In the discussions of why things are so bad, why incomes have not risen, why poverty keeps climbing, and why inequality is so severe, people should keep in mind one basic statistic: the US GDP per capita has doubled since 1970. Or to put it in more simple terms, the United States economy is producing twice as much stuff per person as it did 40 years ago.
Despite this massive growth, poverty has risen, the wages of most have stagnated or fallen, food insecurity has risen, people are calling to raise the retirement age of all things, and the public as a whole is being fed a nonsense line about how we do not have enough money to solve the human woes caused by economic deprivation.
This is absurd. We have way more money (or more accurately economic output) than we have ever had; it is just all being distributed to the richest 10% of the population. Solving the problems caused by economic inequality is going to require distributing products differently. Regardless of what commentators might say about the rise of China and India, or outsourcing, or automation, we should never forget that we are still producing twice as much stuff per person as we did 40 years ago. Whatever effect those other things have had, they are secondary to the extreme mal-distribution of products. If we distributed products (or income which is just a proxy for distribution of products) differently, none of the other factors would matter: the standard of living for everyone would have been improving.
It is also important to remember how we got here. The right-wing — led by Milton Friedman — was very successful in convincing people that economic growth was all that mattered. They argued — probably disingenuously — that inequality did not matter, and that orienting policy to the rich would be best for all because it would increase growth, the benefits of which would “trickle down” to everyone. After 40 years of these policies failing to generate a “trickle down,” this approach should not be taken seriously by anyone. Without some way for the 99% (or more accurately the 90%) to capture some of the benefits of economic growth, the whole enterprise of pro-growth policy is just a giveaway to the rich.
I have become increasingly annoyed by the rhetorical line that the goals of Occupy Wall Street are unclear. Mainstream media outlets have been pushing this line from the beginning and many regular people have picked it up as their position. What these media outlets really mean is that protesters at occupations have not written up a press release with explicit goals. This is the only thing that journalists can parse and comprehend.
For those of us who can look at a set of slogans, arguments, and ideas and actually piece them together ourselves, the complaints have been clear from the very beginning. The protests are about economic inequality and undemocratic governance. Almost everything coming out of the occupations can easily be placed into one of those two categories or both.
The Wall Street venue points clearly to that. It is the epicenter of economic inequality and the epicenter of undemocratic political corruption. The now-famous “we are the 99% slogan” is an objection to the massive economic wealth controlled by 1% of the population. But, it is also clearly — and perhaps more obviously — a point about democracy. What kind of democracy is it that 1% of the population receives more political attention and government aid than the other 99%?
You could go on and on through just about everything that has been said or recorded at these protests, and you would see it time and time again: protesters are angry at rising inequality and the perception that government does not work for the majority of the people.
Now solutions to these big problems are hugely complicated. Would anyone seriously say that they have a five-point plan to eliminate unjust economic inequality or put the government back on a democratic path? Probably not. But what you would expect people to do is have a multitude of ideas, and that is what you are seeing. That perhaps is what has genuinely confused some. Protesters have raised all sorts of issues that they see as contributing to the inequality and non-representative governance that they are upset about. Although they don’t tag those complaints as being under the headings of inequality and non-democratic governance, it does not take too much effort to realize that is what they are about.
Figuring out how to tackle economic inequality and undemocratic governance is not an easy thing to do, and — surprise! — it might take some time to formulate a complete remedy. Hell, maybe even some months. But just because it is not easily done or easily communicated in sound bytes digestible by the press, that does not mean that the fight is without merit or aimless. As protesters struggle in general assemblies to put their ideas together, those who care about the issues they are protesting should not be discouraged by a lack of a complete platform. Instead, they should join those who are equally indignant about the current state of affairs and add their ideas to fix it.
There is a worthwhile open letter on racialicious about the whiteness of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The phenomenon of white men leading the movement is fairly predictable. The fact that the movement has a strong anarchist contingent makes it even more predictable: anarchist subcultures are almost entirely white and heavily male from what I have seen.
But that aside, the most interesting part of the letter comes at the end:
We believe the white people of #OccupyWallStreet need to understand something: the feelings of economic insecurity, political powerlessness, and lack of support that have brought so many of us to the protests at Liberty Park have been lived by many of the people of color in this country for centuries.
To me, this is the best case for individuals interested in racial justice to become passionate about or at least competent in economic issues. Most racial justice advocates certainly recognize that economic problems like poverty and other forms of inequality disproportionately affect members of oppressed races. The 9.1% unemployment rate that people have been screaming about is actually lower than the unemployment rate typical in the Black community.
Despite the overwhelming importance of economic issues to racial justice — as well as gender justice and GLBTQ justice — precious little time is devoted to those issues among radical or leftist communities. Sure, you have some fairly superficial capitalist critiques. Someone might talk about wage slavery or whatever. That is all well and good. But I am talking about diving into some of the more boring, but arguably more practically important, issues like the Federal Reserve’s inflation target or monetary stimulus.
I don’t know if economic and monetary policy is too boring or has been coded as too white and too male, but the neglect of those issues is a serious problem for radical communities. Most in the community can usually talk about financial institutions stealing from people, but precious few can really go into the technical details of how it is done.
That is not to say that all racial justice advocates need to be able to explain what the Fed’s Operation Twist was and the theory behind it — people specialize in different things. But, I do wonder if the time spent reading yet another article or book on problematic language that is racist or marginalizing (which invariably says almost nothing new) could sometimes be better spent on becoming more competent on economic issues. You know, for the sake of pursuing racial justice.