Sharing the protesters' anger, but worrying about my 401(k)

By Jayson Jacoby October 14, 2011 04:23 pm

I understand why people are congregating on Wall Street, hoisting signs and chanting slogans.

Well, I kind of understand.

The economy stinks.

And Wall Street is the symbolic, and malodorous, heart of the putrefying American financial system.

(Washington, D.C., serving, of course, as its calcified brain.)

Parading these decrepit organs, as it were, through downtown Des Moines wouldn’t make the point quite so explicitly.

(Although geographic proximity proved no deterrent to the sympathetic protesters who descended last week on several other cities, among them Portland, where the presence of sign-waving hordes is as predictable as autumn rain puddles.)

What’s not clear to me, though, is which actions we’re supposed to take against the omnipotent cabal that controls America — the so-called 1-percenters — that will confer any tangible benefit on everyone else.

And by “we” I mean the voters.

Forgive my childlike innocence, but I still believe the best way to fix any mess in the halls of power is with the ballot, generally speaking a more potent slip of paper than the most cleverly phrased protest sign.

I haven’t read the definitive definition of the 1-percenters, but one distinguishing characteristic seems to be that they have coasted through the recession unscathed. So I know I don’t qualify.

(I doubt I rank among the top 1 percent for anything, come to that, unless it’s number of thermometers per household.)

Based on the protesters’ statements and signs, I gather that they believe this 1-percent minority, with the complicity of the federal government and in particular the Republican Party, has been gorging itself on the fruits of America’s labors while the rest of us, the 99 percent, subsist on the shreds of desiccated pulp the elites’ stainless steel juicers spit out.

This situation, the marchers insist, must be remedied by means of a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Or something that sticks it to the rich, anyhow.

Looking at the matter from a purely arithmetical standpoint, though, I’m skeptical that such a reversal is feasible.

Even if we seize a significant portion of the 1 percent’s allegedly ill-gotten gains, I don’t see how, if we spread this considerable sum among the 99 percent in anything resembling an equal formula, that anybody’s going to end up with much more than a couple payments on the mortgage.

Which would be nice, but hardly transformational.

(Never mind the niggling details such as legality. Or whether every member of the 99 percent deserves an equal share.)

Besides which, if we take all that money then who’s going to pay the taxes that keep Medicare and Medicaid and all those social programs afloat?

I haven’t heard any protesters complaining that the IRS has been too lenient on them lately.

It’s not that I don’t share some of the protesters’ anger.

I applaud them for airing, in a conspicuous way, the widespread dissatisfaction quite a lot of Americans have for our country’s circumstances.

(Not that the protesters have unraveled some great mystery; the situation has been pretty dismal for three years.)

I bristle too when I read about the millions in bonuses bestowed on executives from banks and other institutions that, without an infusion of tax dollars a couple years ago, might have gone under.

(And perhaps should have, if this is how they manage their business affairs.)

I’m incensed that companies — again, among them some that were bailed out — post record profits while seemingly doing little to revive the economy they helped to put in a coma.

But I am not eager to use such abominations as a pretext for, in essence, busting up an entire economic system. For all its faults, that system has contributed to a society in which even those in the lower tier of the 99 percent, were they to consider the matter soberly and honestly, must admit they’ve made out pretty well over the decades.

(Sure there are exceptions. But how many bloated-belly toddlers have you seen recently? And Africa doesn’t count.)

Yet dismantling the Wall Street oligarchy seems to be a theme among this budding protest movement.

This might sound satisfying when you’re striding down the street, aglow with populist solidarity, your critical thinking skills subsumed by the crude power of the crowd.

Except I’ve got quite a bit of money at stake, even though I’m so far below the 1-percent threshold I can barely make out the Louis Vuitton symbol on the shoes pacing around mahogany-lined boardrooms.

In fact, statistically speaking I reside nearer the bottom of the 99 percent than the top. I haven’t filched any of my meager dollars from some oppressed minority of laborers, either. I just show up for work when I’m supposed to.

There are tens of millions of Americans who do the same (although not as many as a few years ago). We’re all part of that mistreated middle class the protesters purport to represent, and as I said, many of us are equally disgusted by the more egregious abuses of crony capitalism.

