With all of the media coverage about the recent Occupy Wall Street Movement, which has grown and spread to cities throughout the United States, I find myself reflecting on issues of privilege and power in our society as a whole.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement, without a clear set of leaders, has become a multi-issue movement, which, like the Tea Party, has meant that the media has latched onto certain aspects of it, ignored other aspects, and blown minor grievances into headlines.
One of the main arguments of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is that the top 1% of wage earners in our country control an unfair percentage of the wealth, power, and influence in our country, in particular in the economy and the political system of our country. A few of the issues that the media has been discussing as concerns/demands of the Occupy Wall Street Movement are highlighted below. Please note, I am not addressing all of the concerns reported, as I am far from an expert, and want to keep this post relatively short.
1.) Campaign Finance Reform: This is actually an area where I feel the Occupy Movement does raise legitimate concerns. However, one claim is that corporate donations unfairly hinder the political process. This simply isn’t true. Corporations can’t vote. The CEO of a major corporation has only one vote when he goes into the voting booth, same as every other American citizen of voting age. It’s our CANDIDATES that are the problem, making promises to the people, and then altering those promises if a campaign contribution is at play. Why do we vote for these people? Politics should not be a profession, as it is for a large chunk of our elected officials, it should be a call to service, and a desire to serve our country and improve life for all Americans. If we don’t like how a person is performing, vote for someone else! I recognize a two-party system doesn’t always made this idealistic statement possible, but still feel that it’s our duty to vote for people who we feel will address the issues we are passionate about, and when they don’t, it’s time to send them packing.
2.) Corporate Power: I was watching an episode of the television program “Freedom Watch” where the guest was my senior seminar professor, Dr. Steve Horwitz, an Economics professor at St. Lawrence University. While in conversation on the OWS movement, Steve put it best when he said “in the marketplace, it is the 99% of us who have the power.” He’s absolutely right. It is the 99% that have allowed things to get to this point. We’ve supported the “evil corporations” by buying their products, consuming their services, and for allowing our politicians to enact laws, policies, and loopholes that benefit the 1% which is the source of the outrage currently being seen daily as the OWS movement continues to grow and gain support. We have a choice as consumers. By choosing to support these large corporations, we are signing off and saying that we’re ok with what they’re doing. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but we have implicitly sanctioned it through a majority of our actions as consumers. Case in point, why do we sign up for the Bank of America account when we have local banks and credit unions that will provide the same service (and now, at a cheaper rate given Bank of America’s proposed charge of $5 a month for using their card). Are you kidding me? Why should WE be paying the bank money to hold onto OUR money? I’ll be curious to see if people actually switch banks, or if we’ll keep marching along in step with the corporations and paying them in an effort like this.
3.) Education Loans: In an era of skyrocketing tuition costs, the OWS movement has mentioned student loan forgiveness as a potential outcome where a heavy burden could be removed from the lives of hundreds of thousands of college graduates. While I agree that tuition, room, board, and fees have increased at many institutions greater than the rate of inflation each year, students still continue to enroll in colleges. This is in large part due to the high percentage of students at private institutions on financial aid, and due to less expensive tuition, room, board and fees at public institutions. This is another simple issue of using our power as consumers, since colleges are increasingly recognizing the need to be consumer-minded for students and families. It is up to us as consumers to choose an institution that will provide us with an education that we are able to afford. Part of that affordability will include loans. Most college graduates leave college with some amount of loan debt. As consumers, the choices we make before starting college can significantly impact the amount of debt we graduate with when we leave college.
So, how do we exert our power as the 99%. We take our voices and the “movement” to Washington, DC where the real decisions regarding corporate power are enacted and codified daily. Until our political leaders feel the pressure exerted on them, as the supposed “representatives of the people” not much will change, since the corporations on Wall Street have little ability (or desire) to enact changes that would hurt their business (and to their credit, they’re correct, why would anyone want to hurt their business and livelihood. Simply put, you wouldn’t want to do this)! Putting pressure on politicians to close tax loopholes, remove lobbyist influence, and begin to focus on the needs of the 99% is the only solution that will bring around the end of our current economic and political problems. The current two-party system truly does not allow for a great discussion and debate on this issue, as the parties are increasingly polarized, and when one party is in power, they are hesitant to propose any changes that might hurt them if they ever lose that power. A coalition system of multiple political parties is an alternative that might allow new forums for discussion to occur, especially around the key concerns being raised by the OWS movement. At the very least, new parties would break the division between the two parties and force consensus-building on issues in order to receive the required votes to enact laws and policies.
I said earlier that this movement has made me think about power and privilege, and indeed it has. Seeing these protestors has made me wonder why aren’t their movements like this in our country advocating for those in other nations who are oppressed, struggling, and having a more difficult time than we are. The harsh truth is that in this case, we, as citizens of the United States, are the global 1%. I examined my own life. I grew up in a middle class household, had the opportunity to attend college at a private institution, earned a Master’s degree, and currently am working in a job a love, making a decent wage, have access to benefits, and in general, have a very good life. We take for granted that as a global citizen, we are the exact type of people that the OWS movement is protesting against here at home. It’s easy for us to be outraged when we view ourselves as the disenfranchised part of society, much more difficult for us to put aside what, in a global context, are relatively minor concerns compared to the issues facing millions of people elsewhere, and focus on those issues. This movement has been my reminder to both recognize that I am indeed a privileged individual and that I have the power to bring about change, not only here at home, but in the broader world, where there are people who don’t have the freedoms that I do to be an advocate for them.