By Max Udargo
I briefly visited the “We are the 53%” website, but I first saw your face on a liberal blog. Your picture is quite popular on liberal blogs. I think it’s because of the expression on your face. I don’t know if you meant to look pugnacious or if we’re just projecting that on you, but I think that’s what gets our attention.
In the picture, you’re holding up a sheet of paper that says:
I am a former Marine.
I work two jobs.
I don’t have health insurance.
I worked 60-70 hours a week for 8 years to pay my way through college.
I haven’t had 4 consecutive days off in over 4 years.
But I don’t blame Wall Street.
Suck it up you whiners.
I am the 53%.
God bless the USA!
I wanted to respond to you as a liberal. Because, although I think you’ve made yourself clear and I think I understand you, you don’t seem to understand me at all. I hope you will read this and understand me better, and maybe understand the Occupy Wall Street movement better.
First, let me say that I think it’s great that you have such a strong work ethic and I agree with you that you have much to be proud of. You seem like a good, hard-working, strong kid. I admire your dedication and determination. I worked my way through college too, mostly working graveyard shifts at hotels as a “night auditor.” For a time I worked at two hotels at once, but I don’t think I ever worked 60 hours in a week, and certainly not 70. I think I maxed out at 56. And that wasn’t something I could sustain for long, not while going to school. The problem was that I never got much sleep, and sleep deprivation would take its toll. I can’t imagine putting in 70 hours in a week while going to college at the same time. That’s impressive.
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I have a nephew in the Marine Corps, so I have some idea of how tough that can be. He almost didn’t make it through basic training, but he stuck it out and insisted on staying even when questions were raised about his medical fitness. He eventually served in Iraq and Afghanistan and has decided to pursue a career in the Marines. We’re all very proud of him. Your picture reminds me of him.
So, if you think being a liberal means that I don’t value hard work or a strong work ethic, you’re wrong. I think everyone appreciates the industry and dedication a person like you displays. I’m sure you’re a great employee, and if you have entrepreneurial ambitions, I’m sure these qualities will serve you there too. I’ll wish you the best of luck, even though a guy like you will probably need luck less than most.
I understand your pride in what you’ve accomplished, but I want to ask you something.
The Live Commentary
Do you really want the bar set this high? Do you really want to live in a society where just getting by requires a person to hold down two jobs and work 60 to 70 hours a week? Is that your idea of the American Dream?
Do you really want to spend the rest of your life working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week? Do you think you can? Because, let me tell you, kid, that’s not going to be as easy when you’re 50 as it was when you were 20.
And what happens if you get sick? You say you don’t have health insurance, but since you’re a veteran I assume you have some government-provided health care through the VA system. I know my father, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Air Force, still gets most of his medical needs met through the VA, but I don’t know what your situation is. But even if you have access to health care, it doesn’t mean disease or injury might not interfere with your ability to put in those 60- to 70-hour work weeks.
Do you plan to get married, have kids? Do you think your wife is going to be happy with you working those long hours year after year without a vacation? Is it going to be fair to her? Is it going to be fair to your kids? Is it going to be fair to you?
Look, you’re a tough kid. And you have a right to be proud of that. But not everybody is as tough as you, or as strong, or as young. Does pride in what you’ve accomplish mean that you have contempt for anybody who can’t keep up with you? Does it mean that the single mother who can’t work on her feet longer than 50 hours a week doesn’t deserve a good life? Does it mean the older man who struggles with modern technology and can’t seem to keep up with the pace set by younger workers should just go throw himself off a cliff?
And, believe it or not, there are people out there even tougher than you. Why don’t we let them set the bar, instead of you? Are you ready to work 80 hours a week? 100 hours? Can you hold down four jobs? Can you do it when you’re 40? When you’re 50? When you’re 60? Can you do it with arthritis? Can you do it with one arm? Can you do it when you’re being treated for prostate cancer?
And is this really your idea of what life should be like in the greatest country on Earth?
Here’s how a liberal looks at it: a long time ago workers in this country realized that industrialization wasn’t making their lives better, but worse. The captains of industry were making a ton of money and living a merry life far away from the dirty, dangerous factories they owned, and far away from the even dirtier and more dangerous mines that fed raw materials to those factories.
The workers quickly decided that this arrangement didn’t work for them. If they were going to work as cogs in machines designed to build wealth for the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies, they wanted a cut. They wanted a share of the wealth that they were helping create. And that didn’t mean just more money; it meant a better quality of life. It meant reasonable hours and better working conditions.
Eventually, somebody came up with the slogan, “8 hours of work, 8 hours of leisure, 8 hours of sleep” to divide the 24-hour day into what was considered a fair allocation of a human’s time. It wasn’t a slogan that was immediately accepted. People had to fight to put this standard in place. People demonstrated, and fought with police, and were killed. They were called communists (in fairness, some of them were), and traitors, and many of them got a lot worse than pepper spray at the hands of police and private security.
