Thursday, October 6, 2011

Raise Cain with Facts, not Rhetoric

Mostly waifish white pseudo-hippie twentysomethings.

And a multimillionaire black Republican presidential candidate.

Hmm... what could they possibly have in common?

Well, for starters, they both appear to relish their life on the fringes of reality. And both the Occupy Wall Street activists and Herman Cain have managed to claim quite a bit of the spotlight lately, albeit as champions for different causes.

Blame Game

Currently stumping on a publicity tour for his book, This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, the erstwhile Republican presidential contender claimed during an interview with the Wall Street Journal that Lower Manhattan's Occupy Wall Street (OWS) crowd needs to blame itself for the woes they're in.

"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," he chided on video, to the smug bemusement of his interviewer. And while that makes for a catchy soundbite, appealing to stalwarts of the far right and Tea Party, how much legitimate credibility does it give Cain as a leader who can analyze problems and evaluate solutions?

Cain often speaks fondly of his mother, a cleaning lady, and his father, a chauffeur. Not exactly high-paying professions. He describes himself as growing up poor and, despite his family's poverty, living the good life as a corporate executive.

Many conservatives like to stop there and relish how Cain can speak from experience. If he can do it, anybody can, they're fond of assuming. But we need to go one step further and ask: was the socioeconomic disenfranchisement in which his parents lived their fault? Because it wasn't, was it? At least not entirely. Just as many people living in poverty, or without employment, or without millions in their bank account, do so through no fault of their own.

In another bungled stab at conservative colloquialism in yesterday's Wall Street Journal interview, Cain blustered, "It is not someone's fault if they succeeded, it is someone's fault if they failed."

A softly-lobbed soundbite Tea Party bloggers have since been hailing as sound economic doctrine. But is it?

Granted, it's rarely anybody's "fault" if they succeed. Most people don't start out with the intention of making a mess out of their life, refusing success as it's foisted upon them.

Yet not everyone is going to enjoy the level of success we consider to be the American Dream. That's part of what makes capitalism tick. Not everybody gets rich. People get sick. Good ideas fail to attract sponsors. Any number of things can prevent what we call success, such as the racism to which Cain's parents were subjected.

Sure, sometimes we make dumb choices or even well-intentioned decisions that turn out badly. But a lot of people who've lost their jobs over the past decade due to downsizing and offshoring simply can't be blamed entirely for their own economic misfortunes. Does Cain blame his parents for not defying Southern prejudice? Of course not.

With Capitalism, the Rich Don't Get Rich in a Vacuum

The same failure to follow-through to the bitter end of Cain's popular yet illogical statements can also be seen in the sloppy, piecemeal understanding of America's economic and political problems as exhibited by the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Yes, for the rowdy, frizzy-haired, tent-sleeping masses camped out in Zuccotti Park near New York's World Trade Center, Wall Street presents an easy target. Even if, in a capitalist economy, it can be argued that Wall Street only provides society as much of the bad financing as it wants. After all, would any Wall Street bank exist if it didn't have customers and investors throwing money at its financial products?

To the extent few of Wall Street's protesters would likely want to answer that question accurately, then Cain does have a point when he surmises that much of Occupy Wall Street's bohemian contempt is as much directed at capitalism in general as it is billion dollar banks in particular.

If they're going to vilify capitalism, then who stuck a gun to any investor's head and forced them to buy into poorly-vetted portfolios of sub-prime loans? Who forced minimal-income home buyers to take out mortgages they couldn't afford? Wasn't it liberal black congresspeople who berated government bureaucrats for saying out loud what everybody knew in private: that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were over-leveraged and leading Uncle Sam to the brink of a mortgage meltdown?

So if you're going to blame capitalism, you'd better also throw in the very democracy letting you protest, for good measure. Which, while not being entirely accurate, isn't being completely inaccurate, either. American consumers and voters have indeed helped create the problems we're facing simply by not educating themselves on issues, ideas, and ideals. As proven by many sub-prime mortgage customers who were simply too greedy for a home they knew they shouldn't be able to afford.

It's just easier to blame a bunch of faceless suits holed up in glassy skyscrapers than the people who, as Cain could have said, sabotaged their way to the foreclosure listings.

Granted, many banks crafted nefariously risky investments and hid blatant liabilities, contributing to the Great Recession. But what about, for example, the auto bailouts, triggered in part by grossly excessive union benefits which bled carmakers dry? To hear that organized labor is now helping to fund and staff the economic protests makes me shake my head at their duplicity.

If You Can't Say Something With Integrity...

If any individual or organization feels the need to engage in public dialog, they need to present their viewpoints in a coherent manner. This goes for both the Herman Cains and the OWSers of our world. If you want to encourage personal responsibility, the objective Cain botched, or improved corporate ethics, the objective Lower Manhattan's demonstrators seem to most embrace, then you need to craft your message with a respect for the facts.

Otherwise, don't you end up becoming a farcical caricature of hollow influence? Right now, both Cain and the OWSers are operating more with petulance than pragmatism.

Then again, perhaps the Occupy Wall Street crowd and Herman Cain deserve each other, even if they don't agree on much.

The way each are acting, neither seems likely to get what they're wanting.
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