Brian Flynn: Anger at economic and political failures is understandable
He says properly channeled, anger can be a force for positive change
Wall Street protesters have valid complaints about the system, he says
Flynn: Americans should take responsibility and focus demands for change on D.C.
Editor’s Note: Brian Flynn, who blogs at www.Angry-Irish.com, is vice president of The Victims of Pan Am 103 Inc. and founder of Schlossberg:Flynn, a financial advisory firm in New York.
Remember how delusional we all were back in the ’90s, when all we could talk about was the end of history and how all the world’s problems seemed to be solved? The Cold War was over. The U.S. government operated with a surplus. Europe was becoming one happy union. Unemployment was low. It seemed as though anybody could become rich by day trading. In fact, one of our biggest concerns was affluenza.
It all started to change in March 2000 with the dot-com stock market crash, followed soon thereafter by the controversial 2000 U.S. presidential election. A year later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks officially punctured our bubble of apathy and self-indulgence. After a decade of peace and ridiculous prosperity, all of sudden we were at war and day trading seemed meaningless – and a quick way to lose even more money.
Fast forward 10 years. After a decade of foreign wars and financial ruin, the prevailing sentiment is no longer apathy or complacency. It is anger. From the tea party to the Arab Spring to the London riots to Occupy Wall Street, the age of anger is now in full gear. Anger looks to be a natural human response to prolonged and accelerated adversity.
And yet much of this anger has been channeled into pointless and destructive behavior, in particular during the London riots where disaffected youths formed random violent protests against no common goal.
This rightly ended in a nationwide police lockdown, when it could have been much more inspiring if channeled into organized protest akin to the Arab Spring. Or as witnessed in Libya, when a people came together with a common, angry goal: to overturn not just a dictator, but to quash the 40 years of Col. Moammar Gadhafi-inflicted indifference and complacency that had forced the majority of Libyans into poverty and despair.
What we are increasingly seeing around the world – whether it is in London, Libya or lower Manhattan – is that anger is a powerful force with unpredictable potential. Rather than trying to suppress or manage anger, we need to figure out how to unleash and channel it.
Many of us grew up in a post-modern world where we were taught to control our anger and lead with our inner child. Have you met children? They are some of the angriest people out there. And yet an entire industry developed around “anger management,” which doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Ultimately what seems to be the core failure of such an approach is that it treats the symptom, not the cause.
Anger doesn’t flow from lack of compassion – quite the opposite. If someone is angry, they care deeply and may just act in a way that quells the innate feeling of injustice. Of course, reckless, violent anger – rage – is unacceptable, but we cannot lump the two types together.
As Aristotle taught us: Anyone can be angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.
Today, we see many groups of people jumping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon, and I have to admit it looks like a ton of fun, in particular the free cookies. But what good are cookies without an organizing principle, or a well-defined idea of what exactly is being protested against? Is it wealth inequality or just capitalism in general? The salaries of the people in those buildings? And just how many protesters sleeping in those tents rely on the very same businesses to manage their own wealth – whether it is retirement funds, mortgages or even student loans?
I will happily admit that it looks like the protest movement has had a good start, but without a specific ideal behind it, the occupation will either fade or flare, depending on how focused the anger ultimately is.
The tea party has many of the same characteristics, but with the ill-defined organizing principle that “government is bad.” While it is apparent that the anger fueling this principle appeals to some of the downtrodden, it likewise lacks effective solutions. The tea party’s sustainability can only come from the creation of actual policy initiatives that satisfy its followers.
Oddly enough, the upshot is that if the tea party were really to execute on what its adherents say, then the entitlements that so many of their ardent supporters benefit from (in particular Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) would be irreparably damaged. And then again, who needs roads and schools?
What are we to do with our anger? We should start by taking responsibility.
The fact is that Wall Street employees are not to blame for our financial problems. We are to blame. Only half of Americans bother to vote. We continue to allow special interests, including Wall Street, to buy the allegiance of government officials because we don’t demand campaign reform. We demand better health care and prescription drug benefits, but we think government or employers or somebody else should pay for it.
We want a secure retirement for ourselves, but we are not willing to allow the Social Security retirement age to rise to a reasonable level. We all think we will be rich people soon, so we continue to elect officials who pass taxes favoring very rich people. Let’s all decide that if we ever do become rich, we will pay our fair share of taxes.
Let’s develop coherent positions and hold elected officials responsible. Yelling at the universe seems like fun, but it really misses the mark. We should march on Washington and take our neighbors to make sure they are also in the game. There is a lot to be angry about, so let’s embrace it and get things done. Tilting at the tall windmills on Wall Street will only be fun for a while and won’t accomplish anything.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brian Flynn.