Management / The American View: Savings, Private Ryan!

The American View: Savings, Private Ryan!

The recent ad hominem attacks on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) reflect the unbridgeable perspectives between wealthy established adults and struggling new graduates in the US. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that the well-meaning career and economic advice that pre-Crash adults offer to young people is little more than quaint obsolete theory and not at all practical.

Right as my column on why rich Americans can’t understand the plight of the poor posted here on Business Reporter, US media stepped up to prove my point. I’m grateful for the signal boost, but I’m appalled by the condescending vitriol coming from some of our professional propagandists and paid-for politicians. I’d just as soon do without the assistance, since the attitudes on display in the Ocasio-Cortez is-she-isn’t-she-poor pseudo-argument proves what I’ve been saying about an unbridgeable gulf between the haves and never-will-haves in contemporary American society.

Let’s back up, though, since this tempest-in-a-thimble probably didn’t get much airtime outside of the burning porta-loo that is US pollical coverage. Back in June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic Party primary election for New York state’s 14th congressional district. [1] Ocasio-Cortez received a ton of media coverage because she’s (a) young, (b) charismatic, (c) not rich, and (d) a Democratic Socialist. Any of these traits on their own would make her stand out from the usual crowd of Democratic Party candidates; all four traits together made her a minor media superhero, especially to young voters who were sick feckless, unproductive establishment candidates.

Talking heads on TV spent months yammering about how Ocasio-Cortez was too young, too inexperienced, and/or too poor to be taken seriously. Many of the louder voices on the right warned that her ‘socialist beliefs’ were a harbinger of the End Times™ for America Inc. Then November came and Ocasio-Cortez won. Establishment politicians (and the pundits who feed off them) gracefully shifted their rhetoric from ‘This inconsequential woman can’t possibly win’ to ‘This amateur politician shouldn’t be taken seriously.’ Rather than debate the merits or efficacy of her legislative priorities, the message predictably shifted to attacking and undermining her character.

Fortunately, American schools do an excellent job preparing children how to endure a lifetime of aggressive and slanderous rumormongering.

The day after the election, the New York Times published an interview with Ocasio-Cortez in which she admitted that she couldn’t afford to move to Washington D.C. until her new Congressional salary kicked in. Like most Americans, she didn’t have enough savings to afford an apartment in D.C. Hardly a surprise; the median rent in D.C. is $2,700 a month and the median price for a house is $585,000 according to CNBC. Hell, I can’t afford that as a white-collar professional. This wasn’t much of a revelation.

Still, the admission gave her critics something to pounce on. On 15th November – just a week after the election – reporter Eddie Scarry of the Washington Examiner tweeted a stalker-ish photo of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and insinuated that the expensive outfit she was wearing contradicted her reputation as being an economically struggling champion of the working-class. This was hot garbage. As Kris Seavers of The Daily Dot commented:

‘Scarry’s tweet goes beyond an illogical criticism of [Ocasio-Cortez’s] progressive politics. His post shows a photo Ocasio-Cortez from behind, makes presumptions about her clothing, and refers to the 29-year-old as a “girl.”’

Scarry’s tweet struck me as an unsurprising blend of sexism, ageism, borderline-predatory misogyny, and – most importantly for his target audience – an insinuation that the new Congresswoman was secretly a rich con-artist working to bring down the establishment at the behest of her shadowy ‘wealthy left-wing backers.’ [2]

On 19th November, CSBC network published their own investigation into the new representative’s personal finances. Reporter Megan Leonhardt confirmed that Ocasio-Cortez had less than $7,000 in personal savings. ‘Her wages in 2017 came to about $26,600, according to the 2018 disclosure, and she's still paying off $15,000-$50,000 in student loan debt.’ The article also revealed (unsurprisingly) that Ocasio-Cortez had been living off of her personal savings while she campaigned for office.

Every aspect of running for office in America is financially and emotionally exhausting. Is it any wonder that only the comfortably well-off ever seem interested in throwing their hat in the ring?

Immediately, the ‘experts’ tut-tutted her situation. The most-quoted opinion that I read came from financial planner Paul K. Fain III who said ‘Ideally, a 29-year-old would have at least a few thousand dollars in a cash reserve and the equivalent of a year's salary in a retirement investment account.’ While I doubt that Fain’s matter-of-fact comment was intended to be a condescending insinuation that Ocasio-Cortez was a personal or professional failure, that’s how his comment was interpreted by a lot of frustrated, debt-strapped Millennials on social media. Can’t say that I blame them.

Ideally, we’d all like to have a fully-funded personal retirement account since employer pensions and long-term employment are quaint historical artefacts in America. We’d all like to have a salary that allows us to fully-fund our retirement account and build an emergency savings buffer, and afford health insurance and still pay rent. That these are wise goals isn’t the issue; the issue is that the American economic system makes it nearly impossible for workers who didn’t ‘come from money’ to ever meet these goals.

As a personal example: I started working as an Army Reservist in 1987. Despite holding full-time jobs as a military officer on active duty, as an IT consultant during the Dot Com boom, and later as a manager in the civil service (while holding down a military reservist role), I couldn’t afford to set aside a single month’s salary as an ‘emergency reserve’ for twenty years. [3] This was back before the US economy crashed. I’d had a run of decent white-collar jobs, I was fiscally disciplined, and I no longer had student debt. When a civil service manager holding down two jobs couldn’t meet Mr. Fain’s ‘ideal’ goal by age 30, then how could anyone realistically expect a young service industry worker living on one-third my salary to meet them?

