SONNY SCOTT: Teetering global economy could send underclass to the streets

By Sonny Scott

This “Year of the Arab Street,” accompanied as it is by a teetering global economy, has me ruminating on revolution. “Revolution” is a term that we use promiscuously in the West without regard to its terrible connotations.
American culture has a conservative tradition. In fact, the so-called “Revolution” of 1776 wasn’t so much a revolution as a civil war, wherein the native-born propertied class, tired of having their ambitions checked by the caste-conscious British aristocracy, rebelled. The leadership of American society was pretty much the same after independence as before, and it was conservative. Washington and Hamilton were diligent in suppressing incipient revolution, (See the Whiskey Rebellion), and conservatives marginalized Jefferson and the French sympathizers during most of the Continental Holocaust begun by the Jacobins.
Revolution is not a direct product of wretched circumstances, but rather of dashed expectations. People may endure poverty and closed social systems for generations, but when their expectations outpace their realizations, things can get ugly. Our image of “peasants with pitchforks” is inaccurate. True revolutions grow among the intelligentsia, the middle class, and disaffected urban workers. The peasantry tends to get it from both sides in a revolution.
Our culture’s conservatism has been a stabilizing force during the sporadic economic downturns over the centuries. Even during the celebrated “Great Depression,” radicalism failed to gain traction. Americans looked within themselves for the wherewithal to solve their problems, and (helped by the unwise aggression of the Axis) succeeded.
Maybe it was innate conservatism, or maybe that anyone with common sense could see that the actuarial assumptions of the FICA were faulty. In any event, those who came of age during the Great Depression have long predicted, “There will be no Social Security there when we’re old enough to retire.” (Raise your hand if you’ve heard it.) That generation has enjoyed Social Security for twenty years now.
Their children, the ubiquitous Boomers (not noted for paying attention when their elders gave sound advice) grew up thinking that Social Security would be a dependable nucleus around which their retirement plans could be realized. Now that we are about to hit the system like the pig in the python’s gut, our elders’ caution comes back to make us uneasy. If we live long enough, we can be sure that we will see benefits cut – either directly, or by inflation. That’s a given. Normally, the elderly are ultra-conservative. How will Boomers react to dashed expectations?
If the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service based one resumes its pace after the Great Recession finishes counting its dips, we can be sure that the underclass will be hitting the streets. Inflation has already hit the savers by rending their funds useless – interest rates are virtually 0%, and consumers have been protected only by the flood of imported goods. Consumer prices will soon rise as a result of the astronomical increase in the money supply. The underclass will demand increased benefits, and when they aren’t forthcoming, they will hit the streets. (The ever-pertinent Fred Reed: “Welfare is the price we pay to keep the cities from burning.”) Some areas will be torched. Will pensioners be joining the rioters?
We already have an example of what happens when expected benefits are not forthcoming. One of the consequences of the breakup of the USSR and the subsequent privatizing trend in Russia is that elderly Soviet pensioners have found themselves in reduced circumstances. In some places they beg, or do casual labor for a pittance, or collect scrap. Their societies have an authoritarian tradition, and the political regimes have the will to keep the lid on. (Would YOU care to cross Putin?) Will our authorities have the gravel in their craw to face down widespread civil disorder from both ends of the age spectrum? Will the retirees have the hoodlums’ back?
I think not. Oh, the AARP will organize a few made for TV events, but at the end of the day, Boomers will go home, take their Metamucil, elevate the aching dogs on the recliner ottoman, and watch it on television. When the shooting in the streets begins, they’ll be cheering on the National Guard.
Sonny Scott is a Chickasaw County resident and a community columnist. Contact him at sonnyscott@yahoo.com.