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Occupy Ourselves!

October 26th, 2011 . by economistmom

occupy-wall-street-20-oct-2011-cropped-proto-custom_28

(photo from Talking Points Memo)

So what is this Occupy Fill-in-the-Blank movement all about?   I’ve been hearing the words “openness,” “honesty,” “engagement,” “dialogue,” “listening,” “attention,” and “responsibility” a lot.  Funny that these are words one often hears in relationship counseling or personal therapy sessions.  And that’s no coincidence.  Like the situations when we are having troubles in our relationships–our interactions with others–often we learn that the first place we have to look is within ourselves.  What’s our own role in this mess of a relationship?  We may want to pull our hair out over the bad behavior of others and blame them for our troubles, but usually at least part of the blame lies within ourselves, in our own part of the interaction and how we did or did not react to what the “other” did or did not do.

And that’s why I started thinking that the Occupy Fill-in-the-Blank movement should start with “Occupy Ourselves.”  I wrote about it this way in my latest column in the Christian Science Monitor (the online version now available here):

What started as the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration has turned into an “Occupy fill-in-the-blank” movement – with the blank being anything we blame for our own economic troubles.

The main target seems to be the vaguely defined “1 percent” – that tiny minority of the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations, the only ones those with economic and political power seem to serve. So the Occupy movement targets the big banks – the culprits that got us into the financial crisis. Or the millionaires, because income inequality is at an all-time high. Or Congress, the lobbyists, and others in power who have failed to do good. All of them – it’s their fault.

It’s not that the outrage isn’t justified. Policymakers catering to the oil and gas industry, to Wall Street, and to the rich and powerful deserve part of the blame. So do banks, ratings agencies, regulators, and others who set the stage for the financial crisis that triggered the recent ballooning of America’s debt. And as the wealthy have gotten wealthier, policymakers have chosen to only reduce their tax burdens.

Meanwhile, policymakers seem to care much less about the poor. The share of Americans living in poverty has steadily increased over the past decade to more than 15 percent – the highest percentage since 1993 and approaching where it was when LBJ launched the nation’s “war on poverty.” How is that fair?

But we also have to recognize that our economic problems began long before the financial crisis and that the boundary between the wealthy 1 percent and the 99 percent that the protesters claim to represent isn’t so crisp. Those big subsidies to the oil and banking industries also benefit the rest of Americans through lower gasoline prices and cheaper credit. And the majority of American voters went along with politicians who proposed very expensive deficit-financed tax cuts and deficit-financed prescription drug coverage, even though our young people – the very core of the Occupy movement – are the ones who will be stuck with the bill.

We all had a role in this, not just that 1 percent.

If there is a “change we believe in,” we can’t just complain about the status quo. We have to spell out the better life we want and the trade-offs we’re willing to make to get there.

These are difficult trade-offs we each need to contemplate. Doing better for the other 99 percent of us requires real money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Are we willing to steer more federal funds to the most effective forms of spending in terms of both short-term stimulus and longer-term economic growth – policies that would also benefit Americans more broadly – and away from the less effective, less beneficial forms?

Would we be willing to receive less generous benefits from Social Security or Medicare or have our tax deductions reduced? Would we be willing to let go of our portion of the Bush tax cuts rather than insist that only millionaires and billionaires need to sacrifice theirs? And most important, if we want our “occupying” to catalyze real change, would we be willing to speak up loud and clear about our willingness to make these specific trade-offs to our policymakers?

In the end, it’s easy to occupy Wall Street and protest what’s wrong. Far harder is to occupy ourselves with the tough choices that could move America away from its crisis path and toward surer footing as the world’s leading economy.

That’s the protest message we need to hear.

Some of the same idea comes through in this interview I gave to Talking Points Memo’s Kyle Leighton, in a column titled “Bipolar Inequality” (a phrase I accidentally coined while sitting in the Milwaukee airport on the phone with Kyle; apparently sleep deprivation sometimes inspires my creativity):

Diane Lim Rogers, Chief Economist at the fiscally hawkish Concord Coalition, made similar points about the more reckless economic policies of the past decade: Much of the distaste with both Washington and Wall Street comes back to fact that DC is simply unwilling to change course.

