears that I was meant to do and fly airplanes – which is not something that I affirmatively knew at the time – who knows? Perhaps today I too would be shivering in Zuccotti Park, banging on a bongo drum and hoping to share sleeping bags with one of the less noisome coeds. The road not taken does not always lead to greener pastures.)
This inverted pyramid is the “income disparity” issue that has so twisted into a bunch the panties of the Occupy set. Their empty slogans are echoed by soi-disant fellow travelers on the radical left who in reality view them as useful idiots offering one last opportunity to smash the state. And finally, they would be exploited, if they allowed themselves to be, by those who would turn their inchoate passions into the kind of lasting political power that makes capital flow away from useful purposes to be instead swallowed whole by the self-serving occupants of the metropolitan capitol.
The issue of income disparity has come to the forefront not merely because of persistent joblessness, but because of the fear – and this may indeed be a valid fear – that the tenuous linkage between the bottom pyramid and the top one in an hourglass economy has been broken. Businesses have become flat, there are fewer and fewer “middle managers” hoping to one day get the keys to the executive washroom: The corporate ladder has been all but pulled up. And in an economy which fairly screams for two-parent household incomes, secretarial jobs and the like have just about vanished. On the blue collar side of the equation – apart from their unseemly presence in the public sector – unions are far reduced from their days of glory, and they went down taking the manufacturing sector with them.
So long as there was the prospect of upward economic achievement, we tended not to resent the successes of the rich and very rich. Indeed, we hoped one day – perhaps against the odds – to join them. But when the two pyramids become air-gapped, as may have happened if we are indeed in a structural realignment of capital flows, goods and services rather than a cyclical recession, the prospect of upward mobility becomes not mythos which drives ethos, but a myth that drives anomie.
Hence the envy. The Occupy crowd doesn’t want to own and operate a gas station in Akron. They want a loft in Tribeca, and lacking any plausible means to buy it, they’d like to take yours. Or have the government give it to them. Envy, we used to be informed back in the old days, is a sin.
We don’t teach much about sin, anymore.
We are still a great nation, none greater, more wealthy, nor more powerful. Our janitors and farm hands use their smoke breaks to check the FaceBook pages on their iPhones. There is no hunger as the rest of the world understands the term, virtually no real material want outside of those toxic islands of dysfunction which the generous hand of well-intended government first created and now subsidizes. Ours is the land – uniquely, in human history – where the poor are fat.
The fact that the Occupy set are more entrenched at Wall Street than they are outside the White House leads us to the reluctant conclusion that their anger is misplaced, and indeed wrong-headed: They look for rescue to a government that lives in cheerful symbiosis with Wall Street to save them by re-distributing money from the “1%” to, well: Themselves. Which, regardless of who holds the political reins in Washington, will never happen. You don’t kill the golden goose, not if you want to be re-elected.
And even if they did, what’s the point? In 2007, the net worth of US citizens was $54 trillion. If the top one percent owns 34.6% of that wealth, that’s roughly $19.7 trillion. Spread that among 308 million of us and you get a one-time payment of $64,033, rounding up. Nothing to sneeze about, to be sure, but it won’t pay junior’s college debt, and what are you going to do next year? Working for whom?
No, the problem is, as Mark Steyn writes, that big government makes for small citizens. They subsidized bad mortgage debt that drove the financial system nearly to destruction, and are in the process of subsidizing educational debt that has done little to improve our store of intellectual capital and global competitiveness but rather stands ready to enslave a generation. And they’re not done yet!
Or as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar:
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”