I have been interested in the Occupy Wall Street movement (which was actually incubated and hatched by a small group of Canadiens). It is now known as OWS, and through social media techniques and a reluctant mainstream media, which has basically sneered at the effort, OWS is something to take seriously.
What specifically is behind the movement? Well, initially that was hard to discern, but as the movement has become better organized, the message is clear. Protesters, many of them young and well-educated are maturing into an capitalist society which has become dangerously destabilized through wealth inequality.
By 2007, the top 1% of the US population controlled 42% of the nation’s wealth and took in about 65% of distributed income. The top 5% controlled a remarkable 70 % of the the nation’s wealth. One would think that since the bursting of the housing bubble and ensuing Great Recession in 2007/2008 these figures would have changed, but they haven’t. Indeed, wages for middle class workers have flatlined since 2000, and despite the severe recession, corporate profits are exceptionally strong. Though job creation in the private sector is improving bit by bit (though not quickly enough), job losses in the public sector (teachers, law enforcement, etc) are about 600,000 since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, and many state houses, a year ago. Consumer demand remains weak as people continue to unwind years of accumulated debt, or fear losing their jobs, or live in homes now worth less than what they were bought for; in many cases, people are afflicted with all three of these difficult problems.
[We could slip back into recession, as seems likely in Europe, but I am optimistic we won’t. The September retail sales report was the best one in seven months, led by increased sales in the US auto sector (a hearty “thanks!” to President Obama for ignoring Mitt Romney and all the other Republicans in Congress who wanted the 75% of US auto industry to go bankrupt with a loss of 2-3 million jobs).]
So things are tough for many, many people: they, particularly those just entering the labor market, are finding out that the Great Recession was far deeper, and will last much longer than anyone expected. It is an unnerving, even frightening new reality. OWS is essentially a distilled expression of a general nationwide frustration that in these difficult times that call for shared sacrifice and a collective commitment to solve problems, people are keenly aware that those in the top 1 or 2% are not only unaffected by the Great Recession, but thriving. This series of charts makes the case more clearly than my words ever could. I urge you to look them over; it is eye-popping stuff.
I am generally sympathetic to the OWS movement because the numbers don’t lie. Financial inequality in the US has rarely been so stark, which leads to an erosion of faith in the social compact, the essential concept which keeps our American Experiment intact: the idea that opportunities exist for all who strive for them and that in times of trouble or advancing age, there is a safety net to help the unlucky and the vulnerable.
However, one part of me resists OWS because some–and I emphasize–some of its supporters want to do away with capitalism all together. That I can’t support. Capitalism, for all of obvious imperfections, is the economic model we have chosen, and scrapping it altogether for what? makes no sense to me.
Also, I don’t begrudge money or those who have it; I just want the more fortunate not to be greedy hoarders who pay their allies in Congress or lobbyists handsomely to make sure their contribution to the social compact is minimal. Because when people feel that the US is fast on its way to becoming this,
or the likely nominee for the Republican Party, who made his 250 million dollars by destroying companies and firing people and whose only suggestion to help the economy is to cut taxes even more for the wealthy than George W. Bush is one of these guys,
…yes, that is Mitt Romney center front….then there are reasons to worry deeply about the direction of the country. Not because people make money. Go ahead and make it, but at least give back a bit to a great country which enabled you to do so well. Wonderful Elizabeth Warren succinctly made this point, which is why she will displace the dim-witted Scott Brown as the next junior senator from Massachusetts.
So this brings me to Washington D.C. where an invigorated president has continued to push hard for the American Jobs Act. As I have written before, it is a sensible, meaningful piece of legislation which independent analysts agree will create or rehire anywhere from 1.8 to 2 million jobs in the public and private sectors, with a focus on infrastructure projects; it would preserve the current $1000 payroll tax due to expire on January 1st, further cut taxes for businesses large and small who hire American workers, particularly veterans returning from the wars; and is paid for by asking those with incomes over one million dollars (0.01% of the population) to pay a 5.6 % tax surcharge. It is a good plan that won’t solve our economic problems by a long shot, but would help a lot of people, add to our growth, and cut the unemployment rate to perhaps 8%.
So far so good. But its debut in the Senate was scuttled this week once again by the Republicans, who, remarkably, filibustered (meaning you need a supermajority of 60 votes to proceed towards a final vote on a bill) the Jobs Act. Every Republican said “no” to even beginning a conversation on the bill. Why? Because a wounded economy hurts the president’s re-election chances. So for a year, the Republicans have done nothing to help the economy. Nothing. And the other reason? They didn’t like the millionaire’s surtax (really? I mean, come on…), though the public strongly support it, as they do all the other parts of the bill.
Stung by the backlash to yet another filibuster, Senate Republicans put out there own jobs bill at the end of the week, which was immediately panned as the same austerity economics they love (no government spending, meaning public sector jobs disappear, which further depresses overall growth; austerity simply doesn’t work in times of economic recession. Just look how badly the U.K. has falteredsince severe austerity measures were enacted there last year.)
But the president is not backing down. Next week, he and Senate Democrats will break the American Jobs Act into its component parts, and force the Republicans to vote on things the public likes. First on the agenda will be the public sector portion of the bill. Republicans disdain teachers, firefighters, police, park rangers, i.e., people whose salary is paid for by taxes. But these people are admired and valued by the public. The president values them, and wants to either hire or rehire as many as he can (after all, they spend money, too, just like private sector workers). The president will force the Republicans to explain their animosity to public sector workers in a time of economic difficulty. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but the president is certainly no more Mr. Compromise with the Party of No in regard to this very important jobs bill.
Meanwhile in the House, Republicans spent their time not on economic matters, but once again, abortion. In the Orwellian titled “Protect Life Act”, is a bill that would deny any hospital which receives federal funding in the form of Medicare and Medicaid (is there a hospital which doesn’t?) from performing an emergency abortion in a case where a pregnancy has gone terribly wrong. So, in an effort to preserve the “sanctity of life”, Republicans would put a woman in a situation where not only would the baby likely die, but the mother as well. The bill passed, but thankfully, President Obama will veto yet another egregious assault on women.
But Republicans will keep trying this stuff over and over again until they are confronted, and defeated at the ballot box. So put on your marching shoes.