We've got protesters squatting on Wall Street this week. Apparently, we've run out of provisions and it's time to eat the rich now. It's a luxury to live in a country where we're all fat and happy enough to be utterly unconcerned with scraping together the precious necessities of life. So unbothered by the travails of living are we that we have loads of time to make pretty posters and camp out in Manhattan for a week. 'Sounds like Spring Break in Daytona to me; just with fewer jello shots and more guys in suits.
I'm not sure what we're protesting here. Are we protesting wealth? Wealth is relative. We don't worry about how much we have so much as we worry about who has more. Relatively speaking, the poorest American would be solidly seated in India's middle class. A poor American can't afford an iPhone. A poor Indian can't afford rice. Protesting against wealth in America is a unique form of self-loathing in which we alone seem to have the market cornered. Surely this is more than just sour-graping over account balances.
Are we protesting the idea of capitalism in general? We didn't protest it when the Dow was above the 12,000 mark and easy money was flowing from every corner of the financial industry. We didn't gripe about it when the Berlin Wall fell in '89. Even the Russians, who fought capitalism for 70 years, aren't complaining about it now that they're flush with capital and sitting on an oil fortune. The Germans, with their record-low unemployment seem to be fine with it, as well. I don't think they're protesting capitalism on Wall Street either; everyone knows that the alternatives stink.
If you look at the protesters, you'll see that they're mostly young adults. Many are just out of college and there are simply no jobs for them right now. Who else has time to protest but the unemployed? They have student loans to repay and no cash to do it with if they wanted to. They feel that they've paid their dues to the American Dream but their promised "hope and change" turned out to be a mirage. Oddly, they're not blaming the guy who sold them tainted kool-aid. But they are mad at something, and rightfully so. They expected better. They deserved better. But Wall Street is nothing more than a symbolic location with lax public assembly laws -- a perfect backdrop to protest an intangible anger that no one has found words to explain yet.
This is America. They have the right to be angry and they have the right to shout it from the roof tops and the depths of the concrete jungle if they want. The danger, of course, is that this general feeling of angst will be channeled into something dangerous. Like Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1930, unchecked and generalized anger can have nasty consequences, especially when that justified anger is co-opted by political ideology. Let's face it, there's always someone willing to whip-up an angry crowd. Even now, lots of people are speaking up to steer this crowd of protesters in their direction.
In this case, some of our politicians seem eager to fill that role. And some of the language that those guys have been using makes me uncomfortable. The idea that our president has launched a war of words on "Fat Cats" and "millionaires" (his words, not mine*) seems a little too much like the opening salvo of a class war. Turning Americans against each other, be it because of the balances in their bank accounts or the colors of their skin, is never a good idea. And to do so to draw attention away from one's own failings in office is disgustingly cynical. And desperate.
I hope the kids on Wall Street this week are wise enough to listen critically and act responsibly. Young, motivated idealists working together have the power to do great things. On the other hand, they can also blossom into mobs of Bolsheviks and Nazis with the wrong kind of ideological tutelage. Class warfare never ends well and when we run out of rich people, we'll have to start eating each other. We need leadership to unite Americans, not divide them. We are, after all, the country who sports the motto "out of many, one" on our money, aren't we? Yes. Yes we are. Let's not forget that.
*Disclosure: In all fairness, I work for a man who would probably be described as a "fat cat millionaire" and he seems like a pretty nice guy to me. He's lost way more money in this recession than I have yet he still manages to make sure I'm employed, insured, and have a non-government retirement plan. He's also kind to animals.