by Eric Miller
I don't know exactly why I am setting out to write this article. I have not gone out to protest at one of the many Occupy events around the country, yet I share this unknowing uncertainty with the protesters. I don't know why, but like many Americans, both part of the 99 percent and the rest, I sense there is something wrong. Some of the protesters may indeed have reasons for heading out to any one of the Occupy protests in American cities, or they may not have any particular reason, they just sense something is out of whack.
As a country, we're now not only red and blue, we're one of two slices in a pie, one slice made up of the 99 percent, and then that tiny sliver that's one percent. I'm not sure why it's divided up that way, it would seem there's more than one percent contributing to the sorry state of affairs, and some in the one percent are out there saying pretty loudly they'd like to see some things change as well.
And there are reasons to protest, even if specific reasonable demands and whom exactly they are to be directed at cannot be defined. There are reasons to target the financial industry, but also reasons to take an aim at government.
There are currently hundreds of Occupy protests going on around the world. The most common reasons for them appear to be an unequal distribution of wealth an an unfair playing field. The system as we have it seems to have produced entrenched wealth that doesn't ebb and flow so easily.
I attended the Occupy Dallas protest on the first day, as an observer rather than a protester. It ended at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and, like anything with Fed attached, it is likely to attract the Ron Paul crowd. It produced an interesting mix from different, if not exactly opposite, sides of the political spectrum. Mostly it was made up of those who hadn't been out since the 60s, members of the Baby Boom generation, and their children, known as Generation Y. Like the 60s, our era has something that lends itself to energetic protests by large numbers of people in their 20s.
That day someone I assumed was with the Ron Paul crowd handed me a yellow piece of paper, which I have since thought of as the story of the hamburger stand. It tells just one view about the possible reasons there are out there for protesting.
To summarize, a young couple opens a hamburger stand. The first problem they face is regulations. Some of those regulations are there to protect health and well-being, but others are there to protect established businesses from competition. Politicians like Rick Perry love to complain about regulations and blame them for the whole of the Great Recession, but lots of companies have lobbied for regulations. They are just as often there to protecting corporate interests as to protect the public.
I heard someone suggest recently the banks are more profitable with Frank Dodd than they were without it. I bet it turns out health insurers are more profitable with the health care law.
But back to the story: as the hamburger business grows, the entrepreneurs discover the competition controls the meat industry, and may have used the government to achieve this control. They have lobbyists, mom and pop selling hamburgers don't. (There are plenty of folks busy in Washington trying to squeeze entrepreneurs out of the Internet as well). According to OpenSecrets.org, in 2010 there were nearly 13,000 lobbyists out there spending $3.5 billion. Much of this is spent to keep things the way they are.
The protesters in my mind are sort of a counter to the lobbyists. All is not well in Hooverville and things need to change. Some of the protesters target capitalism, but really it's the unfair access to government the system affords to well-heeled capitalists.
This is one thing I liked about George W Bush's ownership society. That didn't turn out so well, and there are societal benefits to having a large number of renters, but one thing about owning a home is that the homeowner generally has access to capital. That capital can be used to start a business. Lots of businesses have historically been started with home-equity loans.
Lately we have heard stories telling us that things have gotten so bad income inequality is greater and social mobility less in the U.S. than it is in China. (However, none of the people I know from China seems to believe that). Looking back to 1915, an era in which the Rockefeller and Carnegie dominated American industry, the richest 1 percent of Americans earned roughly 18 percent of all income. Today, the top 1 percent accounts for 24 percent of all income.
In the end I think income equality matters less than social mobility, and the general conditions of those at the lower end of the income spectrum matter even more, but those measures aren't getting better either. The cards seem to be stacked against the 99 percent--and the actual numbers would seem to support that.
Moreover, one would think the politicians aren't likely to change much when they're receiving the bulk of their contributions from the one percent. There are reasons to suggest this is not entirely true, however. There are lots of corporations I imagine are not aligned at all with the Tea Party platform, for example, and yet that slice of the 99 percent has one party pretty much by the balls.
The cost of campaigns is enough by itself to raise eyebrows. "Follow the money," my editor in Pittsburgh used to tell me. The cost of recent campaigns can only lead one to conclude there is a lot more at stake than the potential salary for top officials. The 2008 presidential campaign cost some $5.3 billion. In 2010, the average winner of a House race spent $1.5 million. The average Senate winner spent close to $10 million. Meg Whitman spent some $160 million in an attempt to win the California Governorship, yet her potential salary was just above $200,000 a year, or about $900,000 in four years.
But what can we do? I personally don't know how or whether the protests can result in much change. Income inequality has been increasing since the 1970s. I think the best thing someone can do on an individual level is change their voter registration to independent--with a small i. Without a virtual guarantee of votes, donors may be less likely to give money to candidates or at least not to parties. Separation of business and government is another idea that deserves exploration
You can also make a conscious decision not to live in a remote suburb or worse, gated community. In graduate school I did a research paper and noted how close late 19th Century industrialists in Chicago lived to their neighbors. Richard Florida has written about how people are dividing themselves according to income levels on the coasts and in the heartland, and suburbanization in general has resulted in less of a mix of people of different income levels. Likewise Peter R. Orszag recently noted in an article for Bloomberg News that Americans are increasingly choosing to live near people in their own income bracket. He cited research by Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff of Stanford University. In 1970, almost two-thirds of American families lived in middle-income neighborhoods but by 2007, only 44 percent did while the share of those living in either a poor or affluent neighborhood more than doubled.
I think it can probably be pretty convincingly argued that suburbanization has contributed significantly to a decline in class mobility as well as to the decline of the middle class.
Something else you can do is join in the protests. Oh, maybe it won't be that productive and you'll have people like Newt and Herman Cain telling you to get a job and take a bath, but if nothing else it's good to get out and meet some folks and hear what they have to say first hand. I think if I had lived in the Vietnam era, I would have sorely missed witnessing history first-hand if I had not joined in. Whatever the protests are, they have gained considerable momentum and have staying power. Don't miss an opportunity to experience things happening in your own time.
Of course there are risks, unfortunately even to peaceful protesters. Until November 20th when a photograph showing a police officer pepper-spraying peacefully sitting protesters at the University of California at Davis, I think the why of it all mattered a bit more than it does now. (The University of California was the top donor to the Obama campaign in 2008).
One day later PhotoShop was doing its magic, and altered photos of the pepper-spray-happy officer were shown spraying the constitution, a child in Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte, and God himself on the Sistine Chapel.
It's one of those photographs that has the potential to change the course of things, or at least change the public opinion of the protests. I immediately likened it to the photograph taken following the shootings at Kent State in Ohio in 1970.
Pepper spray is not the same as a bullet, yet I expect history will show that photograph will have generally moved a lot of people who had been repeating "they don't know why," or "they don't know what they want," to develop a clear sense that the rights of peaceful protesters are being violated.
Today police are being pitted against protesters. But we're all part of the 99 percent, and most importantly all part of the one hundred percent, a whole that should be a lot better at working for a better future.
Change can also come from the top--from the one percent, as it has in the past with people like Henry Ford, who knew his workers had to be able to earn enough to afford his cars. There are some at the top wanting change. They know that great wealth and prosperity needs both production and consumption, with virtually all of the consumption from the 99 percent. If consumption comes to an end, so will production, and we'll all be in the same unfortunate slice of the OccuPie.