…And the Realities of Life on Earth…
Some cultural phenomena are self-satirizing. Consider the interminable seventies-era movie series Airport starring George Kennedy, which hardly required its later take-off (pun intended) Airplane with Leslie “Don’t call me Shirley” Nielson to demonstrate its formulaic stupidity. (However unintentionally, the scene in the original in which a folk-singing celebrity performs to the delight of a plucky pubescent girl en route to a liver transplant is much funnier than any conceivable parody, even one that involves a guitar-strumming nun.)
Along with Airport, the Arab Street celebrating by firing Kalashnikovs into the air, and a few other manifestations of the brute insanity of the contemporary world, surely (Shirley) the Occupy Wall Street Movement falls into the same self-satirizing category.
Now that their discarded Slurpee cups, spent needles, and soiled condoms have been gathered up by volunteers, and new sod laid in the Woodstockian mud that the Occupiers left behind, it is time to pause in wonder that anyone could have taken them or their risible message seriously.
The 99%? Shirley not. I defer to no one in my abysmal estimate of the state of human civilization; but not even I am such a bilious misanthrope as to imagine that the vast majority of mankind bears any similarity to the whining, drug-addled moral bullies who, being off their medication for too long, have recently trampled, pissed, and defecated upon the fall flowers in some of the world’s most beautiful parks. (Try to imagine the outcry from these same vaunted defenders of Gaia if a corporation had so polluted public lands.)
In the Middle Ages, the sin of hypocrisy was typically personified by a literary character known as Faux Semblant, usually a friar who, having taken a solemn vow of poverty and humility, disports himself like a cross between Croesus and Dominique Strauss-Khan. Today, I can think of no more apt representative of that persistent vice than the anti-capitalist protestor.
Never before has the world been so credulous of rank hypocrisy. The progressive thinker need do nothing more these days than promote some pious statist fantasy (income equality; wind turbines; solar power; ethanol) and the beau monde’s critical faculties are instantly benumbed. Say the magic word “green”, “clean”, or “earth” in conjunction with any cockamamie scheme and—open sesame—the gates to government tax breaks and subsidies are instantly unbarred to the shiftiest of venture capitalists. When it serves them as a cudgel with which to beat capitalism, progressives are constantly complaining about corporate welfare; but they grow reverently silent when the recipient is Big Green. Save the planet? I would have been happy if the Occupiers had merely deigned to stoop and scoop their own excreta.
The anathematization by righteous socialists of the sins of capitalist culture (greed, selfishness, materialism, and so on) might be more credible were they not themselves so spectacularly guilty of them. The annual socialist protest tour is invariably attended by middle class youths shod in Nikes and carrying Blackberries or iPhones–the very icons of conspicuous consumption, not to mention products that could only have been brought to market by vast multinational corporations raising capital through the international banking system and sourcing parts and labour in the global marketplace. At the recent anti-G-20 demonstration in Toronto, the storm-troopers of social justice smashed the windows of Mom and Pop stores and altruistically looted their hard-won livelihood, iPhones and big screen TVs being their preferred booty. In the nineteen-thirties, when real poverty still existed, rioters smashed the windows of bakeries and stole bread. But no one hears of the soi-disant poor breaking into bakeries these days.
Though the bedrock of justice and democracy is equality before the law, the Occupiers had no permits for their demonstrations and continued to squat in public spaces even after the courts issued injunctions for their removal. Every other group in the world is bound to apply for and be granted permission to demonstrate on public property, and none would ever have been allowed to forcibly take over common land for their unlimited private enjoyment (the real, unsentimental meaning of the “occupation”); but the Occupiers evidently assumed that they were somewhat more equal than others. So much for their egalitarian scorn for the privileged 1%.
President Obama said their cause was just, and vociferously supported them. But then President Obama’s own populist “soak the rich” re-election campaign can only profit–is it ontologically possible for socialists to profit?–from widespread demonstrations against capitalism. I wonder whether he will ever publically take responsibility for the inevitable violence and property damage that his words have incited.
Outside the hive of leftist politicians, academics, and journalists (still, thankfully, considerably less than 1% of the population), the only other supporters of the Occupiers were the public sector union grandees who provided logistics: specifically, port-o-potties (which, alas, the Occupiers did not always use) and meals (which the Occupiers instructively refused to share with the indigenous homeless—the original Occupiers–occasionally leading to violent confrontations between the “poor” and their supposed advocates.)
