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ORIGINAL PUBLISHING DATE: October 17, 2011
Occupy Wall Street has reached a transition point. The mass media is paying attention, and Occupy protests have reached most major cities in America (see John Osborn’s look at Occupy Seattle). As a result, there is much speculation about what needs to happen now to channel the movement’s energy toward achievable goals. Since they asked my opinion (ummm, errrr….), here’s my advice.
The focus of the national conversation should be one word: opportunity.
The mounting frustration at the core of the OWS protests is a generation of young people leaving college with six-figure debt and no opportunities. The protests are a product of the fact that the economy just isn’t working for a lot of people. And among those crowds, I’m sure that very few people want a utopian society where every person has the same outcomes. They just want an economy that produces genuine opportunities for people, where a person’s ability and effort create the outcome. (What little openings there are now represent more of what Umair Haque calls McJobs.) Absent those genuine opportunities, it should shock no one that this generation is aiming their protest at those people who have the game rigged in their favor. The number one goal of this movement should be economic reform that creates genuine opportunities for every citizen in America.
Because when we have such vast economic inequality, we’ve failed as a society. The distribution of economic gains over the last 100 years have narrowed to a point where today, the bottom 90% are seeing NO gains, and sometimes even seeing losses. Some of this can be attributed to the rapid rise in the cost of healthcare crowding out income gains, but largely it coincides with the rise of the financial sector as a portion of the economy. I’m not one to call for forced redistribution at the hands of the government, because I think that’s the wrong way to go. What we need are significant structural changes at the institutional level that balance the playing field and increase opportunity. That should become and remain the focus of this energy.
Do not align with a political party or organized political movement.
Let’s be honest here. The Democratic Party is salivating at the idea of usurping a grassroots movement that illuminates the opportunity problem. The Democrats have always been seen as the party of the poor, and have even behaved that way at times. But remember, if you will, that Barack Obama took more Wall Street money in 2008 than any candidate, and then proceeded to fill his economic team with Wall Streeters while failing to prosecute any of the bankers who defrauded the national economy.
If the OWS movement accepts aid or comfort from the Democrats, left-leaning interests or unions, it will be OWS, not Wall Street, that has been occupied. And when you get too close for comfort to injuring the President’s re-election effort, they’ll drop the hammer on you. You’ll go from being an important grassroots movement with a sincere message to a bunch of crazies overnight. So be careful.
Not to mention the fact that there are broad swaths of the population who are Republicans and Independents and are very much simpatico with the idea of leveling the playing field. They will be instantly turned off if they smell a Democratic infiltration. Don’t make the mistake the Tea Party did.
(As an aside, it may be too late. Democratic side group MoveOn.org is already attempting to co-op the OWS movement. And the first press release from the Occupy Delaware movement came from an email address with the handle “demlabor@_____.com.” And it’s not only Democrats. Many of the Ron Paul-libertarian persuasion are attempting the same takeover tactics for their “End the Fed” effort.)
Stay focused on Wall Street reform.
From extremists like the socialists and anarchists, to more mainstream lefty groups like Bill McKibben’s call to align the Keystone XL opposition with the OWS movement, everyone wants a piece of the energy created by the protests. Don’t let them. Stick to Wall Street, where the reform is needed most.
Everyone from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi (Break Up the Monopolies) to Maverick Mark Cuban (Limit The Size Of College Loans) has offered specific reforms that OWS can focus on to make a major difference. There’s a lot of possibility in finance reform, and the clarity of that message will go a long way.
Use your REAL influence – your money.
You want to make a real difference over the long haul? Move your money. Or buy some stock and influence shareholder meetings. Or, if you’re a member of a public sector union, lobby your pension fund to use its influence to make changes on Wall Street. (According to wikipedia, the largest 200 pension funds accounted for $4.540 trillion in assets as of September 30, 2009.) Or maybe it’s as simple as buying 10% of your goods locally instead of always buying the cheapest goods Wal-Mart has to offer. We all have the power to use our money to better society, and we all bear some responsibility for where we find ourselves. Here’s to greater awareness making our future choices better than our past choices.
Every fifth day of protest, do a service project.
The people who oppose you want to make you look like a bunch of filthy wannabe hippies who crap on cars. It would serve you well to have an occasional organized effort to serve others. The message that would send – people struggling at the bottom of society serving others who are in the same boat – would go a long way toward building positive support for your mission.
Perseverance and clarity
In the end, Occupy Wall Street is an amplification of the struggle that’s taking place in much of America, and the message is important for people to hear. The pitfalls are many, however, and a leaderless grassroots movement is very difficult to sustain. It takes a great perseverance and a clarity of mission – a clarity that has yet to appear in this effort. I, for one, wish the Occupy movement success in building a national conversation about the future of opportunity in America.