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Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Do the Occupy Wall Street Protesters Want?

There have been a lot of snarky articles written about the Occupy Wall Street protesters (and their clones in cities across the United States), characterizing them as freeloaders, lazy college drop-outs, bored trust fund kids, unemployed people who would rather complain than work, etc.  Most of my research is done online, so I can read the readers' comments on most of the articles about the Occupiers.  Most of those comments are even snarkier than the articles.  A popular way to discredit the protesters is to point out that they don't have a unified message, a platform, or specific goals that can be addressed.

Full disclosure: I am not one of the protesters.  I do not speak for them.  I've not discussed with any of them what their goals or objectives are.  I do support them, and I'm doing so by publicizing what I can about them and, occasionally, dropping off a load of blankets, sleeping bags, and other needed supplies to the Occupy Boston crowd in Dewey Square.

I do not have a profile on the We Are the 99% webpage, but I am the 99%.  And this is why I'm supporting the protesters.

Earlier this week the Congressional Budget Office released a report about income disparity between 1979 and 2007.  The New York Times sums up the report's findings this way:  Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1% of earners saw an increase of 275% in their after-tax incomes.  The next 19% (or the remainder of the top 20%) saw an increase of 65% of after-tax income.  The next 60% saw an increase of just under 40%, and the bottom 20% saw an increase of just 18%.

Remember, we're not talking about overall wealth growth, so the argument that wealth begets wealth doesn't apply here.  This is a strict after-tax income-to-income comparison.  Yes, things like capital gains are included, but that only applies if an asset is sold.  The value of assets that one continues to own such as a house or investment portfolios is not included.  Things like Social Security payments are included in these numbers.

Looking at Table A-1 from the CBO Report, the real dollar increases are as follows (earnings include wages, capital gains, and 'Transfers' such as Social Security, and after federal taxes are deducted):

Someone earning $15,411 in 1979 was earning $18,979 in 2007, an increase of $3,568.
Someone earning $22,851 in 1979 was earning $29,769 in 2007, an increase of $6,918.
Someone earning $30,341 in 1979 was earning $42,202 in 2007, an increase of $11,861.
Someone earning $51,613 in 1979 was earning $81,135 in 2007, an increase of $29,522.
And someone in the top 1%, earning $115,965 in 1979 was earning $252,607 in 2007, an increase of $136,642.

One might argue that the higher-paying jobs increased in complexity more than the lower-paying jobs, thus justifying a greater increase in salary over the years.  That is a valid point.  But consider the following information as well:

  • Cost of a new house
    • 1979 - $58,100
    • 2007 - $308,775
      • 431% increase
  • Average rent for a two-bedroom apartment
    • 1979 - $280
    • 2007 - $1,368
      • 389% increase
  • Cost of a loaf of bread
        • 1979 - $.35
        • 2007 - $1.25
          • 257% increase
  • Cost of a gallon of gasoline
    • 1979 - $.86
    • 2007 - $2.80
      • 226% increase
  • Cost of a dozen eggs
    • 1979 - $.85
    • 2007 - $1.75
      • 106% increase
  • Cost of a gallon of milk
    • 1979 - $1.62
    • 2007 - $3.27
      • 102% increase
Let's take home ownership out of the equation for the moment.  Let's assume someone is paying the average rent, buying 15 gallons of gasoline each week, and is buying one loaf of bread, one dozen eggs, and one gallon of milk each week.  In 1979, that person would be paying $4,112 each year for those necessities, leaving the lowest earners $11,299 for utilities, car payments, other food, etc.  Not luxurious, or even particularly comfortable, but reasonable.  In 2007 those same necessities cost $18,926, leaving the lowest earners only $53 per year for all their other needs.  That's just not right.

While some of the protesters may want perfect income equality, most of us are only trying to have a chance.  We can't do that if incomes are not keeping up with the cost of living.  The Declaration of Independence lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the three unalienable rights of [hu]man[ity].  Americans are not guaranteed a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, and I believe in hard work and personal responsibility.  Safety nets should be in place to prevent starvation and depravity, but not ensure comfort.  But in the last thirty years, hard work and personal responsibility are no longer enough to achieve 'happiness' (or, as I define the term in this context, the 'American Dream').  To list 'pursuit of happiness' as an unalienable right must mean that the achievement of said happiness is possible for ordinary people willing to put in the effort, and right now it's not.

I realize that the world is changing, and we are now in a 'knowledge economy.'  Presumably that means knowledge is the key to success.  The logical course then seems to be to prioritize higher education: i.e. if you want to succeed, go to college and get a degree.  In 1979 the average in-state tuition (including room and board) for a state school was $2,327 for the academic year.  In 2007 that same year's worth of tuition, room, and board cost $13,589, an increase of 484%.  Families in the bottom 99% can't save the money to pay for their kids' college education, and the kids who borrow the money won't earn enough at their non-top-1% jobs to be able to pay those loans back.  The American Dream has become a pipe dream.

What do the Occupy Wall Street protesters want?  They want people to realize what is going on.  They want people to realize that many of us are following the same rules as the much-vaunted 'Greatest Generation' followed, but the game has changed, and following those rules will no longer earn you the comfortable, middle-class lives our grandparents lived.  Following those rules now earns you a house with an underwater mortgage, a job that demands annual pay-cuts while the company is declaring record profits, the risk of having that job taken away from you at any moment, fewer (if any) health and retirement benefits, and ever-growing credit card debt just to keep food on your table.

The protesters are not politicians.  They don't have a platform.  They don't have a neat three-point plan.  They don't have the answers.  And they're not supposed to.  No one elected them to get or keep the country on the right track.  They are protesting the fact that the people who were elected to do so by and large owe their political power to the corporate and special interests who funded their campaigns, and it's those corporate and special interests that they're representing.  The protesters are not trying to 'hurt' banks or corporations or politicians.  They are trying to get banks and corporations and politicians to be accountable for their actions, and if that accountability is interpreted as 'hurt,' then I'd say there's definitely something wrong that needs to be fixed.

There's something wrong when those who are elected to represent the people can only make it to election day with the help of the rich and powerful.

There's something wrong when banks give oversized mortgages to underqualified borrowers, and sell securities backed by those mortgages as good investments, and also sell - as good investments - credit default swaps betting that those mortgages will fail.

There's something wrong when CEOs make decisions that cost thousands of people their jobs, cause millions of people to lose money on investments, and get paid multimillions of dollars as a severance package for a job poorly done.

There's something wrong when banks and corporations make mistakes and receive taxpayer-funded bailouts, but when individuals make mistakes they're told to suck it up, and are accused of being greedy, lazy, and irresponsible.

There's something wrong when interest rates punish those who behave responsibly and live within their means, but reward those who finance their spending and risky investments with other people's money.

And there's something terribly wrong when Americans look at other Americans who are exercising their rights and, more importantly, fulfilling their civic duty to question the actions of their leaders, and call them lazy, stupid, spoiled, freeloaders, etc.

It's a recession when your neighbor loses his job.  It's a depression when you lose yours.  If you're not part of that top 1%, just wait: your depression will come.  The numbers have proven that it's just a matter of time.

You are the 99%, whether you like it or not.


  1. Amen to all of this. But particularly this:

    "The protesters are not politicians. They don't have a platform. They don't have a neat three-point plan. They don't have the answers. And they're not supposed to. No one elected them to get or keep the country on the right track."


  2. Thanks, Jenn. I just don't understand all these people who are criticizing the protesters for not acting like politicians or having ready solutions to the problems they're pointing out.