Behind the verbal incoherence, behind the posturing, behind the bad children’s tantrum, behind the trash, behind the grotesque self-regard of those who would borrow $120,000 to earn a degree in “German Studies,” there may be legitimate resentment in the “Occupy” movement. It’s true that it’s difficult to get from the demonstrators an answer to a straight question that does not make you laugh or cry, or both. However, you may not have to await their answer to understand.
To the extent that you can trust television cameras at all, they seem to show largely demonstrators between their mid-twenties and their mid-thirties. That would be people born between 1975 and 1985. Those cohorts had only known ease and prosperity until 2008. They were brought up by easy-going parents who sent them, or allowed them to attend schools that nurtured self-indulgence more than intellectual curiosity. I have two children near the younger edge of these age groups. I am guilty too. When they were playing soccer, they never heard anything from coaches except “Good try.” I remember clearly one little kid ( not one of mine, God forbid!) garnering this very accolade after he had marked a goal against his own team. (Would I make this up?) These American cohorts were not in any way prepared for a world where jobs are difficult to get because companies are not hiring and where the jobs you get don’t pay well because companies don’t have to pay well since they won’t invest in you for the long-term because there is no long-term they can see.
How about the timing of the “Occupy” movement? This is always a difficult question but one that it’s necessary to try and answer. Here is one thing I know about causation: Constants don’t cause sudden change. “Greed” in Wall Street or elsewhere has not caused the crisis because greed has not surged under Pres. Obama. (It would be really interesting if it had but there is absolutely no evidence in support, and no reason to speculate, I am afraid!) Here is what’s new that might function as a cause. For the first time in my memory, there has been – in the past year – public talk about “entitlements.” There have been discussions about what to do concerning Medicare and the Social Security retirement programs. I repeat, this is the first time in my long memory. A taboo has been lifted. While those generations seem badly informed, some of the discussion of entitlement must have reached some of them and then propagated quickly through the Internet. Here is what some of them may have heard and understood:
When we are employed, even at minimum wage, a percentage of our earnings goes to support old people who don’t work. Some of the geezers bring in $2500 each month thanks to me, more than I am earning working full-time. The same idle old people earn more than do those of us who have been employed and are now unemployed for some unknown duration. Many of these old people seem hale, hearty, happy. They look like they will be around, sucking our blood, for a long time. I am going to have to carry them for most of my life. The geezers will go on smoking pot in the house they own while I will never be able to buy a house. And it gets worse: I heard all my youth that when my time comes, there will be nothing left for me of Social Security or only crumbs.
Same thing with Medicare. Those old guys don’t worry about their medical care because I pay for it while I cannot afford any medical insurance myself. My job does not offer it and I cannot afford the premiums. That’s not for me and not for my children.
Medicare too will be long gone by the time I qualify. Either Obamacare will survive and the country will be bled white. Or the Republicans will kill it and conservative forces will put retirement age at 75 or even 80. Either way, I will have gotten screwed.
So, we may be witnessing the beginning of a class struggle, one that Marx never thought about. (Marx was a kind of distracted guy: He missed the importance of both the publicly held corporation and of social security programs, the first of the latter available in Prussia while Marx was still going strong.) This would be a struggle between age classes rather than between economic classes. It would make sense because the former, unlike the latter, can be defined neatly. It’s not clear if a lawyer or a social worker, is a “proletarian” or not today but we know well when the retirement part of Social Security is supposed to run out of money. This provides a neat divide between exploiters and exploited classes. And the idea of “exploitation” makes rather more sense in the context of age class than in the traditional sense of economic class. The ones’ benefits are directly taken from the others, after all. No tortuous reasoning about “surplus value” needed! In fact, for the Baby Boom generation SS retirement benefits were pretty much, or largely, earned, Medicare was partly funded by themselves only, prescription drugs benefits, not at all. (We owe the latter to the munificence of G. W. Bush, I remind you.)
The main defect of this explanation is that it seems that none of the participants seems to invoke it. And, I agree that it’s a problem! But, look: Admitting all this would force one straightforwardly to attack Grandma. The relevant generation of Americans does not have the intestinal fortitude such a move would require. Instead, it’s easier to deflect their collective anger to social actors that seem distant and about which they know nothing: “The Corporations.”
Technical note: I can testify that five years ago, no sophomore in an expensive university where I taught near Silicon Valley knew what a publicly held corporation was. That’s zero. I taught in the business school and I made it my task to explain. There was not resistance. Students were quite interested. They had never been told anything except that corporations were evil. Students would sometimes spontaneously express their surprise at how “fair” the corporate stocks system seemed to be once you understood it. There is no reason to believe the situation has improved since I retired.
Students in the school of Arts and Sciences I believe never received even an elementary explanation. There is worse. If I had a chance to take money off my former colleagues from that school (except those in Economics), I would plunge without hesitation into a bet with them involving a simple definition of the word “corporation.” If I were allowed to bet with all of them, at once, I am certain I would make easy money overall. Reflect on this: I am willing to risk my hard-earned Social Security retirement benefit on the proposition that the average English professor does not know what corporations are. He just knows he hates them and he transmits his hatred to his semi-educated brood, many of whom are “occupying “ something or other right now.