The Culture That Gave Birth To #OccupyWallStreet

I have been very happy to see the Occupy Wall Street movement gaining momentum.  I have posted some prescient, but possibly unduly pessimistic, blogs about some of the issues that are being brought up with the OWS movement (From Feb 2011 – https://jlcauvin.com/?p=2178), but I have yet to join the actual protest.  I have been travelling and dealing with some health issues with my Dad, but I plan on joining at some point.  But before I can, I guess I will make some points on why I think this movement is important and vital right now.

People Saying That This Is Just Anger At People With Money

This is the narrative that is being pushed by Republican and corporate masters and their less intelligent minions in the general public.  Like many things with Republicans it is a concise, easily understood and completely misguided description of what the issues are.  People do not resent the money.  It is the fact that the political system is now a full-fledged partner in the massive consolidation of wealth in a very small percentage of Americans.

First off let us not pretend that the bankers and investment houses are Apple (who for all the good it produced, American jobs was not high on the list) or General Motors in that they produce products people can use and employ lots of people to do so.   They are gamblers in a casino.  They are playing three card monty.  The problem is that not only are they counting cards that represent working families’ money, the Casino (the government aided by lobbyists) are helping them!  The Casino wins, the Wall Street gamblers win, and then the American people lose.  This is not anger about the money they earn; it is anger at how the system has been gamed and rigged to give them an unfair advantage in the form of government access.  And not only is it rigged – it is so rigged that it will only get exponentially worse.  They have more money, which allows them to buy our government, which will enact further advantages in tax breaks and loopholes (or de-regulate protections) which will reap more money that they can then use to… buy more protections from government and so on.  And this leads to my next point:


Lobbying Is A Bigger Enemy

To a certain extent the Wall Street culture and those who embrace it are the obvious villains in the current narrative.  But to be fair they are playing a game that our country has allowed to go on.  For anyone who has not read it, I strongly recommend “Winner Take All Politics.”  It is a book, that in more scientific terms, defends the premise of comedian George Carlin that elections are illusions of personal political power.  We are always obsessed with fund raising during big elections and voting for major candidates, but in between elections it is the lobbyist for the wealthy (yes to detractors on the right, unions have lobbyists too, but the influence of the Union has dwindled just like its membership and the status of the working man) and corporations that determine what actually happens.  Lobbying money is bigger than campaign money, it is more secret than campaign money and it has more effect than campaign money.  And after a while, the Senators and Representatives who work for us realize that their job is to be re-elected and that their best friends are their lobbyist and contributor buddies.  And there is only one way to break those shackles.

Congress Needs Term Limits

I still do not understand why the President has term limits, but Representatives and Senators can serve until they die.  These are the people that need term limits more than anyone!  The President’s office is much harder to operate in secret, whereas there are 535 members of Congress who are continually being offered things from their corporate suitors and unless you are like my Uncle and watch tons of CSPAN you are probably in the dark about Congress in general.  If they all had term limits (and this is PARTY NEUTRAL) then they could actually listen to the voice of Americans and not the voice of lobbyists.  And I actually do not resent the far right direction of the House.  The Framers intended the House to be the chamber that catered to the fickle will of the people.  And “right or wrong” the People wanted something different in 2010 and the House operated as it was intended to to a certain extent (if we ignore massive anonymous corporate campaign contributions).  The real prostitutes are the Senate.  The intent of the Senate was that it be a branch of government above the indignity of elections every two years, which would allow its members to make decisions based on long term needs.  But Senators of both parties have turned out to be the worst.  That is why even Democratic Senators like Mary Landrieu (La.) and Jay Rockefeller (W. Va) can support oil subsidies and coal mining because they enjoy their seats of power and therefore, will cater to to provincial corporate interests rather than the better long term environmental health of the United States.  Hate or love the tea party, but they were on politicians like hit squads that did not do what they wanted.  Perhaps it is time for Democrats to do some house (and Senate) cleaning as well.  But the Tea Party did not act alone.  It was aided by the judicial branch.

