*Why* I Care So Much About #OccupyWallStreet

I don’t hate rich people.  

I don’t want to bring the government to a screeching halt.

I don’t hate capitalism. Much.

I don’t believe that drum circles will bring universal peace and love to America.

Although, being a dancer, I do relish a good drum circle.

I don’t even watch political news. I get all my politics through B, who has a much keener interest in keeping up with pundits and blogs.

And yet I have been sounding off frequently on facebook and on this blog about #occupywallstreet.

Because I do have some strong opinions about the political/economic situation that we find ourselves in.

These opinions don’t come from pundits, or op/ed’s. I wasn’t raised with them. In fact, my current view of things is pretty far removed from the ethos of my upbringing.

My feelings about the injustices in this country come from living with them daily.

Before you get your knickers in a twist (I really love that phrase), I’m not talking about the economic realities that I am personally living with.

It’s true that I belong to the 99%. I am 32, have a master’s degree, work two jobs, get by just above the poverty line, will be paying off medical bills for several more years, and remain uninsured by force of circumstances.

I would say that 70% of my financial hardships are by choice, and I’m fine with that. I chose an industry with very limited earning potential (and I’ll not choose this post to pick a fight about the drawbacks of relying entirely on market forces to assign value to things). I chose to leave a cushier job to do something I’m more passionate about. (Also b/c the cushier job had a very abusive environment. Still, I chose it. I could have stayed.)

I accept that I will live in shabbier neighborhoods, shop at thrift stores, and eat out much less than other people as a consequence of my choices. I don’t resent that other people make different choices and make more money.

I am pissed about health care. I played by all the rules, avoided credit cards, avoided student debt, socked money away in an emergency fund and a 401(k), and still got slammed with dental bills that weren’t covered by the health insurance I had. They wiped out my emergency fund and put me $4000 in debt before I could recoup. Then I got stuck in that awkward earnings range where I’m making just a little too much money to qualify for free health care, but the cost of even the cheapest available healthcare became too high for me to meet after a year of paying for it on my own. It shouldn’t be this hard just to go to the doctor if I’m sick.

Still. It wouldn’t be enough to make me leave the house.

What really drives my obsession with #OWS is what I see at work.

I am a teacher. I teach an enrichment program to underserved public schools, and I supplement that by tutoring on evenings and weekends. I tutor for a very high-end boutique firm.

I serve the children of the very, very poor, and then I serve the children of the very, very rich. Every week. For years.

I love my students in both demographics. I know wonderful and horrible families in both demographics, and neither group, as a group, has tremendously more intelligence, drive, or raw potential than the other, but the differences in their available opportunities/supports is stark. Dramatic.

Growing up working class/middle class, I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

My wealthy students are very hard-working. The vast majority. Wonderful people. I’m happy for them when they are successful, and I want the best for them.

My poor students are also very hard-working. The vast majority. Wonderful people. I want the best for them too. The thing is that many of them are working very hard at things that my wealthy students don’t even have to think about.

Like staying healthy. It’s hard work to stay healthy in a neighborhood where the pollution is so bad that you and many of your friends are in and out of school and the hospital with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

It’s hard work to stay healthy when you live in an area without ready access to healthy food alternatives.

It’s harder work to get your homework done if you don’t have the luxury of a stay-at-home mom or nanny or tutor, or even a teacher’s aide, to make sure you understand everything. Because trust me – the wealthy kids don’t understand everything the first time either.

For that matter, it’s a lot harder to get your homework done if you can’t afford notebooks and pencils.

It’s harder to learn how to read if your school doesn’t have enough books.

There’s a lot more. The opportunity costs of poverty are severe. I know this because I’ve seen it, not because I read about it or was brainwashed by liberal news media. But I would like this post to be readable in one sitting.

I don’t want to hate on any particular socio-economic demographic. All I’m saying is that the system itself is broken. And it’s hurting more of my students than it’s helping. I support #OWS for them.

One more thing.

There’s something else I learned from teaching.

Fairness.

