Exquisitely Uncomfortable People

Things change when people get uncomfortable. Marriages that are rather dull, but good enough, or even marginally acceptable, don’t end in divorce. One party has to become increasingly uncomfortable, until enough is enough. And you stay at your lousy job if the pay is okay and if no one is on your case all that much. You do what you do. They pay you. Things may not be perfect, but then things never are perfect. You make do. Yes, change doesn’t happen when people shrug and say whatever, dude.

But some want change. Back in the sixties the counterculture young were talking, endlessly, about The Revolution. That great change in everything, and perhaps in consciousness itself, and maybe in diet and whatnot, was surely coming. But for all the talk of Mao and Che and all that other stuff, that revolution never came. Not enough people were uncomfortable. For a divorce you need only one exquisitely uncomfortable party. And it takes only one exquisitely uncomfortable party to quit that damned job and decide to become a professional clown or a personal trainer or open that bed-and-breakfast in Altoona. For a revolution, of the sort imagined by the young folks, you need a critical mass of exquisitely uncomfortable people. Back in the sixties, and through the early seventies, the nation may have been in turmoil over the Vietnam War and racial issues and changing sexual and social mores, but life, overall, was pretty good – or good enough. The top three television shows in 1969 were Laugh-In, Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the top-grossing movie. There would be no revolution.

But maybe you just had to wait. And maybe you had to wait for cultural-political-social-economic discomfort to reach a critical mass – say, Ninety-Nine Percent. Yes, the problem with the would-be revolutionaries in the late sixties was that they claimed to be unusually enlightened – a rare breed in touch with the earth and the truth and the oppressed masses elsewhere in the world. They were, in effect, saying they were proud to be in a special sort of free-thinking and extraordinarily attentive One Percent, mocking those who were not, or sad that everyone else just didn’t get it. And that’s no way to run a revolution. These who aren’t insulted by this just shrugged – whatever. But now the Occupy Wall Street movement is here, and growing, as income inequality has gotten absurd again, much like the Gilded Age or those last two years before the markets crashed in 1929 and we then had a decade of deep misery. A few – the new One Percent – are making out like bandits, in what seems to be a rigged system – and everyone else is being screwed. And this is a different way to get a bit of a revolution going, or at least spur some fundamental change in things. The message is different. We’re all getting screwed, save for a very few at the top. There’s nothing exclusive or patronizing about that message. And many, looking around, agreed, and then more and more agreed – and now we do have that mass of exquisitely uncomfortable people.

And the odd thing is just who is also so very uncomfortable now. That would be Paul Ryan, the Republican’s economic big thinker, the guy with the big plan – the famous Ryan Budget – repeal Obamacare, make Medicare a diminishing voucher program, phasing it out entirely soon enough, and do the same to Social Security, and quickly phase out taxes on the rich and corporations, and in forty years the nation will be rich and prosperous and a paradise. That didn’t go very far, but Ryan is the big thinker – you have to give him that. And now he is worried. He is there to serve the interests of the One Percent, and the Ninety-Nine Percent is getting uppity. So he gave this speech about class warfare – he is against it – and about the politics of fear and envy – of course against that too – to the quite conservative Heritage Foundation.

And Jonathan Chait disassembles it:

Rising income inequality, like climate change, is an ideologically inconvenient issue for conservatives. They would prefer not to discuss it altogether. If forced to discuss it, they will generally either deny its existence or simply carry on as if it doesn’t exist.

The underlying facts, like the facts of climate change, are stark. Over the last few decades, income growth for most Americans has slowed to a crawl, while income for the very rich has exploded. That’s a reversal of the three decades following World War II, when all income groups got richer, with the poor and middle class rising at a faster rate than the rich.

Yes, the Congressional Budget Office’s new analysis shows that, and shows that changes in government policy over this period have made inequality worse – the “equalizing effect of transfers and taxes on household income” was what changed. The rich got all the tax breaks. No one else got much of anything.

