Fueled By Scotch

"I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people." -Mark Twain

Tag: Wall Street

The Nature of the Problem 1.0 #OWS

by Cosmo Houck

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People ask me a lot to explain OWS to them. I’m not really sure why, because I haven’t been to any of the protests, and I haven’t been involved in any way. I think it’s just because I’m young and occasionally voice dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Anyway, while I can’t speak for any of the OWS protesters, I have some ideas about why they’re out there. In fact, I think anyone who’s confused just hasn’t been paying attention. It’s complicated, though, because there are so many things to be pissed off about there’s not always perfect ideological coherence between everyone who’s angry. For some reason this seems to be a problem for some people (journalists), and you can pick up on it whenever they describe protests as “inchoate”. I think there’s enough wrong out there that to expect everyone who shows up at a protest to conform to some overarching ideological purpose is absurd.

Anyway, it’s been bothering me, because there’s all this really disturbing information out there, stuff that should have people up in arms, and I get asked what OWS is all about–like it’s some great mystery. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I’d like to think a lot of people are out there because there’s a lot wrong with where we’re at.

The other day, through Gizmodo, I came across this presentation that Zach Holman gave. I thought it was pretty cool. Infographics seem to be all the rage, but they too often (in my eyes) subordinate information to style. A nice crisp and clean slide format seems like a happy compromise.

Then I got to thinking: many of the myriad challenges we face can be expressed pretty simply through some brutal numbers; what if instead of writing some absurdly long soliloquy, I could do it through slides?

My end result isn’t nearly as polished as its inspiration, but that’s what I decided to do. I used this color palette from Colour Lovers, and I got to work. There’s a lot I didn’t get to, foremost foreign policy and the enormous prison population in this country. There’s a lot that’s messed up. I’m happy with what I’ve got so far, but I’m not satisfied. Maybe if this meets a favorable reaction I’ll expand it.

Additionally, and this is really important, all I did was collate other peoples’ work here. I’ll list my sources after the gallery with the slide number–go check them out.

Sources:

SLIDE 3: Simple Google search for unemployment numbers

SLIDE 4: Huffington Post article on unemployed workers

SLIDE 5: The Weekly Standard on the income drop under Obama

SLIDE 7: A variety of graphs from Mother Jones on income inequality (this will pop up again later)

SLIDE 8 & 9: The Vanity Fair article credited with providing the 99% slogan for OWS

SLIDE 10 & 11: The Mother Jones graph compilation again

SLIDE 13: A few articles. I didn’t use ProPublica, but they have an accounting of the pure bailout money given to Wall Street. the New York Times has a much larger figure that takes into account other things, like loans. This is the number I used. And Bloomberg provides the information on banks investing money in government treasuries.

SLIDE 15: Took these names from two sources. The incomparable Glenn Greenwald on why Dems who fantasize about OWS support should rethink, and this Slate article (which, admittedly, makes the case that Wall Street doesn’t have remarkable ties to the administration)

SLIDE 17: The Greenwald article from above.

SLIDE 18: The WSJ.

SLIDE 20: Democracy in Distress.

SLIDE 24: Ok, this great quote came to my attention in a Gawker post about how a woman made it into an OWS sign and then lost her job. She took the quote from this thoughtful piece over at The Atlantic.

SLIDE 28-32: This new report from Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy via Salon.

SLIDE 34 & 35: This report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

SLIDE 37: The Huffington Post on college grads and entrepreneurship.

SLIDE 38: “The End of Men” over at The Atlantic got me thinking about this, and then I got that top five from NPR.

SLIDE 43: This great excerpt came from that same Vanity Fair piece again-the one credited with providing the OWS slogan.

SLIDE 44: I’ve seen this pop up on Facebook all prettified and everything, but I’m pretty sure this blog post is the origin point for this great Venn Diagram. Go check it out-it’s a good read and deserves credit.

SLIDE 45: I love this quote, and used it in my blog post “Much Ado About Voting“. Unfortunately, it’s only available online for $30 or so. For more info, check out my post.

And that’s it.

Hey you. With the press badge. What do you think I’ve been doing for the last four years*? #OWS

by Cosmo Houck

I’m angry. It’s not a good kind of anger, either, it’s not something that I can productively channel; it’s more a slowly simmering rage that’s never quite going to come to a boil.

