Now that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests have somewhat died down due to reports of “Man it’s freezing in Zuccotti Park”, we can take a moment to look back on the movement. One of the chief criticisms leveled at OWS by detractors was that its message was garbled, incoherent, and the type of socialism we hate except when it’s our Medicare. On the opposite side of the argument, there’s the opinion that maybe there is just so much wrong that it doesn’t easily distill itself down to a CNN bullet-point. It may take some reading between the lines, but here are the most salient points that emerged from the admittedly schizophrenic protests.
Too Much Money in Politics
If there was a specific piece of government action that was most derided (directly or indirectly) by OWS protestors, it was Citizens United v. FEC. For a bunch of highly-educated justices, the Citizens United decision was staggering in its boneheadedness. Long story short, the court ruled that corporations have the same free-speech rights as individuals, and basically turned on the biggest spigot of private money into politics in recent memory. Oh and it also expanded the definition of Corporate Personhood to absurd new heights.
Unsurprisingly, people weren’t too happy about the fact that no matter how much they canvassed, voted, donated to political campaigns or argued on the internet, they can never match the millions that private companies can muster. Bought politicians were unwanted before Citizens United, but afterwards it seemed blatant — like they weren’t even bothering to pretend anymore. Many OWS protestors took to the streets because they feel like we are now living in a country with two classes of people: those without money and those who matter to politicians. It’s so absurd because, as one anonymous commenter put it: “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when one is executed in Texas.”
Income Inequality is a Problem
In a capitalistic system, we’re willing to accept a certain amount of inequality. Ideally, those who work harder will be rewarded with higher salaries, and those who don’t are rewarded less. If you live in a city, you probably pass a number of panhandlers on your way to work, conscience at ease because that’s just the way the system works sometimes. And as far as things go, a little bit of income inequality is a good thing, and indicative of a healthy, functioning economy.
But that’s not the type of income inequality OWS is protesting. OWS is talking about the historically high levels that exist in America today, and the catastrophic consequences it can have on the economy, and society as a whole. To boil the evidence down to its simplest conclusions: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s easier to stay rich and get richer than it is to get out of poverty when you’re already poor, or even merely keep yourself from sliding deeper.
Combined with Citizens United and Mitt Romney’s 13.9% tax rate, the high levels on income inequality in America today just further the impression (if not the reality) that the rich are buying economically favorable conditions, and using them to get richer at the expense of everyone else. That 13.9% tax rate Romney’s paying means he effectively pays less in income taxes than someone making ~$44,000 a year—the median income for Americans.
There’s Plenty of Money for Banks, None for the Average American
Pretty much no one likes the bank bailout. Officially known as the Trouble Asset Relief Program, TARP has become the boogeyman of Republicans and Democrats alike, and saw no shortage of hatred during the OWS protests. The hard truth, however, is that the bailout was likely necessary to prevent a near-apocalyptic economic collapse.
But saying that one of the main points of OWS was a rejection of the bailouts ignores an important point: it’s not that the bailouts were abominable, it’s that they were unfair. Apparently, when hedge fund managers come to the government coffers asking for handouts, there is literally trillions of dollars available for them to borrow at rock-bottom rates. But when average Americans come to ask for affordable healthcare, unemployment extensions, or even disaster relief, the government comes to a grinding halt and threatens to commit economic suicide. The point here being that part of the rage of OWS wasn’t necessarily directed at big business, but more at a system that seems to have been designed with the average American near the bottom of the list of priorities.
We’re All in this Together
One of the most popular and striking images that came out of OWS was the concept of the 99%. The mantra arose out of the idea that the group benefiting most from the current economic regime were the top 1% of wage earners—at the expense of the rest of the country. And looking at the evidence, which shows stagnation in middle-class wages and sharp rises in the 1%, it’s hard to argue.
In an effort—conscious or otherwise—to be non-partisan, the 99% slogan was adopted to drive home the real point: Democrat or Republican, we are all suffering. OWS wasn’t about abortion, gay marriage, or even Reaganomics, it was about the disenfranchisement of vast swaths of the country and the concentration of money and power in the hands of an elite few. Though it was generally a liberal movement, they weren’t protesting a conservative government, they were protesting in fear of an emerging Plutocracy.
When the economy is in free fall, unemployment stands at record high rates, and two expensive foreign wars are being waged thousands of miles away, the solution is obviously not to just sit around and hope things sort themselves out. And in this period, the US government has valiantly stepped up to the plate and entered a phase of absolute deadlock and animosity not seen since the Civil War.
It may not sound like a radical statement to say the government should do something. But in an era where the most oft-quoted phrase during the recent Republican debates (besides “Let sick people die” and “Rape babies are a gift from heaven”) is “Keep the government out”, asking the government to step in and solve some problems is quite a radical solution.
Though to look at OWS, it seems more like a cry of desperation. We’ve tried deregulating the financial industry, handing over our wars to private contractors and trusting that the private industry will provide affordable healthcare. It hasn’t turned out too well. One of the clearest points of OWS is that something needs to be done, and the plan so far hasn’t succeeded.