I teach mostly kindergarten and first grade classes in my public school program, and we talk a lot about fairness.

Fair does not always mean equal. If Johnny works twice as hard as everyone else and accomplishes something extraordinary, then Johnny gets rewards in kind. Extra gold stars. Extra recess time. Maybe extra snack. And maybe some public praise and a letter of commendation home.

All this is good and deserved, and it even motivates the others to perform in kind, so it’s healthy for the community as a whole.

But fair also means there are some things Johnny does not get, no matter how extraordinary his achievement.

Johnny doesn’t get excused to push the other kids around on the playground without repercussions.

He is still bound by and held to classroom regulations.

He doesn’t get to use his extra cookies as leverage to get the other kids to bend to his will.

Johnny still has to clean up his own messes and contribute to the maintenance of the classroom environment.

Johnny doesn’t get extra votes in classroom decisions, nor does he get more than a regular share of time holding the Talking Stick to air his opinion.

Johnny doesn’t get all the gold stars, all the cookies. He doesn’t even get most. He is 1 of 25 classroom citizens, and other people are putting in work too.

And that’s really what it comes down to for me.

At the end of the day, we all only have 24 hours.

Some people are willing to work many more of those 24 hours than I am, and they should totally get more money than me.

Some people are able to accomplish much more for other people in the same amount of hours that I work, and they should totally get more money than me.

There are people out there who should definitely be making 10x and 20x more money than me. More than that, even, for the really extraordinary people.

But nobody should be making 500x what I make – without paying out to the greater community the same percentage that I pay out, without having to clean up their own messes, without having any repercussions for when they use that 500x leverage to push people around, bend regulations, buy off enforcers, and have everything their own way.

At the end of the day, we all have 24 hours. No one person, and no 1%, I don’t care how innovative they are, is so crucial to the economy that they get to make everybody else play by the rules they invent to benefit themselves. That’s not fair.

It’s feudalism.

That’s what #OWS is about for me.

I don’t care that we don’t have cohesive demands yet. Everybody had demands for the 2008 elections, and look how much has changed!

The system, as it is, is broken. And the people we elected to fix it for us have failed, time and again.

It’s our system. We don’t have to wait for other people to change it for us. That’s what democracy means.

That’s why #OWS is taking the streets. The streets that we, the people, paid for with our own tax money. They already belong to us.

If the government won’t hold Wall Street accountable for their crimes, then we’ll do it ourselves. We are already occupying their space.

If the government isn’t creating solutions that work for everyone, then we’ll create our own. We are already crafting action plans in General Assemblies.

If the media won’t tell the truth, then we will create our own media and distribute it over the internet and social networks, and through word of mouth.

And if you don’t like the lefty-leaning sound of the actions and solutions emerging from the movement so far, then stop complaining about it and come make yourself heard.

We will listen. We want a system that is responsive to everyone’s needs, everyone’s values, not just the lefty-leaners. If you are a libertarian, come out. If you are a Republican, show up. If you are a Tea Party member, get down there.

I am confident that the American people are at least as great as the Egyptians. I am confident that we can make this work, even with our differences.

All we have to do is make the system responsive. We do that, first and foremost, by showing up to be seen and heard and counted.

Come occupy with us.

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12 Comments

Filed under #OccupyWallStreet, personal, Uncategorized

12 responses to “*Why* I Care So Much About #OccupyWallStreet

  1. wow, just read this. thanks so much for expressing this, meghan. i think much of the OWS movement is really about collective grief, and that sometimes to move forward we need to get together for no reason in particular to grieve with neither explanations nor demands.

    with that said, i love your reflections!

  2. Well said, you brought tears to my eyes. Thank you!!!

  3. “I don’t hate rich people.”

    Phew, thanks for saying it! Sometimes it’s not obvious from all the OWS signs. Our one in Christchurch NZ was inspiring but also in many cases missed the larger point. The rest of your post is great too 🙂

  4. Jonathan Bechtel

    M,

    Thoughtful post. Maybe this is a little gouche on a public blog, but I’m proud you’re my sister! There’s a lot to digest here. Just to add some twists to what was written, here are some wrinkles I don’t see mentioned very often, but in my opinion are very important in framing the situation the right way.