And Chait sets the stage here:

We’re not having a debate about how to reverse or even stop the growth of inequality. Nobody has a real plan to do that. The Democratic plan is to slightly arrest the growth of inequality by hiking taxes on the rich a few percentage points, so as to minimize the need to cut the social safety net. The Republican plan is to slash taxes for the rich and programs for the poor, thereby massively increasing inequality.

That is a hard position to defend in the context of exploding inequality, and conservatives would rather not defend it. Instead the right’s response has been to persistently deny or ignore the facts. Rick Perry, pressed by a reporter to explain why he was proposing a tax plan that would widen income inequality further, replied, “I don’t care about that.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page today dismissed the Tax Policy Center, whose calculations persistently show the ways in which various Republican tax proposals would widen inequality, as “liberal.” It didn’t even pretend to dispute the substance of the calculations. Eric Cantor gave a speech about income inequality centering on stories about how his grandmother worked hard and pulled herself up by the bootstraps in the old days. It was a nice speech if you like stories about plucky grandmothers. It failed to grasp the central dilemma, which is that it was a lot easier for poor people to move up sixty years ago, when tax rates on the rich happened to be far higher, than it is today.

And that was the same with Ryan’s speech, which Chait calls “the portrait of a mind in the grips of an ideological fantasy, refusing to confront inconvenient facts.” And that opens with Ryan accusing Obama of attacking “straw men” and then just gets strange:

Obama is going from town to town, impugning the motives of Republicans, setting up straw men and scapegoats, and engaging in intellectually lazy arguments, as he tries to build support for punitive tax hikes on job creators. … He has launched his second campaign by preying on the emotions of fear, envy, and resentment. … Also according to the President’s logic, spending restraint is incompatible with a strong, well-functioning safety net.


Right, so Obama favors “punitive” tax rates, he promotes resentment of the rich, and he opposes any spending restraint whatsoever. Ryan produces no evidence to support these statements, because none exists. In reality, Obama never attacks the rich, he constantly insists that he respects economic success and merely wants to lessen the burden of budget cuts on the most vulnerable, and he agreed to reduce spending by more than a trillion dollars just this last summer. Ryan repeatedly accuses Obama of favoring “equality of outcome,” which is absurd.

But Obama’s actual argument is that requiring somewhat higher taxes on the rich will reduce the scale of cuts required on programs for the poor and middle class, which Ryan sees this way:

The President has been talking a lot about math lately. He’s been saying that “If we’re not willing to ask those who’ve done extraordinarily well to help America close the deficit… the math says… we’ve got to put the entire burden on the middle class and the poor.” This is really a stunning assertion from the President. When you look at the actual math, you quickly realize that the way out of this mess is to combine economic growth with reasonable, responsible spending restraint. Yet neither of these things factors into the President’s zero-sum logic.


It’s “stunning,” says Ryan, because it relies on zero-sum math. More tax hikes on the rich means less spending cuts. Ryan finds this stunning because he believes in supply-side fairy tales in which cutting taxes for the rich will produce enormous growth. Never mind that the last two presidential administrations have disproved the supply-side theory about as conclusively as a real world experiment can do. (Bill Clinton raised taxes on the rich, conservatives predicted disaster, and instead we experienced a long boom; George W. Bush lowered taxes on the rich, conservatives predicted a huge boom, and instead we got a weak recovery with no income growth for anybody save the very rich.)

This is followed by an analysis of Ryan’s claims that the rich really don’t have enough money to fix much of anything anyway, and that all this debate over rich investors who pay lower tax rates than the middle class is contrived:

Obama quotes Reagan as saying that bus drivers shouldn’t pay a higher effective tax rate than millionaires. Well, that’s a no-brainer. Nobody disagrees with that.


