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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Occupiers are blaming the wrong people Add to ...

Laurel O’Gorman is one of the faces of Occupy Toronto. She believes the capitalist system has robbed her of her future. At 28, she’s studying for a master’s degree in sociology at Laurentian University in Sudbury. She’s also the single mother of two children. “I’m here because I don’t know what kind of job I could possibly find that would allow me to pay rent, take care of these two children and pay back $600 each month in loans,” she said.

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Ms. O’Gorman is in a fix. But I can’t help wondering whether she, and not the greedy Wall Street bankers, is the author of her own misfortune. Just what kind of jobs did she imagine are on offer for freshly minted sociology graduates? Did she bother to ask? Did it occur to her that it might be a good idea to figure out how to support her children before she had them?

She’s typical in her bitter disappointment. Here’s Boston resident Sarvenaz Asasy, 33, who has a master’s degree in international human rights, along with $60,000 in student loans. She dreamed of doing work to help the poor get food and education. But now she can’t find a job in her field. She blames the government. “They’re cutting all the grants, and they’re bailing out the banks. I don’t get it.”

Then there’s John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law. He wants to work at a non-profit. After he graduated from university, he struggled to find work. “I had to go a full year between college and law school without a job. I lived at home with my parents to make ends meet.” He thinks a law degree will help, but these days, I’m not so sure.

These people make up the Occupier generation. They aspire to join the virtueocracy – the class of people who expect to find self-fulfillment (and a comfortable living) in non-profit or government work, by saving the planet, rescuing the poor and regulating the rest of us. They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of "therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy."

The trouble is, this social model no longer works. As blogger Kenneth Anderson writes, “The machine by which universities train young people to become minor regulators and then delivered them into white-collar positions on the basis of credentials in history, political science, literature, ethnic and women’s studies – with or without the benefit of law school – has broken down. The supply is uninterrupted, but the demand has dried up.”

It’s not the greedy Wall Street bankers who destroyed these people’s hopes. It’s the virtueocracy itself. It’s the people who constructed a benefit-heavy entitlement system whose costs can no longer be sustained. It’s the politicians and union leaders who made reckless pension promises that are now bankrupting cities and states. It’s the socially progressive policy-makers in the U.S. who declared that everyone, even those with no visible means of support, should be able to own a home with no money down, courtesy of their government. In Canada, it’s the social progressives who assure us we can keep on consuming all the health care we want, even as the costs squeeze out other public goods.

The Occupiers are right when they say our system of wealth redistribution is broken. But they’re wrong about what broke it. The richest 1 per cent are not exactly starving out the working poor. (In the U.S., half all income sent to Washington is redistributed to the elderly, sick and disabled, or to those who serve them, and nearly half the country lives in a household that’s getting some sort of government benefit.) The problem is, our system redistributes the wealth from young to old, and from middle-class workers in the private sector to inefficient and expensive unions in the public sector.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of this redistribution is the higher-education industry. In Canada, we subsidize it directly. In the U.S., it’s subsidized by a vast system of student loans, which have allowed colleges to jack up tuition to sky-high levels. U.S. student debt has hit the trillion-dollar mark. Both systems crank out too many sociologists and too few mechanical engineers. These days, even law-school graduates are having trouble finding work. That’s because the supply has increased far faster than the demand.

The voices of Occupy Wall Street, argues Mr. Anderson and others, are the voices of the downwardly mobile who are acutely aware of their threatened social status and need someone to blame. These are people who weren’t interested in just any white-collar work. They wanted to do transformational, world-saving work – which would presumably be underwritten by taxing the rich. They now face the worst job market in a generation. But their predicament is at least in part of their own making. And none of the solutions they propose will address their problem.

Ms. O’Gorman, the graduate student in sociology, didn’t bring her kids to the Occupy demonstration in Toronto because she was worried about security. Still, she hoped they would absorb the message. “I’m trying to teach them equity and critical thinking from a young age,” she said. If she’d only applied a bit more critical thinking to herself, she might be able to pay the rent.

Editor's note: Clarifications: John, who’s pursuing a degree in environmental law, is not part of the Occupy movement.

The following sentence is a paraphrase, not a direct quote: They are what the social critic Christopher Lasch called the “new class” of “therapeutic cops in the new bureaucracy.”

 
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