I have been doing a LOT of thinking about the economic state of our Union for many years, not just the last few months of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The economic inequality problems plaguing our country for many years have been weighing on my brain for a long time. Fortunately for me the Occupy Wall Street movement and all the press it has generated has gone a long way toward helping me sort out the various issues / symptoms of the problems we’re facing today. This doesn’t necessarily bring us any closer to a solution, but for the first time in many years I have been sleeping better due to finally gaining some ground in understanding what is going on.
As Always, A Tip of the Hat to Nassim Taleb
People who read me frequently will know much of my beliefs about the current state of world economic affairs were formed after reading Nassim Taleb’s great book: The Black Swan. Today’s post builds on the thoughts presented by others today, including a piece by the Washington Post about Social Mobility. In the Post piece Michael Gerson goes to great length to blame the lack of social mobility as the root cause for Occupy Wall Street unrest. Personally I don’t think the OWS folks are ready to be labeled yet however it is a fair point, and certainly one of the great Black Swans Nassim Taleb wrote about at length in his work.
The Three Pillars Underlying Social Unrest in America Today
Economic Inequality: A Symptom of Capitalism
Having spent a great deal of time thinking about this topic, I find there are three pillars underlying cause for unrest in America today. I think you’ll agree that in large part they are intertwined. The first is the general economic inequality all too visible today. Today’s announcement that a record 16% (49.1 million) of Americans live below the poverty line is an all too clear example of how wealth is divided up in America today. While in and of itself economic inequality isn’t bad – and in fact is to be expected in a capitalist society – that does not mean it should be ignored. That is where the second pillar is found.
Social Injustice: The Buying of Access and Influence
The second pillar is where Nassim Taleb directs a great deal of his societal concerns. One of his fears (and I certainly am in his camp on this issue) is that the accumulation of wealth by one class and generation of people is buying access to information, education, as well as political and business influence to propegate the wealth advantage in perpetuity amongst a select group of people. While I think it fair to say most anyone in a situation of advantage would very much like to preserve that advantage for their kin what should be concerning to all is the success rate at which wealth, power, access, and influence are being transferred amongst the elite class. Like so many things, it is not the general desire to create advantage that is bad, it is the ability by which advantaged individuals and families have been able to do so that is of concern. Rising to the top, so to speak, is one version of the American Dream. Staying on top is certainly a noble goal. Why then is it a bad thing when a fairly high percentage of elites manage to do it? Therein lies the third pillar of concern: Social Immobility.
Social Immobility: The Creation of the Debt-Slave Class
The last and most dangerous pillar is social immobility. While I think most would agree that rising to the top and doing what you can to stay there are reasonable ambitions, the social injustice of unequal access to power and influence is and has been used to create elitism in perpetuity. This is certainly NOT what most Americans desire in terms of how they feel economic opportunity ought to be distributed. Creating a wealthy elite person by right of birth is how the European Imperialists got in trouble in the last great socio-political-economic revolution begun by America thumbing its nose at King George III in 1776. The elites created a socio-political-economic advantage designed to last in perpetuity at the expense of (effectively) indentured tax-slave colonies. Exactly how did that work out for the imperialists long term?
Is Revolution in the Cards for America
Seems to me talk of revolution is far-fetched, but I think the historic comparisons are not overall unfair. People in America today ARE living better as a whole by a wide margin than prior generations. On the other hand people in America will always chafe at the idea of a nobility class by which power, wealth, and influence are handed down by right of birth.
I think today enough American’s believe they have a fair shot at accomplishing at least some of their dreams. On the other hand I think each day the dreams get a little smaller and the obstacles get a little bigger – and long term I believe THAT is what Occupy Wall Street needs to be about. Solving and restoring a more reasonable and robust American Dream.