Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Populist Outrage: Breaking Through the Fuss

Recently on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart jokingly told us that nothing turns him on more than “faux populist outrage.” If that were really the case, he would be, well, you know, very happy this week. Stewart himself helped begin the recent populist anger at the rich in his interview with Jim Cramer on CNBC. Stewart really galvanized us when he told a man (Cramer) who claims to have a legitimate stock advice show, but throws around stuffed animals of bears and bulls, that what’s happened on Wall Street is not “a f@#%#@ game.” In his typical brilliance, Stewart exposed the CNBC-types for who they really are, enablers of a culture where traders play around with people’s hard earned money just so they can accumulate massive amounts of wealth.

The outrage reached a tipping point over the weekend when we learned that AIG executives, the very people whose greed and stupidity caused the company to collapse, forcing the government to potentially spend hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out the "too-big-to-fail company" were receiving millions of dollars worth of bonuses. The entire country, Republicans and Democrats, could barely contain their anger at the fact that a company who received taxpayer money would spend it to reward corporate failure. Republican Iowa Senator Charles Grassley even suggested that AIG executives “commit suicide” if they don’t pay back the money.

Now that everyone unanimously agrees that the actions of AIG are outrageous, the question becomes, what exactly does the outrage mean? Where will the American people channel their anger? A progressive like me feels like this moment presents a golden opportunity for our goals and ideals. If people are angry at the wealthy/Wall Street types, there is a political opening to enact massive changes in the tax code to fund health care, energy and public education. Even with this opportunity, there are a couple of caveats. First, the money we’re fussing over is actually a tiny portion of the total bailout money that was given to these companies. Moreover, much of the criticism is coming from certain entities (Republicans, Conservative commentators, the mainstream media) that enabled this culture to thrive in the first place. Therefore, what’s to make me think that this hubbub, as Rush Limbaugh might say, is simply the “drive-by” media ramping up temporary outrage at one particularly egregious abuse of corporate power?

The more important question is what impact this outrage could have on the “American spirit” of ingenuity and entrepreneurship. David Brooks wrote in his column today that America is temporarily losing its unique urge to “strive, risk and make money.” Brooks tells us that: “We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended. The public culture is dominated by one downbeat story after another as members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.” I think Brooks has missed the mark with his analysis here. The diminishing spirit Brooks seems to be talking about is the obsessive pursuit of wealth by any means possible. I think it would be GREAT if we never again had the “spirit and drive” to trade around people’s life savings in various games and schemes. What we DO need, and what I fear may be slipping way, is a culture that strives for success in making tangible things, in letting our creativity and innovation soar, and in making the world a better place. America’s greatness comes from its capacity to harness our ambitious spirit to discover and create things that make our lives more fulfilling.

I’m proud to say that this is a major point of contention between the Big Picture and me. Despite The Big Picture’s personal use of the latest human inventions (like his iBook, Cell Phone, Plasma TV etc.), he maintains that, as a society, we should not obsessively seek technological advances. He feels that such inventions benefit the very rich and, especially, United States military. The Big Picture feels like we had all the technology we needed around 1995 (not coincidentally, when he came of age), and that any new technology would inhibit face-to-face relationships and exacerbate concentration of wealth. I strongly disagree with this sentiment. Part of what makes life wonderful, at a very fundamental level, is human’s propensity to create and innovate. In America’s best days, we’ve built extraordinary suspension bridges and intercontinental rail lines. We’ve invented electricity and the automobile. This innovative spirit not only gives us pride in our accomplishments and improvements in the quality of our lives, but it has given us jobs. Not jobs where we sit in front of a computer analyzing numbers, but jobs where we work together to accomplish something great. It is these types of jobs that have also allowed for the emergence of strong organized labor. Most union jobs are in manufacturing, an industry characterized by hard work and ingenuity. President Obama’s goal, as he indicated last week in his speech to the Business Roundtable, was to fundamentally change our economy from one based on greed and false bubbles, to one built on hard work. Achieving that type of sweeping change in our economic structure would be a great outcome of this populist sentiment.

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