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Works and Days

Occupy What?

November 4th, 2011 - 11:35 am

Class—family pedigree, accent, clothes, schooling—now mean nothing. You can meet your Dartmouth roommate working in Wall Street at Starbucks, and seem for all appearances his identical twin. But when you walk out the door with your environmental studies degree, you reenter the world of debt and joblessness, he back into the world of good money. Soooo unfair for those of like class.

Then there is the sad hypocrisy of the Occupy Wall Street mess. Are Oprah and George Soros enemies of the people? Are the criteria that one must both be rich and right-wing to exempt a John Kerry, Warren Buffett, or Nancy Pelosi? Multimillionaire Michael Moore dresses like a buffoon, spouts his usual silly Flint, Michigan, shtick, and earns an indulgence? Are former New Jersey Governor Corzine and the BP and Goldman Sachs execs, who were so eager to fund Obama’s campaign, also class insects? Why not an occupy White House for near three years of 9.1% unemployment, an occupy Hollywood for John Depp’s $50 million last year, or occupy the LA Lakers gym for obscene basketball salaries? Why not occupy Sacramento for the $200,000 plus retirement pensions from a bankrupt state? Or for that matter, why not occupy dad’s house?

And then there are the sloppy rubrics “millionaires and billionaires.” A software engineer who makes $150,000 a year, and has a $850,000, 1200 sq. foot bungalow in Menlo Park (= one million in net worth) is to be in the same category as those worth 1000x more—or even a Bill Gates or Jay Rockefeller? The young radiologist who brings in $250,000, but pays the full tab for his two kids at USC and Occidental ($100,000 per year) is analogous to the late billionaire Steve Jobs, or is he that much better off than the DMV supervisor at a $65,000 salary, with less taxes, and whose three kids are all on state grants at CSUs? We need a government Department of Assessing Net Worth to factor in locale, entitlements, dispensations, cost of living, and housing to adjudicate who is what.

Are we back to reckoning relative rather than absolute wealth? Mr. Victor Hanson is poor and mows his own lawn, and Donald Trump has 1,000 gardeners? My Accord has fake leather seats and those in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Mercedes are real hide? My 140-year old frame house is worth only $150,000 in Selma, and something that looks just like it is worth a million in Palo Alto? Is the roof better on that account?

The whole point of globalization was to extend the simulacra of the aristocratic class to the common man. It succeeded brilliantly. Go to Wal-Mart and get fitted with “outdoor wear,” walk out and to the untrained eye (like mine) it looks about the same as the stuff at ten times the cost at REI or Eddie Bauer. I spoke at a financial group of zillionaires not long ago. Afterwards a young woman complimented my garish “black and gold watch band.” I replied, “A great deal at Walmart at $19.00.” What great wealth brings today is not elemental advantage, but optional delight in the sense of flying private rather than coach, six homes instead of one, a week in Tuscany rather in Pismo Beach. In absolute terms, not all that much; in terms of highly aware younger people, cosmically unfair! I was riding my bike the other day: a farm worker emerging from an almond orchard was on his iPhone, not unlike the ones I see in Occupy Wall Street clips. Weird world.

These are upside down times. The EU that was to be our model is in shambles. The supposedly white right-wing champions a Herman Cain, with deep South baritones and youthful experience with Jim Crow. Yet both are considered suspect, while a Hawaiian prep school, Ivy League graduate, with contrived black cadences, is the better representative of the African-American experience. Never have Americans’ prospects seemed brighter—vast new energy reserves, an unmatched military, disarray in Russia, the Middle East and Europe—and never have been Americans been more conditioned and readied for decline. In such surreal times, we see the anguish of the upper-middle class at Occupy Wall Street, championed by multimillionaires, whose overt liberalism is offered as some sort of exemption.

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