"I am a college graduate. I am also unemployed. I was lead [sic] to believe that college would insure me a job. I now have $40,000 worth of student debt."
–a 99 Percenter, as quoted by Bill McGurn
Columnist Debra Saunders has also taken note of the sociological composition of Occupy Wall Street:
Who are the self-styled 99 percent? The Occupy Oakland website explains: "We are the unemployed and those burdened by debt. We are losing our homes and we have no future.
“We have been brutalized by the police and exploited by the rich. We cannot take it any longer." Some on the left actually think the Occupy protesters help their cause by proclaiming that all but 1 percent of Americans are downtrodden.
I tend to think that there is a high degree of fantasy in this worldview. How many of these brats have really been “brutalized” by the police or “exploited” by the rich? What they really need from the “rich” is employment. Or would a day job seem like exploitation after the idyll of Occupy?
Still, the bleak picture of life in the United States presented on the the Occupy website is disturbing. I could only think of Occupy Wall Street when I came across an excellent piece on the old Horatio Alger novels (“Who Killed Horatio Alger?”) in City Journal. Both Occupy and Alger have critiques of the capitalist system, and they couldn't be more different. Luigi Zingales begins the City Journal piece this way:
The title character of Horatio Alger’s 1867 novel Ragged Dick is an illiterate New York bootblack who, bolstered by his optimism, honesty, industriousness, and desire to “grow up ’spectable,” raises himself into the middle class. Alger’s novels are frequently misunderstood as mere rags-to-riches tales. In fact, they recount their protagonists’ journeys from rags to respectability, celebrating American capitalism and suggesting that the American dream is within everyone’s reach.
The novels were idealized, of course; even in America, virtue alone never guaranteed success, and American capitalism during Alger’s time was far from perfect. Nevertheless, the stories were close enough to the truth that they became bestsellers, while America became known as a land of opportunity—a place whose capitalist system benefited the hardworking and the virtuous. In a word, it was a meritocracy.
Whatever happened to all that optimism? The pseudo-downtrodden Occupiers sense that something is wrong. They feel squeezed by the lack of opportunity afforded by an economy with 9.1 percent unemployment. But they have lost Ragged Dick’s meritocratic drive.
I think Zingales is right about what has gone wrong since the day of Horatio Alger:
Two powerful forces are threatening to drive America from a meritocratic equilibrium to a nonmeritocratic one. Recall that to survive in a democratic country, a meritocracy must enjoy a welcoming culture and offer large, widespread benefits to citizens. In the United States, both of these factors are being challenged: the first by a spreading belief that markets are a bad method of rewarding the meritorious; the second by a reduction of the benefits that most people derive from those markets.
Occupy epitomizes this view that the market is an ineffective method for rewarding merit, and perhaps goes a step further in arguing that we should all be rewarded regardless of merit. One of the problems, of course, is that they have never seen capitalism at work. Unlike Ragged Dick, they live in a world that rewards bad judgment and failure.
As critical as I am of Occupy Wall Street, I do want to note in closing that in my opinion they do have one legitimate: many have paid a lot of money for a college degree but have emerged as the Uneducated Generation. Bill McGurn has a must-read piece on this phenomenon in today’s Wall Street Journal:
“The fundamental problem here is not debt but a broken educational system that no longer insists on excellence," Ms. Neal says. "College tuitions have risen more than 440% over the last 25 years—and for what? The students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right."
If you want to know just how bad American colleges are, look no further than Occupy Wall Street.