And that’s too bad. I think all of my peers and fellow citizens at various Occupy events are genuinely, righteously angry–as they should be–and I wish I had it in me to go join them. Instead I find myself applauding from a distance, frustrated that I don’t really have anything new or insightful or important to say, and that even if I did it probably wouldn’t make any difference.

But I do have that anger. It’s not about the power of corporations, although I’m certainly angry about that. It’s not about the excessive and expansive powers of our government (particularly the executive branch) either, although those also really piss me off. No, my anger is more petty and misdirected, and, ultimately, self interested.

I’m tired of people not taking me seriously. And I’m tired of people not taking my entire generation seriously. And I’m tired of people not taking college students and graduates seriously, and I’m tired of people dismissing college professors and academics as elitist intellectuals divorced from the concerns of “real” people. I don’t think it makes any sense.

Do you know what we do in college? Sure, some of us binge drink. Some of us play silly sports like Ultimate Frisbee, and some of us play stupid sports like faux Quidditch (not me though). All of us–if we graduate at least–show(ed) up for class once in awhile. Sometimes more than once and awhile. A lot of us were (are) actually dedicated to our studies, and to understanding the world we live in–and made that a focus of our college experience. And many of us do all the things I mentioned above (except the Quidditch–only a few people do that).

Which is to say, many of us devote four years of our lives to immersing ourselves in learning more about the world we live in. And we (or our parents, or the state or the school if we’re really smart) pay a lot of money for the privilege to do that. And it is a privilege, and it is one that I am enormously thankful for.

But see, here’s the thing: despite the fact that many of us have devoted this (pretty large) chunk of time to just knowing more about the world, and that many of us find ourselves so outraged by the stark and blatant injustices of our social world that we feel the need to turn out in the thousands to protest it, people still like to caricature us as immature, naive, and delusional. This is an opinion of “young” people that cuts across the political divide. Here’s the New York Times’ Ginia Bellafante on OWS when it started:

The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”?

One day, a trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Adam Sarzen, a decade or so older than many of the protesters, came to Zuccotti Park seemingly just to shake his head. “Look at these kids, sitting here with their Apple computers,” he said. “Apple, one of the biggest monopolies in the world. It trades at $400 a share. Do they even know that?”

It’s hard to imagine putting together a more insulting two paragraphs than that (although I’ll pull out some articles later that do, in fact, top it). There’s a lot going on in there, but I’ll let most of it speak for itself.

One exception though: Ginia, if I’m getting this right, you think that people either should have a) stayed home (you’re right; that’s probably really going to catalyze change) or b) come up with pithy slogans for street signs that more adequately summarized the massive and complex problems facing this nation. That’s a tall order friend.

Of course, at least Bellafante is merely contemptuous. Right wing commentators like American Spectator have felt free to charge the Occupiers at Wall Street with defecating and fornicating all over public property. This comes in a context where the concerns of graduate students thinking seriously about the protests can be dismissively referred to as “graduate school angst” (Tough break guy–apparently the [minimum] six years you’re devoting to becoming a better, more serious intellectual was all for naught) and “journalists” who are, totally, sincerely interested in this OWS thing, they swear, can refer to “class war” in the first sentence and caricature the protesters as disappointed Radiohead fans. It would be funny if it weren’t so cynically malicious.

So there’s this sort of general distrust of “youth” pervasive within the general media that I find inexplicable. Apparently being “young” goes hand in hand with naivete, at best, and wild eyed Leninist idealism  at worst. Notice that no criticism is directed at the mass majority of this country that is unengaged, the “real Americans” too overwhelmed by debt and work and kids to be able to be a viable target for the scathing journalism of the news media. Rather, in short sound bites and truncated interviews the news organizations are happy to present the protesters on Wall Street as elite kids to be resented by the rest of the U.S. population.

I’ve decided to put “young” and “youth” in quotation marks for a reason; mainly, the people the media has decided count as “youth” would be adults at any other point in the past. Even extraordinarily positive opinions of the OWS event have referred to its participants as “kids”. (Never mind the fact that our federal government apparently feels 16 is old enough to start assassinating American citizens)

I’m 22**. My Grandma and Grandpa were married and had kids while they were in high school. Maybe a few people didn’t consider them adults then, but they did by the time they were my age.

My great Grandfather went through life with no more than an eighth grade education. He “rode the rails” during the Great Depression early in his life, and no one would have questioned his adulthood by the time he turned 22.

So when people derisively refer to me, or people my age, as “kids” when talking about the Occupy protests I wonder about their motivations. Obviously norms change with time, and on a personal level I don’t believe I will ever be able to live up to the lofty standard set by my older relatives.

