Occupy ourselves!

Before assigning blame, we need to figure out each of our own roles in the economic mess that inspired "Occupy Wall Street."

Andrew Burton/AP/File
In this file photo, Rose Caulfield, from Hoboken, N.J., participates in a public session of yoga, led by yoga instructor Seane Corne, in collaboration with the " Occupy Wall Street" protests in Zuccotti Park. Lim Rogers argues that we need to figure out how we are to blame in the financial crisis, and see if we can find solutions within ourselves before assigning all of the blame to others.

So what is this Occupy Fill-in-the-Blank movement all about? I’ve been hearing the words “openness,” “honesty,” “engagement,” “dialogue,” “listening,” “attention,” and “responsibility” a lot. Funny that these are words one often hears in relationship counseling or personal therapy sessions. And that’s no coincidence. Like the situations when we are having troubles in our relationships–our interactions with others–often we learn that the first place we have to look is within ourselves. What’s our own role in this mess of a relationship? We may want to pull our hair out over the bad behavior of others and blame them for our troubles, but usually at least part of the blame lies within ourselves, in our own part of the interaction and how we did or did not react to what the “other” did or did not do.

And that’s why I started thinking that the Occupy Fill-in-the-Blank movement should start with “Occupy Ourselves.” I wrote about it this way in my latest column in the Christian Science Monitor (the online version now available here)

What started as the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstration has turned into an “Occupy fill-in-the-blank” movement – with the blank being anything we blame for our own economic troubles.

The main target seems to be the vaguely defined “1 percent” – that tiny minority of the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations, the only ones those with economic and political power seem to serve. So the Occupy movement targets the big banks – the culprits that got us into the financial crisis. Or the millionaires, because income inequality is at an all-time high. Or Congress, the lobbyists, and others in power who have failed to do good. All of them – it’s their fault.

It’s not that the outrage isn’t justified. Policymakers catering to the oil and gas industry, to Wall Street, and to the rich and powerful deserve part of the blame. So do banks, ratings agencies, regulators, and others who set the stage for the financial crisis that triggered the recent ballooning of America’s debt. And as the wealthy have gotten wealthier, policymakers have chosen to only reduce their tax burdens.

Meanwhile, policymakers seem to care much less about the poor. The share of Americans living in poverty has steadily increased over the past decade to more than 15 percent – the highest percentage since 1993 and approaching where it was when LBJ launched the nation’s “war on poverty.” How is that fair?

But we also have to recognize that our economic problems began long before the financial crisis and that the boundary between the wealthy 1 percent and the 99 percent that the protesters claim to represent isn’t so crisp. Those big subsidies to the oil and banking industries also benefit the rest of Americans through lower gasoline prices and cheaper credit. And the majority of American voters went along with politicians who proposed very expensive deficit-financed tax cuts and deficit-financed prescription drug coverage, even though our young people – the very core of the Occupy movement – are the ones who will be stuck with the bill.

We all had a role in this, not just that 1 percent.

If there is a “change we believe in,” we can’t just complain about the status quo. We have to spell out the better life we want and the trade-offs we’re willing to make to get there.

These are difficult trade-offs we each need to contemplate. Doing better for the other 99 percent of us requires real money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Are we willing to steer more federal funds to the most effective forms of spending in terms of both short-term stimulus and longer-term economic growth – policies that would also benefit Americans more broadly – and away from the less effective, less beneficial forms?

Would we be willing to receive less generous benefits from Social Security or Medicare or have our tax deductions reduced? Would we be willing to let go of our portion of the Bush tax cuts rather than insist that only millionaires and billionaires need to sacrifice theirs? And most important, if we want our “occupying” to catalyze real change, would we be willing to speak up loud and clear about our willingness to make these specific trade-offs to our policymakers?

In the end, it’s easy to occupy Wall Street and protest what’s wrong. Far harder is to occupy ourselves with the tough choices that could move America away from its crisis path and toward surer footing as the world’s leading economy.

That’s the protest message we need to hear.

Some of the same idea comes through in this interview I gave to Talking Points Memo’s Kyle Leighton, in a column titled “Bipolar Inequality” (a phrase I accidentally coined while sitting in the Milwaukee airport on the phone with Kyle; apparently sleep deprivation sometimes inspires my creativity):

Diane Lim Rogers, Chief Economist at the fiscally hawkish Concord Coalition, made similar points about the more reckless economic policies of the past decade: Much of the distaste with both Washington and Wall Street comes back to fact that DC is simply unwilling to change course.

“The difference is that during the Clinton years the rising tide was lifting all boats,” Lim Rogers said in an interview with TPM. “Low-income households were still doing better. Even then, the rich did really well, despite their taxes being raised.”

But what’s different now is that income inequality isn’t a political tenet of the left: it’s truly hurting people. Lim Rogers said the poverty rate is actually of more concern than the rich doing better given the circumstances.

“The outrage is not that the rich are richer,” she said. “It’s that the poor have gotten poorer — the inequality has become bipolar.”

Which could help explain why when OWS [Occupy Wall Street] provided the spark, many Americans didn’t discount the movement as disaffected liberals who have no real point: it’s a real issue borne out by the numbers…

While Gallup showed that only 22 percent of Americans considered themselves supporters of OWS, other polls have shown larger amounts of support. Because, as Lim Rogers points out, the movement has centered on a more inclusionary focus.

“As the definition of the rich keeps shrinking, the movement feels like it gets more spirited,” she said. “OWS is getting the support of most americans, because how can you disagree with the fact the top 1 percent has done well, but that poverty is increasing. I’m not surprised that OWS is doing well, and I think it’s justified. What Americans may not have a grasp of is that we are all part of the problem, because we continue to support politicians that support these policies.”

My point is that even those of us who are not in the top 1 percent of the income distribution may actually benefit from and at least implicitly support the policies that are perceived as “those policies that cater to the top 1 percent.” And the policies that we think are letting down just the bottom 99 percent are actually letting down all 100 percent of us. It’s not ever going to be as easy as neatly sorting out the blame vs. the burden into the 1 vs. 99 percent. We’ll have to sort it out within each of ourselves first.

(Like those “protesters” in the photo appear to be doing, actually. Just Say “Om.”)

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