5 Reasons Why Occupy Wall Street Won’t Change Anything in Big Business

 

The past three years have been, to put it mildly, a little depressing for Americans.  We’ve seen an economic collapse unmatched in generations shred our finances and job opportunities.  We’ve watched as unemployment ticked slowly higher and our wages stagnated.  We looked to Washington for some sort of solution, and they responded by bickering like children, starting fights about things that don’t create jobs, and some of them were even bald-facedly making a shit ton of money off our misery.   

And then for a brief moment in Zuccotti Park, it seemed like Americans were finally fed up with the bum deal they’d been getting from big businesses and Washington, and decided to do something about it.  The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests spread across the country, and then across the world, as people filled the streets to protest the unholy marriage of big business and government; a system that gave billions in bailouts, then ground to a halt when someone proposed something as preposterous as better benefits for the average American.  The protests have persisted for months, even through repeated clashes with police.  It seems now that OWS isn’t just a flash in the populism pan, but may actually be a genuine movement out to represent the interests of the common man, after all, how can you stop the will of 99% of the country?  With ease and a lot of money, is the unfortunate answer. 
 

Money Still Talks Louder Than Anything Else

 

 

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One of the biggest and most salient points coming out of the somewhat muddled ideology of the OWS protestors is that big business has far too great an influence on government.  This leads to policies that benefit the biggest campaign contributors, since its their money, not their constituents votes, that ultimately guarantees re-election.  It’s a difficult argument to refute, especially after you see the massive amounts of money companies put into their lobbying activities, and the subsequent benefits they see in legislation. OWS protestors have even proposed a constitutional amendment to allow only public funding for political campaigns.   

Why it won’t have any effect: 
Because money always finds a way into politics.  Sometimes, money isn’t even needed, only the promise of future wealth.  The disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s favorite tactic was to simply dangle the possibility of a lucrative private sector job and doors across Washington would open for him.  Not a cent needed to go to a campaign to get what his clients wanted (or we’re talking about Abramoff here so whatever lined Jack Abramoff’s pockets).   

So say we go scorched-earth and ban anything resembling any sort of lobbying activity (presuming this would be possible).  Well it turns out money doesn’t even need politicians to get what they want.  A good example is the recent row over taxes on sugary drinks to fight obesity.  The industry that makes their bread and butter off of these drinks went directly to the public with PR campaign blasting the tax.  Even the loathed Citizens United v. FEC decision that’s predicted to open gigantic floodgates of private money onto Washington, was argued over a documentary that ostensibly just presented the facts about Hilary Clinton (the film’s claim to impartiality was dismissed by the court).  As terrible as Citizens was for the flow of private money into Washington, the dicey problem it raises is how do you determine if something is fact-based or politically motivated to influence an election?  Could a documentary about poverty in America that rightly criticizes Republican policies be considered politically motivated if it’s aired the week before an election?  The point is, something needs to be done, for sure, but even if OWS does manage to get a legitimate mouthpiece in Congress, the money will always find a way to get what it wants.  It may be possible to fix, but it’s an steepest, most treacherous and ancient edifice to surmount on the way to better politics. 

The Average American Doesn’t Have a Lobbyist

 

 

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The second giant, systemic hurdle OWS would need to overcome in order to significantly affect big business, is the fact that business will always have vast, lucrative interests they’re willing to spend gobs of money on.  The average American has vast, sweeping interests that involve what is on TV tonight.  There is no counterpart to the interest of business that is fighting to preserve worker rights, income growth, and greater benefits.  (If your response here was “our Representatives are the counterpart and we pay them in votes”, you are so adorable).  Wait that sounds familiar, could we be talking about these Unions I hear Republicans say are the root of all our economic ills even though neither myself or anyone I know has ever been remotely involved with them? 

Why it won’t have any effect: 
Unions are dead.  The latest figure stands at 11.9%, of American workers, the lowest in 70 years.  And this isn’t just some nefarious plot by big business to rob Americans of their protections (though they try their damnedest), the truth is many Americans are voluntarily abandoning Unions — especially in government.  It’s a classic example of a Public Good that everyone enjoys the benefit of — in this case worker protections, higher wages, shorter work weeks etc…– that no one is willing to pay for.  Like a superhero that is now irrelevant because he threw all the criminals in jail, Unions struggle to get the average American to understand their importance in a world where working conditions are halfway decent.  Problem is, all the criminals escaped from Arkham in 2008. 

Fixing Income Inequalities and Balancing the Budget Will be Messy, Messy Fights

 

 

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Another big criticism heard from the OWS camps is that the highest earners control a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth in the US, and the influence that brings with it.  They then are able to use this influence to make even more money.  The gripe here isn’t that rich people have money, a certain amount of inequality is to be expected and even lauded in any well-working capitalistic system.  The point is that with the cost of college ballooning, and government programs designed to help the poor evaporating, the meritocratic system underlying capitalism is disintegrating.  On top of that, the government has a massive debt burden that would preclude any large-scale plans to even the playing field. 

