I was thumbing through a Forbes and a Smart Money magazine while waiting at a bank this afternoon and several reasons for Occupy Wall Street came to mind. What did I see that triggered these thoughts?
Ads. The ads got my attention. The primary purpose of advertising is to stimulate a strong desire for a product, service, or idea. In Smart Money and Forbes, and a dozen magazines and web sites just like them, the proliferation of full page and full color ads are dripping with $10 million Lear Jets, $120k Jaguars, $5k watches whose brands I’ve never heard of, and all manner of materialism that only those whose incomes are a million a year or more could possibly afford. I would imagine that each ad cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce and twice as much to publish. It is not just the fact that these advertised products are out of reach of 90% of our population. It is the visceral feeling of many of us when we view such things is ostentatious, insatiable greed, and material one-upsmanship.
Envy on one side
Those involved in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and those who sympathize with them are emotionally impacted by the material display of wealth wagged in their face through both the advertising and the consumption of these wealth-flaunting objects . What is the unintended consequence of this flaunting of materialism among the 90% of the “have nots?” Jealousy, envy, and covetousness. The acting out of many of these envious and jealous souls is socially irresponsible and in many cases unlawful. The authority figures who are supposed to be defending society against OWS lawlessness have not taken decisive action because many of these political leaders are sympathetic to the wealth disparity that the occupiers are protesting.
Greed on the other side
Granted, many wealthy individuals do a lot of good – in fact are the engine of prosperity for much of the rest of us. I have no doubt that most who own the objects of wealth worked hard to earn every penny required to purchase them. That is not the point. The point is their decision to flaunt their wealth by their ostentatious display of materialism which many interpret as a form of superiority and taunting of those who haven’t reached their “level” for whatever reason. A good number are self-absorbed extravagant consumers who couldn’t care less about those beneath them.
Moral failures on both sides
This situation can best be described as a two-sided moral failure headed for a collision. On the side of the wealthy, the moral failure is their material greed and their flaunting thereof. On the side of the OWS/sympathizers is the moral failure of envy, jealousy, and covetousness.
The morally healthy person on either side of this divide would not act as they do. The wealthy would not flaunt. The non-wealthy would not covet. Sure, government could force a redistribution, but that would not cure the moral conflict. Redistribution would have equally bad, if not worse consequences, by reducing incentive to be productive (among both the “have mores” and the “have lesses”) and create a collective poverty.
Bottom line: The confrontation we are seeing is not so much an economic problem; not even so much a political problem. It is a moral problem.