Posted on | September 22, 2013 | 84 Comments
Prosperity is never permanent. Economic cycles of boom and bust are normal. Even in successful societies with sound policy, the economy goes up and down from time to time. Despite this knowledge — that the good times will be offset by hard times — when the economy turns down, doomsayers invariably declare that this is the worst it has ever been, and that prosperity will never return unless we Do Something.
However much the situation at any given time may justify pessimism, the doomsayers desire to exaggerate the case for pessimism in order to excite a mood of desperation, to influence opinion in favor of their own ideological policy prescriptions, to create a climate of fear that will cause policy makers to Do Something.
Adam Weinstein on Russia Today TV, November 2011
Last week, freelance journalist Adam Weinstein published an essay, “F–k You. I’m Gen Y, and I Don’t Feel Special or Entitled, Just Poor,” which argues that young people — generally speaking, those under 30 — have a special grievance against the economic status quo:
Go f**k yourselves.
You have no idea about student debt, underemployment, life-long renting. “Stop feeling special” is some sh–ty advice. I don’t feel special or entitled, just poor. The only thing that makes me special is I have more ballooning debt than you. I’ve tempered the hell out of my expectations of work, and I’ve exceeded those expectations crazily to have one interesting, exciting damned career that’s culminated in some leadership roles for national publications. And I’m still poor and in debt and worked beyond the point where it can be managed with my health and my desire to actually see the son I’m helping to raise.
Younger journos see me as a success story and ask my advice, and I feel like a fraud, because I’m doing what I love, and it makes me completely miserable and exhausts me. . . .
Adam Weinstein thus offers his own personal situation as symbolic of a general problem, and the criticism he has received has — unfortunately but unsurprisingly — tended to be quite personal.
OK, let’s get down to cases: Has “freelance writer” ever been a particularly lucrative career? More to the point, has freelance political writer ever been a path to wealth? I think not.
Long ago, I realized that political writing is a sort of journalistic ghetto because just about anybody who can compose a coherent paragraph has opinions about politics and there are a large number of specialists in the field who have fairly lucrative sinecures — at think tanks or in academia — that enable them to provide political commentary at no cost (or reduced cost) to publishers.
This non-profit infrastructure, by subsidizing credentialed “expert” commentators, subsidizes the supply of high-quality political writing in a way that tends to undermine the market position of the journalist who desires to compete for the same readership.
Furthermore, journalism in general has taken a huge financial hit in the past 15 years or so. Craigslist has cannibalized the classified advertising revenue that once went to newspapers. Magazines have also suffered revenue losses, as print circulation stagnates or declines and readership shifts to the Internet. Advertisers simply will not pay the kind of money for digital ads that they pay for print ads, especially since software enables the precise calculation of “click-through” value online, in a way that print advertising never offered.
All of this is to say that the fortunes of a 34-year-old freelance political writer are not indicative of the state of the economy in general, nor of the overall plight of “Generation Y.” If Weinstein is attempting to make an affinity gesture (“Hey, your life sucks and I feel your pain because my life sucks, too”) that’s one thing, but if he is offering his economic misfortune as an emblematic example, it doesn’t work.
Throughout human history, hardship, struggle and deprivation have been commonplace, even in America, the most incredibly successful nation the world has ever known. Nor are the struggles of “Generation Y” unusual, if studied in comparison to other generations.
The Myth of Generational Uniformity
Consider those Americans born into the relative boom times of the 189os. When they were in their teens or early 20s, World War I came along, followed by the “Roaring Twenties” and then suddenly, the crash and the Depression arrived. General prosperity gave way to widespread hardship almost overnight. The 30-year-old shoved into the unemployment lines in 1929 would not see “good times” again until he was past 40, when the industrial demand created by World War II revived the economy. If peace and prosperity are ideal conditions, Americans would know this happy ideal only briefly (1945-50) before the Korean War intervened. The tense Cold War standoff that ensued — where the United States could have peace only by a state of constant preparedness to match the military threat of Soviet-backed communist imperialism — lasted until 1991, with the nightmare of a shooting war in Vietnam (1965-73) standing out among the many other frights and horrors along the way. (Two months from now, our nation will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by the pro-Castro fanatic Lee Harvey Oswald.)
