Occupy, what are thy (specific) goals?

A high school friend, an artist whom I admire, walks in the bitter cold with the Occupy Traverse City (MI) group. Reading her Facebook posts brings back memories of my own protest days that shaped my liberal worldview and my belief that one person can make a difference – especially when his or her voice is joined in the strength of a movement whose time has come.

That said I am confused about the Occupiers’ goals. What specific, real, measurable, achievable changes do they seek? Whose proposals and what economists’ and social scientists’ views do they support?  I don’t see many people speaking up against social and economic equality, excepting that inequity that flows from a lack of energy or effort. No one carries a sign that supports greed and corruption. Most successful corporations know that their long-term profits rely on aligning their interests with the public’s. And, while it doesn’t seem like enough reforms have been made to rein in Wall Street, truth be told, part of the problem is the average American’s disdain for government regulation – unless and until it’s their own proverbial ox being gored. (MBA students will be case studying this issue for years to come, hopefully shaping a next generation of more thoughtful business and government leaders.)

I do like the, We are the 99%, slogan. It speaks to the power of community. That said  most Americans in the 99% already are living better than the majority of people in many countries across the globe, even if they cannot afford a flat screen TV. Maybe not the waitress who cannot afford a safe apartment, but she does have some alternatives: She could get a roommate, or seek out a public training program that would qualify her for a better, salaried job with benefits.

(Disclosure: I have worked as a waitress. I know it’s hard work.  I earn a heck of a lot more now, with better working conditions, thanks to a different kind of hard work and a great education that was financed by years of sweat equity. And yes, I am still one of the 99%.)

The 99% in fact includes many people who are financially comfortable, even if we don’t live in the 1% of households  earning $500,000 or more a year. It’s been estimated that the 1% comprises about 6000 people, primarily “corporate executives and those in financial, law and medical professions,” as well as many sports and entertainment celebrities. Some of these individuals have seen their incomes rise a whopping 275% over the last three decades, as the tax burden has shifted from wealth to work (something many keep contending is a good thing that will spur greater economic investment – a change yet to be seen), and as some financiers have been able to exploit weakened regulations and even weaker enforcement (promoted by that ‘less is more’ regulation crowd).

A video about America’s growing wage disparities, Nickeled and Dimed (here’s the link), makes some excellent points about the difficulties of getting ahead when you’re behind in terms of your education, wages, and prospects, or if you’ve just picked the wrong profession to hang your hat on.  But the logic of the video is really loose. There always will be hard jobs that don’t require much education, that don’t pay enough to “live on,” particularly in an American that’s fueled by expensive fast food and the desire for the newest gadgets, technologies, and designer clothes. That’s the reason motivated people study to gain knowledge and skills that will get them better, more interesting  jobs that  coincidentally often pay more. Economics also is part of the reason that people that pair up, or marry, to strengthen their household’s financial foundation. Of course, that can backfire: If you marry in haste, you’ll repent at leisure, as the saying goes – and almost always,  suffer financially.

As long as we all demand the lowest prices for goods and services, and investors seek the best return on their investment (and who doesn’t do that?), businesses will work to hold down all controllable costs, including wages, particularly for jobs where there’s an abundant labor pool.

What Nickeled and Dimed is complaining about is the law of supply and demand. That’s not a law that’s readily impacted by protests, marchers, or slogans.

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