But I’d also wager that most of us would appreciate it if the marchers avoid trampling our 401(k)s while they’re clambering up to the penthouse to get their hands on those conniving 1-percenters.

Because the thing is, although my lifestyle has little in common with theirs, some of our dollars do rub elbows inside the same stock portfolio.

The Wall Street occupiers seem to revel in the belief that, after three decades of Reaganesque subjugation, they are finally giving truth to a slogan that has been accumulating mildew since it got drenched during Woodstock. They are, just as John Lennon cajoled them to do, “giving power back to the people.”

Which transfer is all well and good when you’re scrawling mottoes on a sheet of poster board.

But speaking as a member of the people, I don’t want to spend my golden years eating ramen three times a day (or scraps of poster board) because one of the consequences of my power grab is that the market gobbled my retirement and excreted a few pellets of Social Security.

(And I probably won’t get those anyway.)

Now I know the protesters will deny this is what they’re up to.

But after perusing some of the material allegedly associated with their campaign, including a 13-point manifesto, I see little reason to trust my financial future to their judgment.

At the heart of this movement is an animosity for corporations and their investment class henchmen.

The protesters seem to blame this group for many of America’s vexing problems, prominent among them persistent unemployment and rising poverty.

Based on the numbers on my retirement account statements over the past few years, I won’t be sending a Christmas card to any Wall Street investors, either.

Yet I’ve looked, in vain, for the logic in the claim that the 1-percenters, in their unholy pursuit of profits, have conspired to not only drain my nest egg (and why would they want it anyhow; you couldn’t even whip up an omelet with the thing), but to decimate the American economy.

I’ll concede that corporations have a vested interest in making money. That’s pretty much the reason they exist, even.

What puzzles me, though, is how corporations benefit when millions of people who would like to buy their products can’t, because they’re out of work.

Moreover, if the 1 percenters have been lining their pockets (and their bathroom fixtures with real gold) all these years with the sweat from our middle class brows, then why, now, are they so bent on making sure we’re home waiting for an unemployment check rather than slaving in their factories or swiping our debit cards in their stores?

When did we cease to be worthy of exploitation, whether as workers or consumers?

The response that, well, the economic elites moved their factories overseas only partially answers my questions.

I figure today’s corporate tycoons are more in the Henry Ford mold — you know, hire people to assemble Model Ts, but pay them just enough that they can afford something besides crude shelter and meager food.

Model Ts, for instance.

A lot has changed since Ford was peddling Flivvers, of course. But I’m pretty sure this basic relationship between corporation and consumer has persisted, and that, all else being equal, a person who has a job is a more reliable customer (and taxpayer) than one who doesn’t.

Certainly the 1-percenters don’t keep up their vacation homes solely by selling their products to each other.

And you know they would never get within a mile of a Wal-Mart or a Target unless that were absolutely necessary.

I hate to be cynical but it may well be that the protesters aren’t motivated mainly, or even largely, by a beneficent concern for the well-being of ordinary, politically obtuse Americans like me.

Consider, for instance, demand number three on that manifesto I mentioned: “A  guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment.”

I have no idea if most, or even many, of the people participating in the various protests consider this a reasonable demand.

But I hope not.

If everyone is entitled to a living wage whether they punch a timeclock or a remote control all day, it’s going to be a real struggle to find anyone to help put out this newspaper.

Which won’t make my life any easier, or better.

The manifesto also demands a “fast track process to bring the fossil fuel economy to an end.”

I own two cars, and both run on a fossil fuel.

I suppose I could buy an electric car, but the manifesto doesn’t guarantee me one of those. And unless you’re willing to settle for a golf cart — a tough sell in our climate — they’re not cheap.

Besides which my wife has been running the dehydrator around the clock, drying peaches, so I don’t know if I could spare an outlet to keep the rig’s batteries topped up.

Probably I couldn’t afford to drive the thing anyway. The power company just this month raised my rates by 7 percent.

And it’s not even one of those Wall Street conglomerates.

It even has “cooperative” right in the name.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.