    1). People scoff at people getting paid 100x-1000x more than others, but it’s important to realize that in “digital” industries like software, finance, or the sciences, differences in productivity really can be that large. The more robust AI and computational resources become, the larger these discrepancies are likely to get. Machines are increasingly replacing unskilled labor, and developed nation economies are shifting away from a machine economy and towards a digital economy…..further exacerbating the effect.

    Obviously this isn’t true in all cases, but the relative proportion of cases in which this *is* true will probably increase for the reasons stated above.

    Over the long run, market economies to tend to reward people according to their total economic value added. Intuitively, we equate productivity with hours worked because if you’re pounding a hammer or cooking a meal there’s no appreciable difference between the two. But a brilliant programmer can thread together different development frameworks to create a proprietary computer program that could make a company billions of dollars that even a slightly less skilled programmer couldn’t put together with more time, making the relative difference between the two huge.

    How people ought to get paid in a scenario like that depends a lot on your interpretation of fairness, but I don’t hear that point being brought up very much. If you think about it, it’s curious…..to say the least.

    2). The majority of income inequality in the world doesn’t rest in the top 1%, but in the top 0.1%. If you have a new found interest in economics, two guys named PIketty and Saez did a lot of research on this, you can find a decent overview here: http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2011/08/income_share_by.html

    If you exclude the top 0.1%, economic inequality actually hasn’t changed all that much.

    3). Within the top 0.1% the breakdown sort of looks like this:

    a). Successful entrepreneurs – Gates, Zuckerberg, Buffet, etc
    b). Athletes, celebrities, etc
    c). financiers/bankers

    For whatever reason, most people don’t seem to resent the folks in group b very much, even though they’re probably the biggest beneficiaries of luck in the group (good genes). Some people resent the guys in group A, but a decent amount of people accept that they’ve done something useful, and their compensation co-incides with their social contribution….to some degree.

    So most of the anger at the top 1% is actually directed at the over-representation of guys in group C, which is a fairly small subset of the overall “1%” that people are rallying against.

    A lot of those guys *do* make their money at the public’s expense and society is worse off for it. However, I would posit that to properly diagnose the situation you need a proper understanding of how banks actually make money, and how it relates to the workings of the political process.

    I’ll try and keep it brief.

    Banks make profits by placing complicated bets on future events based on sophisticated risk-modeling. These models usually do a very good job and society is better off for it with one exception. They *always* under predict the probability of highly unlikely events, and when they fail, they fail *big*, causing a systemic calamity.

    The problem is that these big f*** ups only happen about once every 20-50 years, but in between they kick off huge amounts of money that keeps the government afloat. And the same behavior banks engage in in the good years is indistinguishable from their behavior in the bad years,so you can’t really tell beforehand.

    In between the catastrophes political gravy trains form around bank profits in the form of special interest lobbying, housing and student finance laws that subsidize risk, and excessively low borrowing rates that don’t capture the full level of risk that banks are taking on.

    So the political incentives are very strong to foment the types of situation we had with Wall Street, not prevent it.

    The problem with over-turning this dynamic is that the benefits of preventing *Too Big to Fail* are mostly unseen. It’s the dog that never barks. The median voter doesn’t care so much about the dog that never barks, and so the democratic process has a natural inertia that plants the seeds for these events to happen.

    You could argue that what’s needed is a counter-vailing force to re-direct the political nexus away from special interests and towards “the people”, but that begs another important question:

    Are special interests endogenous or exogenous to the political process? If they’re endogenous they’re self-generating, and happen because the political process itself is taking place. Sort of like a highly resistant strain of bacteria that always adapts faster than the anti-biotics used to treat it. If they’re exogenous, then they’re an evil that creeps in from the outside. but always exists separately from the process itself.

    The endogenous/exogenous point is an important one, because it means people can agree on the outcomes, but approve very different courses of action to respond to it. I would guess that OWS self-selects for people who use the exogenous model when they reason through the problem. Hence the claims about taking back the power and the “We The People” ethos to it.