That’s why many young people got incensed over last week’s Ocasio-Cortez coverage. The insinuations (and sometimes accusations) that she’s somehow disingenuous for wanting to pass legislation that would help people in financial circumstances that she herself has experienced seems like a slap in the face to every young American struggling to pursue the ‘American Dream.’ In post Great Recession America, graduation entails finding out that the game is rigged and that you have no chance of ever achieving an ‘ideal’ adult life. It might have been possible back in the 60s of 70s, but not anymore. Not unless you inherit all the capital that you’ll need to be financially successful from your parents … like $60.7M in loans to get you started building your real estate empire.

Not that I’m referring to anyone in particular …

Most poor and working-class graduates are entering a workplace that resembles the Normandy Landings scene from Saving Private Ryan more than it does any normal coming-of-age movie. The landing craft approaching the beach? Those represent time-until-graduation. The fortified defenders’ murderous fire? The entrenched working adults committed to a zero-sum ‘*#&$-you-I-got-mine’ mentality. Every soldier that falls from incoming fire? Those are friends and acquaintances whose future career arc was preemptively murdered by crushing debt, a useless degree, or simple bigotry. The obstacle-strewn beach? The graduates’ ‘formative’ twenties. And the ‘strategic objective’ up atop the French cliffs? That’s supposed to be stable, sustainable adulthood … a place that few, if any, of their cohort will ever live to see. When you watch peer after peer stumble, collapse, and fail, the ivory tower advice coming from well-meaning adults who aren’t on the beach seems like poisoned Pablum.

Mr. Fain, in this analogy, resembles the calm and intellectual military strategist who teaches the landing forces some pure academic concepts before they depart the transports for the landing craft: get off the beach quickly, avoid incoming fire, and put the enemy on the defensive. Yes, that all sounds exactly like what the invaders should do according to business school theory. The reality on the ground, however, cares not a whit about theory. New graduates’ tangible reality is a terrifying dumpster fire. It makes a lot of sense, then, that personal economic reality would be driving Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s political agenda: give the poor and working-class voters a fair, fighting chance.

Viewed pragmatically, the ‘dangerous socialist/leftist/globalist/whatever-ist’ rhetoric that her critics decry ought to seem darned attractive to young voters who don’t come from money. Ocasio-Cortez’s policy objectives directly addresses poor and working-class voters’ concerns and suggest ambitions possible solutions for taming a rigged and oppressive system. When you mute the hyper-partisan screeching, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign clearly resonated with voters … Which ought to be a dire warning that voters are fed up with empty promises in the face of decades of economic regression and the steady polarization of the SU economy into the haves and will-never-haves.

Does that seem familiar? It ought to. Back in 2016, minor variations on these same issues were identified as crucial factors with the voters who elected Donald Trump president. Ironic that the far-right and far-left ‘burn it all down’ crowds are reacting to the exact same sense of economic hopelessness and are fed up with the exact same political gamesmanship. You’d think, then, that poor West Virginia conservatives and poor New York progressives would bond over their shared frustration and unite.

Fun fact: this is why American political parties persistently make a huge deal out of controversial subjects like abortion rights, civil rights, and police brutality. Not because the politicians actually believe what they're saying, but because divisive inflammatory topics rouse strong emotions and spur conflict, thereby preventing voters from unifying over their shared economic woes.

Nope. Can’t be having that! That might result in securing meaningful progress towards the common good. Instead, rather than directly addressing the issues that swept both Trump and Ocasio-Cortez into office, her critics retrograded into cynical and deeply hypocritical ad hominem attacks: ‘Oh, she’s secretly wealthy so therefore she’s a fraud so let’s not talk about issues because the issues aren’t real and even if they are they don’t matter.’ It’s the same tried-and-true tactic that American propagandists trot out after every preventable mass shooting event: ‘now isn’t the time to talk about problems and solutions; let’s demonize anyone who demands that we address issues instead.’

Our system is exhausting. Demoralizing. Probably more fragile than cable news talking heads pretend. That’s why this year’s Thanksgiving week media coverage completely missed the point: sure, strong early Black Friday sales figures seemed to be a good economic indicator even as huge stock market losses seemed to be a really bad indicator. What’s important to remember, though, is that these stories don’t mean a damned thing to a terrified new graduate who can’t find decent employment: you can’t afford a highly-discounted TV or afford to invest in the stock market when you can’t pay your rent, so what’s the point?

For far too many new American graduates, just surviving their twenties seems like the only goal that matters … and the entire US social and economic systems seem to be stacked against them. Consider that might be why your Millennial colleagues worked last Friday rather than burn eight hours of Paid Time-Off to go shopping.


[1] The 14th district covers parts of the Bronx and Queens areas in New York City.

[2] Which is just bigot code words for ‘Jews.’ Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are running rampant in American politics right now.

[3] I have all of my old family budget workbooks archived so I went back and checked. I hit that target in January 2007.

Title Allusions: Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan (1998 film)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.