Leaders of the public sector unions are regulars on the anti-capitalist protest tour where, from the safety of the sidelines, they egg on to anarchic violence the more excitable youth. It is quaint to hear them decry the privileges of the wealthy as they disport themselves on their ideological junkets, paid for by the compulsory dues extracted from the union rank and file whether they agree with official union class-warfare demagoguery or not. In the past, union delegations were dispatched to such grim laboratories of socialism as Bulgaria and Romania; today, they are feted at five-star hotels in Brussels, London, or New York.
The union presence on the protest rota is supposed to dramatize the great Gnostic struggle between the capitalist World-Governors (i.e., the Wall Street Bankers and corporate CEOs) and the ORDINARY WORKING MAN. Save that if he is lucky enough to be employed in the public sector, the “ordinary working man” enjoys a salary, benefits package, pension, job security, and annual raises that no private sector employee would dare to confabulate in his wildest dreams. These, moreover, are paid directly by the taxpayer (the real 99%), as will be the tumescent debt with which public sector selfishness and greed have burdened present and future generations in perpetuity. The State functionary’s lifestyle of parasitical privilege, as demonstrated recently in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, is responsible for the evaporation of more trillions of dollars of wealth in international stock markets (in which everyone is now invested) than the original Great Recession of 2008. And while the “obscene compensation” conferred upon corporate CEOs is a matter of direct concern only to the company’s board of directors and shareholders (who remain at liberty to rein them in or invest elsewhere), that freedom is never enjoyed by the taxpayer, whose only choices are to fund State profligacy or face incarceration. No matter what frontier you fix beyond which you calculate that remuneration has become “obscene”, you will find that in absolute terms there is exponentially more fraud, waste, and over-compensation (i.e., obscenity) in the grasping, porcine apparatus of any single Western Welfare State than in the combined salaries of all the corporate CEOs on the planet.
Sooner or later, if any social or moral progress is to be achieved by humankind, the Axis of Progress is going to have to metabolize the rudimentary fact that the State and all who are dependent upon the State live at the expense of, and by the good graces, of private citizens active in the capitalist economy. It is only by confiscating and redistributing the “obscene profits” of capitalist entrepreneurs—those who actually seed and create wealth in the first place (including Wall Street and the corporations)–that the government and its unionized functionaries enjoy their relative affluence. The generous pensions of unionized workers, moreover, would be insolvent if they weren’t managed by shifty Wall Street bankers and invested in rapacious corporations listed on the world’s stock exchanges. The profits of those diabolical capitalist entities keep union pensions afloat and growing. Only when union caudillos put their money—literally—where their mouths are, demanding divestiture from the global market (and thus willingly beggaring themselves), should anyone begin to take their stale Marxist rodomontade seriously.
Appealing as it does to the most deadly of the deadly sins (envy, ire, idleness, pride, and especially avarice), the Marxist myth has apparently proven unkillable. In the popular imagination, the recession of 2008 continues to be imputed to the malfeasance and greed of Wall Street bankers, even though the root cause—to use a beloved progressive phrase–of the crisis was another grand government social program: the wildly irresponsible extension of mortgages, by both state agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and private banks, all under governmental directive and with governmental guarantees, to those without the means to repay them, in fulfillment of the egalitarian fantasy that every American should be able to own his own home. When the bubble burst and the world economy crashed, those who had engineered this calamity, not wanting to waste a good crisis, took the opportunity to blame it on the inherent defectiveness of capitalism. The capitalist system, they intoned gravely, was nigh its end. The whirlwind sown by years of unregulated Reagan-era greed was about be reaped! A year or so later, the European sovereign debt crisis plunged the global economy back into an even deeper and evidently more intransigent recession. But no one inculpated the recklessness, or animadverted on the inherent defectiveness, of the European Welfare State. No one proclaimed the final and merciful demise of democratic socialism. I for one was grateful that the Axis of Progress did not find a way to blame the European debt crisis too on capitalism.
There is nothing new or surprising about the protracted and ongoing European debacle, the predictable result of generations of populist politicians and community activists claiming credit for altruism and compassion by selflessly giving away other people’s money to buy the votes and pander to the idleness and avarice of their dependent constituencies, while gratifying their own lust for wealth and power. It would have been too much to hope that the Occupiers or their supporters would be anything but silent on their drunken orgy of spending, notwithstanding that Big Government had once again fattened itself to bursting, while impoverishing everyone else, including the poorest of the poor in developing countries, across the globe. Instead, the Occupiers went about their business as if the default of Europe never happened, and reflexively revived the perennial mantras of the anti-capitalist campaign: THE RICH DON’T PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE OF TAXES; THE RICH ARE GETTING RICHER; THE POOR ARE GETTING POORER; THE GAP BETWEEN THEM IS WIDENING; THE MIDDLE CLASS IS DISAPPEARING.