Citizens United

When the Supreme Court decided that restrictions on corporate donations violated the First Amendment it gave Tea Party backers (who either believed in their cause or simply could use them to enact an extremely business friendly political climate) the ability to become national political hitmen.  That is why from small local elections to disastrous Republican Senate nominations like Christine O’Donnell there was a dramatic shift right for the Republicans.  They could not actually flood every single primary with money, but they now had a weapon to make Republicans afraid that they COULD BE targeted.  But beyond all of these things, there is a fundamental problem in America and nothing short of a revolutionary movement will probably correct it.

Our Culture Has Become One of Greed and Ignorance

The most popular reality television shows (besides Jersey Shore) are the lot that feature “real, working Americans.”  From Coal, to Gold Diggers, to Deadliest Catch, the shows are in the dozens.  And it makes sense that they are on television because they represent an American fantasy.  See there is a market for all of these shows because we like to romanticize the working man.  These shows should be on Disney because they are bordering on fiction.  America is like the girl that dates the garage worker because it pisses off her father and she wants to “feel real,” but eventually she settles down with a lawyer or an investment banker.  She has experienced authenticity at a safe distance.  That is what we do.  People love watching these shows because they represent what America used to be, but when it comes to providing jobs and industry to people like the ones on television, well that is a little “too real.”

Or maybe you are one of the many Americans who enjoy watching pastors on television, like Joel Osteen, that have developed this prosperity gospel, where God wants and loves those who make lots of money (I believe it was Jesus Christ who said, “Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven”).  So now television is telling you that the rich are blessed by God and that the working men are fine and kicking ass on reality television, so who are these socialist scumbags trying to overturn a country that is supposed to be about making tons of money?

Many of them are people who cannot get jobs. Does that mean they are lazy?  Perhaps. Or is it also because we are an economy and a corporate structure that has one goal – pleasing shareholders and boards of directors?  We value stock price as not just the most important factor in corporate success, but the only one!  Need to raise your share price?  You could invent something, or layoff 1000 workers, either way you will be viewed as more attractive, more efficient and your shareholders will be happy.  Mission Accomplished.

Now I understand we are not and probably never again will be an industrial economy, but are there major initiatives to make our country better at math and science to create or build the next industry?  Of course not, because that might require tax money or deeper sacrifices from the wealthy or a belief in science from half of the country. We should be leading in green technologies.  Even if you are a climate change skeptic (i.e. moron) there is a huge market for energy efficient and carbon neutral products.  From a business perspective isn’t that enough of a reason to lead in that area?  Of course not, because too many industries have their hands deep into the souls of our lawmakers.  So they attack the science (which is settled) and never even address the fact that if done right we could become a power economically by leading this industry.

Or why not a high speed rail system?  There are laborers looking for work and our train system is ancient compared to Europe and Asia (Shock of shocks – America not #1 or #2 in this area!!!).  But there are industries that cannot possibly want this (oil and aviation to name two).

Of course money sometimes has a “good” effect, but I believe its influence, regardless of the cause, must be removed.  The power must be the people’s again.  When gay marriage passed in NY State it was a big moment and seemed like a triumph of good, but I saw it as a triumph of money.  Only the threat of campaign contributions from some wealthy businessmen who had changes of heart on gay marriage swung the necessary votes.  As AC/DC said, “Listen to the money talk.” I would have preferred marriage equality to come the way it should have because it is the right thing.  I am sure I do not speak for gay people who were thrilled to have the rights by any means necessary, but do not ignore the fact that that was money and not justice at work for those critical swing votes.

Who Is To Blame?

