So the Occupy Wall Street protests are continuing and reverberating around the country. I sympathize with some of the grievances and demands pertaining to the unjust influence of corporations on our government. But in reading accounts and viewing pictures of the crowds and signs, it seems that the vast majority are expressing a more generic reaction against “corporate greed.” The most popular slogan of the movement seems to be “We Are The 99%,” suggesting that the top 1% wealthiest Americans have all the money and influence and that this is unjust. “We Are The 99%” is meant to bring solidarity to the lower classes, uniting 99% of the country under a common position.
Some of this may simply be, as an Econlog commenter suggests, a natural emotional reaction to the fact that life seems to be getting harder for a lot of us but not any harder for those at the top. Such a reaction is understandable, but I believe it is misguided to channel this reaction into anger at those at the top. Additionally, I believe the very slogan “We Are The 99%” reveals a defeatist mindset that I would encourage you to overcome. (Besides, you can arbitrarily define a group of people that includes 99% of the population, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of that 99% is mad at the other 1% like you are.)
Let’s compare these protests to some of the protests of our history. Women once fought for the right to vote. They had to because they did not have the same rights as men and it was fundamentally impossible for them to become men and achieve those rights. Blacks once fought for further integration because Jim Crow sent them to the back of the bus and the concert hall. They had to fight because they did not have the same rights as whites and it was fundamentally impossible for them to become white and achieve those rights.
But what about the 99%? We are not fundamentally tied to the 99% in the same way. We do not live in a caste system. We are mobile. And there is no better or more timely proof of that than in the life of Steve Jobs.
I have learned a lot about Jobs in the wake of his recent death. Jobs did not start life with a privileged upbringing; I never knew that he was put up for adoption. This information about Jobs’s early life led to several top tweets on Twitter with variations of the following: “Steve Jobs was born out of wedlock, put up for adoption at birth, dropped out of college and then changed the world….WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?”
Steve Jobs started out as part of the 99%. But he did not protest the 1% or demand that he deserved something from them. He innovated and rose to become part of the 1% while improving the lives of the rest of the 99% at the same time. Steve Jobs got rich, we got iPhones. We do not live in a zero-sum world where the 1% get to the top by taking from the 99%. No, you get to the 1% by giving the 99% things that they choose to buy because they think those things will make their lives better. That’s the beauty of capitalism. No one seems to be accusing Steve Jobs or Apple of the evils of “corporate greed.” Now Goldman Sachs may be creating negative externalities from its financial instruments in a way that is different from Apple’s selling of products, but it’s extremely important not to cast “corporations” or “capitalism” as an inherently evil thing – as this excellent New York Magazine article points out.
Furthermore, Steve Jobs did not go to work for the 1% either. He created his own job. This is what makes the leftist protests that everyone has “a right to a job” seem so silly. In fact, a lot of the overall discussion about the jobs market over the last few months has revealed a paradigm that is simply incomplete. We talk about businesses creating jobs and people finding those jobs as if businesses are this “other” entity with which people must interact. But businesses are started by people who are not working for another business. If you can’t find a job, what about creating your own job? Of course, for many people, this is not an easy thing, but it seems dangerous to me that many people do not even seem to conceive of this being a possibility.
I know that social mobility is not as perfect as conservatives pretend, and pretending that anybody can just work hard and get rich in America may be as silly as pretending that it’s even possible for the government to guarantee everyone a job. But what about you? If you’re reading this, you just proved that you have free time and access to the Internet. Do you realize that those two things give you almost unlimited opportunity? Hopefully you are learning things as you spend time reading my blog. The cost of learning is so low right now. (Note that the cost of learning is not the same thing as the cost of college.) You can learn almost anything with the Internet. And don’t forget about libraries, too. You have the ability to teach yourself more skills than you currently possess. You are not inherently stuck in the 99%.
What I think is the silliest of all is that many of the Occupy Wall Street protestors are running around with iPhones, taking pictures and tweeting their activism to the rest of the country. (The New York Magazine article has an awesome photo of technology-wielding protestors captioned, “Corporations. Not Always Bad.”) Do these people realize the irony of tweeting “We Are The 99%” from a device invented by a man who was part of the 99% but decided to “Think Different” and rise above that? You can Think Different too. I’m not saying your goal needs to be to get into the top 1%. But don’t accept a mentality that you are stuck where you are, and that the only way you can get ahead is by taking from others. If you can’t find a job, create it. Teach yourself. Improve yourself. Think Different.