It’s blowing up my Facebook wall, Reddit, and probably the rest of the internet. I hear about it at work, with friends, and randomly in the street. I’ve spent so much time avoiding the subject that I felt it necessary to issue a statement (also, because I think the notion of issuing a statement is cool. It’s just my writing, right?).
Politically, I fall more on the spectrum of those protesting than those dismissing it. That being said, the movement (like all political movements) is drastically simplifying what is at its heart a complicated problem. I feel that my understanding of the situation makes it disadvantageous for me to throw my weight into one corner or the other. Both sides are throwing around some extreme simplifications to support their views.
First: I support the use of protest as a form of speech. I think protest bureaucracy is a paper tiger, and that if local state or federal governments actually wanted to follow the First Amendment, it would require no more paperwork to have a protest than it would for a college fraternity to have a party. I believe that the behavior of the police in these protests has been mixed, but use of violence in this case is appalling. I’m also of the opinion (and witnessed this firsthand at the G20 demonstrations) that the police are the only cause of violence in protests. The entire black bloc strategy exists because police react predictably and awfully to demonstrations of this sort.
Second: I am undecided as to the efficacy of protests as a form of speech. These protests have dramatically shifted the timbre of political conversation in the country, which would lend to the argument that they are effective. On the other hand, they tend to be polarizing. The only thing that has lent this group its efficacy is its broad political message, which will be weak when it comes to implementing anything.
Third: The reaction of those against the protesters from what I’ve seen has been incredibly narrow-minded. It pains me to say this, but people in upper income brackets (which at this point includes myself, in the spirit of full disclosure) really have no idea how the majority of people in this country live. 10% unemployment is understandable as a concept, but even I have to admit I strain to fully envision its impact, as I’m surrounded with Ivy League grads and holders of advanced degrees. People from what is arguably my world don’t understand that the concept of just working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps only works if you either already have the cachet of your parents, or if you are incredibly, unbelievably lucky. Upward mobility in this country is an absolute joke at our current point in history.
Fourth: There are some really dumb people on the protest side, too. I’ve been exposed to a lot of this on Facebook, and it especially pains me when I see socialist rhetoric bandied about. You know what Marx would have wanted? He would have wanted everyone to have a personal computer, because for the vast majority of us, that’s the only “means of production” we’ll need. Marx lived in a world where capital was a big, hefty, inaccessible thing, the owners were not the operators, and vice versa. Guess what? It’s becoming less and less true. Socialism in the theoretical/philosophical sense is an outdated construct, because the definitions in which the construct was created don’t hold true. So when I see students talking about general strikes and worker’s groups, I cringe. It’s outmoded, and it will not fix our problems.
So I basically just lambasted everyone, and indeed I do hold most political conversations in this country in very low esteem, because politics seems to give people who don’t know what they’re talking about to act like they do. And the sooner everyone stops acting like they know what will work, the sooner we might be able to get something done.
Of course, this is all a useless exercise if I don’t have any thoughts on the broader issue, right? Possibly, but I’ll take the opportunity regardless.
There are a few external factors making our current recession worse. One is volatility in oil, and another is a permanent sea change in worker productivity. The first is being dealt with by market forces on the whole, as alternative fuels and forms of energy are being found and exploited. I do not believe changing US drilling regulation will help significantly, as we’re so far over the Hubbert peak that no amount of ANWR drilling will cause a big enough bump. The second is not something that our economy is equipped to deal with, for reasons that tie back to the first. People complain about jobs being shifted overseas, but this is a macroeconomic inevitability. As the standard of living goes up in a region, labor becomes more expensive. Eventually the increased labor costs make offshoring the work to a cheaper region more attractive. Then, their economy grows, and their standard of living goes up. Eventually, the global income disparity will level off as unskilled labor is shifted further to the frontiers of cheap. This sounds like an upward price spiral, but the thing is, we have robots and the internet. More and more jobs are becoming automated in manufacturing and services. It’s a bad time to be a car welder when we have 7-DOF robot arms, but it’s a great time to be a mechanical engineer who designs said robot arms. It’s a bad time to be an accountant when there’s TurboTax, but it’s a great time to be a programmer. Of course these are simplifications, but I digress.
As more becomes automated, lower-skilled jobs disappear. I repeat, disappear. They are not coming back. While I’m not saying that our current unemployment level is structurally endemic to an automated economy, I do believe it will be eventually. The only way to provide higher employment then is to grow the economy enough so that everyone can have a job that’s higher-skilled on average. This is where the internal problem comes in.
The US education system is utter shit. Even if we had the energy intensity necessary to make an economy with twice as many programmers and engineers and half as many welders, baristas and accountants, we couldn’t fill those high-skilled jobs because the majority of our citizens couldn’t do them. The reason the we’re going to have structural unemployment is that in the areas of our economy that may actually grow, no one will be able to do the work. Our primary education system is a joke, with kids reaching college unable to do basic math. Our secondary system is almost as bad, so humanities degrees that already weren’t skill-oriented now mean even less because the few critical thinking skills we thought they could stand for aren’t taught effectively. That leaves the small chunk of kids getting engineering, business, and other professional degrees as the only ones who have purchased an education that will make them employable. And engineering is really the only Bachelor’s degree in the lot, save for a small number of very prestigious schools, who make their students more employable on brand alone.
Right now, there are a lot of issues with the financial system that need to be fixed. Regulation is a mess in many areas of the economy, but thanks to “Structurally Important Financial Institution” regulations, it’s clear where things are most convoluted. I have my own opinions on what needs to be done, but my understanding of financial regulations is fairly introductory, so going into them won’t help. What I do know is that within the current conversations, people with my level of understanding of the situation (or less even) will jump behind demagogue 1 or demagogue 2 depending on what fits their fairly narrow worldview. It’s counterproductive, and it means that as far as I see it, the conversation that will begin to hash out how to shift our economy towards a more certain future will not happen.
So that’s my opinion. The intricacies of the situation are complicated, people are saying a lot of dumb shit, and I spend more time shaking my head at the dialogue than worrying about which side I’d fall on.