    People who use the endogenous model probably don’t see the point in showing up……and so they don’t.

    Anyways……this got kind of long, sorry. Just food for thought.

    • Hey bro 🙂
      I’m going to attempt to keep my response brief as well. We’ll see how it goes. 😉

      I’m going to take points 1 and 2 together. First, I acknowledge that we’re really talking about the top .1%, rather than the top 1%. There are a lot of successful small businesspeople who fall into the lower range of the 1%, leaders who stimulate the local economy, etc. I don’t know anybody personally who’s protesting them. They’re the people I was referring to in the post who make 20x more than me, and deservedly. If they didn’t take billion-dollar bonuses out of taxpayer bailouts while laying off hundreds of thousands of people, they’re probably not included in the actual targets of the OWS movement, regardless of the rhetoric. (“1%” just flows off the tongue so much more easily than “.1%”)

      Regarding your point about productivity levels, I acknowledge that some people can achieve much more with the same amount of effort (the brilliant programmer you mentioned). They’re the (very few) people I was thinking of when I said that some really extraordinary people surely deserve to be making even more than 20x what I’m making. I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t make more money – I think that most people don’t have much of a problem with the successful entrepreneurs in category A because there’s a recognition that at some level, they were game-changers and innovators, and their new wealth is a reflection of their value to industry and hopefully also to society (although I think it’s a mistake to automatically equate industrial benefit with societal benefit).

      Even with the athletes and stars, they’re still highly talented individuals, and at the end of the day, most of them are still employees, dependent on media and sports team executives (who are making the real money) for continued millions. I mean really, besides Oprah, how many of them are really truly major players in the national economy? Big spenders, maybe, but not decision-makers responsible for systems on which everyone else depends.

      Again, I’m not against rich people.

      I’m not even against banks – I acknowledge that banking, investing, and Wall Street have important roles to play in economic development and stewardship.

      We’re not fighting to get rid of banks or tax the life out of hard-working rich people – we’re fighting for a return to the rule of law. (I’m paraphrasing someone else’s article, but for the life of me, I can’t remember whose).

      What I’m against (and what most of OWS seems to be against), isn’t people making money, and buying themselves more houses, but “buy[ing themselves] more democracy than everyone else.”

      This is a really great, really well-researched, really eloquent account from a highly respected journalist that I think you would appreciate:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-moyers/occupy-wall-street_b_1071288.html

      It’s also quite long, but I know you’re not afraid of long intellectual articles. 🙂

      As for your point about endogenous vs. exogenous – perhaps I misunderstand your explanation of the two different dynamics, but it seems to me that no matter which model you take, the battle for actual democracy will be ongoing. Whether the problems are endemic to the system or imposed from outside, they will continue to encroach whenever you (or we, the people) stop paying attention. It’s not like you win the battle and go home – part of the awesomeness of OWS is that it is as much an anti-complacency movement as anything else. The point is not to win, (well, ok, it is, but the point is not *only* to win), but also to foster a broader culture of active citizenship. That’s true whether you take the endogenous or exogenous model.

      Ok. That’s plenty long enough. Gee, can you tell we were raised in the same home by our similar (meaning “long-winded, overly thorough, and highly intellectual”) discourse styles? 😉

  5. Pingback: The Miracle of Compounding Interest and Other Libertarian Folk Tales. | FairyBearConfessions

  6. Kevin

    I will be brief:

    I agree with a lot of what you said. Your mention of not hating capitalism too much reminds me of a Winston Churchill quote: “Capitalism is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.”

    The issue I have with OWS is that what they are doing is not going to provide the solutions they are asking for especially under our current form of government and our current system, which realistically is not going to change too much no matter how many cities the “99%” occupy – sadly. Mainly because the 99% isn’t actually 99% more like 20% (just a guess but a definite minority). I think a lot of it can be contributed to our current two-party system. Mickey Edwards wrote a terrific article in The Atlantic on this:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-turn-republicans-and-democrats-into-americans/8521/

    My other issue with OWS street is that they are making demands on generalities but offering no specific solutions or problems for that matter.