If we may share our own personal experiences as examples of historic trends (for this is what Adam Weinstein does), let me remark that one of my first memories was when I was four years old, watching TV as the flag-covered casket of John F. Kennedy rolled through the streets of Washington, D.C. toward Arlington National Cemetery.
Everyone agrees that Kennedy’s assassination was — along with Watergate and 9/11 — one of the pivot-points of American history, and my relatively tranquil and happy childhood in the placid small town of Lithia Springs, Georgia, was in stark contrast to the dramatic backdrop of the turbulent decade that followed JFK’s death.
Civil rights struggles, the Tet Offensive, the Six-Day War, the Chicago convention, Woodstock, Kent State, the Paris peace talks — these were the daily headlines in a world over which I, as a child, had no control. When all that drama was over, the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 wrecked the economy and, a couple of weeks before the start of my sophomore year in high school, the President resigned in disgrace.
There is a reason I recount that timeline, namely to point out that generational labels obscure more than they reveal. For decades, people have talked about “Baby Boomers” as if every American born between 1946 and 1964 shares a common experience, a suggestion that is absurdly false. Those born in the early postwar years had an entirely different experience than did the later Boomers.
Bill Clinton, born in 1946, actually shook hands with John F. Kennedy, and started at Georgetown University in 1964, the same year I started kindergarten. Clinton graduated from Georgetown when I was finishing third grade, and he completed his law degree at Yale in 1973, when I was finishing eighth grade. When Clinton entered ninth grade, Dwight Eisenhower was still president. When I started high school, Richard Nixon was still president, but was replaced by Gerald Ford in 1974, who was replaced by Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Clinton attended high school (1960-1964) during a period of sustained economic prosperity. I attended high school (1973-77) during “stagflation,” when layoffs and a seemingly unstoppable rise in consumer prices marked the end of the long postwar economic boom. Since 1973, the relentless decline of the U.S. industrial economy, which once enabled the average high-school graduate to expect a steady increase in his standard of living, has been a fact of life that public policy seems powerless to reverse. And it is this fact of life that has shaped my own worldview (and perhaps many 50-somethings) in ways that older boomers can’t really appreciate.
Therefore, to lump me in as a “Baby Boomer,” along with Bill Clinton and millions of other Boomers born more than a decade before me, is to foster a grossly inaccurate perception. And I have found, furthermore, that I have little in common with most Americans born just a few years later than me, because they weren’t children of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” My folks came from the hard times of Depression-era rural Alabama and, even amidst the comparative plenitude of my childhood, we were constantly reminded of how hard life could be.
‘I’ll Give You Something to Cry About’
Parents who had known poverty, and who knew that poverty could be avoided only through hard work and thrift, despised sloth and wastefulness. They did not believe in spoiling children by overindulgence or lenient discipline. Spankings were delivered with a leather belt. If it didn’t leave welts on your legs, it wasn’t much of a spanking, and any child who didn’t get spanked once in a while was considered “spoiled” in the eyes of my parents’ generation.
Criticize their attitude, if you wish, but what our parents were seeking to instill in us by these stern methods was strength of character.
Raise your hand if, as a child, when you started to whimper over some disappointment — a minor punishment or a privilege denied — your parents said, “Hush, or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Few things angered my parents more than childish self-pity, and that stern parenting style, intended to foster a sort of stoic indifference to hardship, became increasingly less common for American children born in the later 1960s and ’70s. A major reason for this shift was that their parents were simply of a different generation. A child born in 1965 was far less likely to be the offspring of a World War II veteran.
My father was 21 when he was discharged in 1945, and was 35 when I was born. Most children born after 1965 had parents who had grown up in the 1940s and ’50s and, as the oldest Baby Boomers began entering adulthood in the mid-1960s, many of them became parents, so that more and more American children were in fact the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation. This mattered.