I have a friend named Martha who is always asking me why I do not blame Obama (or at least give him a “fair share,” to borrow his tax mantra) for the country’s economic problems.  One issue she had was with the original bailouts.  I am no economist, but I know Paul Krugman is a Nobel-Prize winning one and he wrote that without those original bailouts the country would have fallen off a cliff into a great depression.  Obama cannot change the entire system (hell he tried to give more people health care and was henceforth known as Hitler) and yet that is what I believe is necessary.  Obama has tried to be a great compromiser, but instead he has been portrayed as a Muslim, American hating socialist by the right and a gutless coward by the left.  The Republicans have had an obstructionist agenda from the beginning (a well calculated risk that would not have had as much traction with a caucasian president, because the most ignorant and radical elements of the tea party and Republican party are also the ones most likely to have antebellum notions of Negros).  If you doubt that then why did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell say that “Republicans’ top priority is to make President Obama a one-term president?”  So  given this incredibly hostile political climate I cannot blame Obama for not being or acting like a super hero.

Now some people will say “The climate in Washington is even worse, not better since Obama took office.  he promised better and it is worse.  he ruined it.”  Now that is correlation without causation.  Similarly to how banks started passing more fees after Dodd-Frank was passed.  Or how health insurance premiums started rising more after “Obamacare” passed.  These actions are no different than mob bosses who demand “protection money.”  Obama came with good intentions and perhaps too much naivete about Washington (the biggest reason Hilary Clinton may have been a more effective president), but the response to him and his initiatives are nothing less than a shakedown to convince dumb Americans that the correlation of their responses to Obama’s actions are in fact CAUSED by Obama, which they are not.

So who is to blame – well I think Wall Street, the lobbyists, the unyielding Republicans, the Democrats to a lesser extent all have a part to play, but (and Republicans should like this) I think we need to take individual and collective responsibility as American citizens.  The American Dream is a fantasy.  Take Steve Jobs as an American Rorschach Test.  For many Americans they saw it as the American Dream – any American, even one living in his parents’ garage, can rise to become a brilliant inventor and change the culture!  But that is looking at it through the eyes of an American Dream that does not exist.  He is the American Exception.  He was so brilliant and inspired that he would thrive and create anywhere.  He succeeded through his own exceptionalism.  Do not let Steve Jobs become a Pat Tillman for the business sector of America.  Are we saying that to make a decent way in America you now must be exceptional? Possibly because to millions of Americans, work ethic and responsibility are not enough any more.

Here is a hypothetical (at least to me – it may be very real to others) that I think sums up why I believe in the #OccupyWallStreet movement.

During one of the Republican debates, Ron Paul was asked about a healthy 30 year old man who chose not to get health insurance and subsequently got very sick.  This was the “let him die” moment during the debate, when a few crowd members shouted that.  The question I would have wanted to hear asked is, “What if a 45 year old father of two, who has worked for the same business for fifteen years, gets laid off.  He has COBRA benefits, but they run out before he can get a job again because of a tough job climate.  Then during a routine physical that he is paying for out of pocket it is determined that he, after some more tests, has a treatable, but eventually fatal, disease.  What should we do with THAT man?”  That is the question Americans should be asking.  What do we do when a man who believes in the system and plays by the rules, but falls on hard times.  What happens when THAT man is failed by our system?  What do we do then?  For me, all of these things, the imbalance of political power by gross inequality of wealth, the political bickering, the deceit, the game playing, the shameful politics and the ignorance in this  country all come down to the fate of that man.  The way the country is right now is a country where that man dies or if he doesn’t his family that he fought and worked for is homeless because of his crippling bills.  The country I want America to be and the country that I think Obama wants and that I believe the #OccupyWallStreet movement wants, is the one where the climate, the culture and the system in place create a country where he lives and lives the life he has worked for.  But to do that I think a lot will have to change first.


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Essential J-L Reader

Economics For Dummies

I received a B in Economics 101 in college.  I never took another economics class.  I took calculus in high school and have never done anything above algebra since then.  My brain over the last several years has basically been conditioned to say funny things or things I think are funny.  So I never expected to be able to synthesize the big economic events that have taken place in the United States over the last few years.  Except for the fact that I have done some reading and have looked at the obvious.  So why is everything so hard for people to see and who is to blame for the predicament?  Well there are only three possible reasons: people don’t read, people are liars or people don’t care.