But by the time we got through the Great Depression and WWII, we’d all learned some valuable lessons about working together and sharing the prosperity, and the 8-hour workday became the norm.
The 8-hour workday and the 40-hour workweek became a standard by which we judged our economic success, and a reality check against which we could verify the American Dream.
If a family could live a good life with one wage-earner working a 40-hour job, then the American Dream was realized. If the income from that job could pay the bills, buy a car, pay for the kids’ braces, allow the family to save enough money for a down payment on a house and still leave some money for retirement and maybe for a college fund for the kids, then we were living the American Dream. The workers were sharing in the prosperity they helped create, and they still had time to take their kids to a ball game, take their spouses to a movie, and play a little golf on the weekends.
Ah, the halcyon days of the 1950s! Yeah, ok, it wasn’t quite that perfect. The prosperity wasn’t spread as evenly and ubiquitously as we might want to pretend, but if you were a middle-class white man, things were probably pretty good from an economic perspective. The American middle class was reaching its zenith.
And the top marginal federal income tax rate was more than 90%. Throughout the whole of the 1950s and into the early 60s.
Just thought I’d throw that in there.
Anyway, do you understand what I’m trying to say? We can have a reasonable standard for what level of work qualifies you for the American Dream, and work to build a society that realizes that dream, or we can chew each other to the bone in a nightmare of merciless competition and mutual contempt.
I’m a liberal, so I probably dream bigger than you. For instance, I want everybody to have healthcare. I want lazy people to have healthcare. I want stupid people to have healthcare. I want drug addicts to have healthcare. I want bums who refuse to work even when given the opportunity to have healthcare. I’m willing to pay for that with my taxes, because I want to live in a society where it doesn’t matter how much of a loser you are, if you need medical care you can get it. And not just by crowding up an emergency room that should be dedicated exclusively to helping people in emergencies.
You probably don’t agree with that, and that’s fine. That’s an expansion of the American Dream, and would involve new commitments we haven’t made before. But the commitment we’ve made to the working class since the 1940s is something that we should both support and be willing to fight for, whether we are liberal or conservative. We should both be willing to fight for the American Dream. And we should agree that anybody trying to steal that dream from us is to be resisted, not defended.
And while we’re defending that dream, you know what else we’ll be defending, kid? We’ll be defending you and your awesome work ethic. Because when we defend the American Dream we’re not just defending the idea of modest prosperity for people who put in an honest day’s work, we’re also defending the idea that those who go the extra mile should be rewarded accordingly.
Look kid, I don’t want you to “get by” working two jobs and 60 to 70 hours a week. If you’re willing to put in that kind of effort, I want you to get rich. I want you to have a comprehensive healthcare plan. I want you vacationing in the Bahamas every couple of years, with your beautiful wife and healthy, happy kids. I want you rewarded for your hard work, and I want your exceptional effort to reap exceptional rewards. I want you to accumulate wealth and invest it in Wall Street. And I want you to make more money from those investments.
I understand that a prosperous America needs people with money to invest, and I’ve got no problem with that. All other things being equal, I want all the rich people to keep being rich. And clever financiers who find ways to get more money into the hands of promising entrepreneurs should be rewarded for their contributions as well.
I think Wall Street has an important job to do, I just don’t think they’ve been doing it. And I resent their sense of entitlement – their sense that they are special and deserve to be rewarded extravagantly even when they screw everything up.
Come on, it was only three years ago, kid. Remember? Those assholes almost destroyed our economy. Do you remember the feeling of panic? John McCain wanted to suspend the presidential campaign so that everybody could focus on the crisis. Hallowed financial institutions like Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch went belly up. The government started intervening with bailouts, not because anybody thought “private profits and socialized losses” was fair, but because we were afraid not to intervene – we were afraid our whole economy might come crashing down around us if we didn’t prop up companies that were “too big to fail.”
So, even though you and I had nothing to do with the bad decisions, blind greed and incompetence of those guys on Wall Street, we were sure as hell along for the ride, weren’t we? And we’ve all paid a price.
All the” 99%” wants is for you to remember the role that Wall Street played in creating this mess, and for you to join us in demanding that Wall Street share the pain. They don’t want to share the pain, and they’re spending a lot of money and twisting a lot of arms to foist their share of the pain on the rest of us instead. And they’ve been given unprecedented powers to spend and twist, and they’re not even trying to hide what they’re doing.
All we want is for everybody to remember what happened, and to see what is happening still. And we want you to see that the only way they can get away without paying their share is to undermine the American Dream for the rest of us.
And I want you and I to understand each other, and to stand together to prevent them from doing that. You seem like the kind of guy who would be a strong ally, and I’d be proud to stand with you.
Originally posted to Max Udargo on Wed Oct 12, 2011.