Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Join the Losers: Shame, Pride, and the 99%

a talk given January 29, 2012 at First Parish in Billerica, MA

[earlier versions were presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, IL and First Parish Unitarian in Athol, MA]

Opening Words:

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." -- Desmond Tutu


There is a web site called "We Are the 99%". Maybe you've seen it. People write their story on a single sheet of paper and then post a photo of themselves holding the paper. By now there are more than a thousand stories on that site.

Here's one:

“I am a 20 year old college student trying to better myself and my family by gaining an education although my husband and I both know that with the way things are, we’re both almost better off working our minimum wage jobs that we have and are barely scraping by with than even attempting to do anything more. we rely on government assistance for food/medical/daycare, work insane hours each week to get by and still cant afford basic necessities.

Our combined 100 + hr work week shows no profit. None of our jobs provide medical (which due to asthma, I cannot go without medications or I will die. Since a stable home for my children is more important that my own health, rent comes before my $150 prescriptions)

My husband is trying to find another full-time job on top of the one he has so we can stop relying on assistance but due to a buy out and closing of the company my dad worked at, so are 900 other people in the area who are suddenly unemployed or like my dad, took a 75% pay cut and can’t afford their bills anymore.”

I AM THE 99%

Here's another: “Got my bachelor's. Got low-paying job. Business went under. Defaulted on 70K student loan debt. I make less than 20K a year -- 2 jobs. Not enough to pay debt. No dental/health. 6 cavities -- used car -- no savings -- no $ in bank.”

There's another web site called "We are the 53%". It's a response to the 99% site, and it uses the same format. The title comes from the fact that only 53% of American households owed any income tax last year. In spite of the fact that most of the other people pay plenty of other taxes, "the 53%" has come to symbolize those Americans who are pulling their weight, as opposed to the rest who are baggage.

Interestingly, the people considered to be baggage are not the idle rich, who need no jobs. They're not trust-fund kids, who have never worked, but live on vast inherited wealth. No, the baggage, the 47%, are often like the folks on the 99% site, who might work two or three minimum-wage jobs, but can't make the minimum amount to get into the lowest tax bracket.

The first 53% post was put up by Erick Erickson, who is actually quite well-to-do and famous. He started, the premier conservative group blog, and now he's a commentator on CNN. He tells his 53% story like this:

"I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street.

Suck it up, you whiners. I am the 53% subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain."

With that post as a model, the site drew posts from people whose lives are much harder than Erickson's:

"I get up at 4:30 a.m. to work a job that pays me to get yelled at. I work around 50 hours per week, but still struggle. I've given up luxuries, shop clearance racks, do not own a new car or a home.

But I pay my bills and my taxes. I work hard to do so. I am an American. I am the 53%."

Here's a similar story that's been shared on Facebook. It doesn't come from the 53% site, but expresses a similar attitude:

"I am a college senior, about to graduate completely debt free. I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hrs a week making barely above minimum wage. I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university and started saving $ for school at age 17.

I got decent grades in high school and received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition. I currently have a 3.8 GPA. I live comfortably in a cheap apartment, knowing I can't have everything I want. I don't eat out every day, or even once a month.

I live below my means to continue saving for the future. I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my @$$ off for everything I have. That's how it's supposed to work. I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.

So who are the people who aren't making it? Do they deserve our sympathy or our scorn? CNBC's Rick Santelli goes for scorn. In his viral YouTube rant from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, he raised this question: "I'll tell you what. I have an idea. The new administration's big on computers and technology -- how about this, president and administration? Why don't you put up a web site to have people vote on the internet, as a referendum, to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages ... or if we'd rather reward people who could carry the water rather than drink the water."

And finally, here's Herman Cain, in an interview with Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal. And I'm picking on Cain not because what he said is unusual, but because it is typical. Cain just said it more plainly than anyone else:

"Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself. … When I was growing up, I was blessed to have had parents that didn't teach me to be jealous of anybody, and didn't teach me to envious of somebody. It is not a person's fault because they succeeded. It is a person's fault if they failed."


From kindergarten to eighth grade I went to a Lutheran elementary school, where I spent nine years with the same core group of about 20 kids. We had a lot in common: same small town, same religion, and a lot of the same advantages -- we were all white, from middle-class, two-parent homes, no major disabilities, and so on. In general, we were also pretty good students. Our parents hoped we would go to college, and most of us eventually did.

