Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy Everywhere

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Thomas Jefferson, 1816 letter to George Logan

I wholeheartedly support the Occupy Wall Street movement.  

My grad school safety buddy and all around fantastic human, Erin Bohanan, recently had an Op-Ed published in the New York Times, entitled "Invitation to a Dialogue: A Protest To-Do List," in which she explained that without clarification of desired actions and the identification of leaders, the movement runs the risk of stagnation and irrelevance.  She'll be responding to some reader responses on Sunday, so be sure to check her out there, too!  Erin and I disagree on the need for the protest to establish policy objectives, but I do agree that if the Occupiers want to lead the policy development instead of leaving it to politicians, they will eventually need to develop policy.  We mostly disagree on time frame, but I also argue that the protest itself does not need policy to be valid.  I think a lot of people have struggled with this because large protests have been on the decline over the past 50 or so years (wow, the 60s were 50 years ago...yikes), and we've gotten out of the habit of thinking of them in their appropriate context.  A protest is just that - a statement against something, a mass showing of disapproval.  Its object is not progressive, but static.  Occupy Wall Street does exactly that, and phenomenally well.  It's where we want to go that is in question, and Erin is right to point to that hurdle ahead.  [Tangent: I also love this poster more than maybe anything.  Absolutely fantastic.]

There has been a lot of hysterical whinging about people not knowing what the protest is about...I think this is disingenuous.  There may have been a period at the beginning of the protest where some confusion was understandable, but at this point, if you're pretending you don't know why the Occupiers are mad, you're being deliberately obtuse.  That said, there is always room for refinement, and I think it's worth addressing some of the criticisms that people raise and misconceptions being thrown around.  One that's particularly pervasive is the idea that the protesters just want things handed to them, and most of all that these folks don't want to work.  It is not a matter of people not wanting to work; in fact, it's the exact opposite. People are upset because they DO want to work and are not able to. There is currently one job for every five unemployed people, so even when all of those jobs are filled, there are still going to be ENORMOUS numbers of people still looking for work. Also, stats like that only account for jobs, period, not fitness of jobs for various candidates. If someone with a Masters in Economics takes a job as a barista at a local coffee shop, not only is that person underemployed, but they're also taking a job that would be better suited to someone working through high school or college. This leaves you with someone without a degree/specialization unable to work a job that would be appropriate to their skills, and another person unable to use their skills in a job that is likely underpaying them.  This helps no one.

On top of all this, companies are making record profits while not hiring. This is in large part because of a line I'm sure everyone recognizes: "well, at least you HAVE a job." When the economy tanked and companies laid people off, the work didn't evaporate. If you're a company that was doing a collective 4000 hours of work a week by having 100 people working 40 hours a week, and on Friday you have to lay off 25 people, when Monday comes around, you're still going to have to do that 4000 hours worth of work to maintain your business.  This means your remaining 75 folks now need to figure out how to squish 1000 more hours worth of personpower into their workweek. Since the company laid people off for financial reasons, they probably don't want to start paying each person 13 extra hours of overtime, so you now have pressure on you to do 53 hours worth of work in your 40 hour workweek, because if you can't hack it...well shit, man, you're not doing your job, how can you expect to keep it? Everyone's scared, because they have bills to pay and they don't want to lose their jobs, so they pick up the slack. This is a GREAT deal for businesses - now you only have to pay one person for one-and-a-half, two, three, four people's jobs. Why would you create more jobs and "waste" more money on people? When all that matters is profit margins, then people aren't people, they're just assets.

The thing is this: businesses qua businesses are morally neutral. Business is conceptual, its only function is to make money through some kind of enterprise. However, to take business from concept to production, you need people to run it, and that's when you need to start thinking about the ethical ramifications of employment. We haven't been doing that. We've allowed the most basic function of business, making money, to block out our concerns for people's wellbeing. This is a mistake not only because it's callous and douchey, but also because business can only rise to glory through people. Without innovators and grinders and copy monkeys and interns and CFOs and receptionists and people working to use the construct of business to make something exceptional, business is just something in a book. To reach the best of business' potential, you need people to be enthusiastic about their work, to be healthy so they can work, to make money that allows them to live their lives, and to have time to enjoy their lives so they remember what's so worthwhile. If all you worry about is the bottom line, then you don't make time for that, and everyone suffers, including, eventually, business. The people on Wall Street, and in Boston, and in Denver, and in Seattle, and everywhere else, don't want to see what we've all built fail.

