October 14 2011

Is Occupy Wall Street A Pandora's Box?

Charlotte Hays

As the IWF’s resident Baby Boomer, I’ve been inclined to compare Occupy Wall Street to Woodstock Nation and other great moments when young people felt the need to arise and make a really big mess on other people’s property. But this is different. I had the wrong comparison.

We had plenty of problems when Woodstock took place in 1969, but most of us still felt we lived in a land of opportunity. We might have protested the Viet Nam War (mea culpa, I'd be on the other side now, but that was then), but we all had a sense that life was full of possibility. I don't think the young people at Occupy Wall Street know that wonderful sense of optimism.

Rich Lowry has looked at the “We Are the 99 Percent” website, where people sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street post, and he found a country very different from the one in which most of us who aren’t fresh out of college grew up:   

College students and recent graduates are overrepresented. Their complaint comes down to too much debt, and too few job opportunities to get out from under it. There’s the guy with the master’s from Harvard who owes $60,000 and lives off temp jobs.

There’s the woman who is paying her own $50,000 in debt plus $20,000 in debt for her 22-year-old daughter. There’s the graduate with a master’s from “a major U.S university” who is unemployed and $92,000 in hock. And on and on….

Another running theme is the high cost of health care and the lack of insurance. One man writes of his job “that pays 15 percent less than it did five years ago” even as “health insurance costs are up over 175 percent.” Expressing a characteristic plaint in an era of stagnating income, he says “Everything costs more yet I make less!”

Many of those posting their stories are members of the working class or struggling middle class. There is an undercurrent of family breakdown — the woman whose husband left her after 30 years, the hard-pressed single moms. There are tales of men losing decent-paying jobs and finding nothing comparable….

As Lowry notes, you could confiscate the wealth of the 1 percent tomorrow and it wouldn’t alleviate these problems. Only a good economy that creates jobs and upward mobility will do that. But--look--the women of Paris who marched on Versailles had genuine grievances, too. And that ended badly.

Peggy Noonan chillingly sums up my own worst fears far better than I could:

A movement that will go nowhere but could do real damage would be "We hate the rich, let's stick it to them." Movements built on hatred are corrosive, and in the end corrode themselves. Ask Robespierre. In any case, the rich would leave. The rich are old, they feel like refugees in the new America anyway. A movement that would be helpful and could actually help bring change would be one that said, "Enough. Wall Street is selfish and dishonest, and Washington is selfish and dishonest. Together their selfishness and dishonesty, their operating as if they are not part of a whole, not part of a nation of relationships and responsibilities, tanked a great nation's economy. We will reform."

Most disturbing reference:  Robespierre.

No, I don’t think we’re going to have THAT kind of revolution in this country. 

But I do think that the president of the United States is playing with fire. Charles Krauthammer explains:

After three years, Obama’s self-proclaimed transformative social policies have yielded a desperately weak economy. What to do? Take the low road: Plutocrats are bleeding the country, and I shall rescue you from them.

Problem is, this kind of populist demagoguery is more than intellectually dishonest. It’s dangerous. Obama is opening a Pandora’s box. Popular resentment, easily stoked, is less easily controlled, especially when the basest of instincts are granted legitimacy by the nation’s leader.

Is this where we thought hope and change would take us?

 

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