Death may make cowards of us all—I wouldn't know. What I do know is that this recession is making economists of us all.
It's an interesting phenomenon, how understanding of a subject spreads through a society. Our leaders pay endless lip-service to the virtues of education, but the voting populace they'd really love to have is a bunch of drones with no inkling of history and no ability to think critically. Alas, we're born with brains cranking. They can tell us and tell us and tell us what to think, but we develop conclusions on our own.
Here's an example: I read somewhere recently that the fervent denials of global warming by the Republican candidates have had the effect of bumping up the percentage of Americans polled who say they believe it is happening. When a topic comes up often enough, it starts to pop out of the stream of electronic babble, and people start thinking about it, consulting their own experience and poking around on the Internet. That poking-around-on-the-Internet thing can lead anywhere.
(By the way, I'd like to extend my sympathy in advance to the Republican Party. With that batch of candidates and the box of monsters that Fox News has spawned over on the far right, this is just the beginning of a horrible year for the GOP.)
This has been happening lately with economics, a subject that normally attracts few enthusiasts. It's dawned, painfully, on millions of us that the people who regulate things—like the national budget, and the banks, and Wall Street—either 1) don't know what they're doing, 2) are being impeded from doing the right things by vast invisible forces, or 3) are criminals. Or some combination of the above.
We didn't want to know this. We'd rather not think about it. But we can't ignore it any more.
All we hear about lately are jobs going to China, billions wasted here, debts in the trillions there, the rich not paying taxes, and so on, and it's worrying enough that we feel we need to find out more. What was Glass-Steagall, and why was it repealed? Why did European banks loan Greece so much money? What is the historic relation of the maximum federal tax rate to national prosperity?
If I were a politician, or a rich person, I would want to stop this curiosity about how money actually works from growing—and I'd want to stop it yesterday.
Instead, this summer, we got Warren Buffett, bless his heart, telling us that his tax rate is lower than his secretary's. We also got the maddening fake crisis over the debt ceiling, which made it clear that a number of congressmen were willing to wreck the world economy to make a point. What point, exactly, was never clear. That having Barack Obama as president drives them demented? Honestly, we knew that.
And now the genie of economic enlightenment is out of the bottle: On Sept. 17, Occupy Wall Street began in New York City. I wasn't there, of course, but since I spend time on leftie threads (@TaxTheRichNow1), I got to watch it happen on Twitter—which for the first two weeks was nearly the only place you could find out what was going on, because the mainstream news outlets carefully ignored the protest. (There was wrinkled-brow concern about coverage "encouraging" others to join.)
It was pretty thrilling to watch the tweets come in like raw reports on a news wire. There were (and are) messages from the people on the ground, updating one another and organizing and reaching out to the world outside, and live-video-feed sites and excited chatter from all around. These folks have learned from the Arab Spring, and they've learned well.
Will the "occupy" movement lead to revolution? Doubtful. Recession, income inequality, corruption and vicious demagoguery have made America less stable than it's been, probably, since the 1930s, but this is still a largely middle-class country.
On the other hand, much of the middle class is, in the words of a placard at Occupy Boston, wicked pissed. And many, many of our young people are unemployed. They have boundless time and energy, mountains of debt, strong convictions about what's wrong, and cell phones. They have a strategy that's working. And like me, they now know a lot more about economics and government than they ever wanted to.
History is rolling.