Well, this has certainly been long in coming. Last friday – October 7th – I went in person to observe the Occupy San Diego protest. I haven’t been able to do any follow up since, but I’m planning to drop by Civic Center Plaza sometime this week to take note of crowd sizes, and most especially how the message has evolved since day 1.
Before I went down, I had several questions buzzing around my mind. We already had two weeks of the Occupy movement taking place, varying in attendance from city to city, but with a few common themes – the 99% argument, a general attitude of anti-corporatism, and anti capitalism that seemed to have socialist sympathies. It was being sold as a noble movement – the oppressed, the homeless, the foreclosed, the unemployed lower classes rising up against the rich to call for economic fairness. The leftist version of the tea party, if you will -a comparison that has been made many times – usually by those commenting from the leftist sphere of opinion.
It has hardly lived up to its billing. Not just in the lack of sheer volume of protesters, though that is a discussion for another day – but the message that I saw in person, and seen from other protests around the country has been muddled and confused – not to mention contradictory. We’re not seeing a leftist tea party movement here – I argue that we’re seeing a strange union of the historic professional protesters – the Anti War movement, the anarchists, the labor unions, socialists, environmentalists – and an injection of left leaning students with perhaps 10% of the movement consisting of people sucked in by the romanced message.
This -is- a romanced message, folks. Before I critique it further, lets actually identify in detail what this movement is pushing for, drawing from signs in the protests, the statements of it’s supporters, and the historic beliefs of some of the groups supporting the movement. After all, if you can’t understand a movement, then why would you risk supporting it?
Identifying the Message
As stated earlier – the general theme of the Occupy protests is that rich, powerful corporations – what they label the 1% – essentially control the country. This 1% exerts its influence to keep everyone else – the 99% – poor, oppressed, out of homes, etc. They see corporations as greedy, profit-motive-only entities who hoard wealth, outsource labor, and if offered the choice would sell their mothers for a buck. The 99% claim to merely want ‘fairness’, and to varying degrees support the concept of ‘secondary rights’ – The “right” to a job, to a home, to free health care and education. (This is presuming a definition of primary rights as the bill of rights – basic civil rights)
Capitalism is blamed as the cause of the corporate oligarchy. Since it is seen by them as primarily driven by greed, they feel it is an obvious conclusion that only morally bankrupt persons head companies, and without regulation companies would abuse their workers and use them as slave labor if they could. These people call for more regulation, more taxes, a ‘wage cap’ of varying amounts (typically one million to one hundred million dollars) and if government is to be blamed – only republicans are the focus of their ire. (usually. It depends on who you ask – I think this is the majority consensus, and I saw no signs condemning democrats or the all around political class) Government is seen by them as a grand arbiter of regulation and ‘fairness’.
What is Wrong with their Message?
Now wait! You may think that labeling the occupy movements as hardcore anti capitalists is going too far! These are just upset common people who merely want more fairness in the system!
Look at their arguments again, -closely-. Doesn’t that sound a lot like socialism? Fairness, income equity, and a demonization of private corporations? When they discuss fairness – it’s only in the direction of redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom – not an angle of -everyone- paying their fair share. But – they’ve been saying “Fair Share” Like crazy!
Fair share means – to these protesters – that the rich, wealthy, and successful in society should pay for everyone else, since society and government supposedly granted these individuals their success. It does not mean that everyone should, for example, pay a flat tax. Remember that tax structure in the United States is currently a Progressive Tax System. The wealthier income brackets pay significantly more then the lower brackets, and at a certain point the government pays people so that they essentially have a negative tax rate. Would a further tipping of the scales of the current tax system to better favor the lower half truly be fair?
These protesters are also missing a major point that almost utterly destroys their argument that capitalism alone is the root cause of today’s economic problems. Government corruption and collusion with politically connected corporations is almost entirely ignored. If it’s brought up, obviously it’s only the corporation’s fault because they’re greedy capitalists, remember? And those darn evil Republicans are all in it with them because only -they- are Wall Street! Halliburton! Bush!
If not them, Who?
Corporations and Republicans are not the sole cause of today’s ills. I readily admit that we have a problem with dying domestic manufacturing, unemployment, and especially the overall health of our economy. Who do I blame? The entire political class.
This includes -both- major parties – the establishment Republicans, and the establishment Democrats. I (and many others, in fact) allege that America has a particularly severe case of Crony Capitalism – where government essentially assists corporations in cheating the system.
Politics today in America centers around money – only wealthy people have a prayer of getting into the system. Look at the sheer dollar amounts that have risen exponentially over the past several election cycles! It also revolves around connections – candidates must receive the blessing of one of the major political houses. Without it, they die in obscurity.
Since most politicians today serving as presidents or legislators essentially do it as a career function, you wind up having people who stay in the system for decades – running sharply counter to how it was envisioned in the constitution. Insert companies with lobbyists into the equation, and you have a perfect equation for money to flow into long serving politicians who, based solely on how long they have been on office (you can’t forget that congress writes its own rules), have varying amounts of leverage to insert provisions into laws that favor the lobbying party.
Let this system fester for almost half a century – and you have our system today. It is a chronic and well documented issue that many (not all) large companies in america consider lobbying politicians critical for their survival, lest another company is able to get legislation passed that will negatively effect all of their competitors. Most companies donate money to -both- political parties in an attempt to stay on their good side. It has twisted the system away from a meritocracy and into something that resembles a mob protection scheme – play the game, or get destroyed.
