Thank You For Occupying
It’s been almost four months since the first Occupy Wall Street protests began and while to the involved/supporters the message has been loud and clear, to some there seems to be confusion over what exactly it is about. It may be your first inkling to blame the protesters themselves for not making their complaints explicit, but in some ways that might be the point as Matt Taibbi argues “People don’t know exactly what they want…but they know one thing: [They] want something different…It’s about dropping out, if only for a moment, and trying something new, the same way that the civil rights movement of the 1960s strived to create a “beloved community” free of racial segregation”
However, labeling the movement as a hodgepodge of random complaints isn’t fair either. There are serious complaints being made and thought-out solutions being offered. The purpose of this ‘article’ will try to outline some of those complaints and solutions, but before I do that, let me state one valid criticism of the protests.
The protests began in the U.S.A. with good reason. The problems being protested there are, if not solely applicable to the States, then at least a far greater concern then in many other countries in solidarity. As a Canadian, many of the problems faced down south are not applicable to us currently because of stronger regulations, especially between our corporate and legislative worlds. However, laws can change quickly, or worse, gradually – to the point that we don’t notice the changes as they are happening. It is important for citizens around the world to understand the issues being raised by OWS so that they can learn from it and hopefully prevent it. This post is meant as thank you to the occupiers for bringing to light and redirecting the national and international discourse, that many of us felt, but never acted on! Here are some of the main issues I’ve become more aware of because of these protests.
Money in Politics
94% of elections in the states go the politician who raises the most money, and being a politician in the states (and elsewhere) is good living, so there is huge incentive to stay there. While, the average senator or congressman makes a sizable but relatively appropriate income of 174,000, the ‘kickbacks’ of the corrupt system can be quite lucrative, for example being appointed a “strategist” for 1.8 million dollars, or going from a member of the security and exchange committee to work for Goldman-Sachs. The problems of this corruption is that on the other side, businesses are getting an excellent return on their investment, often getting regulations withdrawn, tax breaks, or government contracts. The issue that occupiers have with money in politics is not that they are against capitalism, but that they are for it! The system is rigged, with politicians regulating which businesses succeed and which flounder; and the ones that succeed are the ones that are already big enough to pay. This affects the environment (e.g. oil subsidies), social problems (e.g increased imprisonment; many prisons are privatized in the states), banking regulations (or lack there of), tax income, and arguably foreign diplomacy (e.g. weapons contractors perpetuating wars). As the occupiers have made clear, this has made the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, a problem known as income inequality.
In an amazing Ted Talk Richard Wilkinson explains how economic inequality harms society. I strongly suggest you watch that talk. Coles Notes: Through excellent data, Dr. Wilkinson demonstrates that health, life expectancy, literacy, homicide, mental illness and crime are all negatively correlated with economic inequality, in which the U.S. is the worst. Economic prosperity (e.g. GDP/GNP) has no affect. One of the best lines of the talk (Spoiler*) is he shows that social mobility – the ability for an individual in one class to move up is also predicted by social inequality, leaving Dr. Wilkinson to conclude “if you want the American dream, you should move to Denmark.” The harsh truth then, is that while capitalism may provide an excellent tool for competition and creativity, too few rules and the game becomes rigged. I heard an interesting analogy, where markets were compared to football. Too many rules and the game is bogged down, boring, low scoring, uninventive, too few rules and the game would be chaos, and some might get killed, (indeed that used to be the case).
Democracy? Don’t Blame me, I voted for Kodos!
Back when the Simpsons really pushed the envelope, they took an excellent jab at American politics. In one Halloween special, two aliens (Kodos and Kang) take over the body of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole (the two nominees at the time). Homer figures this out and when he finally exposes Kodos and Kang, they comment: “It’s true, we are aliens, but what are you going to do about it? It’s a two party system. You’ll have to vote for one of us!”. Another person stands up and says: “I believe I’ll vote for a third party candidate!”, at which point Kodos mockingly replies “Go ahead, throw your vote away!” , and then Ross Perot (the then third candidate) is shown ripping his own “Perot 96” hat.
The point of that lovely anecdote is that money in politics goes to both parties. There isn’t one corrupt and one non-corrupt party. Obama, who ran on change, has continued the war in Afghanistan, stayed in Iraq until they kicked him out, kept the Bush tax cuts, and failed to set regulations on the bank. In fact, in may cases it’s gotten worse (the recent NDAA for example), although in some cases it’s gotten better (DADT revoked, etc.). Of course, it is not a one man show, but the change that so many voted for, has been lackluster, at best.
Getting rid of what I feel to be the biggest cause of the problems in the U.S. is easy: Eliminate money in politics. Most countries use tax money to pay for their elections and whereas Canada allows for financial endorsements, they are relatively modest. Money in politics has become an even greater problem, since the Supreme court’s decision or corporate personhood in the citizens united case. Getting rid of the huge inequality will be a little harder.
Those of us around the world, can witness, record, and analyze how the U.S. went down this path; but for us in Canada, some of those first steps have been taken. It is much easier to stop yourself from falling, then climbing all the way back up. I hope we can learn the lessons that the occupy movement has taught us, and not make the same mistakes too.