#OWS and Canaries

Some days past, I watched a video of a self-proclaimed Chief Executive Officer of an unnamed company who took a film crew to Zucotti Park in New York City to “chat” with the occupiers. It seems his only real objective was to recite a Capitalist Catechism to the occupiers, many of whom seemed much more knowledgable of history and economics. When he proclaimed that there was “nothing immoral about greed,” I stopped watching.

Had I been there, I would have had a few things to say to this CEO. It might have run something like this:

Sir, are you familiar with canaries? Yes, I mean the small bird. Yellow in color, from which the term “canary yellow” is derived. A ruthlessly cheerful songbird, hence the term “to sing like a canary,” as when a mobster rats out his fellows.

Canaries were great friends of early coal miners. Not for their virtues, but for the fact that they were weak. Specifically, they had weak, delicate lungs.

When a “canary in a coal mine” flopped over, dead, it meant that a silent killer ran free in the mine tunnels: usually carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, but occasionally more toxic gasses. Invisible. Odorless. Without texture. Deadly.

When the canary died, it meant the miners with their stronger lungs had minutes, at most, to climb to clean air, else they would also flop over like the canary. Dead.

What the miners did NOT do was debate with the dead canary before a video crew, arguing that the air was perfectly clear and fine; that the canary had no valid reason to lie about while there was work to be done; that the canary was merely immoral and lazy, desirous of a free handout.

You stand, sir, in an entire park full of dead canaries. They have died to political process, which they believe does not listen to them. They have died to economic process, which they believe steals from their labor to feed those who already eat well, while the hungry receive only insults and swift kicks to get them out of the doorways of commerce. They have died to productive participation in a society which they understand to be unjust, unworkable, and deadly.

If you were wise, sir, you would not lecture these dead canaries. You would listen to them carefully, and try to understand how and why they died.

Because what killed them is coming for you next.

You have a great deal to lose, sir, and your wealth stands poised between two bad ends.

On the one hand lies continuation without change. Even ten years ago, no one would have believed that anyone in the top ten percent of income in the United States would have trouble paying their bills. Yet it is so. Ten years from now, even the one percent will struggle to make ends meet. Do you intend to outrun that rising tide? Do you honestly think you can, even as the remainder of the one percent falls around you? Or do you simply seek to postpone the moment when you slip beneath the water and join the rest of the dead?

On the other hand lies radical change. Perhaps the entire global economy, its structure destroyed by overheated market bubbles, will collapse. Perhaps a popular movement will rise and gain political power, to strip you of your wealth by force and redistribute it to the masses. Perhaps you will be hunted, a photograph of your face posted on every street corner.

Your wealth as you know it will survive neither continuation, nor radical change.

If you were wise, sir, you would stop lecturing the masses on the virtues of Capitalism and instead try to understand why they died. You would seek desperately to discover how to keep the next batch of canaries from dying.

It just might save your own fortune.