“Occupy” and the Underlying Economics

I don’t want to re-engage here the by now much-overworked debate as to whether there is a coherent message or an identifiable plan emerging from the “occupy” movements, or whether those movements will survive the winter snows of Boston or the police actions that will over time no doubt increase.

I do want to just record, without detailed citation (this data is easily retrieved from the internet as reported by the mainstream press), the highpoints, or rather lowpoints, of our current economic situation.  I do submit that one underlying driver of the “occupy” movement is growing awareness of great economic distress.

We have learned that poverty is growing in the US.  We have learned that the number of people who fall into the category of gross poverty (less than 50% of the poverty line earnings) has doubled over recent years.  We have learned that young people are disproportionately unemployed.  We have learned that undereducated people are losing ground relative to the educated.  We have learned (November 9 Boston Globe) that there are Boston neighborhoods with over 40% of the children below the poverty line, most in single parent homes and with 20% of those parents without a high school degree.  We have learned that on an international scale, our economic and social well-being, once pre-eminent, has fallen mightily; the Times reported the Bertelsmann Siftung survey indicating that our child poverty and senior citizen poverty rates place us in company with Grece, Chile, Turkey, Mexico and other unenviable peers,  while our “overall social justice rating” ranks us below such as South Korea, Portugal, Slovakia, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and other countries which are instinctively dismissed by Americans as not in our league.

While it is unlikely that cutting the economic legs off the wealthy will achieve anything useful in the long run (the money to be redistributed is a pittance compared to the problem), we should understand that that reaction (tax the rich) is one of frustration in light of the economic realities, and the loss of faith by the folks at the bottom that they have a reasonable shot at rising upwards.  And the internationalization of business and its growing tax-efficiencies are in fact a significant issue in our ability to afford the legitimate demands that an enlightened society puts upon its government; today’s signs in Dewey Square don’t so much want to tax people who make a lot of money, but rather to tax the entities with high untaxed profits even after the compensation of our highest earners.

It is likewise no doubt frustrating for people who work hard for their money, and perform difficult tasks, to be told they are overpaid.  The point is they are not so much overpaid as the other guys are underpaid or unpaid.  But another point is that those who work and earn and get angry at Occupy had best understand their own risk profile: regardless of who is “right” about many of these issues, the perception of these issues, if held by a large enough part of the population over a long enough period of time, will be viewed as unfair, will certainly be uncharitable in human terms, and will likely destabilize the society which is the assumed underpinning of the safe enjoyment of the wealth being accumulated by all this hard labor.

Class tension interferes with what we really need to get done: create confidence in the society so as to drive funding of innovation; allow confidence in other people so as to loosen immigration in areas that actually can expand the economy; create predictibility in our politics and public policies;  find some way to mediate the power of wealth which is driving public policy into areas of self-interest measured in the narrowest sense.

We are all in this together.  Driving to Weston doesn’t distance us from the tents in Dewey Square.  If the tents disappear from Dewey Square, the people in them, and the problems they reflect, do not disappear.  These people are like Whitman’s leaves of grass; they are ever under our feet.  And grass can be slippery for those who stride across it without heed for their footing.

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