As I write this editorial, I can hear the chants of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators outside of my office. In fact, my colleagues and I have had the privilege of listening to the cacophony of protesters’ rants, whistles, drums and, yes, vuvuzulas several times a day for the past few weeks.
When they first showed up, most of us thought it was a fleeting thing, just a bunch of kids with nothing better to do. As time passed, the protesters attracted more attention and some people who actually started listening thought that they may be on to something, and joined the effort. Eventually, what began as a march against “The Man” turned into a nationwide movement, a rebellion against everything from corporate greed and unfair taxation to unemployment, foreclosures and labor union disagreements.
The OWS protesters tout the fact that the movement has no leader, no hierarchy. Its central complaint, loosely, is that big business and the wealthiest 1% of the country have an unfair influence over US laws and policies. They want to raise taxes on corporations and the rich; protect Medicare, Social Security and other public welfare programs; end corporate welfare; protect labor unions; make affordable healthcare available; put an end to the war and spending on it; protect the environment; reduce student debt; create more jobs; and abolish the World Bank and Federal Reserve; among other demands.
Most recently, the rally attracted celebrities sympathizing with the protesters—including filmmaker Michael Moore, mogul Russell Simmons and rapper Kanye West—as well as politicians embracing the movement to gain favor at the polls. (The irony is that many of those supporters are members of the 1% they’re griping about.)
Through weeks of protests, most of us have yet to see a clear point. In fact, a lot of these protesters seem to be missing the point. They’re all rallying against a system that’s so vast and intricate that they themselves are likely part of it. After all, without borrowers clamoring for funds, the mortgage market wouldn’t have gotten as inflated as it did. It’s the same for credit cards. Yes, the cost of living has increased while paychecks haven’t, but Americans are also notorious for living beyond their means.
They say their aim, according to the OWS website, is “to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.” Did any of them ever think that without the corporate conglomerates, there would be no global economy? And if they want to spread the wealth, one can argue that’s a near impossibility.
In fact, I’d bet the same folks rallying against corporate giants and the imbalance of wealth in the world are also wearing clothes made cheaply in second- and third-world countries, and sleeping in sleeping bags they bought at Wal-Mart. A recent Wall Street Journal report showed that the food for the OWS kitchen is purchased at Costco, and some of the demonstrators are eating at fast-food restaurants. Most of them are also using the local McDonald’s as a central bathroom. (Apparently, fans of “Supersize Me” don’t discriminate when nature calls.) And according to New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, OWS has cost the Police Department $3.2 million in overtime as of Oct. 12. Where’s that money coming from?
They say we need social and economic equality. That’s a noble idea, but this disparity has always existed. Some rail against capitalism, but we all see how well socialism worked out for other countries. And I’d be willing to say that of those protesters pointing their fingers at Wall Street, a good number of them wouldn’t turn down a well-paying job there, either.
They say Wall Street is the culprit. Were they reckless with their financial structures and lending practices? Absolutely. Was it immoral? Most likely. Is it fair that they were getting richer while America is getting poorer? Probably not. Was it illegal? No. Big business didn’t create the loopholes and lax regulation that allowed them to run amok. They didn’t make the tax policies or give themselves bailouts. Think about it. If you let a kid loose in a candy store without holding his hand, you’re going to have to deal with an upset stomach and sugar high later.
No, this movement should have been cast as “Occupy Capitol Hill.” That’s where all the action is. That’s where our elected officials are choosing to support the interests of lobbyists and corporations, rather than representing their constituents. That’s where politicos are quibbling over budget talks and cutting corners at the expense of the middle and lower class.
It all begins and ends in Washington, where it’s up to our elected officials to serve in our interests. Unfortunately, “We the People” doesn’t mean much these days. And even more sad is that a plurality of these protesters don’t get that; a New York magazine survey of the protesters that asked whether they voted in the 2010 midterm elections found that 39% did, but more than half (55%) did not—and it wasn’t because they were underage, either (only 5% were not yet 18 at the time of the elections).
OWS is being compared to the Arab Spring movement, which led to the fall of oppressive regimes in several Mid-East countries. While ambitious, that comparison is a stretch. This movement could actually go either way—it provoke change and gather even more supporters. (And potentially some unlikely allies; the NY State Comptroller predicts Wall Street will lay off up to 10,000 more workers by the end of 2012). Or it could lose steam—especially as the weather gets colder—and peter out. I’d put my money on the latter.