But in spite of all our similarities, we had a pecking order -- two of them, one for boys and one for girls. God knows how we came up with it or what we based it on, but it stayed remarkably rigid from year to year. I had a place in that order that, but I did not achieve it on my own. I was the best friend of the most popular boy.

Until seventh grade. That year a new kid transferred in. He was athletic and handsome, and he already had friends in the eighth grade class. He very quickly became the new best friend of the most popular boy, and my place in the order plummeted. By the time the reshuffling was complete, I was second boy from the bottom. But at least I wasn't last.

Another kid was. As I said, he was not that different from the rest of us. If you had met us all one-by-one, you probably couldn't have picked him out as the one destined to be the doormat. But there he was.

After my downfall, he was the only one who wanted to be my friend. He tried to sit next to me. He did me little favors. He invited me to his house. Now, I wish I could tell you that I reciprocated, that we had a bunch of great adventures, and that we are still in touch today.

But that's not how I thought in seventh grade. What I wanted more than anything was to get out of being Second Boy From the Bottom, and I was never going to do it by hanging around with him. Better, I thought, to be alone on the lowest rung of the ladder than to form a two-boy leper colony at the bottom.

That grade-school way of thinking often shows up in the adult world of politics. If you are near the bottom of society's ladder, your most natural allies are the people below you. But it is so hard to group up with them. As corrupt and unfair as you know that ladder to be, it is so, so hard to let loose of that one rung you have and make common cause with the people at the bottom.

And so the same pattern plays out again and again. During the Civil Rights era, many of the people who fought hardest against integration were those at the bottom of the white pecking order. Whiteness was the one advantage they had, and they didn't want to lose it.

Similarly, many of those who fought hardest against women's equality were men near  the bottom of the male pecking order. And where do you see those American-flag decals and the bumperstickers with jingoistic slogans? Not so much on Cadillacs and BMWs. No, you're more likely to see them on rusted-out pick-up trucks. The closer you are to the bottom of the American pecking order, the more dearly you hang on to the idea that Americans are better than everybody else.

If you've only got hold of one rung of the ladder, you hang onto it. That's how humans think.


Now, that human trait is very convenient for the people at the top. Because the more people get pushed down onto the lower rungs, the harder it is for them to unite to change the ladder or make it easier to climb.

I doubt I'm telling you anything you don't already know if I say that inequality has been rising in America. The economy as a whole has grown a lot since the 1970s, but (after inflation) the median household income has not grown, and in the 21st century it has actually dropped. And even those statistics are too rosy, because often they compare today's two-income households with the one-income households of decades past. People are working longer and sometimes harder, but not benefitting from it.

You will hear many explanations for the increasing inequality. Some will tell you that people who work with their brains are pulling away from people who work with their hands. Or that the educated are pulling away from the uneducated. Or that those who understand technology are pulling away from those who don't.

And while all those things are happening to some extent, the economists who study inequality say that they are secondary effects. The trend that drives all the other trends is that the people at the very top are pulling from everyone else. It happens at every level. The top 10% are pulling away from the bottom 90%. Within the 10%, the top 1% are pulling away even faster from the other 9.

And if you look even at the 1%, the top tenth of a percent are pulling away from the rest faster yet. The billionaires are pulling away from the millionaires.

In 1965, the average CEO made 50 times the minimum wage -- not a bad paycheck. But by 2005, he was up to 800 times.

The IRS publishes statistics about the top 400 tax returns. Between 1992 and 2007, the amount of money it took to get into that group quintupled. And their percentage of the total national income tripled. Out of every $100 of income in all of America, those 400 households now get a dollar and a half.

That might all be reasonable if the people at the very top had become fantastically more productive, and were being rewarded for the prosperity that they bring to the rest of us. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Economic growth was higher, not lower, when the rich were not quite so rich.

Former Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker denies that financial innovations like credit default swaps have added any productivity to the economy. They don't increase the national income, they just capture more of it for the bankers.

Worst of all, it seems that the law itself is different for the very wealthy. When the housing bubble popped, bankers were bailed out but home-owners weren't. When Goldman Sachs was charged with committing fraud, it paid a fine, a small percentage of its profits. No one went to jail.

