Becoming an Occupier

This afternoon, Gaby and the boys and I participated in a protest of support for the protests on Wall Street that have been taking place during the past few weeks.
Here we are with this “unruly” group of protesters. Notice the age variation in just this picture, taken at random by my wife.
We’ve decided that we want to at least be able tell the boys 20 years from now that we didn’t just lay down as the economy began to skew more and more toward the rich and as larger and larger swaths of the middle class began to fall into poverty. Similarly, as the corporations gain more and more power by making heavy contributions to BOTH parties (Republicans AND Democrats) we want to be able to say that we at least tried to join others who were raising their voices in dissent. We don’t want the EPA to get weaker and weaker every year as the oil industry and Big Coal writes and re-writes regulation so that it doesn’t get “in the way” of business. So we walked with about 700 Vermonters of all ages today in solidarity with the folks participating in the “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City. Truth is, when I first read about the protests a couple of weeks ago I snickered because I saw that they really didn’t have a clear sense of what they were asking for. They knew what they were protesting but not necessarily what they were proposing. Could this really be worth any one’s time? Or was it just clowning around for the cameras? But as the days wore on, as the protests continued and grew, and as I continued/continue to teach about the recent crisis of global capitalism, I started to “get it.” The point is not that the protesters will suddenly figure out and propose some magic solution to the massive economic inequality that has been growing for about 40 years now, by simply “occupying” Wall Street (as though anyone would allow it). The point is rather to raise a cry of dissent for the way in which our government has allowed the economy to shift priorities in recent years. Rather than finding ways to innovate and excel at making things our nation has become the global leader for marketing financial products, that is, selling investments and real estate, no matter how stupid they are. That emphasis on selling no matter what led to a temporary crisis that exposed a longer term crisis waiting to happen. The shift in economic priorities has made a few people very, very rich. And the huge bonuses doled out to executives of banks that were bailed out with tax dollars was just icing on the cake, and revealed how powerless the rest of the country really remains in such matters.* Meanwhile, as companies have grown larger (already as of 2000, 50 of the top 100 economies were corporations, while only 49 were countries) the Fortune 500 have become more and more focused on making short-term profits for their stock-holders, and that means any regulation is bad regulation, even if it means endangering the long-term viability of a business or a people.
So I think we’ve got to do something. And, like any peaceful protest, this one is largely symbolic and will, if it is successful, be mostly effective simply at helping people stop and take account of what’s going on, much like the civil rights protests of the 1960s helped millions of people in the North stop and think about the fact that many blacks had to take seats at the back of the bus. Since I’m first and foremost an educator, let me humbly report a few of facts as well as suggest a few resources for anyone who’s skeptical–as I think everyone should be at first.
1. According to the U.S. Census, more than one in five children (21%) in the U.S. lives below the poverty line. That means that if they live in a family of four, the household’s bringing in less than $22,350/year. I try to imagine what living in that kind of poverty would be like. It’s scary. http://www.census.gov/hhes/povmeas/methodology/supplemental/research/tabspm2009revised.pdf
2. Tax rates for the top .01% of the earners in the U.S. have fallen considerably since the 1960s. For everyone else, the effective tax rate has gone up and down a little but most are about where they were back then. In other words, the people making lots and lots of money have managed to do so while paying less and less in taxes.
3. Although there are many ways to measure income inequality (that is, the gaps between the have’s and the have-not’s) many people are surprised to find out that our country is way down in the middle of the pack compared with the rest of the world when using the most standard index of inequality (the Gini coefficient). We are right around there with Russia, China, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Europe, Australia, and Canada are all way more equal than we are. There’s an interesting graphic right here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/multimedia/gini/ .
4. Our so-called “War on Terror” is bleeding us dry even while it makes oodles of money for weapons manufacturers and oil companies. An exhaustive study published last month by Brown University put the financial costs to our nation of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at $2.3 trillion so far. That was their “conservative estimate.” (Keep in mind that the entire U.S. debt accumulated over the years is only $15 trillion.) The “moderate estimate” was considerably higher. And of course, there really isn’t an end in sight, at least for the costs. You can see a very sobering interactive graphic that breaks down those costs here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/cost-graphic.html and shows how much more will be spent–another trillion–before it’s all over. But of course, war is profitable for some, not just the Fortune 500 companies that manufacture weapons, but also because war increases demand for oil.** Remember that Exxon Mobil was the most profitable country in the world last year, making over $30 billion according to Money magazine. Chevron made $19 billion and Wal-Mart looked rather weak in comparison, with only $16 billion in profits.
There must be consequences for political leaders who allow this to happen and we must put regulators in place to make sure that financial speculators don’t cost the nation trillions ever again. I’m joining the protests (and will probably do so again) not because I think it’s going to “solve” the issue easily, but because I think it’s important to get people thinking and talking about the growing inequality in this country. If that is the sole outcome, the protests will be a success and I will be able to at least feel as though I didn’t simply sit back and try to make sure that my retirement was taken care of.
Okay, enough preaching. Have a great week.
Bob
*I am not arguing that we should have “allowed the big banks to fail” but rather that we have developed a system in which a handful of enormous banks were allowed to become “too big to fail” in the first place.
**Gaby recently told me of an interesting comparison referring to the environmental costliness of war. It’s reported that a single U.S. tank in three hours consumes more than all of the fuel savings made by driving a Prius instead of a non-hybrid for a whole year. In other words, if we’re concerned about the impact of burning oil on the environment, it’d be way more helpful to stop driving tanks in the desert than to switch to driving Priuses in the suburbs.
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