Having taught in a state university for thirty years, I’m not surprised by the ignorance on display among the Occupy Wall Street protestors. From kindergarten to university, for decades our schools have abandoned the teaching of basic facts and foundational thinking skills, and replaced both with leftish received wisdom and stale mythologies, all the while they have anxiously monitored and puffed up students’ self-esteem.
This lack of critical understanding and ignorance of simple fact characterize the main theme of the protests, that the wealthy “1%” of Americans have gamed the system to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else, an analysis redolent of Scrooge McDuck cartoons or Frank Capra’s portrait of Old Man Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. But these caricatures are woefully uninformed about how a global, free market economy works. For example, the protestors rail about growing “income inequality,” but they forget that this expansion of the wealth of top earners has been accompanied by that same cohort’s paying more and more of the total federal tax bill, so that today nearly half of tax-filers pay nothing. Nor do they consider the issue of income mobility: from 1999-2007, about half of households in the bottom quintile had moved up the income ladder, while nearly half of households in the top quintile had moved down.
As for those greedy “millionaires” who refuse to pay their “fair share,” in this same period, half were millionaires only once, and only 6% were millionaires for the whole nine years. Indeed, as the Treasury Department reports, among the top 1/100 of 1 percent in 1996––the group Mother Jones demonized for obscenely increasing their wealth over the last 30 years–– only 25% remained in this group in 2005, and the median real income of these taxpayers declined over this period. Finally, according to the Treasury Department, “Median incomes of all taxpayers increased by 24 percent after adjusting for inflation. The real incomes of two-thirds of all taxpayers increased over this period [1996-2005]. In addition, the median incomes of those initially in the lower income groups increased more than the median incomes of those initially in the higher income groups.” No doubt things have gotten worse for many because of the recession, but there are plenty of people to blame beyond the “1%” and Wall Street villains, from the federal appointees running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to the home buyers lying on mortgage applications.
This obsession with income inequality, moreover, reflects profound ignorance of capitalism’s revolutionary genius. To the protestors, the fact that top earners increased their income more than others did is prima facie evidence of capitalist skullduggery. They seem to think that a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates has a zillion dollars because they somehow purloined money that in a just world other people would have had. Of course, in reality Microsoft and Apple have created hundreds of thousands of jobs and enriched others at the same time the corporations enriched themselves. That’s how capitalism works: it creates wealth that indeed spectacularly benefits the few, but that also raises the living standards of the many by creating jobs. More important, it is a dynamic, open system, one that creates opportunities for the clever and hardworking. And it has been wildly successful, so much so that today, young people who in the past would have started work at 16, can now spend several years of extended adolescence in colleges and universities, where they can earn impecunious degrees in subjects like Medieval French Poetry or Postcolonial Literature, and then loaf about lower Manhattan protesting the evil system that has rescued them from the drudgery of farm labor or factory work, and given them nutritious cheap food, healthy bodies, straight white teeth, and gadgets like X-Boxes and I-Pads.
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