The Logic Behind the “99%” Claim

I’ve heard some skepticism (and even outright dismissal) regarding the “99%” claim heard in the Occupy Wall Street. Some people just want an explanation. There are multiple interpretations which support the mantra. Let’s explore, share we?

  • #1- The Top 1% control 43% of all Financial Wealth. We represent the 99% of people splitting the remaining 57% of wealth among us. This report does a really good job of explaining how and where the financial crisis has exacerbated this split in wealth. This perspective is the one you’ll hear most protesters reference.
  • #2- Since the U.S. Supreme court declared in Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee that companies are granted the same Constitutional rights as individuals, the wealth distributions, under legal logic, are even more skewed than the numbers suggest. If the GDP of the U.S. is held to the estimate of $14.7 trillion, and the total market capitalization of the top 20 U.S. corporations is at $3.149 trillion, and assuming the conservative 2006 government data suggesting there are 6 million corporations in the U.S., and that there are 306,688,000 million Americans out there, that would mean that .00006% of the population controls a fifth of the nation’s GDP. We’re representing the other 99.99994%, I guess.
  • #3- The Top 1% controls the bulk of money flowing into politics- with 2011 expenditures on lobbyists already at $1.044 billion. We are the other 99%- unrepresented by a bankroll in D.C., and that’s the real point here. The government has failed to represent the people.
We are the 99%. We are demanding transparency, accountability and parity. We aren’t going anywhere.

I’m with the Occupied

After reading, reading, and reading some more, I’ve decided I support the Occupy movement on Wall Street and throughout the country. To explain my decision, I want to clarify a few things:

What the Movement Is

The movement originated as a protest of the lack of punitive actions being taken against the major banking culprits behind the 08 crisis. However, as time went on, the protesters found common ground on a wide variety of policy initiatives, though most of the issues have been framed as criticisms of big business. The people participating took pride in a “leaderless” movement. However, since its inception, structure has evolved in New York and elsewhere. While each locale is responsible for their own “manifesto” of sorts, the New York Declaration is serving as a model for the spin-off protests. My friend Del Harris was kind enough to post the New York Declaration on his Tumblr.

You’ll notice upon viewing the Declaration that it seems to consist of a wide variety of progressive ideals- not necessarily interconnected- all while using very vague and emotionally charged rhetoric. It’s also devoid of policy prescriptions. Those two issues were close to enough to turn me off to the movement.

But then I began to investigate the situation further. Yes, the ideas were widespread. No, there was not a consistent voice- collective or singular- calling the masses to action. But there was still a common thread connecting the protesters, regardless of Declarations or locale. The complaints being listed both formally and informally were symptoms of a universal problem: our approach to governance is broken.

Notice I didn’t say that our government is broken. I don’t believe it is. I believe that the infrastructure of our government is as functional as ever, and when properly managed by the politicians charged with its maintenance, can continue to serve the best interests of the American people.

What is broken is our approach to governance- an approach that places the needs of financial supporters over the needs of constituents, and that measures all policy actions through this lens. An approach that forgoes logical, warranted discussion of policy proposals in favor of media talking points. An approach that is utterly opaque while promising transparency- especially in the realm of regulation.

The problem is attitudinal, and the symptoms are systemic- embedded in our policies. THAT is what this movement is about- the fact that the government no longer serves the people.

What the Movement Is NOT

As my research continued, I stumbled across a wide variety of complaints and criticisms. Some I rolled my eyes at, and others gave me pause, but at this point, I feel comfortable saying that they are not a reason to ignore, dismiss or defer participation.

