Wednesday, October 12, 2011

John Warren: What the Occupation is All About

Over the past few weeks Adirondackers have gathered to hear about their economic situation and what we can do about it. North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann has been suggesting that the Adirondack Park Agency shift its focus toward economic development. Clarkson University’s Forever Wild initiative has brought forward plans to expand broadband services and connect local workers to new wired jobs. The Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) provided its own twist on our economic situation, offering a panel that suggested we’re not as bad off as others around the nation.

Missing from these discussions has been the big picture thinking about our economic problems, namely the changes in our economic and democratic system that have endangered the ability of young people to control their economic destinies.

At the ANCA meeting last week Jaison Abel, Senior Economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, reported that “The Upstate economy has generally proven to be more stable than average, and has performed relatively well through the recession and recovery to date” [Emphasis His]. His presentation (available as a pdf here), like most of the economic discussions in the Adirondacks lately, was misleading in its narrow scope.

Taking a wider view are the demonstrators that have been occupying cities and towns across America in recent weeks. The Occupy Wall Street movement began when a large group of people, calling themselves the 99%, established a modern day Hooverville at a privately owned park near Wall Street. Despite claims they are unorganized anarchists, they have met daily in a direct democratic assembly to make decisions and plan and prepare for what has become a nationwide movement to change the fundamental operation of our relatively recently failed economic and democratic systems.

In exchange for exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble for redress of grievances, they have been maced, beaten, and driven from the places where they have assembled for democratic change. News of police actions in New York City were widely circulated via social media (disturbing video 1, 2, and 3 for example) and served to grow the ranks of protesters exponentially.

In recent days there have been beatings, macings and arrests of many more in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Albuquerque, Portland, San Francisco, and even in Des Moines, Iowa where a former Iowa state representative and a 14-year-old girl were arrested. Many of those arrests have included bystanders, independent media, legal observers, and medics caring for the injured. It appears that more than 2,000 have been arrested so far and with widespread demonstrations planned for Saturday that number is likely to rise. Demonstrations are expected to take place over the next week in Canton, Saranac Lake, Montreal, Plattsburg, Burlington, Glens Falls, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Utica, Rochester, Syracuse, and Buffalo.

Although the call for an end to corporate control of our economic and political systems is no more vague than the Tea Party’s call for an end to big government, the Occupy Wall Street movement has been characterized as unfocused and lacking concrete goals. Two videos that have gone viral in the movement serve to sum up most of the complaints being voiced, and counter the recent criticisms. The first, which has played frequently on the Occupy Wall Street livestream is an older video from George Carlin (warning: explicit language) who warns: “it’s a big club and you ain’t in it”. The second is the first cohesive response to the movement’s detractors from John Stewart.

It’s no surprise these videos come from comedians, a class of Americans who are often the only people who can be so direct in their critiques. They also reflect the nature of the movement itself, which is forced to use a kind of comic theater of the streets to be heard. There are more serious commentators as well. Bernie Sanders points out why he thinks protests are a necessary part of the process and even traditional conservatives have weighed in at The Atlantic. The Christian Science Monitor reminds us of the long history populists movements occupying Wall Street. The Nation published an Occupy Wall Street FAQ some weeks ago when the movement was small that explains in a serious way what it’s about.

This being a largely social media driven movement, videos and documents from the 1% have been used against them. Take for example this video of a Wall Street trader on BBC who defiantly claims “governments don’t rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world,” or the page from JP Morgan Chase’s website which reminded protesters that they had given $4.6 million to the New York City Police Foundation, a gift they said (even while the NYPD was keeping protesters from protesting in front of their building) that “was the largest in the history of the foundation and will enable the New York City Police Department to strengthen security in the Big Apple.” Both links have gone viral among the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some of most interesting coverage of the movement is being written by a group of reporters with the Village Voice toting cameras and smart phones and posting to the #OccupyWallSt and #OccupyWallStreet hashtags on Twitter. There have been more than sixty 24-hour livestream channels set up from occupations around the world in the last 24 hours.

No doubt there will still be some who say they just don’t understand what it’s all about, so it’s probably fair to say that the movement’s goals are to roll back a number of economic trends which Adirondackers, like nearly all Americans, are experiencing. For those who like charts with facts and figures, Business Insider has a series of charts titled “Here’s What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About…“. Here are a few excerpts from the most salient:

Unemployment: Three years after the financial crisis, the unemployment rate is still at the highest level since the Great Depression (except for a brief blip in the early 1980s). A record percentage of unemployed people have been unemployed for longer than 6 months. The average duration of all unemployment remains at a near an all-time high. If people working part-time who want to work full-time and people who have given up finding a job through official means are included, the unemployment rate is at 17%. That is the lowest percentage of Americans with jobs since the early 1980s.

Corporate Profits: Corporate profits are at an all-time high. As a percentage of the economy, corporate profits are near a record all-time high. With the exception of a short period just before the 2007 crash, profits are higher than they’ve been since the 1950s, vastly higher than they’ve been for most of the last half-century.

Worker Pay: CEO pay is now 350 times the average worker’s pay, up from 50 times the average worker’s pay between 1960-1985. Adjusted for inflation, CEO pay has jumped 300% since 1990 alone and corporate profits have doubled. Average “production worker” pay has increased just 4% and the minimum wage has fallen. After adjusting for inflation, average hourly earnings haven’t increased in 50 years. While CEOs and shareholders have been cashing in, wages as a percent of the economy have dropped to an all-time low.

The 1%: The top 1% of American wage earners have the biggest percentage of the country’s total pre-tax income than any time since the late 1920s, almost 2 times the long-term average. Income inequality has gotten so extreme that the US now ranks 93rd in the world in “income equality” behind China, India, and Iran.

Social Mobility Through Hard Work: Social mobility in America is near an all-time low. The top 1% of Americans own 42% of American financial wealth; the top 5% own nearly 70%. 60% of the net worth of the country held by the top 5%. Taxes on the nation’s highest-earners are close to the lowest they’ve ever been. The aggregate tax rate for the top 1% is lower than for the next 9% — and not much higher than it is for almost everyone else.

Bank Theft: Despite bailing out the banks so that they could keep lending to American businesses, bank lending has dropped sharply except to the American Government, which has risen sharply. They’ve also been collecting interest on money they are not lending — the “excess reserves” at the Federal Reserve Bank. At the same time, because the Fed has slashed the prime rate to almost zero, the banks are able to borrow money for essentially free – as a result they have made $211 billion in the first six months of 2011. That’s one reason there is near-record financial sector profits while the rest of Americans have sunk to their economic lowest.

Check the facts for yourself, but one thing is clear – all the hand-wringing about our local economies in the local media has missed the point entirely.

Photo: Above, photo-shopped Occupy Saranac Lake illustration courtesy Aaron Hobson; Middle and below, two viral Occupy Wall Street photographs that have made the rounds in the past few weeks.

John Warren

John Warren

John Warren founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and oversees the day-to-day operations of the site in addition to editing The New York History Blog.

He has worked in media for 25 years as a print journalist, a documentary television producer, and now in new media. He's on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and is the author of two books of regional history.

John's weekly Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report airs across the Adirondack North Country Region on the North Country Public Radio network.

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