Nobody disagrees with that? How about Paul Ryan? His tax plan from 2010 would exempt all investment income from taxes, meaning that large segments of the rich would pay nothing at all. The average federal tax rate on households earning more than a million dollars a year, under Ryan’s plan, would be well under 13 percent, compared with a 19.5 percent average federal tax rate for households earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year.

Yeah, but those are just the facts. And Ryan is saying the real issue is equality of opportunity, as no matter how much the Democrats love the French, we are not and will never be like Europe:

Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it – well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.

Our Founding Fathers rejected this mentality. In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of “capital” and “labor” are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.

The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class. …

Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome…


It’s a compelling vision. Unfortunately, Ryan’s understanding of reality is a complete inversion of actual reality. “Equality of opportunity” bears no relation to the reality of the American economy or any economy. Parents can benefit their children by giving them money, better schools, better home environments, tutoring, camp, and other advantages. Opportunity is overwhelmingly unequal. One result is that rich kids perform far better in school than poor kids. But that is not the only result. Poor kids who beat the odds and get high test scores are less likely to complete college than rich kids with middling or even low test scores. Poor kids who beat those odds and graduate from college are still less likely to grow up to be rich than rich kids who did not graduate from college. I’m not sure if there’s a perfect solution, but pretty sure Ryan’s plan to slash Pell Grants is not going to help.

Ryan’s decision to cite Europe as a place where people can’t move beyond their birth station is especially unfortunate. In fact, social mobility in Europe is higher than in the United States, a fact even Rick Santorum has acknowledged.

Chait has many links to back up all of that, but you get the idea. It’s all Ayn Rand stuff, all that stuff about the virtuous rich – the makers – and the parasitic poor – the takers. It’s very clear to Ryan. He has read all her books. Yes, the virtuous rich are the One Percent. Everyone else is a parasite. That may not be a winning argument with all those suddenly realizing they are not only part of the Ninety-Nine Percent, but are being called parasites. That will either chastise them, so they hang their heads in shame, or Ryan and his party are in trouble. The number of “we-are-truly-unworthy-and-we’re-so-sorry-and-we’ll-shut-up-right-now” people may be diminishing.

And Kevin Drum has an interesting observation:

Ryan’s weak grasp of facts aside, what I’m really curious about is why Ryan gave this speech. You see, it was a fairly nasty speech, and Ryan doesn’t usually give speeches like that. After all, he has a reputation as a policy wonk – the Republican Party’s star policy wonk, in fact – and partisan stemwinders do nothing but undermine that reputation. So why did he do it, instead of giving a milder, numbers-heavy address that said pretty much the same thing?

My guess: Obama has gotten to him. Back in April, Obama invited Ryan to a speech about the budget and then ambushed him. With Ryan sitting expectantly in the front row, Obama ripped into Ryan’s budget plan and reduced it to shreds. Ryan was stunned. Since then, following a brief respite to fight over the debt ceiling, Obama has kept up his attacks. I think this has rattled Ryan, causing him to lose his famous cool.

But it may be more than that:

Regardless of whether this upsets David Brooks, it suggests that Republicans are finally feeling a little heat, which is forcing them to defend the indefensible a little more loudly and little more explicitly than they’re really used to. Good.

But how did what was once quite defensible – massive income inequality as the natural order of things – become indefensible? Was it the critical mass of discomfort? Is that how change happens?

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick touches on that in this item on the press and the Occupy Wall Street crowd:

I confess to being driven insane this past month by the spectacle of television pundits professing to be baffled by the meaning of Occupy Wall Street. Good grief. Isn’t the ability to read still a job requirement for a career in journalism? And as last week’s inane “What Do They Want?” meme morphs into this week’s craven “They Want Your Stuff” meme, I feel it’s time to explain something: Occupy Wall Street may not have laid out all of its demands in a perfectly cogent one-sentence bumper sticker for you, Mr. Pundit, but it knows precisely what it doesn’t want. It doesn’t want you.

What the movement clearly doesn’t want is to have to explain itself through corporate television. To which I answer, Hallelujah. You can’t talk down to a movement that won’t talk back to you.