I was never much of a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe in my lifetime, without major significant changes to our economic and political systems, the United States will fall and fall hard in world standing (except in our own collective consciousness).  I fall short of saying there will be a revolution, but something close will occur.

What is happening across the Middle East right now, in my estimation from what I have read and seen is not so much about some anti-religious fervor or some clamoring for USA-style democracy, but more about people not being able to share in some form of economic prosperity.  Now if the Middle East is rising up having never experienced American level prosperity (but able to learn and see it through the Internet), what will happen in this country when people wake up one day and realize that they cannot get what they once believed was a right, or at least a viable opportunity?  Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all, but NOT better to have once been prosperous and realize you aren’t anymore.  The American Dream is moving towards becoming the American Lottery Ticket – it can happen, but it is no longer the odds-on-favorite for a have-not who works hard.  If you are born poor, odds are you will die poor, regardless of how hard you work.  But more than that, this is the generation that is going to be dumber and poorer than its parents’ generation.

In this country we have video games, flat screen televisions, reality television, iPods and a million other gadgets that, despite their considerable cost, have become must-haves from the rich to the barely scraping by.  And even newsworthy issues that seem so divisive, like gay rights, abortion, even war all are mere distractions compared to the economic disparity that is occurring in our country.  I know as a heterosexual man who has never served in the military it may seem wrong to be so dismissive of these issues, but look at any country that has had major uprisings – economics is always what spurs it.  Lack of personal resources.  It just happens that in this country we have all the distractions that come with wealth so there is no massive movement to make issue.  Add up all the people in this country that are gay, having an abortion or in the military and it will still be a smaller number that the people who will be adversely affected by the inequality bomb that will go off without change.  I just always hate how some liberals give a pass to someone who says, “Well sure, I am fiscally conservative, but I am pro choice and pro gay marriage.”  Well all I hear is, “I am OK with corporate America and political whores fu*king over women and gays, whether they have kids and are married or not.”  But here are all the pieces to this puzzle from what I have seen and read:

Companies in the United States used to make things.  They used to have a relationship with workers.  Now the only thing American companies are beholden to are stock prices.  Everything is secondary to stock prices.  Because if a company is successful and productive they can only make stock holders comfortable and CEOS rich, which is not good enough.  But if all else is sacrificed to stock price then that upper crust can become REALLY rich.  How else can one explain how corporate profits hit record highs in 2010, but unemployment did not budge?  But one party will have you believe that more tax cuts and deregulation are needed to improve employment.  So if record profits are not enough to spur employment, the question is how much profit is needed before a company is safe enough to share?

This explosion helped make banking a lot more lucrative than it should be (in addition to an incredible amount of greedy and corrupt individuals).  So you had intelligent people flocking to finance, but not all motivated by a love of numbers, but a love of money.  So when you become an industry attracting disproportionately greedy people, nothing can go wrong, right?  There is a reason everyone is familiar with the stereotype that spawned my comedy bit  “Todd the hedge fund douchebag.”

Meanwhile, since the 198os, big business has been on a two pronged attack to de-unionize workers and curry political favor by investing of money into lobbying efforts (I finally learned this year that the US Chamber of Commerce was not an official body of the government, but an incredibly pro-business lobbying think tank hell hole).  Whether you agree with unions or not (we can all agree that some pensions and benefit plans are too generous and not tenable in this economy), they have always represented a powerful bulwark against corporate overreaching.  Many important worker protections have been brought about because of unions.  And has corporate America (I know that the particular issue in Wisconsin is about government worker unions, but still the GOP has been dedicated to eradicating unions for 30 years) ever shown to act in the benefit of the worker or public in general without prodding or regulation?  Oh, so maybe if we get rid of taxes and unions, maybe THEN corporate America will let us into their party.  I worked at the Bronx DA’s office for 3 1/2 years and anyone who believes this is like a battered spouse who believes this will be the time their husband stops hitting them.  They don’t stop – it only gets worse.

