EconoMonitor

Managing the 99 Percent

And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their un-escapable social destiny.” – Huxley, Brave New World

From: The McCourtny Consulting Group

To: The Endowment for the Preservation of the One Percent

Subject: Managing the 99 Percent

Whether or not it is put in sound-bite terms of “class warfare”, the “one percent” pitted against the “ninety-nine percent”, the fact of the matter is that the data showing a widening of income levels are undeniable, as are the push of a segment of the middle class to the near poor, the realization of lower social mobility, income levels that have broken the string of increasing standards of living from parents to children, and new doubts about education as a road to opportunity.

We are witnessing a simmering backlash in the face of the widening class distinction. It is wise to address the fundamental issues behind the backlash and consider approaches to deal with the problem, especially given that these conditions may be persistent and structural. Therefore, we have prepared a brief overview of approaches to the problem.

What to do

In the Feudal societies, class distinctions were determined by lineage, in the capitalist society by wealth, and more generally by the notion of a power elite that controls the key levers of society, be it in industry, government or the military. Whatever the source of the class distinctions, historically the ongoing concern of the dominating class has been to contain the pressures of alienation that can lead to the revolt of the masses.

What are the public relations strategies to control and manage this situation? We have considered a campaign based on the following messages to hoi polloi.

We are just like you. Hide wealth and then take a cue from the Mormon public relations campaign: washing the car, playing basketball, with the tag line “I’m a one percenter”. Some members of the Endowment are already primed for this approach, having explicitly told their highly compensated employees to cool it in terms of flaunting their wealth.

You are just like us: Create the perception of shared power and mobility, that hoi polloi influence the system and can change it if they want to. Point out that this is the connotation behind the term “hoi polloi” in ancient Greece. Maybe you haven’t hit the daily double this time around, but you still have a shot. This approach already seems to be in play and working. Helped along by a long-running media campaign, many of the 99 percent who are unemployed as well as the growing number who are descending into the ranks of the nearly poor are ardent defenders of the wealthy and their historically low tax rates.

You are not like us, and you don’t want to be like us. Make wealth appear unattractive. Money only causes problems, miserable lives; the upper class are a harmless bunch. England maintained class distinctions and the Crown where other countries were hit by revolution in part because the upper class wrapped itself in eccentricity and generally appeared harmless, if not even amusingly befuddled. However, although this worked for an aristocracy at leisure, it is not a good strategy to appear befuddled while running corporations.

You are not like us, but who is keeping track. This appears to be the most sustainable route for managing the situation, especially because technology is making it an ever more achievable strategy. Entertainment, keeping busy on the trivial. It worked for Rome, at least for a while. So it will be a constant theme in our proposal.

Too bad, just live with it. Given that, all else equal, people probably won’t just live with it, eventually this requires the authoritarian, police state approach. As Dahl’s Mr. Wormwood put it, : “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Proposal for the Campaign

We propose a campaign based on these multiple fronts that will leverage existing channels:

Reality TV. We have had the vicarious exploits of spectator sports for a long while, and now have created vicarious lives through Reality TV. This not only serves as a distraction. Properly employed (such as with the “Real Wives” series) it supports a “You wouldn’t want to be like us” message.

Computer games and virtual lives. Add to the vicarious lives of spectator sports and reality TV the opportunity for virtual lives through computer games; everyone is building their own virtual mansions and fighting their virtual wars, in combat with their own Eastasia. This provides both distraction and empowered “You are just like us” moments.

Social networks. Talk about keeping people distracted on trivia. And we can have people feel socially connected with us by being our friends by creating carefully managed Facebook accounts. We can hire a staff to maintain these Facebook pages in a way that the joint messages of “We aren’t having a lot of fun” and “We are just like you” are both kept at the fore.

Those on Facebook already blur the real with the fantasy; many create alternative lives on Facebook just as they do in their virtual games, and it turns out that the Facebook fantasy helps get our messages across. The Facebook personae are not exactly “Just like us”, but are more like us than is the reality. The average Facebook self depicts someone more wealthy and happy than the actual person. So it is not quite cohorting with the one percent, but on the other hand there is rarely any evidence of the economic struggles that seem to occupy the pages of the New York Times.

Open media. Just as there can be the sense of power in various combat games, for the disenfranchised there can be the sense of power, a sense that “You are just like us”, through their access to blogging, twittering, and other channels of open media. These can be manipulated to give the impression that their voices are being heard, that they matter. In this regard, we recommend that a team be hired to comment on various posts – perhaps outsourced to India or Sri Lanka – in order to give the appearance that people are listening, that the trivia is substance.

And these are channels to burrow into so that the realities of the world and their place within it are obscured. Just as Facebook gives us the impression of a large community of friends and colleagues, Twitter allows the 99 percent to feel connected to the world at large, to believe that people out there somewhere hear their voices.

Viral hits buttress the “You are just like us, but just haven’t hit your daily double yet” message. It doesn’t matter that the viral hits have nothing more than fleeting entertainment value. The simple fact that a 99 percenter can draw the attention of millions is the exception that proves the rule.

Education-lite. Education poses a dilemma because it is essential to have a skilled workforce while at the same time preventing the side effect of heightened awareness of alienation. So the ideal educational system is one that provides the requisite work skills while inhibiting thought.

Adam Smith writes that such a path is possible, indeed that the working man “has no occasion to exert his understanding. . . . Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues”. Smith proposed that the way out of this is for the government to provide public schooling for the working class But what is a bane for Smith is a blessing for us: his working man is the man we want.

Those in the upper-class in his era did not share Smith’s interest in universal education. Rather, they saw the world as we do: education diminishes deference and fuels disobedience. And this same sentiment is echoed a century and a half later by no more ardent a defender of capitalism than Schumpeter, who argues that education in the face of manual labor and underemployment sows discontent, and “discontent breeds resentment”. The solution to this is to give the impression of education while in fact providing little more than the essentials of vocational training. Focus on accounting, computer science and the like while eschewing the impractical liberal arts. Have college be party time, the soma, sex and endless recreation that Huxley envisioned for the populace at large. If the majority of the ninety-nine percent can be herded down this path, then “sex, drugs and rock and roll” serves its purpose.

Open personal information. While we strenuously object to any of the “Too bad, just live with it” Orwellian tactics (and therefore also stress that any discussion along these lines be by phone and not by e-mail), there happen to be technologies that allow the requisite monitoring. Indeed, hoi polloi already provide this information voluntarily, often to the public at large. Between tweets, blogs, and our Facebook friends, not to mention those who write comments where registration with real names and e-mails is required, we have a treasure trove of data for any future efforts to manage the situation more directly.

 

The Securities and Exchange Commission disclaims responsibility for any private publication or statement of any SEC employee or Commissioner. This post expresses the author’s views and does not necessarily reflect those of the Commission, the Commissioners, or other members of the staff. Similarly, this post expresses the author’s views and does not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Treasury or its staff.

This post originally appeared at Rick Bookstaber’s Blog and is posted with permission.

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