We’re Talking About the Wrong Things
Not so much a direct point argued by OWS protestors, but inherent in the focus of their arguments is the idea that politicians are not talking about issues that actually matter at this point in time. As important as they are as individual issues, abortion, gay marriage, don’t ask don’t tell, drug testing for welfare recipients, torture, voter ID requirements, etc… are not going to give the millions of unemployed jobs, assistance, or healthcare.
When the government was in near shutdown because of budget difficulties last year, what was on the docket? Cutting off abortion funding. So it’s no wonder that people took to the street when so much of the country was unemployed, uninsured, and facing a mortgage that was under water while the people who were supposed to be addressing these issues were focused on carrying on a divisive culture war to drum up votes.
We Don’t Want Handouts, We Want Solutions
With all the talk about how difficult the economic reality has become for the average American, one would think that OWS is very much in favor of extensive programs to redistribute wealth. A more critical invective would say it’s lazy liberal arts majors that are looking for a government handout because they’re too lazy to find their own way in the vicious free market. But the truth is 85% of OWS protestors are employed, and a staggering 92% are college-educated.
For the most part, OWS protestors aren’t lazy, unemployed drifters with little to no work experience. They’re people that see their economic opportunities evaporate while their student loan debt piles up into the high five figures. They’ve worked hard both at school and at their jobs, but they’re faced with a system where a sudden health expense could bankrupt them, and they can’t expect a pension from their company or social security when they retire. Yet the overwhelming calls during OWS were not “bring back the ”Great Society””, it was “The system is unfair.” They weren’t asking for handouts, just the same fair shot given to the generations before them.
Class Warfare is Already Being Waged
One of the first critiques of OWS, and a critique often used against politicians in favor of a progressive tax scheme, is that they are engaging in ‘class warfare’. Some time well in the past, the phrase ‘class warfare’ had some meaning, and was dangerous in that rallying poor farmers to riot against the rich merchants was bad for the economy in general. These days it has basically become a magic phrase that keeps politicians away from capital gains and estate taxes.
Because of their calls for the rich to “pay their fair share”, OWS was frequently accused of engaging in class warfare. OWS’ response was, essentially “You only call it class warfare when we fight back”. When multi-billionaires pay less in taxes than the middle-class employees that work under them, and the economy has still failed to blossom with the renaissance of job-creation that these wealthy “job-creators” are supposed to spawn, it’s time to re-examine the system that led us to this point.
The point that OWS was making was not that we should engage in class warfare. They were saying class warfare is already taking place, except in exactly the opposite direction that is often inferred. The tax and debt burden has been slowly shifted from the rich unto the backs of the poor and middle-class in the form of lowered taxes for capital gains and decreased budgets and benefits for programs such as healthcare and education for those who need it most. If anything, they were saying class warfare needs to be stopped.
Economic Mobility is a Myth
There is nothing more fundamental to the spirit of American than the idea that this is the one country in the world where one can arrive with nothing, and build themselves up into a millionaire if they work hard enough. It’s the fundamental justification for keeping the government out of everything: people left to their own independence and elbow grease will accomplish more. Except, in recent years, socialist Europeans are doing it better than us.
The US has fallen behind many other developed countries in measure of socio-economic mobility, or basically how easy it is to get a bump in your income class. Part of this has to do with how outrageously expensive secondary education has become, some of it is simply the result of income inequality. In many ways, this is one of the most important points that OWS was trying to make. If economic mobility were still true in America, no one would be complaining about economic inequality (after all, if you can get rich too, why would you complain about those who are already there?). The influence of money in politics would be much less of an issue, since those who weren’t wealthy wouldn’t feel like the influence of the wealthy was limiting their economic opportunity.
The old conservative rejoinder to social welfare programs usually went “Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions—it only guarantees equality of opportunity”. OWS wasn’t a series of protests about inequality of conditions, they were protests by people who say the equality of opportunity slipping away.
Something Is Wrong
Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Socialist, Independent or Die-Hard-Partisan, pretty much everyone can agree that something is wrong. For years now, the percentage of Americans who think the country is heading in the right direction has rarely topped 30%. To put that in perspective, about as many Americans believe we’re heading in the right direction as people who quite seriously believe in supernatural beings from beyond the grave haunting houses.
Obviously “I’m not really happy about those things that some people did and how they turned out” isn’t a very persuasive argument. Speaking of economics in specific, to the average worker, especially in hard-hit blue collar areas, the economics that have affected their recently plummeting employability are quite complex. They’ve likely seen stubborn unions lead to layoffs and strikes as often as nefarious management. And to a certain extent, they likely understand that they simply cannot undercut the low prices of foreign manufacturers. But beyond that, there’s a whole host of problems—from the rising cost of secondary education to a lack of infrastructure investment—that are having profound effects on their community.
The point here is that OWS didn’t really need a tight, neatly wrapped list of bullet points. These people didn’t storm the streets just because they had nothing better to do, but because they’re frustrated, angry, and feel like their voice is not being heard in the corridors of power. While a clearer set of beliefs and goals might have made OWS more effective, in the end we elect politicians to (theoretically) improve and protect the general welfare. If their constituents are angry, it should be considered part of their job to figure out why, and address the problems — which hasn’t happened.