For a few weeks now, folks have been occupying Wall Street, and I’ve been doing my darndest to ignore the whole pathetic spectacle. I actually have a day job, and wish to keep it, as there has been a lot of fat-trimming. Besides, I thought that the high percentage of hipsters and wannabes and hangers-on would eventually cause it all to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity: “I was fighting the Man before it was cool. Once we started getting on TV it became waaaaay too commercial.”
In a way, that would have been a more authentic result for a specifically “down-with-corporate-people” movement. What we have now has bent irony back on itself in a manner more Star Trek than Starbucks:
- An anti-corporate movement bankrolled by corporations;
- A populist movement advocating complete top-down management of our economy and, by extension, the rest of our society;
- Union officials and special interests whose actions are partly to blame for the problem, agitating for a solution;
- A group of self-descrbied decent and hard-working adults with educations spending weeks directing an extended tantrum at folks who are themselves well-educated and trying to work hard;
- People decrying “violent rhetoric” and “uncivil public discourse” brawling with police, carrying “Behead the Rich” signs, and threatening to actually march on the homes of business executives;
- Freeloaders coming to the organizer’s park to mooch off the original protestors, causing them to protest that people are, like, totally stealing all their stuff that other people worked to produce and then gave to them.
It’s a Möbius strip of lunacy. Trying to grab one end of it and work it out to a conclusion seemed like a trap. That was before the movement spread to “thousands of countries,” according to multi-millionaire corporate employee Diane Sawyer. I can’t fault the math, since a few thousand agitators (ranks swelled by professional protestors recruited and paid for the occasion) are calling themselves “The 99%.” Meanwhile, others have taken to calling themselves the 53% – as in, the estimated percentage of people who actually pay into the government’s coffers through taxes on their income.
One of these numbers is much smaller than claimed. To slather another thick goopy layer of irony on, the country would be healthier if that 53% were larger – a taxpayer is someone who is earning a living and thus not whinging on their blog about having no living to earn. The 99%, however, want that 1% – the top earners in the country – to relieve them of the burden of ever moving from the 99% to the 53%.
How did it get to this?
At this point I turn to Futurama, and their excellent “None Like it Hot” episode, where all the scientists of the world are called to a conference in Kyoto (“The Anagram-Lover’s Tokyo!”) to solve global warming. “I’ll go!” one breathless man cries, running up to the recruiting bus. “I have a degree in homeopathic science!” “Then you have a degree in baloney!” the recruiters say.* This is really another significant factor in the problem. A lot of these young folk posting their stories all over the Internet have degrees in baloney, and these degrees cost tens of thousands of dollars, much of which is due and owing.
* The idea of a conference solving a real-world problem is quite a fitting illustration of the #OccupyThings attitude. And the man who wrote that episode, Aaron Ehasz, went on to become lead writer for the excellent “Avatar.” This is where my brain plays a clip of Uncle Iroh intoning, “Good news, everyone!” as the Planet Express crew stagger into his shop to deliver galactic tea leaves.
It’s already a questionable decision to go into that kind of debt in order to spend four (or five or six) years learning a bunch of highly-dubious double-talk masquerading as knowledge. When the living is easy and the cotton is high, you can kinda-sorta get away with it. People will hire you and create a position where your gobbledygook passes for actual productive work. That’s how companies wind up taking in a steady supply of these bright young souls to be a vaguely-defined VP for Company Policy in the Workplace Environment of Job Satisfaction. Perhaps our VPCPWEJS will even, in time, learn enough of the actual function of the company to be a capable floor manager or foreman or such. But if people are making do with their old stuff, and what market share is left is going to other companies, whose $60K is worth paying – VPCPWEJS, or two actual engineers?
The astonishment that other people don’t actually want to hear you talk for a living goes hand-in-hand with the past fifteen years’ worth of our culture. Being clever at laying on the talk is currency at a lot of immature stages in life: it’s a way for young people to impress their elders, and later to impress their peer group of fellow clevers, and (possibly) effective at getting into the pants of desireable cleverettes.* And this is hardly a surprise. Jocks impress their folks in Little League, each other in high school, and get themselves laid a lot in college. Nerds impress their folks at Science Fair, each other in Chess Club, and… well, the analogy breaks down somewhat here, but eventually the nerds get good jobs and clean up sufficiently to be good catches as adults.
*Lady clevers, feel free to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow on this analogy.