Why it won’t have any effect: 
Because helping the 99% get better access to education, healthcare, unemployment insurance and other programs that have proven economic net benefits requires money.  And that means a fight over a budget that needs to first be balanced.  And that means a shit hurricane with shit hawks dropping shit bombs over Washington.  No less than Warren Buffett has warned as such.  Just to get the budget back to sustainable numbers involves cuts to medicare, medicaid, the military, and, yes, tax increases.  This means that any money going into, say, more Pell grants to help with college expenses is going to come from a very limited pool of funds that everyone in America will be fighting tooth and nail for a piece of.  When even something as obvious and simple as more funds for disaster relief following God’s personal vendetta against the east coast this year nearly causes a government shut down, OWS certainly has its work cut out for it.   

The response to this is usually something along the lines of “make the wealthy pay their fair share”.  While it’s true that wealth individuals, and big businesses especially, pay very low taxes compared to history and the rest of the world, it’s not going to cover the gap, and if it gets too high they’ll just find ways around it

No One Understands the Budget

 

 

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On paper, balancing the budget is actually really easy.  Seriously, take a whack at it using this New York Times calculator and in a few minutes you can probably come up with a plan that balances moderate tax increases with cuts that don’t absolutely gut social programs or the military.  It seems pretty reasonable looking at these numbers that some of the more modest fixes to education and social programs demanded by OWS can be achieved with relative ease. 

Why it won’t have any effect: 
No one understands the budget.  The average American thinks that foreign aid ranks above medicare spending when in fact it constitutes less than a percentage point.  The same is true of NASA, which commands a whopping 0.5% of the budget, while Americans believe it’s as high as 20%.  Ask a Republican presidential candidate how they will bring the budget into line, and they’ll start by attacking the National Endowment for the Arts, which has a budget of $154 million, or 0.004% of the total budget.  That’s about the cost of a single F-22 Raptor a year, of which the air force has 173, after spending $66 billion to develop them—roughly enough money to fund the endowment for the next 400 years.  

Obviously, we’re dealing with some pretty screwy numbers here.  But what does it have to do with big business?  Simple, because no one understands how much money we do or do not have to spend, whoever shouts the loudest that “This will hurt/help economic growth and hurt/help our industry” will be the most right since apparently the majority of Americans have no ability to judge the difference.  There is some hope, however.  A 2005 study that showed respondents the composition of the Bush budget plan found that they were quite reasonable and proficient in coming up with a balanced budget. 

They Aren’t the Tea Party (And That’s a Bad Thing)

 

 

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In light of all these huge systemic obstacles to OWS changing the dynamic between money and politics in America, we can take heart in the idea that at least a discussion is being started.  Hopefully politicians will see angry, disenfranchised Americans in the streets and begin to think that maybe these people will in fact vote against them in the next election.  Or, you know, vote at all.  At the very least, OWS is shifting the conversation away from the Tea Party’s cut everything rhetoric to a let’s examine how to make life better for the 99% rhetoric.  That has to be a good thing right? 

Why it won’t have any effect: 
In order to enact the large-scale regulatory, tax code, campaign finance, etc… rules that would have an effect on big businesses’, OWS still needs asses in congressional seats that share their views.  The Tea Party shifted very quickly from (cough) grass roots (cough) to a well-funded, well-organized group backed by powerful interests.  They went straight for the ideological foundries of America’s political parties: the primaries.  In this way, they controlled conversation surrounding the 2010 elections from day one, and made sure that their views weren’t lost in the swarm of other powerful interests in a party’s base that influence primaries.  Rallying in the streets has and will continue to alter the political conversation, but OWS is going up against powerful and well-entrenched corporate interests.  Unless OWS is committed to winning elections, no policy will result, and things will only change in small ways very slowly.  Or not at all but we’ll be told that the problem has been addressed so we can all stop worrying and go back to wondering what’s on TV tonight.

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  1. GreenMan's Gravatar Comment by GreenMan on November 18th, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Unfortunately, you are probably correct in your analysis of the situation. However, when young people took to the streets to protest the Draft & the Vietnam War, it did inspire ever greater numbers of people to take individual & collective action. Burn draft cards, file as a conscientious objector, go underground or to Canada for a few years, but, in many cases, don’t participate and encourage others to not participate. Slowly, inexorably, the will to war, the supply of soldiers, the support of society and the funding all began to dry up and the senseless carnage & waste came to an end. OWS is inspiring many to read about what happened to our economy, to view Wall Street as a rigged casino, to withdraw their money from the big banks, and to consider their potential impact on corporate America when they re-direct their consumer spending habits to support the socially responsible companies that actually care about their employees, their environment and their communities. If OWS can teach people to vote with their consumer spending, then corporate political lobbying won’t have the one-sided power that it presently enjoys.

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