Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Support Occupy Wall Street

I took these photos at Occupy Wall Street a few weeks ago.  As I've tried to articulate why I support OWS, my slow brain hasn't been able to keep pace with the changes in events.  Like a lot of people (see Paul Krugman, for example) I wonder if Bloomberg's heavy-handed raid may have been a blessing in disguise, keeping the occupation from fading away as winter approached, and galvanizing many of us to greater enthusiasm for the movement.  Counter to my usual thinking, I believe the lack of specific demands was a strength of the occupation, but wonder if now we've reached the next stage in the process, and will begin working on particular goals.  
It probably doesn't surprise anyone who knows me that I support OWS, and the vast majority of my friends and family probably agree with me.  But I know some of my friends don't agree, and are rather disgusted with me for my support.  It's you I hope to reach with this post.  Let me explain my view of things. 
Study after study has revealed stark economic discrepancies in our country now.  The richest 1 percent of the population holds more net worth than the entire lower 90 percent.  The richest 400 people in this country have more money than the poorest 150 million.  These claims don't seem to be in dispute.  Everyone appears to agree they're accurate.  Where we disagree is how we explain this discrepancy.  Friends of mine truly believe most of those wealthy folks got that way from sheer hard work and sacrifice.  They earned their fortunes, every penny of it, fair and square.       
 I simply can't agree.  And I believe events in the last few years back me up.  We now know hedge fund investors and mortgage lenders made fortunes on bundled investments they knew were bad, often earning money by betting they would fail.  Multinational corporations ran the economy off a cliff through incompetence and greed.  Thanks to years of deregulation their actions may not, in fact, have broken any laws, but a child could see that those actions were irresponsible and unethical.  Bailouts were granted by the government in an attempt to save the economy, specifically the millions of workers who were in danger of losing jobs, homes, and pensions.  A lot has been made about the fact that most of those (interest-free) loans have been paid back.  Many of those companies have gone on to have record-breaking profits.  The fact that thousands of their workers still got laid off, or lost their pensions, that's where I get stuck.  Even CEOs who were forced to resign  nonetheless often still walked away with generous retirement packages even as their company workforce was gutted.  I can't see that, and not see blatant economic injustice. It seems undeniable to me that people got rich unethically if not illegally, have not been held responsible for their actions, have in many cases been allowed to keep their ill-gotten wealth, and, to add insult to injury, are now working hard to shift the blame to unions (especially government employee unions, like teachers, fire fighters and police officers) and the working poor.  
 What is being exposed now is what many of us had suspected all along, that a tiny minority of wealthy people have manage to buy our government, and insure the laws and policies enacted protected them to the detriment of the larger society.  It became increasingly clear that there was one set of laws (tax and criminal) for the 1 percent, a different set for the rest of us.  That tiny minority managed to put its finger on the scale, allowing it to amass and protect great wealth, while the income of the majority froze, shrank, at best rose more modestly.        
 A specific example getting lots of play right now is Wal-mart.  When you have a CEO worth billions running a business where the vast majority of the workers  are earning so little that they're eligible for food stamps, then I think you have a business model that is broken.  The people who helped build that fortune (here and abroad) are not benefiting from their labor adequately.  No, I don't think everyone should earn the same flat wage, but it's ludicrous to think the rich guy at the top did it all by himself.
Are there people out there looking for a handout, wanting to get something for nothing?  Oh, I suppose such people exist.  And if they can be bothered to do anything, I guess some of them might be willing to camp out in a city park for weeks at a time.  But the idea that they're running this movement, and are in danger of taking over the country is laughable.  The shiftless layabout is merely the most frightening bogeyman detractors claim dominates the occupation.  Whenever a movement is as big and sprawling as this is, many of us feel the need to say "I support the movement BUT I'm not a..." trust-fund kid, dirty hippy, lazy whiner, anti-American, terrorist lover, druggie bongo player, etc. etc.  If you're determined to find such people at the rallies and actions, you'll probably be in luck.  (Hell, I've been accused all those things at some point.)   

  For what it's worth, when I was at Liberty Park I always saw plenty of people representing unions, medical associations, religious groups and various other groups.  If you wanted to find the guy dressed as a viking, spouting nonsense, you could.  If you wanted to talk to a nurse about the health care industry, you could find her too.  
A popular movement will always have a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.  Democracy is a messy, inefficient, infuriating endeavor.  It just is.  Much to my surprise and delight, this ragtag, sprawling mess of a movement has managed to keep our attention on important questions far longer than I would have ever imagined.  Kardashian marriages and Republican front-runners have come and gone and our media, normally blessed with the attention span of a fruit-fly, has been forced to keep coming back to this story, these issues.  Maybe they come back still wanting to know what do these people want, maybe Fox News comes back looking for ways to be outraged, but they keep coming back.   

