Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy ... The American Dream?

Since my last post, in which I responded to the demands* of Occupy Wall Street, their movement has grown; similar protests have started in cities worldwide, including Washington D.C., Denver, Seattle, London, and Rome. The protests are made up of a variety of people with a variety of agendas, and the "official" site now specifies that there are no official demands. Indeed, the movement has become an umbrella term for nearly anyone upset about the economy. In the past week, celebrities like Kanye West "joined in solidarity" with the Wall Street group, and protests in Rome have turned extremely violent, prompting the closing of all museums—all under the "Occupy" name. Despite different specific agendas, frustration with government and "Wall Street" (this can be a stand-in for banks, large corporations, financial services firms, CEOs, millionaires, or Michael Douglas) are cited in lists of grievances.

Faithful reader "jrbutler" left a thoughtful comment on my previous post, in which he pointed out that the list of demands was a work in progress, and that many of the protesters were upset about the death of the American Dream (he was also wearing a brown straw fedora!). Thanks to unemployment, many good, hard-working people find themselves unable to make ends meet, sandbagged by high tuition, healthcare, or other costs. This is a tragic reality about any time of recession—a lack of jobs leads to great financial difficulty for many. Similarly, many of the protestors have expressed frustration at the large percentage of income the top 1% of earners make,** and the growing disparity between rich and poor. 

Certainly, I believe in the American Dream. I don't believe in government hand-outs. I don't think the protestors at Occupy Wall Street will save the American Dream—in fact, they're inadvertently working to destroy it. The American Dream is about taking what's dealt to you and working hard to make something better out of it. Occupy Wall Street is about sitting in a privately-owned park in sub-par sanitary conditions demanding a wide range of changes, reforms, or hand-outs. Believers in the American Dream are out there working or looking for work. Yes, unemployment is high. Yes, many who would like to work are unable to do so. But those truly pursuing the American Dream wouldn't be fighting police over the temporary cleaning of their sidewalk bedrooms—they'd be working to live the dream.

That can-do attitude could resuscitate the middle class. Instead, we have attitudes of entitlement at all socioeconomic levels. Whether it's an upper-middle-class teenager who expects a car for his 16th birthday, a blue-collar single mother who expects an income supplement from the government, or an economics blogger who expects stylish clothes at affordable prices and at least six hours of sleep, we've grown accustomed to a lot of things our predecessors neither had nor expected. Instead of seeing the last few decades as times of plenty deserving thanks, we've seen them as the bare-minimum, deserving only a demand for more. Europe is even worse—huge government programs have lulled nations into expecting free healthcare or 30-hour workweeks. As the eurozone debt crisis worsens (Italy, one of the PIIG countries earlier on the brink of bankruptcy has made extensive austerity cuts, and is now in the midst of violent rioting), the dissolution of the eurozone is looking more likely.

When austerity strikes (and it may in the US), there are two main courses of action. The first is to protest or riot. This option says that as citizens, we will not stand for a reduction in government services. Instead, whether through peace or violence, we will ensure that we have access to the same economic benefits as before, regardless of the government's ability to pay (indirectly the people's ability to pay, since government income comes primarily from taxes). The second course of action is to accept it, whether through a reduction in living standards or an increased work effort. This option says that as citizens, we will bear the pain of a reduction in government services. We will weather good times and bad, and in the bad ones, we recognize that the luxuries of bygone days are no more. Instead of complaining, we will buckle down and sacrifice for the good of our countrymen.

The first option will lead to a greater divide between classes (as the issue increasingly focuses on the haves and have-nots), and will result in a more powerful government—either one big enough to give people everything they want, or one dissolved into rule by rebels (typically followed by military rule). The second option will lead to hard times. There is no getting around that. But it will also leave the power of personal economics in the hands of individuals, and will help grow (eventually) the middle class. It may be more modest, but it eliminates entitled attitudes. Even though we value the right to protest in a democracy, at the present time, it is unwise. It's like being married to a chronic gambler—if the marriage is going to survive, intervention is needed, but there's still no money in the bank. As citizens, if our nation is going to survive, intervention is needed, but there's not much money in the bank. 

I love my country. I love the American Dream, the freedom to protest, and the right to vote. I value the public education I received in high school. I've been responsible with my money, as has my family. I'll accept budget cuts, and I think raising taxes is a foolish policy, but if it happened, I would begrudgingly accept it (to a point) as well. What I will not do is protest for government hand-outs. I want people to be successful and be able to pursue the American Dream—this doesn't happen with more government programs, it happens with a go-get-em attitude (and lower taxes help too). The great paradox here is that these "fat times" of government services have actually created an entitlement attitude that leads to the following: structural poverty (when people can survive without a job, they have no incentive to get one), irresponsible borrowing (when people of any financial background can get huge, variable-rate loans and mortgages, defaults are inevitable), and a growing deficit (this is an oft-mentioned woe, but compared to our GDP, our deficit is still considerably lower than those of France and other eurozone nations). Certainly there are more ills, but government services haven't done us much good. Yes, cutting them will be painful, since we've grown accustomed to them. Like a band-aid that's been left on too long, government services may sting when removed, but the people under them can't breathe, and can't fully heal. 

The closing lines of the great novel of the American Dream, The Great Gatsby, are poignant here: 

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning -
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

To respond, jrbutler, I appreciate your comments, and I agree. Good people are getting hurt out there. But if we truly value the American Dream, we must get in our boats and beat against the current. We cannot stand on the dock, staring wistfully at the green light, and complaining that no one giftwrapped it. 

I worked towards the American Dream in:
Below-the-knee black pencil skirt, cream sleeveless ruffled blouse, purple silk flower barrette, antique-style charm bracelet, and black and nude snakeskin heels.


*Since posting, the following note has been posted above the demands: "Admin note: This is not an official list of demands. This is a forum post submitted by a single user and hyped by irresponsible news/commentary agencies like Fox News and Mises.org. This content was not published by the OccupyWallSt.org collective, nor was it ever proposed or agreed to on a consensus basis with the NYC General Assembly. There is NO official list of demands."

**NB: These views are usually prefaced with "I'm one of the 99%" or something. A new movement, prefaced with "I'm on of the 53%" is for people in the 53% of the tax-paying population. The top 1% are one of the 53%.