Cargo-cult privilege and uncovering the road to wealth

Freddie deBoer worries about what (some of) the Occupy Wherever protesters are doing:

I keep seeing photos of people holding signs, or watching interviews with people, or reading blog posts or on Facebook, that express some measure of this: the problem is that young college graduates have lots of student loan debt and can’t get jobs, and so now they’re taking to the streets. And to me, if that is the message here, heaven help us.


Consider what the idea here is: that this protest becomes something worth considering when and only when it becomes about those who are most visible. Only when the young and college educated begin to express grievance, and only when that grievance concerns their material wealth and opportunity, do the protests begin to take off. It is extremely disturbing to me how quickly a movement opposing our system of prestige and wealth becomes a movement about those who thought they were entitled to succeed in that system. Complaining that a college education hasn’t moved you into the material comfort and social strata you wanted isn’t an argument against this system; it’s a complaint about the outcome of the system that tacitly asserts the value of that system. When someone says “I have a law degree and I work as a barista,” the necessary assumption of that statement is that their law degree entitles them to a certain material and social privilege. That privilege is precisely what animates the system they say they are protesting.

If the message is “I went to college and I don’t have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised,” then none of this means anything. These complaints, I’m sorry to say, are ultimately a way of saying “I didn’t get mine.” That’s not a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.

(Emphasis added.)

For those of you who don’t click on damn near every link Andrew Sullivan posts, when Freddie deBoer complains about the basis for a left-progressive populist movement, you should imagine Paul Krugman complaining about the basis for a large injection of Keynesian stimulus or Naomi Klein complaining about the basis for a piece of anti-sweatshop legislation.  And as with much painful introspection, he hits the nail square on the head.  A lot of the people at the Occupy Wherever protests don’t come across as mad about inequality; they seem to like the inequality we have just fine, but they expected to be on the other side of the fence.  (Please note that the previous sentence is about how I think Occupy Wherever is perceived, not what I think it actually is.)

Richard Feynman famously complained about cargo-cult science.  I’m wondering if some of the jobless graduates at the Occupy Wherever protests aren’t coming to realize that they’ve been practicing cargo-cult privilege.  Earning a college degree (especially a graduate degree), buying a house, and otherwise accumulating a shit-ton of debt-financed symbols of success are only superficially related to “winning at life” like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet (or perhaps an Apple engineer or a Berkshire-Hathaway analyst), in much the same way as impressive graphs and lab coats are cargo-cult science or fake runways and ATC installations are cargo-cult airbases.  This is magical thinking: I perform the right rituals, I invoke the right symbols, magic happens, and I get the desired result.

Where I differ from Freddie is that I don’t think this is a particularly bad turn of events for Occupy Wherever.  He’s aghast at the notion that people are complaining “I didn’t get mine!”  Well, I haven’t gotten mine, yet.  But I want to get mine.  And I want you to get yours.  And, insofar as we don’t rob Peter to pay Paul, I want the Occupy Wherever protesters to get theirs, too.  If part of the problem is that people diligently pursued what they thought was the road to wealth, and then discovered that they’d been chasing an illusion, then let’s take the opportunity to make the road to wealth a bit more transparent.

If you buy the argument that a lot of people were misled into taking on oodles of debt to earn Barista Degrees, then the education market would be made a lot more efficient if we had a better estimate of how much any given degree was worth.  One of the things that Occupy Wherever is making more and more obvious is that the price signals in higher ed right now are wrong.  If you’re disturbed by the backroom dealing, lobbying, cronyism, and collusion between Big Government and Big Business… welcome to the party, pal!  I’m not entirely convinced that Occupy Wherever is interested in fighting the kind of patronage that gave us Too Big To Fail and utterly-unsupervised Congressional insider trading, but it doesn’t seem like it’d take much of a nudge to get the topic out into the open.  If Freddie’s law-degreed barista expected a path to privilege and found a dead end instead, let’s talk about the real paths to privilege.


1 Response to “Cargo-cult privilege and uncovering the road to wealth”

  1. 1 Woof
    October 17, 2011 at 08:44

    I agree, it’s a horrible shame they were lied to. They were told that they could earn a middle class lifestyle by spending six figures on a multi-year exercise in cargo-cult pseudoeducation. Everybody with any status always told them that was a great idea, and that they would lose status by questioning it.

    Here’s the thing, though: They’re not asking for a chance to create enough value to earn a middle class income. Instead, they are demanding a middle class income in return for simply having jumped through a long series of arbitrary hoops. Nobody ever told them about this “earning” thing or this “creating value” thing. They are unable to imagine that some hoops might not be entirely arbitrary. It’s pure cargo cult.

    They want status and income not in return for what they’re willing to give, but as an entitlement which is due automatically to people who performed the middle-class entrance rituals and correctly signal middle-class status. They want a guaranteed income for people of their class. That’s their message. They think it used to be informally guaranteed, but isn’t now, so we need a formal guarantee to return the order of the things to its proper state. They are demanding a change in the social contract, to a formally class-based society.

    That’s why they communicate in mouthfuls of academic jargon: They’re showing you their high-status shibboleths so you’ll know they are legitimate members of the entitled class.

    It’s kind of funny. The left’s been angrily complaining for decades that a good income is just an arbitrary reward for membership in an arbitrary club. Now they’ve finally realized it isn’t, and they’ve decided it should be after all.

    Did anybody realize that the Long March was going to turn the middle class not just into reliable left-wing voters, but also into mindless parasitic retards?

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