    Now before you get started, I know! I know! the mantra: “We are not here to offer solutions, we are only here to make people aware of the problem and show support.” Blah Blah Blah (sorry being a little cynical here)

    My job is to fix problems (engineer) and whether you are changing a government, a car or your shoes you have to do three things before you can implement any actual change:

    1)Every one Agree you have a problem
    2)Find the specific problem (which is sometimes found through process of elimination)
    3)Offer solutions

    You cannot change anything unless most people agree you need to actually change. Second you cannot provide solutions unless you describe the problem, which admittingly is harder said than done. Then and only then can you offer solutions and do implementations. When you apply this to OWS I think most people will admit that we have a problem OR will admit that they would like things to be better. But OWS refuses to offer any specific solutions. They are too busy fighting for the right to occupy a park in New York than focusing on the issues.

    I think its rather obvious, at least now, that I don’t support all of OWS ideas but I think its too important to fall apart which is what is going to happen if they are not careful. The people against the movement say that they are focusing on class warfare (re-distribution of wealth, rich vs poor) or complaining about jobs, which I will get into in a min. I disagree that OWS entire goal is to socialize economic wealth, that’s just nuts, but I think that them cutting locks on churches and getting into the “mob mentality” doesn’t help their cause.

    My last question I haven’t really gotten a satisfying answer from is this: There has not been a HUGE difference between 2007 and now. Yes we have 10% unemployment and more mortgage defaults but the main institutions that make up this society haven’t changed. If you mostly agree with that premise than what has changed from 2007 to now that caused the Occupy movement?

    My hypothesis is that if tomorrow we found 15 million good paying jobs the Occupy movement would end. Another acceptable answer would be that this was building up and that was just the straw that broke the camels back but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a majority of the Occupy movement is young.

    I do think that there is ONE thing that will end the Occupy Movement: Winter!

    So while the movement is great and important, as you beautifully described, I hope they don’t get too distracted and continue to focus on the goal. (Whatever it is – I’m still not sure!)

    So in Summary:

    Long Like Occupy Wall Street, at least until Jack Frost comes!

    -Kevin

    PS: I lied about being brief

    • Ok, first. “The 99%” doesn’t refer to majority opinion; it refers to an economic percentage. If you’re not a millionaire, then you probably belong to the 99% whether you agree with anything Occupy Wall Street does or not. And while it makes great rhetoric, it’s not even really the 1% that most people are protesting – it’s the .1%. If you didn’t take billions in taxpayer bailouts so you could give yourself exhorbitant bonuses while laying off thousands of people, then probably nobody is protesting you.

      Excellent Atlantic article; echoes many sentiments I’ve been sharing with other Occupy supporters about the system. Part of the importance of the original occupation encampment was to model what real democracy, rather than two-party politics, looks like. It was quite inspiring to most people who went down there. More on that in a future post.

      To me, the rest of your comment sort of illustrates that you don’t actually understand yet what is happening with the movement. Have you actually been to an occupation yet? Visited? Participated in a think tank, GA, or working group? Don’t rely on media – go meet people. Regarding your three steps – occupying the park in the first place was all about #1 – and you’re right – most people have agreed that we have problems.

      Regarding numbers 2 and 3 – of course the Occupy movement is focused on identifying problems and solutions. If you want to know what’s being debated, go to nycga.net and join the “demands” working group and tell them what you think needs to be done. They have meetings all the time; I’m sure you could find one that fits your schedule. It’s the media who’ve been pretending that Occupy doesn’t stand for anything except making a nuisance of ourselves in public space.

      I’m not really worried about the movement lasting the winter. A majority of actions were already taking place online rather than in Zuccotti even before the police raid. It’s sad to lose the flagship encampment (although who knows how that will play out in the courts – it was definitely legally ambiguous at best), but people are still out there, taking it in shifts since they can’t sleep over. OccupyQueens is still having their GA tomorrow night. A friend of mine who went subway car to car today to evangelize for the movement met overwhelmingly positive response (300-400 people, mostly polite attention, “right on”s and applause, and one hostile listener). And police scanners reported that 36,000 people showed up on the Brooklyn Bridge earlier today. We’re not totally lacking in support.