Over the decades, such prefabricated dooms have been pronounced by anti-capitalist eschatologists indifferently through bad times and good, bear markets and bull, and no matter how Chicken-Littleish they must sound by now to anyone over the age of twenty, the megaphones of the liberal media never fail to echo them with apocalyptic urgency. By such glib repetition, the sort of Big Lies that ought to have been buried forevermore at the bottom of the historical rubbish heap, beneath the ruins of the Berlin Wall, periodically rise again in the West and walk the earth like the undead, reminding us that socialism is not an economic theory so much as an ineradicable superstition.
In the U.S. in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available), the top 1% of earners paid 37% of all federal income taxes; the top 10% paid 70%, the top 25%, 87%; and the top 50%, 98%. The bottom 49% paid nothing. The figures going back to 1999 show a very nearly identical pattern of dispersion from year to year. (One interesting footnote is that the income threshold for the top 1% in 2009 was $343,000, down substantially from $410,000 in 2007, whereas the bottom 50% remained steady. So much for the bromide that the rich are always getting richer, immune as they supposedly are to economic downturns, and the poor poorer.)
The rich don’t pay their fair share? One should be grateful, I suppose, when at least a parody of the truth percolates up from the fever swamps of leftist agit-prop. But by any objective standard, it is the rich, not the poor, who are the victims of gross unfairness. As the data show, the modern Ship of State is propelled by a small cohort of earners chained to the oars below, while a majority lounge on deck enjoying the fresh sea breezes. The rich are in fact an exploited minority of helot-workers who produce the wealth that sustains a leviathanic Welfare State and its dependent citizenry. When the labour of a quarter of the population is expropriated for the sustenance of the rest you have economic enslavement on an ancient Spartan scale. A version of the Marxist clarion-call is for once apposite: Wealthy of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
To argue that the rich don’t pay their fair share requires a Protean re-definition of the concept of fairness, to say the least. But then the Axis of Progress has always been admirably adept at finding novel significations for universally agreed-upon terms (cf., most recently, homosexual “marriage”). As it applies to taxation, the old-fashioned dictionary meaning of fairness demands one of only two possible alternatives. Either every citizen pays an equal portion of total taxes (i.e., a fraction of 1 over the number that represents the total taxpaying population). Or every citizen pays for no more and no less than what he personally consumes in government disbursements and services. Under both definitions, the rich are spectacularly ill-used, even if one were to eliminate progressivity and adopt a flat tax instead. (Unless traditional arithmetic has been superseded in the same way as traditional moral nomenclature, 20% of, say, a million dollars is still exponentially more than 20% of $50,000). Compounding the injustice is the fact that high earners consume an infinitesimal fraction of the government benefits bestowed upon the middle class or the poor (i.e., the rich don’t rely on food stamps, rent subsidies, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment “insurance”, and the vast array of anti-poverty programs; they tend not to apply, or qualify for, tuition bursaries, job counseling, grants for unread magazines, homosexual theatre groups, blasphemous art installations, etc., etc.)
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t feel the least bit sorry for the wealthy. All in all, they strike me as a morbidly pusillanimous lot, either too spineless to object to being fleeced, or too willing to be suborned (for their own selfish reasons, of course) by the anti-capitalist mob. As the R.H. Macy character explains in the Christmas classic Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street, while endorsing his new store Santa’s altruistic policy of sending customers to other stores when Macy’s doesn’t have what they want: “From now on, we’ll be known as the caring company, the company with a heart, the company that puts people before profits. And consequently we’ll make more profit than ever before.”
Along with Bill Gates, George Soros, and others, Warren Buffett has recently stepped forth as the spokesman for a cell of super-rich penitents who, burdened by capitalist remorse, expiate their guilt by publically flagellating others. In one of the rankest factoids of disinformation to emerge from the propaganda mills of the Left in decades, Buffett has reported (confessed) that he pays the same amount in taxes as his own secretary! Let us be charitable. Perhaps he meant—no doubt he “misspoke”– that he is in the same tax bracket as his secretary. But then, even so, it is only because his high-priced accountants have arranged for him to be remunerated in the form of capital gains rather than salary. Why has he taken their advice? Because capital gains are taxed at a lower rate, of course. For a deliberate tax dodger to then represent himself as a champion of tax fairness and demand that the rich pay “their share” is hypocrisy of Tartuffian proportions. If Buffett thinks he should be paying more in taxes, he is entirely free at any time to hand over all or any portion of his income to the IRS, without hectoring others on their moral responsibilities.
