Michael Stafford, 11/15/2011 [Archive]

Why Occupy? Steerage is Getting Restless

Why Occupy?Steerage is Getting Restless

By Michael Stafford

Dirty hippies.Lazy losers. These phrases capture the essence of the conservative reaction to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests.

To be sure, conservatives have raised some legitimate concerns about the protests- such as the presence and influence of anarchists or communists, and instances of boorish behavior that have sometimes crossed the line into criminality.It's also easy to dismiss protesters who often can't articulate precisely what they hope to achieve.

But criticizing the Occupiers isn't a particularly useful exercise.Over the past two years, we've witnessed the emergence of a mass protest movement on the political right- the Tea Party- and now a similar phenomenon on the left.One is aimed at the federal government, the other at our economic system.Their emergence is linked.Both are symptoms of a new political volatility fueled by the growing desperation and despair of average Americans.They are the predictable results of an increasingly dysfunctional political and economic system that no longer seems to work for, and which appears increasingly distant from, ordinary people.

Economically, America has become a very unequal society.

According to a paper by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely titled "Building a Better America" that was published earlier this year in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the top 20 percent controls more than 80 percent of the nation's wealth.In contrast, the bottom 60 percent accounts for less than 10 percent. Even worse, the lowest 40 percent are so undercapitalized that their shares amount, collectively, to less than 1 percent.It is as if they do not even exist.

Given such statistics, it's not surprising that America's Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) is more characteristic of developing world economies than those of our industrial-democracy peers in Europe and Asia.

Moreover, the reality of wealth distribution stands in sharp contrast to our perception of how things ought to be.When asked, Americans prefer a more equal society in which everyone has a share.The growing dissonance between our ideals and our reality fuels legitimate anger and perceptions of injustice.

If America was a ship, she'd be so top-heavy that she'd capsize even in mild weather- and we're caught at sea in the midst of a gale.Seen in this light, OWS and the Tea Party are both signs that the vast majority of us down in steerage are becoming increasingly restless as our perception of our own peril grows.This is coupled with a dawning realization that the ship's officers (politicians and the federal government) and the wealthy denizens of the promenade deck are essentially indifferent to our fate.

And make no mistake about it- we are locked in steerage.

Opportunity is part of the American dream.We tell ourselves that we are a society where individuals rise and fall according to their own merit.This vision of America can be seen in conservative responses to OWS.The protesters are lazy- they should go get jobs.If they are unemployed, it's their own fault, and attributable to some character defect rather than to any systemic flaws.Herman Cain captured the essence of this line of reasoning when he said, "[d]on't blame Wall Street, don't blame the big banks.If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!"

Actually, inequality in America isn't largely a function of individual responsibility or merit.Despite our mythology of opportunity, we are in fact one of the most closed societies in the industrialized world- one where the accident of birth is often, to a disturbing degree, determinative of an individual's economic attainment.Indeed, among developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks third from the bottom in terms of intergenerational economic mobility, above only Italy and the United Kingdom. As a result, you have a much better chance of moving from the bottom quartile to the top one in places like Denmark than you do in America.

Pretending these problems don't exist won't make them go away.Even worse, the inequalities described above are inherently destabilizing to our society- they undermine the legitimacy of our political and economic systems and produce the civic despair, fear, and anger that stokes the fires of protest and unrest.

Rather than laughing off the OWS protests, people of good will across the political spectrum should examine what has gone wrong in our society, why it has gone wrong, and what we can do to fix it.The fate of our nation turns on the answers we find.


©Copyright 2011 Michael Stafford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Michael Stafford is a former Republican Party officer and the author of "An Upward Calling." Michael can be reached at anupwardcalling@yahoo.com

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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