A recent Pew Research poll found that 51% of Millennials have a negative view of capitalism, which is not at all surprising when you consider a 2017 Harvard University poll that reveals 54% of Millennials identify as Democrats. I work with such a woman. Beth silkscreens phrases like America was never great and Capitalism Sucks onto t-shirts and sells them on websites like Etsy for between $30-$50 apiece. It’s her way of resisting and it nets her $1500 a month. She won’t call it a business because in her mind business is a consortium of rapacious swindlers, so she calls it a site. We work in a restaurant together and frequently get to talking while setting up for service. I’m old enough to be her father and although we disagree on just about everything, I love our conversations. It’s a lot like talking to my younger self – the same enthusiastic, rebellious spirit; the same fears. I was an art school student from a Democrat household when I was her age. I shopped at thrift stores and dabbled in photography. I made zines at Kinkos. I lived off of credit cards and threw away the bills when they came. I smoked cheap weed and listened to Bob Dylan sing “Forget the debts you’ve left, they will not follow you.”
As a young man my entire worldview was an attempt to justify my lack of restraint and discipline. I did things that were easy. I could rationalize hitting the bars instead of the books because I was an artist. You see, I was gaining valuable life experience that would add texture to my subtle, nuanced poetry about how beauty only reveals itself to the destitute. Remember that ridiculous plastic bag scene in American Beauty? I loved it.
It required nothing of me to hate on the wealthy except my own arrogant belief that financial success was only possible through theft or exploitation. I didn’t have to understand economics to know that the people on the commuter train had deliberately bought in to a false knowledge, and they deserved to be chained to their briefcases and neckties for joining the business class in their grotesque parade of greed. I’m pretty sure I would have loved Bernie Sanders just like my friend Beth does. I’d probably be joining in the chorus of people equating a tax cut bill to mass murder, or calling the attempts to pass healthcare legislation, well, attempted mass murder because that, too, is easy.
It’s easier to count your unfulfilled wishes than your blessings. Our way of life feels so natural that it’s easy to forget how truly unique it is, especially during a time when outrage and victimhood are held in higher esteem than commerce and manufacturing.
I used to mock the suits for selling out; turns out the joke is on me for not buying in. It’s not that I was unable to buy in, so few of us truly are. From the moment of our birth we are in a position to use our skills to our best advantage by simply being Americans. Yuval Levin offers the best definition of conservatism I’ve ever heard. It is quite simply, gratitude. I think we all know how difficult that can be.
I was unable to keep myself in that position because of resentment. It started simply enough, as it does for most teenagers. I desperately, foolishly rebelled against my parents. Turns out that was cool. So I kept on. I liked the attention that came with being the bad guy. I had friends that weren’t allowed to see me because their parents thought I was a bad influence, and I loved that. From there it just snowballed. By the time I was thirty I was a drug addict, my credit was shot, I owned next to nothing. I had spent fifteen years killing myself in every sense of the word. And it all started because it was easier to be hateful, to be broke, to catch someone’s attention for looking like a bit actor in Slackers or Singles rather than a buttoned up gentleman.
When I was in my early 20s, it was enough to make $200 a day for seven hours of work, and I thought it always would be. I had obstacles just like everyone else, except I chose to stop in front of them and say, “man, this sucks,” rather than make the jump. And because of that I’m not in a position to create jobs, or much else for that matter, so I depend on the ability of other people to manufacture jobs that I can apply for. After having served thousands of bottles of wine I can tell you that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the person who orders the expensive bottle of wine at dinner rather than the one who serves it. My own bad choices had put in me in a position where I saw it as necessary for me to take things from other people, to demand free college, to demand free health care, to take more in taxes from the people who pay salaries as I eagerly wait my refund. Can you look sweet Jon Lovitz in the face and tell him that you want more of his money?
See, it isn’t capitalism that people like Beth hates, it’s money itself and the people who have figured out how to make it – well, some of the people who make it. We wear the jerseys of athletes who makes $8,000 a minute while claiming that the owner of the team treats them like $40 million slaves. We like it when Lebron James and Tom Brady make money. We don’t like it when Warren Buffett makes money because he’s out of touch. We love seeing photos of Floyd Mayweather withdrawing an actual mountain of cash on a dolly from a California bank but if a CEO goes from paying 50% in taxes to 42%, well, those money-grubbing Republicans. We’ll sing along with I Get Money, Got Money, Make It Rain, Money Maker. Someone should make a hip-hop album about civil asset forfeiture.
There’s a supposition that people tend to become more conservative the older we get because ageing causes people more to be more resistant to change. Nowadays when I talk to people like Sarah who, as Ronald Reagan said fifty-three years ago, “can’t see a fat man standing next to a thin one without automatically coming to the conclusion that the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one,” I know that it’s not because I’m resistant to change in my older age, it’s that Margaret Thatcher was right when she said “reality is conservative.”