This weekend, the Occupy Wall Street movement turned up in the normally quiet and too-relaxed-to-really-get-upset-about-anything San Diego. Over the weekend several hundred people took to a park near City Hall and began camping out. They’ve had marches, speeches, and music. They plan to keep it going as long as they can, according to the organizers.
It’s all been very civilly disobedient. Apparently, camping outside of City Hall is illegal here, and the police have been conspicuous, but our assistant police chief Boyd Long said, ““They’re out here exercising their First Amendment freedoms and the police are down here to help them exercise them.” Nice job of not-hassling by The Man.
I have to admit that I’ve been a little confused about the whole Occupy This Place movement. The average interviewed demonstrator seems to be young, college-educated and unemployed. And the message of their demonstration seems a little diffuse. At first it seemed that they were complaining against the favorable treatment by the government of big banks, but now it’s seems to have expanded to cover the growing wealth gap between the top 1% wealthiest individuals and “the 99%” whom they claim to represent.
The whole movement seems to have grown out of the chronic unemployment and its unpleasant cousin, under-employment, that we’re mired in. The Occupiers seem to be mostly recent college grads and their complaints strike me as those of students who had grade-inflated averages, were always “exceptional”, and got trophies for showing up to soccer games. And as newly-minted adults, they have assumed that once they graduated they could walk onto the field of commencement and receive the trophy of a career-track job. That now somehow because they didn’t get that, they’ve been left holding the bag or got sold some bill of goods. Where was the outrage about this five years ago? Oh that’s right, everyone had jobs, giant 401ks, appreciating house values, and the sky was the limit. The bill of goods was pretty damn good – until, of course, it wasn’t.
These sorts of things are common happy hour and Sunday morning discourse at The Aerie – especially with regards to higher education and employment. Namely, is higher education meant to be some sort of job training? Call me old-fashioned, but I think the answer is a resounding “no”. I believe that education is that – education. Furthermore, a degree may be necessary to attain a position, but it certainly is not sufficient.
Let’s take an area that I’m familiar with – research. Your degree in chemistry might make you eligible for a research job – provided chemists are something that organizations are hiring. When I graduated from college unemployment was ~8 % and I knew lots of people that couldn’t find work. There weren’t enough jobs for the number of chemistry graduates. The situation is even worse today. With the contraction of industrial research efforts, the slashing of government research grant funding, increased automation, and the movement of jobs overseas, is there any wonder that there’s a glut of highly-trained-but-unemployed researchers? After I was laid-off in 2009, there were a lot of times that I wondered whether I would be able to find something new at near the salary I had become accustomed to – and if I went a while (a very nebulous time frame, I know) without finding a job, what would I do instead? Would I march on downtown claiming that the system is unfair?
No. I wouldn’t.
The system is no more unfair or greedier than it’s ever been. Corporations are still working their damndest to maximize profits and shareholder value, because that’s what corporations are supposed to do. I also sense that the globalization of the world economy has made it a lot easier for corporations to find solutions to their staffing and production needs wherever – and for many that’s not going to be on U.S. soil.
So, I guess where I end up is wondering: as a society what are we supposed to do about it? And by “we”, I mean individuals, communities, governments and corporations?
In the biotech industry, we’re being advised to create companies that get started, produce something of value, and then get sold. If you told the market you wanted to build the next Genentech or Amgen, you’d never raise a dollar. The whole process isn’t supposed to take longer than a few years, because that’s all that investors want to hear about. In other words, create disposable companies. And to me the fixation on maximizing today’s profit at the expense of tomorrow’s growth is the real heart of the problem we’re in. It’s myopia, not greed.
So perhaps the better question is: How can “we” encourage corporate good citizenship or promote the idea that in the long-view many years of prosperity are better (for everyone) than very short-term success (for a few)?
Can we somehow make greed sustainable?