Each of these so-very-important youthful currencies held increasingly-little value as one got older. Adults didn’t care that you were a smooth-talker, they made you do your homework anyway. They were proud of your childhood trophies, but they also wanted to shove you into piano lessons and Scouting and SAT prep. This even explains why nerds faced their own peculiar challenges – being nerdy is, in a way, being more adult than normal: being interested at an early age at things that eventually turn into engineering and architecture and computer science. Granted, I’m oversimplifying things here, and reality is not so cut-and-dried. But this is the general trend I observed in my own childhood. No single youthful pursuit was considered to be one’s meal ticket in adulthood unless one used that pursuit to learn useful adult habits: hard work and discipline, courtesy, sportsmanship, thought and planning, respect. And if you had those things, then you could go far, even if you weren’t one of the golden few whose youthful skill was of such high quality that people would pay highly for it: for these three examples, an entertainer or pro athlete or inventor.
The change I’ve seen in my lifetime is twofold: on one hand, there was more of a budget for luxuries like cleverness, and thus the threshhold to enter those pursuits were lowered. Would you or I have ever heard of half these “celebrities” in a world with only three networks and limited cable offerings (much of it specialty channels and not general-interest entertainment), with many of those channels actually signing off for the night at 12:00 am and returning at 6:00? And on the other hand, childhood and its pursuits have crept steadily onward into adulthood. It’s been called Peter Pan Syndrome, adultescence – you might have a favored term, feel free to use it – the phenomenon is the unsurprising product of decades of valuing a child’s sense of self-esteem, rather than the child’s talent and character.
So, you have a entire generation taught that their every word and deed has value because it is theirs. They are never forced to be more well-rounded than their own inclinations, precisely because it was forcing. Either they were too-little disciplined, and thus never learned how to be rigorous with themselves, or else over-disciplined, and reject the whole notion as backward. They’re flush with cash (often that they have not deigned to earn for themselves), all laying about and bored, trying to get somewhere, but given no directions and no tools. Well, they’re going to stick to what they know, which isn’t much because nobody bothered to make them go out to learn it, nor even taught them how to find out for themselves and think it through. For some the simplest option is to stick with that childish currency for as long as possible: since one’s tongue lasts longer than any of the other muscles, that usually means a career of being That Clever Fellow. But clever is really just a luxury, isn’t it? I have no problem enjoying someone’s glib holdings-forth, even paying for them if I have the spare coin, but nobody’s got spare coin now. Besides, there’s so much glib on the Internet for free.
Hence, an “occupation” carried out by those who haven’t got one. The market for youthful currency has about dried up, but a few people aren’t quite ready yet to give up the investment as a bad bargain. But their claims of “99%” ring particular hollow when considering all the masses of help they require to be out on the park grounds for weeks on end. They have to be fed and clothed and moved about and that requires a large effort in time and treasure from people whose resumes may not involve a degree in Gender Studies, but are somewhat stronger in the areas of “professional skills” and, thus, “job history.” They even need help in what they ostensibly came to do. For a group with such a high self-evaluation of their own intelligence, they need a lot of instruction in basic concepts like taking turns and behaving for other people.
They also are shockingly soft on thinking for themselves after all that education. (My favorite part of this clip: after a minute or so of call-and-response, Bullhorn Boy asks, “Do you have any questions?” And a voice in the crowd dutifully parrots back, “Do you have any questions?” I couldn’t summarize it any better.) There’s a growing meme that the 53% aren’t really part of the 53% either, that many of them make no income tax contribution on the federal level. Presumably it’s because they get back a tax refund? But that’s an overpay returned to someone who has contributed, not a complete remission of the bill. Besides, only the Federal Withholding is eligible for such a return: Social Security and unemployment and disability and Medicare/Medicaid are all not a part of that calculation – once you give that, it’s gone gone gone.
This is what all the Occupy My Free Time movement boils down to, sadly. It’s not about 99% of anything, it’s about the most vocal part of the 47% calling the other 53% chumps while simultaneously trying to recruit them to switch sides through envy of those who are spectacularly successful. It’s a fool’s errand. The more it grows, the more it proves itself to be a bubble as untenable as those in the housing and financial markets. It’s already popped, and requires a bailout, which the unions are desperately trying to drum up from the government. But that’s the biggest bubble of all, and it needs to be deflated in as controlled a fashion as possible, because when governments pop, then percentages won’t matter. We’ll all be up against it.