Last week, protests broke out again in Europe, from Rome to London. The monthlong Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York have spread. The current unrest follows this summer's riots in London and flash mob incidents in U.S. cities. In 2009 and 2010, Tea Parties turned out hundreds of thousands in protests against the Obama administration's policies and eventually gave him the largest midterm rebuke since 1938.
All of these protests, of course, are vastly different -- or are they really?
Ostensibly, the Wall Street protests rail against a small elite who makes a lot of money lending, investing and speculating -- although the protestors don't seem to worry much about the mega-salaries of actors, professional athletes or sympathetic multimillionaires like Al Gore, George Soros or John Kerry. American flash mobbers and London hoods thought it was OK to take things that were not theirs, since they have less than others. The Tea Partiers were simply tired of paying more taxes for big-government programs that they thought only made things worse.
In the current left and right anger -- somewhat analogous to the upheavals of 1848 or the 1930s -- the common denominator is frustration that Western upward mobility of some 60 years seems to be coming to an end. In response, millions want someone or something to be held accountable -- whether Wall Street insiders, or wasteful and corrupt governments, or the affluent who have more than others.
Unfortunately, political leaders -- unwilling to risk their careers by irking the people -- have offered few explanations for the root causes of all the various unrest. Instead, they assure us that Social Security is solvent, or that pensions and wages can remain sacrosanct, or that billionaires and millionaires are alone culpable. Sometimes they exploit race and class divisions in lieu of explaining 21st-century realities.
So here goes an explanation for the multifaceted unrest. For the last six decades, constant technological breakthroughs and growing government subsidies have given a billion and a half Westerners lifestyles undreamed of over the last 2,500 years. In 1930, no one imagined that a few pills could cure life-threatening strep throat. In 1960, no one planned on retiring at 55. In 1980, no one dreamed that millions could have instant access to civilization's collective knowledge in a few seconds through a free Google search.
Yet, the better life got in the West for ever more people, the more apprehensive they became, as their appetites for even more grew even faster. Remember, none of these worldwide protests are over the denial of food, shelter, clean water or basic medicine.
None of these protestors discuss the effects of 2 billion Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese workers entering and mastering the globalized capitalist system, and making things more cheaply and sometimes better than their Western counterparts.
None of these protestors ever stop to ponder the costs -- and ultimately the effect on their own lifestyles -- of skyrocketing energy costs. Since 1970 there has been a historic, multitrillion-dollar transfer of capital from the West to the Middle East, South America, Africa and Russia through the importation of high-cost oil and gas.
None seem to grasp the significance that, meanwhile, hundreds of millions of Westerners are living longer and better, retiring earlier, and demanding ever more expensive government pensions and health care.
Something had to give.
And now it has. Federal and state budgets are near bankrupt. Countries like Greece and Italy face insolvency. The U.S. government resorts to printing money to service or expand entitlements. Near-zero interest rates, declining home prices, and huge losses in mutual funds and retirement accounts have crippled the middle classes.
Bigger government, marvelous new inventions and creative new investment strategies are not going to restore the once-taken-for-granted good life. Until "green" means competitive renewable energy rather than a con for crony capitalists, we are going to have to create and save capital by producing more of our own gas and oil, and relying more on nuclear power and coal.
Westerners will have to work a bit longer and more efficiently, with a bit less redistributive government support. And they must confess that venture capitalists, hedge funds and big deficit-spending governments are no substitute for producing themselves the real stuff of life that millions now take for granted -- whether gas, food, cars or consumer goods.
Otherwise, a smaller, older and whinier West will just keep blaming others as their good life slips away. So it's past time to stop borrowing to import energy and most of the things we use but have given up producing -- and get back to competing in the real world.