Bank of America has foreclosed tens of thousands of homes illegally. Again, they will probably pay a fine and no one will go to jail. Will those families get their houses back? Maybe, if they can wait through years of litigation. Or maybe not.

By contrast, when ordinary people protest against this kind of fraud, say by camping out in public parks, their lack of proper permits calls down the full wrath of the law. Police show up in riot gear with pepper spray and rubber bullets. But police never shoot tear gas into board meetings of Goldman Sachs.


In a democracy you would think it would be impossible for 99% of the people to be dominated by 1% or a tenth of a percent or 400 households.

So how is this happening? Well, obviously, the 99% have not been able to pull together to defend their interests.

Why not? That brings me back to the way humans think. If you examine your own mind, you will see the buttons that the 1% can push.

When we are victimized by an unjust economic system, it is remarkably easy to make us feel ashamed of our own victimhood, or to use our pride and denial and resentment to turn us against the system's other victims.

How does that work? Let's start with shame. Rick Santelli had a name for the people who can't pay their mortgages -- Losers. And Herman Cain laid it right on the line. If you're failing, he says, don't be angry at the system or at the people on top, be ashamed of yourself.

Psychologically, shame is the first line of defense of any unjust system.

In 7th grade, I could have rejected the whole idea of a pecking order and been nice to the boy who was being nice to me. But I didn't, because I was ashamed to be Second Boy From the Bottom. I was too ashamed to quit the game while I was losing.

During the Depression, some unemployed men from prosperous suburbs kept dressing for work and taking the train into the city, because they were ashamed to let their neighbors know they were unemployed. Some didn't even want their wives to know.

People who are ashamed don't change the world. They don't protest and they don't organize. They hide.

The 1% would love it if we all hid our losses from each other and kept up appearances and pretended that everything is fine.

To me, that's the biggest significance of the 99% movement so far. Those people who march in the streets or publish their photos and stories on the internet -- they aren't hiding. They are rejecting the system's attempts to shame them into silence. Those pictures on the 99% site are saying: "Look at me. I am losing in this economy. This is what a loser looks like in America today."

If you spend much time paging through that website, you'll probably see that they look a lot like the rest of us. The losers look a lot like you and me.


Now that is a scary thought, and fear tends to evoke another very human reaction: denial. No one likes to be scared.

So when you hear about someone whose situation scares you -- the parent whose child vanishes into thin air, the athlete who suddenly drops dead, the old person who is too frail to keep working but too poor to retire --  when you meet someone whose situation makes you worry about your own situation, the most natural response in the world is to try to find some difference between them and you, some waterline where you can imagine that the tide of misfortune will have to stop.

You may not set out to blame the victim, but still we'd all love to find something that the victims did wrong that we always do right. The woman with lung cancer -- did she smoke? The guy who got mugged -- I never go to that neighborhood. The lifelong employee who got laid off -- that couldn't happen to any of us, because we're different.

And when you find that difference, that waterline, it's so tempting to build an imaginary wall there, to exagerate, to turn a small difference of degree into a clear difference of kind.

So if they stay ten minutes past quitting time and I stay 20, then I am hard-working and they are lazy. If some choice I made has turned out better than their choices, then I am wise and they are foolish. If they broke a single commandment that I have kept, then I am upright and they are sinful.

An unjust system's second line of defense is to help us build those walls of denial, to help us convince ourselves that the people below us on the ladder are of some other species entirely.

And to the extent you accept that separation, you help justify the whole ladder. If losers belong to a different species, then maybe the CEOs do too. Maybe they deserve to rule over us.


But even if your virtues don't make a different species, you do still have virtues. And that's how denial gets mixed up with legitimate pride. If you are managing to tread water in difficult times, then you have a right to be proud of the fact that you haven't drowned yet. But those who are treading water are kidding themselves if they imagine that they are a different kind of person than those who have gone under.

That's what I think is going on on that 53% web site. The woman who gets up at 4:30 to be yelled at, works 50 hours a week, doesn't own anything, and still struggles to pay her bills -- she deserves to feel proud of her efforts. And yet, is her story really so different from the stories on the 99% site?

And why is life that hard? Is that just "how it's supposed to work"? Or is life so hard because our society has made choices that favor the rich? Could we make different choices?

