There are too many good grafs in Matt Taibbi’s piece in Rolling Stone to pull just one. I hope that if you think the Occupy Wall Street movement is a joke, or just the rumblings of a lazy band of social misfits, you will take a few minutes to read Taibbi’s piece. I don’t always agree with him, but here I think he’s spot-on, and he focuses on specific acts of corporate misfeasance that have not gotten proper attention in the news.
I believe in capitalism, in the benefits of hard work and the benefits and uncertainties of taking big risks. But capitalism where the capitalists keep their hand on the scale; where capitalists risk big, get bailed out, and continue to preside over the decimation of the middle class isn’t capitalism: it’s corporate socialism.
My husband and I work a combined 100+ hours per week most weeks. We have taken 2 brief vacations in the seven years we’ve been married. I have paid off my undergrad student loans, and I didn’t get a dime in federal loans for law school. In spite of my significant private loan debt burden, I work as a lawyer in the public interest, in which capacity I don’t make as much as my private counterparts but I feel a sense of personal satisfaction; and in which capacity I encounter the crippling effects of educational and social inequities every day. We live in a house that is worth 2/3 the face value of the mortgage (though we’ve made payments equal to 1/2 the face value of that mortgage over the life of the loan), thanks to the devastating effects of real estate speculation and unsound mortgage practices at every big bank in America over the last 10 or so years. We have watched our small retirement accounts be decimated since 2007, even as we continue to contribute because we don’t know what else to do. We have never missed a mortgage payment, and we don’t intend to, despite the fact that in today’s dollars we make less than we did four years ago. In spite of these challenges, we still manage to be active participants in our community, donating our time to arts organizations and to public school children.
I support the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Not because I want the government to subsidize my wealth the way it does the banks’. Not because I begrudge wealthy people the enjoyment of the fruits of hard work. Not because I am a utopian naïf who believes we can live in a world full of only winners with no losers. I support it because I believe that if you enjoy the rights of corporate personhood, you owe the responsibilities attendant to that personhood. As I grew up understanding it, the central premise of capitalism is that corporations (or partnerships or individuals, really any market participants) are amoral actors, driven by market forces to achieve success through efficiency and innovation. Well, that’s fine, until you say, “Corporations are people, too, my friend.” You can’t have it both ways. You can have soulless pursuit of profit or you can have personal accountability, just like I do. Meaning, if you don’t pay your bills, you lose your stuff, just like I would. If you cheat or steal from people, you go to jail, just like I would. One set of rules for every PERSON. If, on the other hand, you want to go about your business as an amoral actor, that’s fine, but you can’t expect the same free speech and other rights I enjoy as an accountable, real person; you can’t expect to enjoy the benefits of American citizenship while being organized under the laws of some Carribean tax haven.
There are plenty of middle class folks who don’t support OWS because they don’t believe (or at least they think they don’t) in wealth redistribution. Well, I do. I accept that the redistribution of wealth means that sometimes those who receive the benefits of my hard work may fritter away or misuse those benefits. God knows, I came of age in the 1980s when every time you turned around there was another politician squawking about welfare mothers or some such shibboleth of allegedly endemic socialist graft. And that squawking had the ring of truth to many people because it was rooted in anecdotal, if not systemic or endemic, evidence. But you know what? I’m willing to risk a little individual misuse of my tax dollars by people who have less than me, because the benefits to the many outweigh the misdeeds of the small few. Where I live, poverty and racial and educational inequality are still alive and well. If a few of the hours I work every week go to programs designed to attack those problems, I’m happy to put in those hours. (And I’ll still be happy to volunteer my non-work time, too, as I do on a regular basis.) Does that mean I will mindlessly support any program with a name that conjures social action? No. But I am happy to support those that innovate to improve the lives of individual people, one person, one community at a time. Whether that’s in the form of government subsidies to non-profits or government programs that replicate the successes of non-profits; whether that’s in the form of government subsidies to schools that serve the public interest (and education, pure education, is the essence of the public interest) or subsidies to individual students who demonstrate need and/or ability; whether that’s in the form of aid to artists and arts groups or in the form of subsidized public art; whether that is in the form of aid to small businesses willing to hire local workers or in civilian corps-style programs; I am happy to work a few hours a week to make government and communities work better for everyone.
But what I am not happy to do is work extra hours every week to support failed businesses whose only successes seem to lie in preying on individual failure and brute economic power to “make” money. I don’t accept that my tax dollars should be redistributed to entities who don’t need my money and yet still manage to waste (ahem, I think they prefer the term “invest”) it on risky schemes (again, I think the preferred term is “investments”), shadowy off-book frauds, and political influence. What I don’t accept is that I should work extra hours in every week to pay for bankers and equity companies and hedge fund managers to make wagers that would make a horse-betting junkie blush. What I don’t accept is that my voice should be drowned out in the political process by their dollars (which is to say, by extension, my tax dollars) arguing for policies and perks that benefit fewer than 1% of the population. Sure, if their innovations and efficiencies were helping America back on its feet, I might reconsider, but everyone knows that isn’t what is happening. We all know that the large financial institutions are sucking the American treasury dry and doing nothing to aid the people—the tax base—that makes their greedy feeding possible. Even if you don’t support OWS, you have to recognize that this is an untenable arrangement that has to be re-aligned. There simply is not enough money or energy being reinvested in actual goods and services in this country to sustain such supports.
We subsidize every significant activity of multinational corporate finance in this country. Aren’t we owed at least a modicum of accountability in exchange? Aren’t we at least owed the same amplification of our concerns? This is what OWS asks. This is what I’m asking.