      And I think this has been coming on much longer than the 2008 crash, but the crash has squeezed people much tighter. If you haven’t been so very affected, that may be because you are in an income bracket that has enough cushioning to protect you from the skyrocketing costs – my hourly rate has stayed the same at my job for 5 years (miraculously, as our founder has been scrambling to keep us at the same rate of pay/give us the hours we request with all the draconian budget cuts), but the price of food and transportation has doubled, and insurance prices have continued to rise as well. If you had a little cushioning in your budget before, then those differences might feel minor, but to a lot of people who were already struggling, that’s the difference between being able to eat regularly or having to skip meals to make rent. The 10% estimate of unemployment is very low, and lots of people lost huge amounts of personal wealth when their homes and/or their stock portfolios radically depreciated, meaning that people who thought they could retire find that they have to fight to stay in the dwindling job market longer than usual. Etc., etc., etc.

      Tired. Going to bed now.

      • Kevin

        You’re right I don’t have an understanding on what’s happening with the movement. I don’t know what the Occupy movement stands for because when you have a large group of people with an unorganized agenda and no rules for guidance then they stand for everything and nothing at the same time.

        I looked on the nycga web page and I found a proposed vision statement for the movement:

        http://www.nycga.net/groups/vision-and-goals/docs/proposed-vision-statement

        No I agree that vision statements are inherently designed to be vague, but the movement thinks in a bubble. I’m tired of telling people that we live in the real world!! I’m an Engineer and it is Managements job to think up these grand visions, which are great and wonderful and awesome and amazing, but it’s my job to make that vision actually work. And when your “Engineer” says your vision won’t work than it doesn’t matter how many places you occupy it still won’t work!

        Next year on Tuesday November 6, 2012 we are going hold an election using the existing Electoral College system. There is going to be two main candidates and some significantly smaller third party candidates. The Occupy movement and everybody in it, including you and me, are going to have to decide who, if any, you are going to vote for and whatever we discuss today is not going to change that system for that Tuesday next year. Also, more recently, next Wednesday November 23 the “debt super-committee” is tasked with announcing what $1.2 Trillion dollars to cut from the budget and we have to determine how to grow our current economy to put those 15million+ workers back to work and all the other real world problems we face today.

        So while everyone else is discussing how to fit all 310 Million people in the United States in Zuccotti Park to have a GA and decide with “Consensus” on which banks to set up tents in (facetious) I will be here in TN trying to figure out what industries, based on Wall Street, we need to expand to get those people back to work.

        I did post a question on the nyc GA Declaration page asking about coming up with less than 5 legislative policies to support. I was comment #9,495. I’m not holding my breath on influencing anybody just yet. I also looked on the Occupy Wall Street Reddit and there are now NO articles discussing policies. I can’t help but think of another Winston Churchill quote: “America can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” Let’s just hope the Occupy movement is just exhausting “all other possibilities” before doing the right thing.

        -K

  7. One, I just loved your comparison. You’re right: Johnny doesn’t get to be king and ruler of the classroom – at least, if it’s supposed to be a democracy. Two, how come a teacher (educating kids, i. e. the country’s future, right? Isn’t that – roughly – the idea?) working two jobs ends up just getting by? There has got to be something wrong with the system if education is worth that little (and yet, costs the student that much…?). Glad, you followed your passion still!

    • Thanks 🙂 Just to be clear, I am no longer a classroom teacher. When I was a classroom teacher, I did make enough money to get by just fine. Of course, I’m also only supporting me right now; it’s harder for teachers with families, especially if they also have to take care of aging or ill family members, etc. I’m still a teacher, but because I work as an independent contractor with a nonprofit organization, my situation is different. Still, I totally agree with your overall point – education is waaaaay undervalued.

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