Likewise, that college senior who has no debt and works her ass off is imagining a sturdy wall that separates hard-working people who make good decisions from everyone else. She pictures herself on the deserving side of that wall, and imagines that she will always be there -- because luck plays no role in her world, and decisions that seem wise at the time never turn out badly down the road.

So that is an unjust system's third line of defense: appealing to your pride. They will tell you that what you take pride in only has meaning within their value system. If you deny that the current system is founded on merit and virtue, then you have denied all possible standards of merit and virtue.

The thought of making common cause with the people below you is supposed to offend your pride, because some of the people down there don't share all your virtues.

But of course, some of the people above you don't share your virtues either -- they don't work hard and don't take risks and don't make the world better for others. But you're not supposed to pay attention to that. That's just how life is. Even to bring that issue up, we are told, is engaging in class warfare, in "the bitter politics of envy", and the "resentment of success".

Resentment does play a role here, but not the way the 1% would have you believe. Again, let me illustrate from my childhood. Growing up, I wasted very little time thinking about the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Multiple homes in exotic locales did not rouse my envy. But if my older sister got two scoops of ice cream when I only got one, that was not fair.

Resentment tends to stay close to home. It's much easier to resent people who are almost like you, but have some small advantage. Maybe they have just a little more than you, or maybe they have exactly what you have, but didn't work as hard or suffer as much to get it. Those are the people that it's easiest to resent. Not the billionaires.

And so, an unjust system's fourth line of defense is to deflect your legitimate resentment away from the real beneficiaries of injustice and onto your neighbors.

Last spring, when the bill to take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees was being debated in Wisconsin, the Club for Growth blanketed the state with a very effective ad. It talked about the sacrifices that private-sector workers in Wisconsin had been forced to make to save their jobs, and listed the cuts in their benefits and wages.

But where did the ad suggest those workers should focus their resentment? Should they resent the owners, who pocketed those sacrifices as higher profits? Or the executives who raised their own pay while firing some employees and squeezing concessions out of the rest?

Oh no. The ad wanted Wisconsin's distressed private-sector workers to focus their resentment on the public-sector teachers and nurses and bus-drivers who hadn't made equivalent sacrifices yet.

If my money has been transferred to the rich as profits, then my sister's money should be transferred to the rich as tax cuts. It's only fair.


Supposedly, we are the 99% and this is a democracy. If we can hang together, it ought to be possible to re-write the rules so that the economy works for ordinary people again.

But there are big obstacles against us holding together. You don't have to look far to see them, because they are sitting right in your own brain:

the shame you feel in your own defeats;

the denial that makes you want to say, "That couldn't happen to me";

the pride that sets you above anyone worse off;

and the resentment you feel against those who are only one or two rungs higher.

Those impulses sit in your brain for good reasons. In other circumstances they serve you well. You ought to criticize yourself and try to learn from your failures. In the face of adversity, you need to identify reasons to hope. You deserve be proud of all the things you're doing to keep your head above water. And you should stand up for yourself when others are treated better than you.

So I'm not saying you should throw all that stuff out of your head. That would be naive advice, because I can't do it myself. I am ashamed, I am in denial, I am proud, and I resent all the wrong people -- just like everybody else.

All I'm saying is: Pay attention. Watch yourself. Shame, denial, pride, resentment -- those are ways you can be manipulated into working against your own interests and against people whose problems are just like yours.

The manipulators have enormous resources. You hear their message from all directions: The people who want change, the people who are protesting in the streets or in the occupation encampments -- they are losers. They are lazy, jealous, misguided, dirty, disgusting, unreasonable, and violent. They are minions of some dark conspiracy against all that is good. You should be ashamed to have any connection with them. Instead, you should identify with the 1%, because you want to join the winners, not the losers.

Of course you do. Everyone wants to join the winners. And if it were that easy, we all would. Every one of us would say, "Starting right now, I'm going to be a winner."

But it's not that easy. The deck is stacked against ordinary people, and it's going to stay stacked until we all do something very difficult: We need to join the losers. We need to look down the ladder and see not what makes us different from the people below, but what makes us the same.

When we find the courage and the confidence and the compassion to do that, then, together, we really do become the 99%. When we do that, we really do have the power to rewrite the rules, enforce them justly on the rich as well as the poor, and make this country work again for everyone.

Closing Words

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." -- Eugene Debs