“The difference is that during the Clinton years the rising tide was lifting all boats,” Lim Rogers said in an interview with TPM. “Low-income households were still doing better. Even then, the rich did really well, despite their taxes being raised.”

But what’s different now is that income inequality isn’t a political tenet of the left: it’s truly hurting people. Lim Rogers said the poverty rate is actually of more concern than the rich doing better given the circumstances.

“The outrage is not that the rich are richer,” she said. “It’s that the poor have gotten poorer — the inequality has become bipolar.”

Which could help explain why when OWS [Occupy Wall Street] provided the spark, many Americans didn’t discount the movement as disaffected liberals who have no real point: it’s a real issue borne out by the numbers…

While Gallup showed that only 22 percent of Americans considered themselves supporters of OWS, other polls have shown larger amounts of support. Because, as Lim Rogers points out, the movement has centered on a more inclusionary focus.

“As the definition of the rich keeps shrinking, the movement feels like it gets more spirited,” she said. “OWS is getting the support of most americans, because how can you disagree with the fact the top 1 percent has done well, but that poverty is increasing. I’m not surprised that OWS is doing well, and I think it’s justified. What Americans may not have a grasp of is that we are all part of the problem, because we continue to support politicians that support these policies.”

My point is that even those of us who are not in the top 1 percent of the income distribution may actually benefit from and at least implicitly support the policies that are perceived as “those policies that cater to the top 1 percent.”  And the policies that we think are letting down just the bottom 99 percent are actually letting down all 100 percent of us.  It’s not ever going to be as easy as neatly sorting out the blame vs. the burden into the 1 vs. 99 percent.  We’ll have to sort it out within each of ourselves first.

(Like those “protesters” in the photo above appear to be doing, actually.  Just Say “Om.”)

9 Responses to “Occupy Ourselves!”

  1. comment number 1 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    Most of the OWS types need something to occupy what’s between their ears, such as this guy:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/26/michael-moore-piers-morgan_n_1032428.html

    Who thinks he’s not rich because his heart is pure:

    ‘”I need you to admit the bleeding obvious,” Morgan said. “I need you to sit here and say, I’m in the 1 percent, because it’s important.” Moore refused, saying, “I’m not.” He said that the real point was that, even though he is wealthy, “I am devoting my life to those who have less and who have been crapped upon by the system. And that’s how I spend my time, my energy, my money on trying to up-end this system that I think is a system of violence, it’s a system that’s unfair to the average working person of this country.”‘

    Here’s an estimate of Moore’s net worth:

    http://www.celebritynetworth.com/richest-celebrities/directors/michael-moore-net-worth/

    ‘Fahrenheit 911 raked in $230 million in theaters and another $3 million in DVD sales. After the theaters take their traditional 50% cut, that leaves roughly $130 million. Take away marketing, production and distribution expenses and Moore is conservatively left with $80 million. Moore was able to secure a deal from Miramax which guaranteed him 27% of his film’s net revenues, or roughly $21.6 million. Michael also was entitled to 50% of the profits of Sicko which are estimated to be $17 million.

    ‘Moore is the author of several best selling books and received a $1 million advance for “Dude Where’s My Country” plus a generous percentage of the book sale’

  2. comment number 2 by: AMTbuff

    This just in: the rich are getting poorer at a rate that has stunned inequality-phobes into complete silence. See http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2011/10/rich-getting-poorer.html

  3. comment number 3 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    Yes, AMTbuff, how else to explain the fact that revenues as a pct. of GDP dropped so drastically (3 to 4% of GDP) than that the incomes of those who pay the bulk of the taxes dropped?

  4. comment number 4 by: Arne

    People who depend on profits have always had higher variabillity in incomes.