However, there is no physical reason, no factor in brain development or maturity, that suggests I, and the rest of my outraged age group, deserve to be summarily dismissed because we’re younger than the people who are made uncomfortable by this movement.

Rather, such dismissals lie in ephemeral arguments about a lack of “experience”. I wonder–often–about the value of experience. Experience is an anecdotal, subjective, intensely personal sort of evidence to bring to the table when thinking about macro-economic or socio-political theory. In other words, inadmissible as evidence in any peer reviewed academic journal in the country (or a court of law if all you do is watch CSI).

In my mind, being the manager of your local Petco or the owner of a small stationary company shouldn’t empower you to exposit on the overreach of Leviathan. Yeah, it sucks when you look at your paycheck and you see the government takes some of it. (You know what’s really shitty? While you’re paying the normal tax rate, G.E. and other Fortune 500 companies are paying no corporate taxes in the United States. )

But you know what? You do learn when the government takes “your” money away in taxes. And maybe you know someone who’s committing welfare fraud, or a government employee who doesn’t work half as hard at their job as you do at yours. It’s not hard to piece together how you “figure out” that the government’s the problem with this country.***

But see, here’s the thing: if you rely on your personal experiences to make judgements about the policies of a nation with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy, you’re going to be fucking wrong.

That’s ok. I don’t blame you. You probably work 40 hours a week, and maybe you have a family. If politics is really important to you, maybe you turn on Fox News or MSNBC in the morning while you’re getting your kids ready for school (I know it’s not CNN; no one watches that crap), and maybe you turn it on again for awhile in the evening. If you’re really devoted, perhaps you read a newspaper (or two) and/or listen to the radio (NPR anyone? Bueller? Bueller?). The point is, even if you are interested, there’s only so much you can do.

But that’s probably not you! Most of the people I interact with on a regular basis don’t fit that barely engaged model; they’re even less engaged. I have people very close to me who express such frustration with politics that they don’t follow it at all–they just show up every two years to vote for their party. I have people in positions of authority over me who hear me discussing anything remotely political with peers, and they ask me to stop because it stresses them out too much. “Young” people are often accused of being apathetic because we don’t reliably turn out to vote; I’d argue (and have) that the more insidious and tangible apathy is voting blindly without consideration for the policies that the candidate stands for.

So don’t fucking talk down to me. When the most you do is listen to NPR a couple of hours or read Newsweek, don’t pretend like you have the intellectual authority to dismiss me and the thousands and thousands of people like me who have done nothing but think about the social problems this country and our world face in the coming years.

When I’m not studying for the GRE, working 30-40 hours a week, working on my graduate school applications, or writing for this blog, I’m reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson (an 1100 page speculative fiction book deeply concerned with philosophy and mathematics among other things), an introductory logic book, Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, and Slate, Salon, the Economist, The New Yorker (weekly) the National Review, The Weekly Standard, American Spectator, Gizmodo, and various sports websites. That’s daily; regularly I follow a ton of people on twitter, read Ars Technica and Engadget, Joystiq, Tom’s Dispatch, the New York Times, Reuters, the Atlantic, and assorted other news outlets. What the fuck do you do, guy with a family and two kids?

It would be unfair to expect you to do what I do, but it’s equally unfair to denigrate what I do and say you know best. You don’t. You’re woefully uninformed-you know how I know? Because I am woefully uninformed, and I both studied for four years and work my ass off not to be. This shit’s really fucking complicated.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t even have a grasp of the full nature of the problems we face. That’s because they are vast in quantity and irreducible in their complexity. And that, to me, is the root of the paradox and challenge in front of us. We face difficulties of nigh unimaginable scope, but which can be neatly summarized thusly: shit’s fucked up. What we’re doing isn’t working. Reasonable people can disagree about why, but to contrive a position of moral authority because of an age difference is lazy, dishonest, and unrealistic about the level of thought that me and mine are bringing to the table. So step the fuck up, or get out of our way while we try and figure this out.

*There are some deeply, deeply silly majors out there in the world of liberal arts. But Afro-Eurasian Cross-cultural linguistics is not the norm (and not without value [if that is a real thing]), and judging by the composition of think tanks like the Heritage Institute or the Center for American Progress humanities majors like political science still have a place in this world.