As I said, I think we may be moving into the next phase, when actions become more focused, demands more clear.  When that happens, it will inevitably cause strife inside and outside the movement.  Some ideologies that have managed to share space will find it impossible not to clash in the future. I would happily throw my support behind a major overhaul of the medical industry, for example, transforming it from one where pharmaceutical and health insurance profits are protected to one where people actually receive adequate healthcare; on the other hand I will not be signing any petitions demanding an end to private property. If we can keep the energy and momentum this movement has set off, however, I think we could be on the cusp of real reform in this country.   


Jess said...

The nastiness of political discourse has really made for a terrible response to the honest concerns of so many. A couple of weeks ago, I ran into someone I knew from my government days. We got into a political discussion, and then talked about tax rates. When we got to a talk about Warren Buffett's observations, he went into the neocon smartass response of saying Buffett should mail in a check if he feels the rates are wrong.

If that "let them eat cake" attitude keeps going, progress will take time and be very messy. With that said, perhaps that's what it will take.

I could go on and on about why I think the OWS movement, although a bit of a rudderless ship, is raising some important issues. Those people who think they're "self-made" need to get some perspective and humility. Our taxes paid for the environment that let them succeed. And that's the ones who truly did it by the sweat of their brow.

If someone invented a new product that changed life for so many (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc.), then they deserve their riches. If someone invented a new cardiac device to help prolong lives, good for them. Spend that money however you like. But people who found new ways to move money around? Ways that didn't build capital and grow the economy in the traditional intent of the markets but, rather, played games and made themselves rich? It's a shame if their actions aren't literally felonies, because from an ethical point of view, they should be in prison for a very, very long time! They've hurt millions, and they still feel they deserve their riches! Repulsive!

And how about the regular, hard-working people who just want to have a decent standard of living? How about people who played by the rules, paid their bills, did their jobs, and now they're facing economic disaster? How about the concern for a country where being middle class isn't a safe way of life anymore? How about the safety nets for those people? The rich shouldn't help with those programs, even though the sweat of those middle-class brows let them get rich? In what world is that fair?

Patrick said...

Yes, the people who are facing retirement soon, having to accept the fact that their bosses managed to mishandle and squander the pensions they'd worked for all their lives... that inspires a special rage in me. The ones who just don't see how the larger society made their success possible, they irritate me no end as well, but the people who betrayed their employees, and are now leaving them to fend for themselves... whoo boy. I almost wish I believed in hell, just so there could be a special place in it for them.

Kimages said...

Patrick, I too support OWS in spirit, as there is so much to be angry about. You make very good points regarding employees climbing to success of the backs of employees, only to turn and stab them in that same back.

But I wonder if this movement went to Washington, rather than staying smaller and local, and if it had a well-spoken, charismatic 'leader' with a specific agenda, if it wouldn't be more effective. Is 'getting a discussion going' enough at this point to make real change? I kind of think no. I hope the shape of the movement changes soon or I fear it will fade.

Patrick said...


I do say a couple of times that I think the movement is on the cusp of a transition, and I think it will lead to specific demands, maybe even a leader or spokesperson. I still think that if all this movement did was get a discussion going, it has done more than anything else on these particular issues, but no, I don't think it's enough. I just think it's an excellent start. If a leader is out there, I'd be thrilled if he or she stepped forward? Do you have any candidates? I don't, really. I love Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but I think they are each unlikely to take up this mantle (at least not any more than they have already) for different reasons. The thing about a specific leader and a specific agenda is (as I mention) that will inevitably bring out ideological clashes within the movement. I don't see a way to avoid it, but it will change the tenor of the movement. People espousing some viewpoints will feel they have been 'betrayed by the movement' if the hypothetical leader fails to support it, or support it in ways they approve of. The anarchists and ant-capitalists are almost certain to feel we don't go far enough, for example. A leader, no matter how charismatic, will simply not be all things for all people because he or she will have human flaws, and be forced to make compromises. So, does that mean the movement is doomed? Not necessarily. Had you asked me before OWS if I thought such an unfocused (or as Jess says, 'rudderless') approach would work, I would have said no unequivocally. But what I now see is a)there ARE viewpoints, and demands being voiced and b) this movement has reinvigorated a spirit of direct democracy like we haven't seen in decades. I think a wide-spread sense of despair has been punctured; an apathy that believed we couldn't make real change has been challenged. Rather than wait for a charismatic leader, we are taking action ourselves. Yes, they're mostly just symbolic at this point, but I think that has been necessary.
I've also been rereading Dr. King's memoir of the Civil Rights movement, and being reminded that many of the things said about OWS were said about him and and that movement too. His actions were seen as too radical by some supposed supporters, not radical/strong enough by lots of others, and an attack on American values/capitalism/patriotism/Western civilization by more than we might like to believe. Seeing what he accomplished, it's easy to forget that it wasn't just racists he was up against. Upsetting the status quo scares people.
You might be reassured that the OWS IS in DC and throughout the country. I wouldn't characterize what we have now as 'small and local.' One of the things that excites me the most as how it has been not just national, but global.