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None of You Are the 'Any Percent'

In a season of already depressingly moribund talking points, the nascent 2012 presidential campaign has contracted an infectious case of percentage affliction. The most touted media case is the "We Are the 99%" meme being spouted by the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their sister uprisings around the globe. (This, of course, seeks to pit the majority of beleaguered commoners against the perceived 1% at the top of the economic food chain.) But they are hardly the only ones.

Another conservative effort seeks to beat the drum of “We Are the 53%.” This misanthropic effort allows for a clear distinction between barely more than one half of the public and another massive segment who not only get to vote, but might have otherwise sympathized with you. I even have a friend in the Garden State who foisted the idea that some of us may be the 64%.

No matter whether you fancy yourself to swing from the starboard or port side of the political ship, each of these viral themes suffers from fatal flaws, in both practical and political terms. Since we prefer to demonstrate that we can take it as well as dish it out, let us start with the right-wing propaganda.

When it comes to the 47% of people who pay no federal income tax at the end of each year, it’s difficult to think of a worse target to select. I’m not sure what Erick Erickson was thinking when he cooked this up, but a significant majority of these folks are either students, the infirm, or -- to a vast degree -- seniors on fixed incomes. If there is a worse demographic soup to pour political poison into, I’m at a loss to name it. This ignores the fact that these same voters enjoy these benefits largely because of initiatives primarily sponsored by the GOP to begin with. Further, pretty much all of those people pay other taxes at various levels. Nobody is getting off for free. The less said about this the better.

As to the liberal 99% argument, it’s difficult to even select a starting point to begin destroying this meme. By any sort of “We Are the World” measure, the rest of the planet would laugh at the majority of Wall Street protesters. If you have the free time required to go camp out for weeks on end near Wall Street… if you have clothes on your back sufficient to protect you from the elements… if you had two meals of more than 400 calories each in the last 48 hours of your protest… well, you’re probably in the top ten percent of the population of the planet in terms of actual wealth.

It’s also clear that you, as a protester, have very little understanding of precisely what it is you are railing against. (Or, more correctly, what is causing the injustice you perceive.) You live in a society founded on the essential principle that the government turns everyone loose to gather as much wealth as they are able. Do you now express surprise that some people actually went out and did just that?

You are fighting against the end result of a system performing exactly as it was designed to do.

But to get to the fine points of this debate, unless you are one of two hypothetical people at either end of the financial scale in America, you are not part of any given percentage. You are one of roughly seven billion people on the planet, each making their own way and every one both richer and poorer than someone else. If you’re having trouble finding a job sufficiently lucrative to pay off the student loans you incurred while obtaining your degree in philosophy, don’t pretend that you are in the same boat as a high school dropout child of incarcerated parents who is panhandling for change by the Lincoln Tunnel. If you have made frugal choices and managed to save a portion of your paychecks to the point where you might secure a stable retirement, don’t act like you speak for the folks who go to cocktail parties with Bill Gates.

Everyone is different. Society isn’t cut into strata so much as it is composed of a mass of fish of infinitely varying sizes.

As to the great unwashed masses assembling in parks around the world, one of the chief complaints against you is the lack of a larger than life, visionary leader to bring you out of the desert and into the Promised Land. Trust me… this vacuum is your greatest asset, though not for the reason you might imagine. The last thing you want is a modern day Robespierre, lining up the rich in tumbrels heading for the guillotine. Any student of history will tell you how that worked out for the rebels in the decades which followed.

You may be up in arms against the system, but the lack of such a system for those used to living in its cozy confines is generally far worse. The question I would put to you today is, what is it precisely that you are protesting? Capitalism? Democracy? The fact that some do better than others? The choices you made when working within a system which inherently allows for the possibility that some will not achieve greatness, or even fail spectacularly?

For the vast majority of us the system isn’t fair. It never has been. But you are not part of some imaginary mass which can set things to rights by tying a few well heeled witches to a flaming pyre. The system may be flawed -- or even broken -- but you can realistically only fix it from within. Throwing it down leads to chaos. And if you think the actions of the privileged few are objectionable in the current state of affairs, you’ll be severely disappointed with what the powerful do when things go to the Mad Max end of the scale.