A middle-aged, middle America impression of OccupyWallStreet

I’m a middle-aged mutt in this wasteland between the two coasts commonly known as Middle America. Most of the United States lives here, but we rarely — ok never — get asked about important things like politics and the economy. We are the gun-toting, Bible-banging, slack-jawed, under-educated, corn-fed, polyester-wearing yahoos that the liberal media like to make fun of and Wall Street dismisses.

That is a little harsh. Ok, fair enough. I’ve seen my neighbors in their natural habitat (Kroger during wine and cheese hour) so I get where you’re all coming from. But just because we are out here in your idea of Wastelands doesn’t mean we are any less important and informed as you are.

Try to keep up.

What I know by getting to middle-age
There never was a Middle Class in America. We only ever had two classes; the Rich and Those Who Expected to be Rich (ETBR). It is the American Carrot, that thing that gets dangled in front of us to keep all of us reaching for more. The Middle Class was always a nebulous scale of the lower Rich and the upper ETBR which ebbed and flowed depending on the economy at the time. The indicator of where you were was how much wealth you had relative to what others had.

Equity (or wealth if you want) is a very cold, harsh ledger. There are only two ways you can grow it; invest Liquidity or Time.

For example, if you buy a house, you can add equity only one of two ways: put more cash into the place to quickly reduce the amount of mortgage debt OR accept more mortgage debt and increase equity over time, holding your breath the entire time, hoping the equity will eventually exceed the amount of money you have put in. When the equity teeter-tots over to the asset column, you now have wealth. (Unless others around you get foreclosed on, but we’ll get to that.)

The same thing with those who financed a college degree. They expected that even though the degree cost more than most peoples’ houses, they would get a job and over time, not only pay off the loans but make more than the average salary. (They should have bought a calculator first)

It’s just not that complicated. Most people in the ETBR class have a whole lot more time than liquidity. They trade their time all day long for liquidity with wages, mortgages, three easy monthly payments, etc. The Rich class can choose liquidity or time, depending on the rate of return. A slow rate of return means they can use time. A fast rate of return, they use liquidity. The ETBR class does not really have that choice (or more accurately, the degree of choice is scaled depending on the ratio of liquidity to time one has.)

The lack of choice is mostly what pisses the ETBR off most. This generation thought they had time. They were wrong.

This “law of economics” is about as rock solid as the law of gravity. You can ignore it or deny it, but it is still going to affect you.

People without liquidity tried to accelerate time. People with some liquidity but — not enough — tried to expand the value of each liquid unit too fast. Eventually, the ETBR ran out out time before they had a firm grasp on equity and lost it all. When you are clinging to a rock face on a mountain by your fingertips, when you fall, you don’t just slip; you fall all the way down. It does not matter if you are ten feet up the mountain or ten feet from the summit. (Did you catch that? I equated laws of economics to gravity. Genius. I should be ruling the world by now. Roll your eyes if you got ’em.)

How this all ties into #OccupyWallStreet
I do not support Anonymous or Adbusters. I am not a big fan of the fist-pumping, kill Wall Street bankers rhetoric and other hippy crap like stuffing dollar bills in your mouth and marching like zombies. Sanctimonious hipsters with no life experience annoy me, too. It is unsettling to us out here that the OccupyWallStreet “non-leadership” has connections with these groups if only that they decide unilaterallty who is good and who is bad. I like steak, but the fifth “fact” in their Declaration gives me pause that reads, “PeTA is invited to join us.” All of a sudden, now my support for OccupyWallStreet means I support PeTA? Hell no!

Just because I lean to what this country defines as “left” does not mean I hang with the crazy-left. For the record, people claiming the right of human dignity is not a left-leaning principle. Groups that use terror tactics for good scare the hell out of me just as much as those who use them for evil. In the end game, “there is no good or evil; there is only power.

And she is very, very seductive.

To the middle-class middle America, if a group like Anonymous can target a big bad corporation, what is stopping them from concluding — unilaterally — a mom-and-pop business is supporting a big bad corporation (like Visa) for taking credit cards as payment? I understand how the affiliation is feeding Visa, but the rain nourishes the grass and weeds alike. It is incumbent upon groups like Anonymous to make sure the rain falls on the grass and not the weeds if they choose to pee all over my garden without my consent.

I believe the 1% are and have been exploiting their advantage of liquidity to enhance their fortunes. I also believe the 99% have been exploiting their victimization caused by their unwillingness to learn and adapt to the law of economics stated above.

