Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Occupy Salem

(Yomiuri Shimbun/AP)
A witch hunt on Wall Street

So there were Hula Hoops, a composting station, facially pierced trustafarians eating quiche, 9/11 truthers and U.S.S. Liberty truthers, the Black Panther Party, a demand that you “define your aesthetic, gather your tribe, and actualize your vision,” speed chess, the Grey Panthers (no relation), not one person who could correctly define the term “credit-default swap” or “derivative,” a tragically droopy woman proclaiming herself “the topless paparazzo,” demands to abolish fiat currency, demands to issue fiat currency, Ron Paulistas and anti-Paulistas, tracts on “species equality” and much jawboning about the occupation’s need for less patriarchal styles of decision-making and more matriarchal styles, dark whispers about “psy-ops,” a whole lot of angst and wailing about student loans, open calls for a “benevolent dictator,” a delegation representing Harvard Men for Economic Justice, a pink unicorn tricycle, a sign reading “The Human Condition Has Gotta Change!” and — I’m not making this up — several renditions of “Give Peace a Chance.”

“Carnivals come cheap,” Slavoj Zizek, the intellectual world’s leading apostle of Marxist-Leninist political violence, told the cheering crowd at Occupy Wall Street. “What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal life. Will there be any changes then? . . . We know what we do not want. But what do we want?” Professor Zizek, who is to our national discredit in the employ of New York University, is half right: The protesters do not know what they want, and they do not know what they do not want. That is because they do not understand the nature of the problem that they intuit, in their ignorant way, but cannot think through, lacking the intellectual tools.

“I think we do represent the 99 percent,” says Mike, who identifies himself as a black-bloc anarchist, albeit a soft one who votes, and voted for Barack Obama at that. (Black-Bloc Anarchists for Obama: Do not expect to be seated at the 2012 convention, guys.) “What we want is economic justice.” And what is economic justice? He doesn’t know. “Not this.”

There were a few calls for open violence, but most of the revenge fantasies were limited to locking up rich people and taking away their property. But if you’re going to go on a witch hunt, it helps to know what a witch looks like, and these people don’t know witch from Shinola. They still believe, in their flat-earth way, that there is a secret bad guy behind the scenes, pulling the strings, and that if only they could get their hands on those strings, everything would be copacetic. This is historically and economically illiterate, of course, and morally illiterate as well.

Here are the facts: The housing bubble, credit-default swaps, mortgage derivatives, the financial crisis, the bailouts, the subsequent recession — none of these is the cause of our current economic discomfort. Still less are executive bonuses or large Wall Street paychecks. The recession didn’t make us poor; it revealed to us that we are not as well off as we had convinced ourselves we were.

#page#In their more lucid moments, into which they fall as though accidentally, the anti-capitalists admit as much. Surely you have heard the story: Real median household incomes have declined precipitously since the onset of the recession, but there was little or no growth in median household income for a decade before that. This is hardly unprecedented: There was no growth in median household incomes from 1978 to 1985, either, owing largely to Carter-era inflation and the subsequent recession President Reagan and Fed chairman Paul Volcker induced to end it. The Reagan recession was over by 1982, but it took years more for household incomes to recover fully. We do not have very good household-income data going back beyond the 1970s, but we may be confident that there were similar periods of stagnation in the 1930s, and shorter ones during later recessions. Median household incomes hit a peak of nearly $50,000 in 1989, and then began to decline; growth returned with the dot-com boom, but income did not reach its 1989 level again until the late 1990s, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Household income hit another peak around 1999, gave up most of the gains by 2003, climbed a bit, and then declined rapidly until now. The bottom two-fifths of households today earn less in real dollars than they did in 1989, the middle fifth has seen almost no growth, while the second-highest- and highest-income fifths have seen household-income growth of 6.4 percent and 17 percent respectively in that same period.

