Dirty hippies. Lazy losers. Those two phrases capture the essence of the conservative reaction to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests.
To be sure, the protests have raised many legitimate concerns- including the presence, and influence of, disreputable fringe elements such as anarchists or communists, and downright silly or boorish behavior that has, in some instances, crossed over the line into criminality. It’s also easy to dismiss the motivations and concerns of protesters who, when questioned, often cannot articulate precisely what they hope to achieve.
But critiquing and criticizing the Occupiers isn’t a particularly useful exercise. Over the past two years, our nation has 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 our political process and the federal government, the other at our economic system- the free market. The emergence of these two seemingly disparate movements 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. They are both manifestations of discontent with the corporate state.
Is something gravely amiss in America’s economic life? The answer to that question is undoubtedly yes, at least if your vision of a good society includes some sort of basic sense of justice, equal opportunity, and fair play.
Economically, America has become an increasingly unequal society. Indeed, conditions are even worse than most Americans realize.
Today, the top 20% controls more than 80% of the nation’s wealth, an amount that tops 90% if housing is subtracted. The bottom 60%, in contrast, accounts for less than 10%. Even worse, the lowest 40% are so undercapitalized that their shares cannot even be seen on the graph- it is as if they do not even exist. Meanwhile, debt distribution produces an almost inverse image- the bottom 90% hold more than 70% of the personal debt in the United States today.
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.
In the end, such gross inequality is morally indefensible. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that produces such results. Moreover, the reality of wealth distribution stands in sharp contrast to our ideal vision of how things ought to be. When asked, apparently, 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 a boat were so top-heavy, she would surely capsize, even in the mildest storm. What is true of boats is also true of nations. And we are 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 nervous and 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 denizens of the promenade deck (the Lord’s of Finance and the rest of the wealthy) are essentially indifferent to our fate.
And make no mistake about it- you 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 defect of character intrinsic to themselves 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 a function of individual responsibility or merit. According to the Pew Center, “[e]conomic mobility describes the ability of people to move up or down the economic ladder within a lifetime or from one generation to the next.” 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. So much for opportunity and merit.
The reality of America today is far removed from our mythologized visions of her- and equally far removed from what most of us believe our society ought to look like. Pretending these problems do not exist will not 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.
Thus, rather than laughing off the OWS protests (and even the Tea Party), people of good will across the political spectrum should be examining what has gone wrong in our society, why it has gone wrong, and what we can do to fix it.
It is incumbent on us to find answers to these problems. The inability of the OWS protesters to formulate clear goals highlights the intellectual and imaginative poverty of our nation- we know that something is going profoundly wrong, but we can’t precisely define it, nor can we articulate clear solutions. In many ways, the same could be said of the equally vacuous sloganeering of the Tea Party.
Essentially, we suffer, on the right and on the left, from a lack of vision. And “where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 29:18).