Money finds the path of least resistance. It is what keeps corporations from innovating, what keeps individuals from having to make changes and politicians from reforming their cheating ways. As we used to say when I worked for The Man; cash hides a lot of sins. The only people entirely unaffected are those who are so rich they could not run out of money if they tried and those so poor they don’t have a hope of becoming a member of the ETBR ever in their lives. The rest are gaming the system in almost every way they know how.

I didn’t buy more house than I could afford nor did I refinance on the house equity I had to finance a non-asset like a college education or vacation. I did not take out or encourage my kids to take out huge student loans so they could attend a swanky out-of-state university. The social contract I had with you, the 99%, was that you would not purchase more than you could afford so that your house would not be foreclosed on or your kids would not be recklessly in debt. We were supposed to be in this together. Without your participation, colleges would not have been able to raise the tuition rates. Banks would not be offering 0% loans if nobody took them.

You broke that social contract by always needing more. I kept my end of the bargain.

I expect the 1% will work tirelessly to extract wealth from me until my last breath. But this much I know also about the 99%: They will not be there to help me guard the gate from the Barbarians. They will be busy guarding their own gates.

What I want
What I want most is my own space that is warm and free from the prying grasp of government tax departments, the whims of landlords, the perils of curable illness and disease or the selfish and short-sighted lust of those in power. Owning my own home is none of these things. Even if I were to get to pay the last payment of my mortgage to the bank, I could still lose my home if I could no longer pay the property tax the county continues to demand. Or lose my freedom due to the ever-increasing criminalization of poverty. Or suffer health problems that deplete the wealth I used a life-time of time to build.

The Barbarians will always be at the gate. This season’s Barbarians are the Wall Street bankers and politicians on the take. Next season, it could be drought and famine. The next could be the City of Englewood deciding that my house sits on a patch of land they want to turn into a park. Or Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield increasing my premiums 38% or denying a treatment they pre-approved. The list of Barbarians are endless.

As I move through middle-age and into old-age, I know that my ability and desire to fend off the Barbarians will become less and less while my desire and need for security and warmth will become more and more. I can already feel the fear and rage creep into my bones when some punk-kid behind me in traffic does that dodge-and-weave thing, trying to pass me as I am not speeding fast enough for him. I feel it in the deep sighs of a younger generation who mistake patience for inaction. I know it in my heart when young women no longer look at me with anything less than pity.

What fears me the most, though, is knowing I will not have enough time to build the wealth needed to construct a gate strong enough to keep the Barbarians at bay. I fear they will destroy me before it is my time to go.

*I don’t think the percentages are split 1%-99% but that is a heck of an effective way to market the movement. My use of the numbers are just a short-hand convenience; no more, no less.

You may find this interesting.
And this.
And this from @Karoli who started me thinking down this path, culminating in this here blog post. Blame her 🙂

10 Replies to “A middle-aged, middle America impression of OccupyWallStreet”

  1. Agree with most of the post, would be careful if http://nycga.cc/2011/09/30/declaration-of-the-occupation-of-new-york-city/ is a true representation of the OWS crowd. There’s been at least three declarations I’ve seen that pretend to be from them and I thought the same thing reading through the list, adding PETA and other potentially polemic demands could easily be used to sway public opinion against them.

    “Similar occupation demonstrations are springing up in cities around the country from Austin, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; some two dozen other locations in Florida and California, and more. Protests have also been organized internationally in Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico and others. In Boston, as many 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Dewey Square last Friday, where they have been permitted to set up tents, many planning to stay indefinitely.”

    I think many people are focusing too much on OWS and not realising that this is being “franchised out” to nationally and internationally.

    If people are sitting there wondering why they are protesting, it’s unlikely they’re going to be supportive. Most people’s tipping point is when it happens to them personally or someone close to them, if your kids have got jobs and you’re still in employment, you’re not going to have as much in common with those that don’t.

    Most developed countries’ youth unemployment is running at around 25%, that’s a lot of energy to have doing nothing. In many countries the true figure is 30-40%

  2. The #OWS definitely needs a brighter agenda, but despite the legitimate criticisms I’m glad to see some old-fashioned protesting on display. We’ve had over three decades of grumbling complacency.

    Where I disagree with you is on the perception of the middle-class. I think you may be interchanging aspirations for reality. The reality in my lifetime was that more families than not could afford the basics of a middle-class lifestyle — the home that priced at 25-30% of gross income, 2 cars, food in the fridge, adequate clothing, a few luxuries like cable TV, dance classes and a yearly vacation. While nearly everyone in this class probably aspired for “more and better”, they weren’t actually suffering from anything other than their own wants.

