Occupy Handbook 1

Whilst browsing my local Chapters-Indigo, trying to find a half-decent use for a recent well-appreciated gift-card, this jumped out at me:

I couldn’t resist. One of the features that attracted me to it was the brevity of the (many) chapters. Because it is broken up into small bits, it makes for good blogging material. Thus, I hope in the weeks ahead, to occasionally blog on things that strike me as interesting. I pretend to no expertise on economics, and almost as little on politics. Hopefully, still, someone besides me will find it interesting.

To begin, a comment on the introduction, and on the first essay by Michael Lewis. Janet Bryne writes in her introduction:

Occupy Wall Street has the rare distinction of being a protest movement that even the objects of its attack can find little fault with. According to the Spectrem Group, a consulting firm serving ultra-high-net-worth individuals, 61 percent to 68 percent of millionaires support raising taxes on millionaires. Although every banker [we learn later that Paul Volcker is the only exception–AF] I approached to participate in this book, including JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, politely declined, it was impossible not to sense that, behind the scrim, income equality was a subject that everyone, even bankers, wanted to speak about. [xvi]

As always, when I read statistic assertions, I think of that infamous quote about statistics. But let’s assume this is true. Is this a remarkable fact? Perhaps it is; many would say these people are voting against their own interests. But I wonder if this is not, in a way, defining “self-interest” in a rather Darwinian way, as pitting the survival of one against the survival of the other. Is it really in the interest of millionaires to always vote to lower taxes on themselves? Consider a possible analogy: a man who knows he is going to binge drink at a party, and therefore takes the precaution of giving his keys to his friends. Prudent people sometimes act in ways that might, on first glance, seem to harm themselves by restricting their freedom of choice, but which, on a more thorough analysis, at least preserve their external conformity to the standards of goodness written on their nature as social beings.

In the first chapter, Michael Lewis gives us a 1%-er Screwtape writing to his posse of 1%er Wormwoods. He expresses (in his indirect way) what he believes the 1% have to hope for, if they want to survive with their privilege intact:

The modern Greeks offer the example in the world today that is, the committee has determined, best in class. Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason that they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99 a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible. He pays no taxes, lives no place, and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens. As the public expects nothing of him, he always meets, and sometimes even exceeds, their expectations. As a result, the chief concern of the ordinary Greek about the rich Greek is that he will cease to pay the occasional visit.

That is the sort of relationships with the Lower 99 we must cultivate if we are to survive. We must inculcate, in ourselves as much as them, the understanding that our relationship to each other is provisional, almost accidental, and their claims on us non-existent. [6]

This passage lept out at me because it poignantly expressed the inversion of the natural law that Emil Brunner described in his Justice and the Social Order, as I’ve noted before. Instead of the classes seeing each other as part of an organic whole which must work in an integrated and mutually beneficial manner to achieve the common good, the rich, in Lewis’ fictional letter, are counselling themselves to believe they have no obligations to people they have not contracted to fulfill. If (and I write this conditionally because Lewis is imagining this dialogue, and offers no proof here that it corresponds to the actual beliefs of any sizeable portion of rich people) this is how the 1% really think of themselves, then they are ultimately only harming themselves, just as an arm which decided it could survive just fine without the body would soon learn it is not the whole.