Well, you do have Bill O’Reilly saying this:

Throughout history, there have been human beings who did not want to compete in the marketplace. That sentiment drives a hatred of capitalism. The American economic system is a meritocracy. If you work hard and do well in your job, you usually will prosper providing you practice patience. If you don’t work hard and smart, you will be out on your keister – unless a union saves you.

Some believe this survival-of-the-fittest system is unfair because all people are not born with equal aptitude. And that’s true. Capitalism is not fair to everyone. But it gives the largest number of folks the best chance to succeed because there are many different routes to prosperity and some disinterested bureaucrat isn’t standing around calling the economic shots.

But the Occupy Wall Street protesters want those bureaucrats. They believe governments have a moral obligation to provide a measure of success and education to everyone, no matter the cost. This, of course, is impossible.

His point is that these people want OUR STUFF:

Generally speaking, the Occupy Wall Street crew is comprised of bored morons who want handouts. Every American has a legitimate beef about something, but most of us don’t want to burn the system down. The protesters do.

Well, he’s sure of that, but almost all the media is saying they don’t know what these folks, without a leader, really want. But Lithwick has been down there:

One of the most fatuous themes of mainstream OWS coverage is the endless loop of media bafflement at this movement that doesn’t have a message. … It takes a walloping amount of willful cluelessness to look at a mass of people holding up signs and claim that they have no message.

So Occupy Wall Street is not a movement without a message, it’s one with one that the media can’t handle:

It’s a movement that has wisely shunned the one-note, pre-chewed, simple-minded messaging required for cable television as it now exists. It’s a movement that feels no need to explain anything to the powers that be, although it is deftly changing the way we explain ourselves to one another.

Think, for just a moment, about the irony. We are the most media-saturated 24-hour-cable-soaked culture in the world, and yet around the country, on Facebook and at protests, people are holding up cardboard signs, the way protesters in ancient Samaria might have done when demonstrating against a rise in the price of figs. And why is that? Because they very wisely don’t trust television cameras and microphones to get it right anymore. Because a media constructed around the illusion of false equivalencies, screaming pundits and manufactured crises fails to capture who we are and what we value.

And this is fairly accurate:

For the past several years, while the mainstream media was dutifully reporting on all things Kardashian or (more recently) a wholly manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, ordinary people were losing their health care, their homes, their jobs, and their savings. Those people have taken that narrative to Facebook and Twitter – just as citizens took to those alternative forms of media throughout the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring.

And just to be clear: They aren’t holding up signs that say “I want Bill O’Reilly’s stuff.” They aren’t holding up signs that say “I am animated by toxic levels of envy and entitlement.” They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money; they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want – wait, no, we want – to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.

And there’s more:

The mainstream media thrives on simple solutions. It has no idea whatsoever of how to report on a story that isn’t about easy fixes so much as it is about anguished human frustration and fear. The media prides itself on its ability to tell you how to clear your clutter, re-grout your shower, or purge your closet of anything that makes you look fat – in 24 minutes or less. It is bound to be flummoxed by a protest that offers up no happy endings. …

It must be painful for the pundits at Fox News. The more they demand that OWS explain itself in simple, Fox-like terms, the more cheerfully they are ignored by the occupiers around the country. As efforts to ridicule the protesters fail, attempts to repurpose the good old days of enemies-lists falter; and efforts to demonize the occupiers backfire; polls continue to show that Americans support the protesters and share their goals. The rest of us quickly cottoned on to the fact that the only people who are scared of the “violent mobs” at Occupy Wall Street are the people being paid to call them violent mobs.

Mark your calendars: The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences.

So it comes down to this:

The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times. This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

And that may be the revolution. It just got here forty-two years later than your friends in that dorm room in college late that one winter night imagined. Enough people became exquisitely uncomfortable. And someone tell Paul Ryan. He might want to rethink a few things.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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