    The world has changed in ways that defies the “work harder and smarter” creed that most of us grew up with. There have never been MORE barriers to decent employment, growing wages and affordable housing, and these barriers are far more likely to affect those who were raised poor than those who were raised middle class, but they do ripple among all classes except the wealthy. Credit scores used for purposes other than credit (by employers, by car insurance companies) — college degrees now a requirement for many entry-level jobs — rental & housing costs now averaging upwards of 40% of income — larger shares of employee contributions to medical care — almost no dental or vision insurance… all of these factors are diminishing opportunities for the lower classes to become middle-class, while making the middle class poorer and poorer.

    I think it’s somewhat of a false attribution to blame the lower classes for breaking a “social contract” at a time when they were being sold promises on one hand while being squeezed with another. Yes, there were some people who bought more than they could afford and who used credit unwisely — who bought the big screen TV’s and leased the $50K car they couldn’t buy in order to keep up with the Jones’s.

    However, I’d bet there were many, many more who found themselves having to borrow money for things they’d always thought their paychecks & jobs would cover: medical bills, school clothes, home and auto repairs, and even groceries.

    Our middle-class children are the first generation in decades that are predicted to be poorer than their parents, even with the advantages of college educations. At the same time, the growth of wealthy households in the last 30 years means another, larger than ever set of children will inherit wealth. Between this and the increasing barriers, the division between the “haves” and “have-nots” will only grow. The Barbarians will become increasingly greedy and ruthless.

    The only solutions to any of this is to end the corrupt practices and bad laws that makes systemic classism possible. I believe that’s unlikely to happen, but protests are a start — even if this one is ineffective.

  3. That is one of the organizations problems for #occupywallstreet. I have seen multiples copies as well, but as far as I can tell, the link is the authoritative Declaration. Most of the sites that are linking, link there. Dave Winer put a feed together at http://occupyweb.org/ that useful as well.

    Not having opportunities for young people is untenable. It really is not in the best interest of corporations, banks or government, The young are are healthy, got nothing to lose and nowhere to go — that becomes a dangerous mob. We also think nothing about squandering the energy for innovation and fearlessness only young people have. We can channel that for growth and change or into destruction. I think we’ll choose badly….

  4. America has always defined its classes along wealth and income so aspirations are the reality for many. Most people in the “working classes” define themselves as middle class based on income, i.e., factory assemblers, plumbers, road crews, construction workers, etc. when they probably weren’t truly middle class. The definition just made them feel like they would eventually become rich more achievable. Nobody wants to be on bottom end of anything.

    The issues of poverty are more complex than I could wrap my head around for this piece and still have some sort of focus. While writing this, I kept thinking of my next door neighbor who moved out last month and the foreclosure notice went on his door. I’ve been in my subdivison for 22 years and have seen a lot of people move in and out, mostly young parents who move into larger homes, etc. The past six years of so have seen a lot of people moving into homes they clearly could not afford but were told they could. My neighbor was one of them. He moved to Englewood to get his kids into the Northmont School system as Dayton was (is) horrifically bad. He worked two jobs, one of them as a handyman for a local church. He was the first to shovel his driveway and walk, the first to mow his lawn.. he cared about the property but in the end, he simply did not have enough income to pay the mortgage, the maintenance and the taxes, though his youngest kid graduated last year. (That may have been the plan all along, I dunno. I hope not.)

    The social contract was mostly broken by those in the upper ETBR who gamed the system by leveraging their home equity for non-asset items, fueled by media like HGTV and others who sold that there was no housing bubble. They forgot they were part of a community. That trickled down a bit to people who clearly could not afford what they were buying and into people like my neighbor who just wanted a better life and hoped he could run faster with time. The principle still applies and if he bought earlier, this recession had not hit, he would have been ok.. he would have had enough time…

    But the greed claws came out and corporations just killed the goose because they knew what was happening. They knew how much time they had. I remember going to my son’s college orientation in 2003, meeting with the financial aid advisor and the first source she suggested was a home equity loan. I don’t think she understood my rage and rant at her; probably came as a shock. “why not, don’t you care about your son’s education?” Yeah, I’m pretty sure lots of parents fell for that manipulative crap.

    Looking back at the numbers, I think a lot of what we perceive about the middle class has been a bit glossed over the past 30 years. I did a really small sampling of incomes/cost of living, etc thing for this blog post http://www.dogwalkblog.com/the-debt-the-next-generation-will-be-paying-was-not-started-by-our-government-but-by-ourselves.html The disparity is widening, without a doubt, but much of what we see is an expansion and contraction of membership in the “middle class” from the lower ETBR and upper ETBR. Much of the protesting is being done by the upper ETBR who fell the furthest down the mountain.


    Don’t even get me started on the evils of FICO. I find it odd that they are not specifically mentioned in the Declaration which also leads me to believe the Occupy folks don’t have their heads around the real issues, lending further to my uneasiness with the movement.