One would think that a movement lapping up Marxist-Leninist analysis from the palm of Professor Zizek, along with venom from the less exalted exhibitors of the hammer-and-sickle flag I encountered in Zuccotti Park (which is a public space privately built and maintained by wicked capitalists), would appreciate the Marxian undertones of that income-stagnation story: specifically, that our conditions are more the product of impersonal historical and economic forces than of deliberate human choosing or foresight embedded in political policy. They wish to identify malefactors and to denounce them, because doing so requires very little intellectual work and is emotionally satisfying — and if this rabble stands for anything, it is the avoidance of unpleasant work and the satisfaction of emotions that are adolescent at best and very often pre-adolescent.

If not Wall Street, what is the source of our anxiety? According to a study conducted by the Department of Education, real incomes for men aged 15 and older peaked in 1970, in the twilight of the golden age of American manufacturing, a misunderstood and mythologized era during which — so we are informed by Pat Buchanan, sundry union bosses, and the rest of the anti-trade lobby — there were good jobs to be had for the taking, enough to enable any man willing to work to support a family, own a home, etc. That isn’t entirely true, and, to the extent that it was true, it was true for reasons having to do with a specific and (one hopes) one-time historical event, namely the destruction of most of the world’s industrial capacity during World War II and the placing of the Communist bootheel upon the necks of a great many of those who survived it. Those potential competitors not blown to smithereens or suffering under the attentions of Stalin and his successors and Mao for the most part adopted post-war systems of stagnation-inducing welfare-statism or, as in the case of India, socialism. With the exception of a few specks on the map such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the United States and Canada had in the 1950s in effect the only functional free economies, certainly the only ones with any industrial capacity worth noting. But of course it was not to remain that way forever: Germans and Japanese know how to build things — they are quite good at it — and once they’d begun to recover, they got back to work. If you chart the rest of the world’s post-war recovery against our own performance during that same time, you will see some interesting intersections, and they suggest that it is much more difficult to compete with a reunified Germany and a high-tech Japan than with a heap of burning rubble. If you are looking for a villain to blame for our current malaise, you should be looking for him in the 1950s. That is when we neglected to account for the future that was certain to be upon us by the 1970s.

#page#Allow me to make a prediction: Life is never going to get easier for the American middle class. Globalization is a fact, like the weather, and like the weather it is not manageable. It is irreversible, and the desire to reverse it is inhumane, because globalization is making the world better. But there are tradeoffs. The emergence of larger markets and efficiently distributed global supply chains acts as an amplifier: The same highly valued set of skills that would have earned you a nice, comfortable living back when your whole world was Kansas City or southeastern Pennsylvania or various tri-state areas will make you very, very rich when your world is the world. The same competition, status anxiety, and insecurity that has marked life for most people throughout most of history will similarly be compounded when less-skilled workers find themselves competing in a marketplace of billions rather than thousands. You can try passing laws against emerging markets and efficient global supply chains. Good luck with that — the thing to keep in mind is that Robinson Crusoe was poor, and that North Korea is poor for the same reason. Autarky is for fools.

The main things that can and should be done to address this are improving our K–12 education system, which will necessitate breaking the public-sector unions’ death grip on it, and improving our investment environment by adopting a more intelligent and liberal system of taxation and regulation, along with shrinking the overall footprint of government across the federal, state, and local levels. It is no mystery how to do this. But you won’t hear any support for doing it from Occupy Wall Street.

So what is really going on down there? Let’s hear from Professor Zizek again: “I am a Leninist. Lenin wasn’t afraid to dirty his hands. If you can get power, grab it. Do whatever is possible. This is why I support Obama. . . . The core of the campaign against Obama is freedom of choice. . . . If some kind of blow can be struck against the ideology of freedom of choice, it will have been a victory worth fighting for.” He was talking specifically about health-care reform, but the point may be taken more broadly: We are dealing mostly with ignorance and incontinent emotion, but to the extent that we are dealing with organized ideas, they are totalitarian, and their enemy is “the ideology of freedom of choice.” And come what may, their man is Barack Obama, in whom the Left and the Right apparently see much the same thing.

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