**Something I didn’t end up having time to mention, but when people look to put down the OWS protesters they invariably reference hippies. Apparently, it’s a tremendous insult to be labeled “hippyish” while protesting. On some level, I understand this–I really like showers and button up, collared shirts. But on another, it blows my mind that it can be a winning strategy to criticize a movement that was for civil rights, the equality of women, peace abroad instead of foreign wars, and a more compassionate government. Those are really the guys we should be making fun of?

***That is not to say that government is not an integral part of the problem. Here is an excellent post and pie chart on the interlaced nature of the issue: the problem isn’t too powerful corporations or too powerful government–it’s both. They both create, reinforce, and sustain each other. Think C. Wright Mills and the power elite.

Source: How Conservatives Drove Me Away

And I’ve been saying this (though not half so simply) for a long time.

People Belittling OWS:

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/wall-street-protest-begins-with-demonstrators-blocked/?hp

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/nyregion/protesters-are-gunning-for-wall-street-with-faulty-aim.html?_r=2&hp

http://www.tnr.com/print/article/politics/95621/occupy-wall-street-protests-radiohead

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/10/03/on-wall-street-a-protest-matures/?ref=business

http://www.salon.com/2011/10/05/erin_burnett_voice_of_the_people/singleton/

http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/280277/can-occupy-wall-street-make-sense-itself-charles-c-w-cooke?pg=2

http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/279471/occupy-wall-street-and-student-loans-josh-barro

http://spectator.org/blog/2011/10/10/greens-occupy-wall-street-agai

http://spectator.org/blog/2011/10/06/occupy-wall-street-and-the-ara

http://spectator.org/blog/2011/10/17/the-open-sewer-of-occupy-wall

http://spectator.org/archives/2011/10/20/free-college

They sure look like a disorganized mob to me…

by Cosmo Houck

Source: http://www.vimeo.com/30081785

Insularity and Self Interest; the Mass Delusions of the Power Elite

by Cosmo Houck

In mind of the Occupy Wall Street protests going on nationally, and in light of clearly biased reporters convinced of their own objectivity, I thought I’d relate a conversation I had a year or so ago.

I have an aquaintance who I very much respect, and generally think of as a well-informed and intelligent individual. This person also makes quite a large salary (in excess of $250,000), and in a profession where they routinely come into contact with people who make even more money, and who possess a great deal of power.

I forget precisely what we were talking about at the beginning of the conversation (probably taxes) but I mentioned, out of hand, that anyone making $100,000 a year was reasonably wealthy. Not mansion and jet plane and Ferrari welathy, to be sure, but comfortably far better off than the median income in the United States ($50,303 in 2008). To be sure, there are areas of the country with higher costs of living, and that as a result also possess higher mdeian incomes, but I haven’t found anywhere yet where $100,000 is anything less than better off than a lot of other people.

$250,000, then, is rich. There is no doubt about that-at least as long as rich is a relative term, and dependent upon how you’re doing compared to everyone else.

Which brings up the core of my point, and one that is admittedly old news: people judge their wealth relative to the people they spend time around, and largely have no remote idea what the distribution of wealth nationally actually looks like.

This was highlighted in my conversation by my aquaintance’s heated assertions that their family was solidly middle class, and, in fact, struggling in the poor economy as much as anyone else. And besides-how dare I!-this aquaintance was around wall street traders and powerful people all the time who make millions; clearly, in comparison to them, my friend was positively impoverished.

This was the gist of the conversation, but I also wish I could capture the cloying condenscension at my naivete; ah, the young looking at actual income distribution, with no concern for the financial struggles of people making lots of money in the Real World.

That sense of condescension I’ve seen manifested throughout criticisms of the ongoing protests. It’s also become more and more problematic that people who are wealthy do not conceive of themselves as wealthy, largely; confined to interactions with people who make as a much money as they do, they are so divorced from the problems that the great majority of people face that they actually feel victimized and persecuted. Nevermind the millions of unemployed, the lack of new jobs, or the fact that the people who triggered the financial collapse faced no consequences of consequence.

I opined some time ago that I thought that in a common disgust at the corporate and political edifice in this country liberals and libertarians might see their interests converge; I think to some degree these protests have represented that. People have criticized a lack of coherent policy prescriptions, but those people are missing (to me) what is appealing about the protests. More than providing answers, they hold the potential to shine a lens on the chronic insularity and self interest of this country’s power elite which has led to the debasement of core American values like the maximization of equality of opportunity.

Oh, and all those Wall Street traders might be pyschopaths.