  5. I think what’s strange to me is that people expect OWS to be a finished article. Most people that have posted on the subject agree something is wrong, as we all have different experiences and points of view, these are going to be expressed in different ways.

    I didn’t expect OWS to have a concrete plan or manifesto nailed down because I think it’s an organic movement that just said enough is enough.

    On the other hand, don’t underestimate them, they will learn, they’re obviously media savvy and if you start getting unions, young talent and resources they will organise.

    Let’s not forget that Anonymous, Lulzsec and now Antisec have years of experience of organising online, you might not like the results of what they’ve done but that direct action and its consequences will have been a huge learning curve for those that are still in those movements.

  6. I agree with your thoughts (at least how I perceived them (I may be mistaken)) about living within your means and the ETBR class. I sit and watch as so many (my sister included) latch on to the OWS bandwagon looking for some answer without looking to themselves and the fact that they bought into the “go to college and you are guaranteed a great job in your field” story. And now people want to complain about a system they helped create themselves.

    Nobody wants to take personal responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions.

    I wish I had more time to comment this morning, and I am sure to return. Really enjoyed finding your blog this morning and looking forward to reading deeper.

  7. I think that when people assess “living within your means” they take account of how much money they have, not their entire asset pool. Time is the most valuable asset for many people and few factor that into the equation. (It reminds me of the scene in The Princess Bride where Wesley asked for the list of assets. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093779/quotes “Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel.”)

    Personal responsibility is a complex thing. I think much of the argument is being framed as a “Wall Street’s fault” or “Consumers” fault when the reality is a scaling of both. In same cases, it is clear that banks defrauded people, even if their actions were not per se illegal and others where it is clear consumers were way too greedy and reckless. But I think for most, it may have been a lot of hope that fueled this, making the law of time/liquidity seem like it was suspended.

    Like the law of gravity, it wasn’t suspended. As in Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear never really did fly, even though he thought he was. He was always just falling with style 🙂

    Glad you found us! Welcome to the Walk. Join us any time.

  8. This is certainly the longest post I have seen from you so far. One of the most engaging and quickest reads I have found on a blog in quite some time.

    Don’t let any of that go to your furry head!

    There is so much blame to go around. I have had my woes as well. My sub-contracting business was going great and in 2007 we purchased our dream home. Hook-line-and-sinker style; we put nothing down. We did not over-extend ourselves. The work just dried up and I was left with a payment we were not going to keep up with. Hindsight is 20/20 and I see plenty of mistakes that I made and I refuse to blame anyone else.

    I did not find out what a healthy mortgage-to-income ratio was (as in don’t ask a banker, duh).

    I never considered: “What happens if my work load gets cut in half?”

    I did not bother to get advice from more experienced business owners than myself.

    If it is all about me now than I need to be willing to accept that it was probably all about me then as well.

    I certainly can blame the bank that loaned me the money. They had the thing sold in less than 2 weeks from the day I signed the contract. Obviously our broker just saw a sale and didn’t care if it was a good financial decision.

    I can only control myself so it does me no good to try and figure out what everyone else needs to do to fix my life.

    To quote Andy Stanley: “America does not have a wealth problem. It has an abuse of wealth problem.”

    Many of us are guilty of abusing our wealth and now we are in a mess. It is easier to attack Wall Street for abusing their wealth than it is to realize that in many ways Wall Street is just a reflection of the rest of us.

  9. Given enough time, though and a lot of luck in a better economy, you would probably have been fine. The bottom just fell out before you were able to reach for the next rung.

    It’s an expensive tuition in finance we are all being charged. Probably not entirely your fault; there was a lot of group think and conventional wisdom being slung about. For me, it sure helps to have been old enough to see a 20% mortgage as being a great deal in the ’70s and having some formative career years in the recession of the early ’80s and dot-com bust of ’99. What goes up comes back down. I never believed in the endless housing boom. Besides, a house is something you buy to live in, not to invest in and certainly not as an ATM. The only people who ever make money on trades are bankers and brokers. the rest of us PAY for the trades.

    On another note, we need to start educating our kids on civics again, including home ec, finance, banking, etc. When I was growing up, we learned about depreciation, managing checking accounts and the like. They’ve all but cut those things out for kids now in favor or standardized testing and more tests and more tests. (I think my kids got a quarter of basic life skills that didn’t cover much.. and it was an elective) This is the price we all pay when we forget why a rounded education is important.

  10. Good point. My two oldest are ready to sit down with me when I do the monthly budgets. It would certainly give them some perspective. When they ask me for something unplanned I can ask them what category in the budget they want to take money from so they can have their ‘want’.

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