Monday, November 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

As I’m walking in a midtown subway station, a group starts yelling “Occupy Wall Street, all day and all night” over and over again.  And this is followed by “We are the 99 percent” also over and over again.  The message is clear whether it is delivered in Zuccoti Park, in a subway station or anywhere across the country.

As I reflect on the movement, I am sympathetic to the calls for tax reform.  There are, in my opinion, federal tax rates that are too low for the income involved, and there are rates that are too high.  And yet many in Washington are opposed to any changes or fine tuning whatsoever.  Many of these same individuals also champion a more balanced budget.  That leaves spending cuts as our sole present fiscal policy tool.  But cutting more in social services or in defense spending in the short term may not be a desirable option.  And, besides, too many spending cuts are counterproductive to a struggling economy. Going back to tax rates, what makes our current structure so perfect (loopholes and all ) that there is significant opposition to any changes?  Were they set with such precision or were they set through a series of political compromises that yielded the present matrix (which may or may not be the best possible matrix for our economy)?  And if we focus exclusively on the top 1% of our population (in economic terms) , which is getting richer and richer over time, are they really paying the taxes they should or does the system  provide them with more than their fair share of benefits?

Periodically, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are joined by prominent individuals and celebrities in a strong show of support.  The support leads to more airtime for the demonstration and as such serves to highlight both the person and the movement.  I sometimes  wonder how strongly the celebrities share an on-going commitment to change.  How politically active are they and how involved are they in moving forward the agenda of needed change?  Are some looking for a photo opportunity or to move forward a cause?

I have two other observations.  The demonstrators clearly have Wall Street as their target giving a misleading sense that wealth is concentrated solely in these individuals.  Wall Street  employs many people who are far from wealthy, and there are many areas  outside of Wall Street where the wealth and income of individuals involved is at the top 1% level.  Though clearly there needs to be more transparency in the dealings of financial institutions and more reforms are still needed, the target should be the tax rate structure rather than the street address.

I worry about how the demonstrators will make the transition from protest movement to major political force to be reckoned with.   If the major presence of the Occupy Wall Street movement  is in Zuccoti Park and like places, the movement will have failed.  It needs to transition to a strong political movement.  The Tea Party is not my drink of choice but I give them great credit for not only standing up for what they believe in, but also in impacting the political landscape and the halls of government.  To really be successful, Occupy Wall Street needs to march out of the park and into the 2012 election.


  1. Herman –

    I still have three final papers to grade and about fifty final grades to post, but instead of working all the way to end and then quitting cold turkey, I thought I would ease myself out of the term by starting to catch up on my reading. So it is that I am way behind in reading your blogs, among many other things. I am happy to see you include OWS among your topics, and want to remark on an aspect that you don’t mention – the “teachability” of the movement, especially for Hofstra students and especially in conjunction with the (now) two Presidential debates we have been chosen to host. It seems to me that from the point of view of teaching it doesn’t matter too much if the OWS participants are doing it right or wrong or inadequately or whatever other description one might use. For teaching purposes, it is enough simply that they are doing it. Students from all three of my writing classes this semester have visited Zuccotti Park, either with me or on their own or both, and many of them have used the experience in various ways in their papers in the latter part of the semester. None of them had ever seen a protest activity up close. Some students were supportive and thought the demonstrators were doing something to heighten awareness; others picked up a common line of thinking that “no plan, no leader, no organization, no goals” would lead to “no results.” To me, as a teacher, whether the students are for or against does not matter as long as they are thinking hard about what they are seeing and trying to articulate their responses in effective ways. For the most part, the students were doing that. But even more, they were, as class discussion and individual conferences revealed, experiencing something about the distinction between the functioning of a republic and the needs of a democracy – were seeing, in other words, how the perceived failings of the elected representatives (as you have pointed out in another of your blogs that I’ve just finished reading) are answered by the direct voice of people demanding change. I hope the students can hold this semester’s experience in focus as long as next fall when they get to see actual and aspiring elected officials up close and can take their newly acquired learning experience one step further. (Had I seen your piece earlier, I’d have used it in my classes – would even have encouraged students to respond to you.)

    Ron Janssen/Dept. of Writing Studies

  2. PS: I should have mentioned that the students were all first-semester freshmen enrolled in FYC courses -- a cluster and a seminar. This makes the experience all the more important, it seems to me, as part of our effort to get students involved in life beyond the immediate campus. If I give up reading and get back to work, they can move on to being second-semester freshmen!