Cultural values shifted fairly rapidly in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1964, the year Bill Clinton graduated high school, the best-selling record album was the soundtrack of Hello, Dolly! In 1977, the year I graduated high school, the top album was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. To make another comparison, in 1960, the year President Kennedy was elected, the top album was The Sound of Music; in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected, the top album was Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
This shift in values was described quite vividly even while it was under way. Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations was widely hailed for its analysis of the psychological factors in the rise of an attitude that led many to label the 1980s the “Me Generation.” Lasch was always a man of the Left, but many conservatives shared his concern about the cultural attitudes he described. The same was true of another leftist intellectual, Neil Postman, whose books The Disappearance of Childhood (1982) and Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) described how the omnipresence of television had affected our perception. We might add to this cultural analysis Allan Bloom’s 1987 book Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which described how fashionable intellectual trends led to young people into a philosophical wasteland.
Because of all these changes, 20-somethings today have only the faintest ideas about the tradition from which they have been separated. History is now presented in ways that tend to depict the past as The Bad Old Days. Unlike young conservatives of the 1980s, who had direct knowledge of the American greatness they wished to restore – i.e., the wholesome confidence, patriotism and prosperity that characterized the Eisenhower/Kennedy era of their childhood — those who would argue for “turning back the clock” today have difficulty finding any past to which most Americans would like to return.
The decline of the industrial economy and the shift in culture have had generational affects in terms of political outlook and, especially from a conservative standpoint, increasingly prevalent ignorance about the past is a basic obstacle to reform. “Political correctness” has warped the teaching of history, so that almost no one under 40 has escaped the trend. Schools now use history not to teach facts, but to instill certain leftist attitudes in students. What facts does any 20-something today know about the Vietnam War? He has not been required to learn facts, but rather has been taught an attitude, involving an admiration of the pro-communist anti-war movement.
Adam Weinstein’s Ideological Blindness
Why doesn’t Adam Weinstein’s complaint take any recognition of this? Why doesn’t Adam Weinstein’s perception of economic decline in the 21st-century — either in his own case, or more generally — permit the viability of a conservative response?
As a rule, our parents did end up much more dedicated to their careers than we have. But as a rule, they were laid off less. They didn’t intern or work as independent contractors. They got full medical. They were occasionally permitted to adopt magical unicorn-like money-granting creatures called “pensions.” Or, barring that, they accumulated a huger 401K to cash out before the Great Recession, because they saved more. And they saved more because the costs of college, of kid care, of health care, of doing business and staying alive and buying groceries and staying connected, were far less than they are today. They could raise a family on one salary if necessary.
Referring to “our parents,” 34-year-old Weinstein certainly cannot mean the parents of the Baby Boom. The prosperity and hope of upward mobility he remembers are from his childhood in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president. When Weinstein was 15, Newt Gingrich become Speaker of the House, and when Weinstein was 21, George W. Bush was (barely) elected President. The “good old days” Weinstein remembers were from an era of rising Republican influence.
Yet because he has made his career as a liberal political journalist (writing for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, among others), Weinstein cannot consider the possibility that his economic woe during the Obama presidency might be a result of policies enacted by Democrats. Instead, he concludes his complaint by appealing for the overthrow of the American economic system, i.e., capitalism:
Since ’79, the top 1 percent of earners in America has seen their income quadruple.
So take your “revise your expectations! check your ego!” Horatio Alger bullshit, and stuff it. While you’re at it, stuff this economy. Not this GDP, not this unemployment level: this economy, this financial system that establishes complete social and political control over us, that conditions us to believe that we don’t deserve basic shelter and clothing and food and education and existence-sustaining medical care unless we throw our lives into vassalage and hope, pray, that the lords don’t fuck with our retirements or our coverages. (Maybe if we’re extra productive, someday they’ll do a 4o1K match again, like our ancestors used to talk about!)
Take the system that siphons off our capacities for human flourishing in hopes that we get thrown a little coin of the realm in return. Take that system and blow it up, you cowards.