There is a second issue in play, that being the "Fuck You, Got Mine" thinking in the finance industry. Loans and banking have reached a point of ridiculousness that everyone just has to take because there have become fewer and fewer banks. It sounds counterintuitive, but a free market's virtues need to be preserved by regulation. We've had less and less regulation, and as a result, our options for functioning within a free market have diminished. I like this chart in particular: 
Click through for larger version

In 1990-95, you had 37 banks holding about 20% of our collective financial assets. Now, you have 54% of our assets in the hands of four banks. FOUR! Now tell me this...if you hold 13.5% of a nation's fiscal assets (assuming equal distribution), which by the way are NOTHING compared to your own corporate holdings, and those people want to change their terms with you...why the hell would you even take their call? You wouldn't, you'd just do whatever the hell you wanted. And they have.

I started my first business at 20 and my second at 22, so I have had to make hiring and firing decisions, and I have also had to pull those late nights and unending weeks doing the work of three people (or more) to make my business work. That is not what I object to. If it's my business, then the choice is mine to put my shoulder to the wheel and shove, because it's my business and I want to make it work. What I object to - and what many of these protesters object to - is when an employer hires an employee with one understanding (say our 40 hour workweek above, doing whatever job they applied for), and later demands that the contract be drastically changed after the fact, for the sole benefit of the employer and without a corresponding change in remuneration or benefits, and further demands that the employee abides by the changed contract essentially by threatening them with the "at least you have a job" line, since that line has a silent "because you know no one else is hiring, good luck making rent" at the end. Now, we might argue that the employee should saddle up and do the jobs of three people because the job provides his livelihood, and that's fine, except that's really only justifiable if the employee has the OPTION of doing so, and that is not the case. That is wrong, and it is very different from a business owner deciding to work a superhuman number of hours to save their own enterprise.

Many people argue that we don't need to hire people to count paper clips or sit around to restore the economy, we need to get people back to buying stuff, to create demand.   How, then, can we do that? The way I see it, there are two options. You can have the government put more stimulus funding into creating jobs that can develop infrastructure of all kinds, which puts more money into more pockets, with which people can buy stuff and increase demand and eventually create job openings which these infrastructure developers can transition to. Many people don't like this option because they're concerned about the National Debt, which is valid (though a total, irreparable collapse of the economy would screw us worse than any giant debt), or because they don't like the idea of government expansion.  If that option doesn't appeal to you, then you have the second option: require employers to take some of those profits they're hoarding to pay an actual living wage so employees CAN buy things instead of being perpetually struggling to barely keep their head above water. The minimum wage hasn't kept up with cost of living increases, and that's part of why people are having so many problems. Companies aren't going to do that on their own because as I mentioned above, we've allowed "it's just business" to permit us to look at employees as assets. This happens less in TRULY small businesses, but the mid-size businesses that like to pretend they're "mom and pop" shops and the gigantic businesses that employ thousands don't care. They are simply not going to start paying a living wage unless forced, and they have spent the past three decades proving it. Someone I was arguing with recently said "yes, corporations are saving their cash, but they would be happy to spend the cash if they could build their business." They can build their business by paying their employees enough that they can buy products and giving them enough time in the day to buy things or spend money on going out, etc.

The people who oppose the protests frustrate me, I don't mind admitting.  It's a strange frustration, though, because it resolves into hope, and a desperate desire to wish them well. I hope they never wind up in a situation where buying a simple cup of coffee is a luxury that requires saving. I hope their hard work always pays off for them and they're able to afford the life they want by its virtue. I hope their children and relatives and friends are all able to pay for college outright and that their work, too, will always pay off. I hope they never find themselves unable to pay for desperately needed healthcare for themselves and their families. I hope they are never rejected for a loan that they need to make it for a few months because something entirely beyond their control happened and their life changed dramatically. But most of all? I hope that someday they are able to realize how lucky they are that so far, they have not suffered any of these catastrophes. THEY ARE LUCKY, and their experience is NOT universal.  Occupy Wall Street is calling out to transform our great society into a place where that existence is the standard, and we no longer need to rely on luck.
Vive la revolucion.
"Manifesto" by Matheus Lopes

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