True capitalism – or at least, how it’s supposed to work – sees companies succeed or fail based on their merit and ability to make a profit, not how well connected they are with government. Compare the United States Postal Service to FedEx – one is a government entity that loses billions a year, and the other is a private company that has adapted to survive in a changing world. The USPS recently floated the idea of encouraging the growth of junk mail as a viable way to make money. Any private company that saw a service that is largely detrimental to its largest customer base (the US. Citizen, clearly a majority over the Junk Mail makers) as central to its survival would go bankrupt very quickly. Government run businesses are disconnected from reality, and the threat of bad ideas leading to failure.
Capitalism lets bad ideas die, and encourages flexibility and adaptation. Big government favors rigid, static approaches and the assumption of unlimited, protected money flow.
The take home message – We don’t have true capitalism in the United States. We have a capitalist system that’s dominated by political favorites who are effectively allowed to break the rules and make up rules for their competitors.
So how Does this all Tie Back Together?
I argue that the Occupy Wall Street movement highlights legitimate problems, but ultimately misses the point. Taxing the rich will not magically generate enough money to give everyone homes, jobs, free healthcare, and free education. It merely ‘feels’ better and more ‘fair’. It’s a classic problem with struggling to understand certain elements of liberal solutions – solutions that sound and feel good rather then solutions that look at actual, concrete numbers and cause and effect. Environmental policy pushed by the EPA is classically stuck in this – using dramatic doom and gloom rhetoric to justify environmental policies with no consideration for economic impacts, leading to a brief threat to the integrity of the United States’ power supply.
Say that we did what the protesters are asking for – treated corporations like the greedy entities the protesters feel they are – you would in effect be handing over a vast quantity of wealth to the government – a government that has proven itself to be entirely irresponsible with our money. Can you really trust a corrupt government with what amounts to a blank check? How can you be sure that cronyism and favoritism won’t be utterly rampant? If you have a poor homeless, alcoholic friend – you don’t hand him $1,000 – he would waste it all on booze and drugs.
There’s also the nasty side effect that if you hijack that sheer amount of wealth, you effectively gut the economy and remove incentive for people to try to better themselves and make more money since the government would just take it.
So what’s your solution Doug?
Now I have to restate – I don’t blame only one group or the other for our problems today. I feel that the weighty government we have today needs to collapse in places since it’s becoming obvious that the system cannot possibly sustain itself. That does not mean I want to fundamentally change our system of government. Why pull out that rhetoric? If the protester’s anti capitalist message wins, it would effectively demand a fundamental change in how our society functions. They are calling for either a European style of government (and see how great that has worked for them!) or something that is even more extreme – and there’s no room for a giant overbearing government in the constitution today.
While I want parts of the system to collapse – it’s because I think it can be fixed. The system that we have today, if it were dramatically more transparent (ie: all political donations exposed, an automatic releasing within a year of closed door meetings, searchable database of all non-defense governmental spending, easily traceable spending, etc.) and included actual punishments for reckless behavior it would work outstandingly better. Remember – congress writes its own rules. Very few people have ever gone to jail for incidents that amount to bribery, and if they did it was because they made political enemies.
That -has- to change. We must have a government that is accountable, transparent, honest, and morally sound – and that those qualities will lead it to become efficient. Class warfare is a lovely siren song to fall under, and it has been used, consistently in the past to bring about autocratic dictatorships. I see the occupy wall street protesters falling into this trap with gusto.
The Take Home Points:
- The protesters come off as largely anti-capitalist
- Many of them seem to be flirting with socialism and social justice (Free this, free that)
- Class warfare will not fix the economy, even if all wealth were confiscated today
- Today’s government is deeply corrupt and part of the problem
- Any realistic solution must take into account this corruption of government
- Long term, an accountable and transparent system that emphasizes efficiency may be the best solution.
I deeply apologize if this got slightly off topic or was hard to follow – but as you folks can see, this is a complicated topic, and potentially one that I could write a full book on.Other people already have. If you have any questions, any thoughts, any counterpoints, if I missed or glossed something over – bring it up! I write today not to shut other people down – but to debate. It is the foundation of this country’s ideals, and it is essentially what the protesters are asking for whether they know it or not.
I must add that I do respect the protester’s right to do what they do as long as they remain civil and do not damage property. There is a chance that the overall message of the tea party – which is essentially an anti corruption movement – could be palatable to some of these people if they would look beyond instinctive urge to label them a republican co-opted movement. (which it absolutely is not, but that is a topic for another day). Do not take this article as a blasting of the people in the movement – I am attacking their ideas, and trying to encourage them to consider the problems more deeply.
PS: Quick Opinion on the Tea Party Comparisons to the Occupy Movement
To put it as simply as possible: The Tea Party does not call for no government, or an elimination of all government and an overthrow of the current system. It largely centers around replacing the current connected politician with fresh faces who are focused on being statesmen, not social crusaders or career politicians eager to play ball with the establishment. There also have been no arrests linked with the largest Tea Party organization, ‘Tea Party Express’. At least 1,000 Occupy protesters have been arrested as of this writing.
Enjoyed this Editorial? Want to see photos of the Occupy Movement? Check it out here!
UPDATE [10/14/2011]: There are a few who are making assumptions regarding my stance and implying that I’m buying the ‘establishment’ take on the Occupy movement. Let me be 100% clear – I saw a -lot- of anti capitalism at Occupy San Diego’s first day, this editorial is largely based on my concerns that the movement will latch onto that message as opposed to an anti corruption stance.
EDIT 6/10/13: Light polishing