Call it what you will, this is an appeal for socialist revolution, and one wonders if Adam Weinstein has studied the history of that idea. Has he ever read Socialism by Ludwig von Mises, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, Destructive Generation by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, The Vision of the Anointed by Thomas Sowell?
If Weinstein believes he may ignore criticism of his own left-wing ideas, why so? Is it perhaps because, in the day-to-day battles of contemporary politics, conservatives seldom invoke the history and philosophy that inform their own worldview?
Even when I was growing up as a Democrat, I understood that socialism was impractical and destructive. If Weinstein can say of the market economy, “Take that system and blow it up,” he must have in mind something with which to replace it. Assuming this proposed replacement is some variety of socialism, conservatives must answer plainly that socialism has never worked anywhere, and that this “blow it up” destructiveness typically leads to horrors much worse than anything prevalent in America today. Between 80 million and 100 million people were killed by Marxist-Lenist regimes in the 20th century, and if “democratic socialism” has been less violent, it has also been destructive, resulting in the kind of debt crises that have in recent years struck Greece and other European nations.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and if the only tool you have is socialism, every problem is described as symptomatic of an exploitative capitalist system. Weinstein’s ideological bias blinds him to contradictory evidence:
I once listened to a professor, who is in his sixties, read us the first published piece he’d been paid for, in the late 1970s. A thousand words or so. The rate, he says, was something like two bucks a word. That’s four times what the Village Voice pays today, even for an award-winning investigative cover story. It’s geometrically greater than what most writers can earn today writing daily brilliance for nationally renowned publications online.
Notice that Weinstein is comparing himself to a professor (i.e., someone whose political commentary is subsidized by a non-profit sinecure), and notice also that he’s complaining about the declining freelance rate at the Village Voice, a liberal bastion whose loss of classified ad revenue to Craigslist is a major cause of their increasingly desperate financial situation. Huffington Post, May 20:
Legendary columnist Michael Musto said Monday that the cuts that ended his career at the Village Voice have left the atmosphere at the paper “dour.” Food critic Tejal Rao later announced that she is resigning, leaving the newspaper without a food critic.
Musto, the most high-profile writer left at the paper, was laid off on Friday, along with Robert Sietsema and Michael Feingold, in the latest round of layoffs. . . .
The news came . . . a little more than a week after editors Will Bourne and Jessica Lustig chose to resign, rather than oversee a round of layoffs. They had reportedly been instructed to cut five people from a staff of 20.
By my count, that’s six fewer staffers at the Village Voice, leaving only 14 people still on the payroll. Those layoffs in May followed a previous round of layoffs in August 2012, so that the decline in rates paid to freelancers is far from being the worst problem there.
Doesn’t the decline of the Village Voice represent a market signal? Either there is less reader demand for what the Village Voice provides — and fewer ad dollars seeking those readers — or else there is a proliferating supply of the same service from other sources.
Indeed, one must wonder why Adam Weinstein has not considered the possibility that there is simply a market glut of liberal journalism — too many writers with the same basic ideas, chasing a pool of readers that is either stagnant or shrinking — and that the online publishers paying nickel-and-dime commissions to freelancers are merely reacting to marketplace realities.
Weinstein might say that this just shows how the Village Voice and other liberal journalism venues are part of “the system that siphons off our capacities for human flourishing,” but what alternative does he propose? Who is supposed to pay journalists to write? Who is to decide who will write what, and for what fee, unless it is the proprietors of publications trying to meet the needs of readers and advertisers?
If the liberals who run the Village Voice are having difficulty finding funds to pay writers — which is what the repeated rounds of layoffs suggest — does Adam Weinstein propose some system whereby this money is forcibly expropriated from others?
If Adam Weinstein can’t make a living as a liberal journalist, his alternatives are either (a) stop being a journalist, (b) stop being a liberal, or (c) starve to death. Assuming that he will not choose (c), we can see Weinstein’s demand for the destruction of the market economy — “Take that system and blow it up, you cowards” — as the scapegoat rationalization of a failure seeking to externalize blame.
How’s that Hope and Change workin’ out for ya, Adam?