Increasing taxes on the rich is Buffett’s and the Occupiers’ solution to the supposed problem of the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Not that this has ever worked in the past. Even the rich put limits on their guilty servitude, and while they are too complacent to rise up, they can always opt out. Tax their filthy lucre beyond a certain threshold and they will eventually resort to such loopholes as those discovered by Buffett’s accountants, or conclude that it is no longer worth the risk and effort to persevere in greed and malefaction for the privilege of keeping the meager scraps left to them by the State. They will close up shop, and the tax collector will thereafter walk away empty-handed. (A dramatic illustration of this rudimentary behavioural principle occurred recently when, seeking to “soak the rich”, populist politicians raised taxes on yachts, thus completely destroying the luxury boatbuilding industry, un-employing its thousands of workers, and depleting government coffers in the process.) As the evidence has proven redundantly over the decades, the inverse relationship between tax rates and tax revenues is an iron law of economics. High marginal tax rates result in lower absolute returns; low rates, conversely, yield high tax revenues because they are incentives to the creation of new businesses, and investment in and expansion of existing ones. If the State really wants to reap more tax revenues, it ought to be a little kinder to the downtrodden sowers in the field: it ought to be known (to paraphrase Mr. Macy) as the government that puts people before revenues. And consequently, it will collect more tax revenues than ever before.
Of course the rich are getting richer. But then so too are the poor and the middle class (alive and well). Of course the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening. But how could it be otherwise? If in 1990, let us say, the average menial labourer earned $x, the average corporate CEO $100x, and the economy grew by 3% per annum in the next ten years, wouldn’t the income gap between them have increased to considerably more than $99x by the year 2000? Such modest growth in GDP as most capitalist economies traditionally enjoy widens gaps as a matter of mathematical necessity (while also enriching everyone in the process).
One doesn’t expect these banal arithmetical realities to penetrate the consciousness of the Occupiers and their allies, for whom punishing the rich and appropriating more of their ill-gotten gains (greed, anyone?) are moral obsessions. For the economic illiterate with a smattering of Marxist theory, the economy will always be a zero-sum game, the rich will only get richer at the expense of the poor, and Robin Hood will always be the model of Good Government. My favourite of the Occupiers’ signs decrying the disparity between rich and poor: MAKE THE RICH POOR AND THE POOR RICH. Leaving aside that this will merely eternize the “problem” as the clever sign-bearer misunderstands it, there is once again a parodic inflection of the truth lurking beneath the literal surface of this self-defeating desideratum: Making the rich poor and the poor rich is the ruthless genius of capitalism; (the converse is that socialism tends to render everyone, outside of the State apparatus, immutably equal in poverty). In free societies, income disparity is rarely a static (i.e., “class”) phenomenon, and usually a highly fluid and personal one. It occurs most dramatically within a single earner’s lifetime. But a few short years ago, today’s super-rich (e.g., Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) were mere peons. Some of today’s poor will be fabulously wealthy tomorrow.
Lovers of freedom celebrate that sort of disparity, insofar as it corresponds to the natural disparities that occur in the real world—disparities in talent, industry, and dumb luck–as opposed to the unnatural equality that can only be imposed by totalitarian force. Wisdom, as Western Philosophy used to define it before descending into existential angst, consists in accepting these disparities with resignation or even gratitude, rather than being permanently discomposed by envy or indignant wrath.
For this reason, it is hard for me to understand why adults should be find economic disparity so peculiarly perturbing. Doesn’t the top percentile in intelligence own a disproportionate quantum of the world’s brains? No one protests that Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon have between them accumulated much more than their fair share of the cuteness extant in the world (let alone the power, money, and influence that these unearned natural endowments confer). The only difference between such “unfair” personal advantages as beauty and intelligence on the one hand and wealth on the other is that the former can’t be forcibly redistributed—else the Soviets would have already done so. As a bald man, who has lived his life under a serious handicap in the ruthless competition for a mate, I resent the fact that the obscenely hirsute have more hair than they could possibly need. But then, unfairness and cut-throat competition are not the creations of capitalism; they are the baneful conditions of life on earth.
I have to admit, the Occupiers’ choice of metaphor was certainly (if unconsciously) inspired. In popular usage, the word “occupation” has two primary denotations. It can mean a job, such as many of the Occupiers have eschewed with the same sense of urgency as P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. It also signifies an act of military depredation, in which conquerors usurp territory that belongs to others and live on in these stolen domains as colonial slave-masters. The latter applies directly to the anti-capitalist Occupiers, as I have said, but more importantly inasmuch as the socialist mythology they propagate continues to possess and enslave the Western psyche two decades after it was buried in those Eastern Bloc countries once occupied in the literal sense.