Part of our October series on Jobs & The Economy, featuring written op-ed pieces and Q&As with Delaware’s business, labor and government leaders.
I moved to the Pacific Northwest at the end of August, just in time to catch the best weather of the year. We have enjoyed daily doses of sunshine and highs in the upper 70s for weeks on end, just as Delaware was being deluged with late summer rains. We have quickly immersed ourselves in the local scene, enjoying some terrific restaurants, the Seattle Symphony, U. of Washington Husky football games, and taking a sea plane to the San Juan Islands for an afternoon of whale watching.
It is a diverse, vibrant city, with a diverse, vibrant economy. Boeing is still making jet airplanes, Microsoft millionaires are still spending money and celebrating a new retail venue across the parking lot from an Apple Store, Paul Allen and Bill Gates are still giving it away, Amazon has a new headquarters, Starbucks are on every corner, and there is a flourishing life sciences sector.
That said, there are plenty of folks who are sufficiently angry – or just down and out – to spend their nights camped in a downtown square in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protestors. Occupy Seattle had a slow start, but appears to be gathering steam and numbers. In Boston, police dispersed the crowd and made arrests, but in Seattle the Mayor himself showed up to empathize and express his support for their goals.
What are their goals, exactly? That is not clear. Here are a few things I overheard at the Occupy Seattle site this week:
“This is part of a global movement to develop a better system for us all.”
“I am tired of working in a system that makes it easy for us to hurt people around the world.”
“We need to take the money out of the wars and put it into jobs.”
I had a few conversations with those who appeared to be organizers. Certainly there is palpable anger with the big banks, the government bailout of the big banks, and the absence of accountability. This could lead you in any one of a number of policy directions, though. You might conclude that the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation is toothless or unworkable, or decide that some high profile bankers ought to be spending several decades in a minimum security facility in upstate New York, or demand that more capital be invested in private enterprise rather than being held on the balance sheet to meet enhanced liquidity rules. These were all legitimate views, according to the protestors, though none of them seemed singularly focused on policy prescriptions for our nation’s economic ills.
The signage alone (“Bernie Sanders for President”) suggests a populist fervor not seen since William Jennings Bryan raised hell on the plains of Nebraska. But it is not just economic inequality that has captured the fancy of the occupying forces, as they are also upset about issues ranging from global warming to the unfair application of the death penalty.
Their methods and apparent policy orientation suggest that this movement is predominantly liberal, and indeed The New York Times is reporting that leading Democrats hope that the movement gives resonance to the Obama White House communications efforts to blame Republicans for the sorry state of the economy and recalcitrance on enacting the proposed jobs bill.
I am not sure this is entirely correct. I suspect the protests reflect a much broader and deeper dissonance in our country, in our polity, within our very souls. Our problems are hardly unique, but they are daunting. On some level, every thinking person must be asking themselves some fundamental questions: Have we lost our way as a nation? Can we continue to innovate and grow our economy? Do we care about our neighbors and the collective welfare? Do we have the determination to continue to play an active role in shaping the world beyond our borders (I asked this last question of Obama advisor David Axlerod at a private event in Chicago last week, and he struggled to frame an optimistic response)?
This movement may well transcend political parties and ideologies. In the minds of many, genuine economic opportunity is so limited, and our political system is so dysfunctional, that we may all find some common ground at last in the simple notion that America is broken.
If you doubt this, take a look at conservative columnist Peggy Noonan’s last essay in The Wall Street Journal. Noonan reports on the results of two focus groups of so-called Wal-Mart women in Orlando and Des Moines, and their views and language are strikingly similar to the protestors who are Occupying everywhere from Wall Street to Seattle.
Noonan quoted middle and working class women who characterized America as “depressing,” different,” “discouraged,” “sour,” and “bad.” Things are worse now than they were in 2008, they emphasized. They were disappointed with the President, and flat out angry with the Congress. Rather than aspiring for upward mobility for their children, one Mom was teaching her kids to collect cans for the deposit. As Noonan noted, while some commentators make light of the Occupy Wall Street as a nutty radical fringe group, in mid sized metropolitan areas in the South and the Midwest, a bunch of apolitical housewives are just as indignant.
We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore. Hope is not a strategy, and anger is not a policy. But it is a start.