Throw in last year’s Supreme Court Decision in the Citizens United case, which allowed for the flooding of last year’s elections with millions upon millions of anonymous donations from corporations and you have a perfect storm for fu*king over the average American.

Of course this might not be possible without a sizable amount of the population being stupid or apathetic.  So it is not corporate America full on raping the average American in all cases.  It is somewhat consensual.

For example, the Tea Party was brought into life, in part, because of anger against the bank bailouts.  Of course these are the same people that are protesting public sector unions, despite, as one Tea Party protester said when quoted by the New York Times, “I am not sure about all the issues here.”  They are not for the banks, nor are they for union workers.  In other words, they are for whoever the well funded corporate ads tell them to be for, even if they are not sure why.  And to be sure, the Muslim President is on the side of the unions, right?

Or articles I read late last year about Detroit car sales improving.  Great news, right?  Except that, with the exception of the Volt, many of the cars that saw big increases were SUVs.  In America, it seems, everything has become YouTube – our attention span and memory last 5 to 10 minutes at best.  We were going to become leaders in new types of cars, not reliant on oil, but do you think Detroit will really have the foresight for that, if they can jack up stock prices in the short term?  Just today, there were big articles on the price of oil rising because of the unrest in the Middle East.  So now will begin the cry for getting of Middle East oil and Thomas Friedman suggesting gas taxes (a great idea, but one that would probably get President Obama assassinated).  In this country people think with their wallet and fight for their wallet and that is the only way to communicate with people.  If gas were $9 a gallon the people would demand new forms of power for cars.  At $4 a gallon they bitch.  At $2.50 a gallon they shut the fu*k up and drive.  But a gas tax would mean government regulation – boo hoo.  So instead we will wait until the benevolent oil and car companies listen to the market (that they saturate with ads assuring us of their commitment to science and new clean technology to pacify us into silence) to ask for new cars.   We are more likely to run out of oil before that plan would work.

And I have been able to work and go to school and even date people of economic means and one thing I have learned is that many of the people of means in this country do not realize that they are of means.  For example I dated a woman whose family lived in a multi-million dollar home in an affluent neighborhood, owned the property the land was on and lost a ton of money on WorldCom stock.  She insisted that they were upper-middle class, even though by definition, if you are rich enough to have lost a ton of money in the stock market and still own a multi-million dollar home you are not middle anything.  Another time someone mocked a blog of mine encouraging the Obama tax increase for people making $250,000 or more by saying “Oh those people making $250,000 are really making a killing!”  Well, YES!!!!  In the world and in this country, just because you live in an affluent neighborhood or work with even richer people does not mean that making $250,000 as an individual makes you less rich.

Over the last year I have read Winner-Takes-All Politics, The Big Short, the New York Times (particularly columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbet- two of the few men I am aware of who seem to have the appropriate level of rage on this topic) regularly and seen the movies Inside Job and Capitalism: A Love Story.  Now some may see this list (which I recommend to everyone reading this) that there is some liberal bias.  But what have I said that is false?  There are basic facts that have happened in this country – CEOS make much more relative to their workforce than they ever had and the top 1% of the country owns a larger portion of the economy than ever before.  And at this time of peak economic inequality in America, corporations have had their handcuffs taken off instead of putting them on – less regulation over the past 30 years, calls for even LESS regulation and lower taxes NOW, Supreme Court decisions allowing a free flow of anonymous, corporate advertising for political candidates and brazen attempts to crush unions for good.  How is this not obvious to everyone?

The problem is that too many people still believe in the American Dream.  It is now more an article of religious faith than reasonable expectation based on fact.  Without that faith all this would be awfully disturbing.  But the Revolution (which will also be pacified by Twitter and Facebook – why do anything when you can just complain?) will have to wait until people can no longer afford their distractions.  And when more people see Inside Job than saw the Justin Bieber movie.

So to answer my question of who it is in this country should be blamed?  All of the above – the stupid people who act and vote against their own interests, the people in political and economic power who lie to us and ourselves for doing and saying nothing while it continues to happen.