    Revenue from capital gains varies (over the last 30 years) from 5 percent to 15 percent of total income tax. The only time we had a surplus was when it was at the peak. We should have been running large supluses under the Clinton stock bubble and moderate surpluses during the Bush housing bubble. Then we would be a in better position to make the counter-cyclical spending that would help the Obama bust.

  5. comment number 5 by: aletheia33

    i can’t believe the level of argument displayed here. it’s pathetic. i won’t bother to break it down, but i do wonder–what are your credentials as an “economist”?
    you don’t seem to have mastered basic critical thinking skills.

  6. comment number 6 by: Gipper

    I suspect that if you took a 5-yr. moving average of people’s income, you’d find far less inequality. Also, if you adjusted for age, you’d reduce the inequality even further.

    As baby boom cohort moves through the population, you’d expect, ceteris paribus, to see greater inequality because the percentage of persons over age 50, the age where wealth and earning peak, is increasing. These are statistics 101 insights that would have been nice for Economistmom to explore like, well, an economist.

    But at bottom, these complaints are envy, pure and simple. The US isn’t some poor ex-colonial outpost where a few landowners literally control the fate of an underclass. People have the ability to move up the income scales. Nobody has extracted and exploited a toiling mass of proletariat to line their pockets.

    These protesters need an attitude adjustment and a severe scolding to mind their own damn business instead of sulking about other people’s fortunes. These are a bunch of greedy and envious ne’r do wells. They can go to hell.

    Letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire (Economistmom’s number 1 panacea) isn’t going to make OWS any happier.

  7. comment number 7 by: B Davis

    AMTbuff wrote:

    This just in: the rich are getting poorer at a rate that has stunned inequality-phobes into complete silence. See http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2011/10/rich-getting-poorer.html

    What Mankiw said was “Here is a fact that you might not have heard from the Occupy Wall Street crowd” not that they were “stunned into complete silence”. That’s why I always try to check sources. The story often seems to mutate with each telling. In any case, looking at the IRS data that Mankiw references, you can see that he is addressing the rich’s fall in income from the peak that it reached in 2007. Since 1987, the dollar cutoff for the top 1%, 5%, 10%, 25%, and 50% has risen 147%, 126%, 112%, 95%, and 82%, respectively. Hence, the top one percent has done just fine and does not require our “stunned silence”. As anyone who is fortunate enough to obtain most of their income from the stock market knows, you have to take the pain of the down years in order to be sure to reap the benefits of the up years. No surprise there.

  8. comment number 8 by: dave

    And actually, I think that is the unmentioned characteristic which so many in OWS share:

    they formed certain expectations during the good times that a rising tide should lift all boats and that a role in the economy should be more or less effortlessly attainable by securing some minimal credential and waiting to fall into place somewhere in the machine.

    Those who are protesting are largely doing so on their backs. Have they been beating the bushes identifying an opportunity to exploit? No, mostly these are folks who file for unemployment and and wait for ’someone’ to do ’something’ about ‘the economy’. They do not seem to understand that a competitive economy is more like the Seregeti. Some will live; some will die. All must struggle.

    Look at BLS data on those aged 18-23 as of the beginning of the recession. Half have never held a job as long as a year. Many weren’t even seeking one.

    These folks need to be taught competition and I strongly suspect that will not happen until we ratchet down unemployment compensation for multiyear claimants.

    Basically, we need a REAL depression, with bread lines and Hoovervilles in order to bootstrap some semblance of proactive motivation.

    Either that or the lions, leopards and wildebeest will learn how to do a proper sit-in.

  9. comment number 9 by: Jerry

    Michael Moore doesn’t “think he’s not rich.” He knows he is; he’s advocating for higher taxes; he recognizes that the rich are paying less and less of their fair share because they run the corporations and influence government with their riches.
    OWS would like to see a return to one person, one vote– and one equal opportunity to influence government, which means take away any recognition of corporate personhood and constitutional rights based on that notion. Move to amend the constitution to remove corporate personhood!
    And the crap about people not being wiling to work is just that. The large majority of those unemployed and facing foreclosure didn’t cause this crisis, just as they didn’t cause the Great Depression.