    • It’s just the Obama base. Inaccurate. While the bulk of the protesters may be categorized as “liberal” or “progressive,” they are just as quick to criticize Obama and his role in the bailout of the banks as they are Bush or any other conservative. Really, their political affiliation matters little. The movement is apolitical, and in many ways, derives its “base” from people expressing the same type of discontent as was seen in the early days of the Tea Party movement (until it was usurped by religious ideologues).
    • It’s a bunch of spoiled rich kids. Absolutely inaccurate. Sure, you’ll see a good amount of young people out there- even a few “hippies.” But you’ll also see the homeless, public school teachers, and major unions participating in these marches. The discontent transcends political, economic, and cultural divides. Moreover, even if they are a bunch of rich kids- look at the other rich big wigs ASKING the government to tax them more (I’m lookin’ at you, Warren Buffett).
    • Their anger is misplaced. Bloomberg, most notably, has criticized the New York protesters, claiming that their rage is being directed against the wrong people- namely, people at the banks making $50k a year. Bloomberg, and others, misinterpret the “Wall Street” moniker. Does anyone really think the customer service rep making barely enough to cover rent and groceries is responsible for the current crisis? No risk. Wall Street isn’t even where Wall Street is anymore. The protest location and the branding was selected because of the image projected. Prosecute the peons? No. The people who were actually responsible? Absolutely.
    • They’re trying to do away with our way of life. No, they want the “American” way of life to mean what it used to. They’re not saying profits or investing are bad- they’re saying that unchecked corporate greed is bad. Why were head honchos getting mega bonuses after the bailouts? Still haven’t heard a good answer to that.
    • They want socialism. Have you been paying attention at all? False.
    • It has no ability to create change. Absolutely false. I will be the first to point out current limitations (lack of a clear, understandable platform and zero PR infrastructure, for starters*), but I cannot and will not dismiss its potential power. You’ve got a lot of angry people gathering across the country. They can only be ignored for so long. Moreover, I’m sure there are a few disgruntled military folk out there who thought Outserve was a waste of time… and look how that turned out. And, as a side note… these dismissive categorizations of the protesters’ efforts as a “waste of time” are eerily similar to what our parents were told as they marched for civil rights and an end to Vietnam. I’m not sayin’- I’m just sayin’.
*How to Make it Count
Like I said, the movement isn’t perfect, and in my humble opinion- as someone who works in finance and is still struggling with student debt and the like as a single mother; who voted for Obama and will likely vote for him again because I’m that frightened of the alternatives; who is a communications nerd at heart and a life-long student of politics and campaigning; who is desperate to see change take hold in this country- a few steps need to be taken to make all of this work and pain count for something.
  1. Protesters, if at all possible, need to follow this advice and dress “business casual” as they march. It’s not about thinking everyone should dress a certain way- it’s about making the movement more relatable for moderate Americans. It’s one thing to see someone looking like a flower child getting hit by the cops- it’s another to see someone who looks like they could work in the cubicle next to you being targeted.
  2. Headquarters need to assign public relations representatives who will represent the whole as far as communicating with the media is concerned. You want mainstream media coverage? You’ll need to have your story pitched. You need coordinated efforts among the various headquarters across the nation. You’ve got to push to be seen outside of the block in which you currently reside.
  3. Policy suggestions need to be formed, but they need to be crafted in an informed manner. Please, please, please do not write suggested legislation for financial regulation without have a full understanding of how the areas you want to regulate function- or any other form of legislation, for that matter. There are experts out there who would be more than willing to help your cause. Use their expertise.
  4. Do not allow yourselves to be usurped by politics. This is way beyond Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, Libertarians, or any other affiliation you can think of. The minute you make an affiliation is the moment you alienate a powerful chunk of potential supporters.
  5. Please try not to rely on the kinds of rhetoric that got us here- sweeping claims without warrants or data to back them up. Don’t twist the data to support your views. Pure data is out there- admit its limitations and support its merits, then apply it to your arguments. A yelling match is far from productive.
  6. You really want to make a splash? Set up a debate. Get three or four leaders within the movement who are articulate and informed, and challenge a succinct list of politicians and business people to a public debate. Ask CNN to moderate. Make the challenge impossible to ignore. We want ENGAGEMENT- without it, there’s no way for COLLABORATION, and without that, solutions will be impossible.
On a separate note- if anyone involved in the protests wants my help on this, let me know. In particular, #6 is sort of my thing, and I’ve got an army of former debaters behind me who, I feel confident, would want to participate- whether it’s through actual debating, debate coaching, research and preparation, PR leg work, social media engagement, or anything else.
How Do I Get Involved?
Ok, let’s assume you agree that we need to change our approach to governance. Let’s assume you want to help the cause. How can you get involved?
  • Attend the protests. They’re close to everywhere.
  • If there’s not a protest near you, start one. Other cities’ protests will be willing to help you get started.
  • If you cannot attend because of school or work, offer your services to headquarters during your off hours.
  • If you don’t have the time to volunteer in some capacity, consider a monetary donation. They need supplies.
  • If you don’t have the means to donate, participate in the debate. Get on Twitter and start talking. Start blogging. Start posting on Facebook. Politics has always been considered inappropriate for polite conversation, but now is not the time for social niceties.