by Bruce S. Thornton
Having taught in a state university for thirty years, I’m not surprised by the ignorance on display among the Occupy Wall Street protestors. From kindergarten to university, for decades our schools have abandoned the teaching of basic facts and foundational thinking skills, and replaced both with leftish received wisdom and stale mythologies, all the while they have anxiously monitored and puffed up students’ self-esteem.
This lack of critical understanding and ignorance of simple fact characterize the main theme of the protests, that the wealthy “1%” of Americans have gamed the system to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else, an analysis redolent of Scrooge McDuck cartoons or Frank Capra’s portrait of Old Man Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. But these caricatures are woefully uninformed about how a global, free market economy works. For example, the protestors rail about growing “income inequality,” but they forget that this expansion of the wealth of top earners has been accompanied by that same cohort’s paying more and more of the total federal tax bill, so that today nearly half of tax-filers pay nothing. Nor do they consider the issue of income mobility: from 1999-2007, about half of households in the bottom quintile had moved up the income ladder, while nearly half of households in the top quintile had moved down.
As for those greedy “millionaires” who refuse to pay their “fair share,” in this same period, half were millionaires only once, and only 6% were millionaires for the whole nine years. Indeed, as the Treasury Department reports, among the top 1/100 of 1 percent in 1996 — the group Mother Jones demonized for obscenely increasing their wealth over the last 30 years — only 25% remained in this group in 2005, and the median real income of these taxpayers declined over this period. Finally, according to the Treasury Department, “Median incomes of all taxpayers increased by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. The real incomes of two-thirds of all taxpayers increased over this period [1996-2005]. In addition, the median incomes of those initially in the lower income groups increased more than the median incomes of those initially in the higher income groups.” No doubt things have gotten worse for many because of the recession, but there are plenty of people to blame beyond the “1%” and Wall Street villains, from the federal appointees running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to the home buyers lying on mortgage applications.
This obsession with income inequality, moreover, reflects profound ignorance of capitalism’s revolutionary genius. To the protestors, the fact that top earners increased their income more than others did is prima facie evidence of capitalist skullduggery. They seem to think that a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates has a zillion dollars because they somehow purloined money that in a just world other people would have had. Of course, in reality Microsoft and Apple have created hundreds of thousands of jobs and enriched others at the same time the corporations enriched themselves. That’s how capitalism works: it creates wealth that indeed spectacularly benefits the few, but that also raises the living standards of the many by creating jobs. More important, it is a dynamic, open system, one that creates opportunities for the clever and hardworking. And it has been wildly successful, so much so that today, young people who in the past would have started work at 16, can now spend several years of extended adolescence in colleges and universities, where they can earn impecunious degrees in subjects like Medieval French Poetry or Postcolonial Literature, and then loaf about lower Manhattan protesting the evil system that has rescued them from the drudgery of farm labor or factory work, and given them nutritious cheap food, healthy bodies, straight white teeth, and gadgets like X-Boxes and iPads.
But to the therapeutic sensibility and the entitlement mentality cultivated by the schools, this success in spreading wealth to historically unprecedented numbers of people is not as important as the system’s failure to measure up to utopian standards and equally enrich everybody no matter how lacking in virtue or talent. The “creative destruction” of capitalism — which promises not wealth and success for everybody, but the opportunity for everybody to strive for success and wealth through their talents and virtues — is an intolerable injustice, one that must be remedied by the coercive power of the state. Hence according to a survey conducted by Democrat pollster Douglas Schoen, 65% of the Manhattan protestors believe that “government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable healthcare, a college education, and a secure retirement — no matter the cost.” Of course, that attitude is exactly what has created the looming economic crisis fueled by runaway entitlement costs that if not reined in, will double by 2050 and consume every dollar of federal tax revenues. The protestors are also ignoring the federal government’s role in creating the housing crisis by coercing and enabling banks to issue sketchy mortgages. And let’s not forget the fed’s role in inflating via federal subsidies the higher education bubble that has doubled tuition every nine years, and saddled so many of the protestors with the “injustice” of student loan debt, which since 1999 has increased 511%, and now totals $1 trillion.
In the protestors’ desire to empower the federal government even more, we see how the ignorance of history enables such delusional utopianism. For underlying these demands is the necessity for redistributing income in order to advance the idea of radical egalitarianism, and that is a notion whose resultant tyranny and bloody failure is documented on every page of history, from the French Revolution to the Soviet gulags. But how would the protestors know that history? What passes for history in most schools today is a melodrama of Western wickedness against the oppressed “other,” accompanied by feel-good romances about the achievements of marginalized minorities. It reminds me of Jane Austen’s satiric History of England, in which she says her purpose is to “vent my spleen against & shew my hatred to all those people whose parties and principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information.” The result is the sensibility we see among many of those camping out in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park: a penchant for decrepit ideas that are seductive to immature and undeveloped minds steeped in a sense of entitlement and an arrogant assurance of their own righteousness.
©2011 Bruce S. Thornton