Monday, October 03, 2011

We Are The 99%

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. ~Gandhi

I've been wanting to write about the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City for several days now, but I've been afraid. I skirted around it a bit, testing the waters a few days ago, but I've been afraid to take the plunge, afraid that too many of you who come to this blog will be turned off, will consider Teacher Tom too radical, will feel somehow threatened or challenged. I've been worried that I'm not capable of making you understand that this has everything to do with our children and the world in which they are growing up, and that remaining silent simply means letting corporations speak for you.

Some people, especially those in the traditional media, have been trying to lazily frame this with the typical left v. right meme, but they are wrong. You will notice that there are no Democrats or Republicans speaking out in favor of the goals of this grassroots upraising against 30+ years of economic policies that overtly favor the wealthy. That's because both parties are culpable, both parties have been persuaded by legions of highly paid lobbyists to continue to deregulate business, to continue to cut their taxes, and to continue to allow the wealthy to use their wealth to overwhelm the promise of democracy. So far, it's a parade without leaders, which is how democracy is supposed to work. As more of us take a stand, more politicians will run around to get in front and pretend they are leading, but for now it's just us.

Last month the US Census Bureau released new data showing that nearly 50 million Americans now live in poverty, 16.4 million of whom are children. This is the highest rate of any industrialized nation, and it is a number that is growing by the day. Today, nearly 1 in 4 American children live in in poverty, nearly half of whom fall into the category of "extremely poor." It has not always been this way. The rate of childhood poverty was near its all-time low in 1979, yet spiked dramatically in 1980 when our federal government elected to try the radical experiment of so-call "supply side" economics. Today we have nearly 30 percent more poor children than we did in 1980 as a direct result of policies that favor the wealthy. Our middle class has withered to the point that we rank near the bottom on the list of industrialized nations when it comes to social mobility, and consumer product giants like Proctor & Gamble (you'll have to subscribe to read the entire article, but the first couple paragraphs say it all) aren't even bothering any more to market products designed for middle income audiences.

At the same time, we've seen corporate profits at an all-time high -- during a massive recession. Three of the four banks the taxpayer's bailed out are now making more than they did before the bailout, while paying out billions in bonuses to their executives, and continuing to illegally foreclose on struggling home owners. The wealthiest 400 families in America now control nearly 35 percent of all the wealth in the country, and they are paying virtually no taxes. We have the widest income gap in the western world. And as long as we allow these people to operate in an environment of low taxes, and low accountability, it will only continue to get worse.

This is the story of how 99 percent of Americans have been duped into allowing a tiny minority of super wealthy people to own our government while making us all poorer in the process. This is about our children's future and the kind of world we want to leave for them.

Many of the nation's billionaires are on the warpath -- they want more, more, more. Their greed has no end and apparently there is very little concern for our country or the people of this country if it gets in the way of the accumulation of more wealth and power. The middle class is struggling for existence. They're taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces in the world, whose greed has no end. And if we don't begin to stand together and start representing those families, there will not be a middle class in this country. ~US Senator Bernie Sanders, Vermont (I)

I could launch into my own rant about how this situation has perverted our educational system, but someone much smarter and funnier than me beat me to it (profanity alert):

I'm writing this post on Gandhi's birthday, the man who taught the world about the power of peaceful protest. And we must protest, if we have any hope left at all, we must stand up and say, "We are the 99 percent!" This will not take care of itself. The multinational corporations who have used their wealth to game the system to the point that they pay almost no taxes, who have taken taxpayer handouts, who are, in fact, in many cases actually subsidized by we the people, will not voluntarily give in. We must make them. The 400 wealthiest families in America who control more wealth than the bottom 50 percent combined, did not manage to redistribute the middle class' wealth into their own pockets by standing idly by. They, through their highly paid surrogates (lobbyists) are working 24/7 to tip the playing field even more dramatically in their favor.

It's not me who is the radical, but them. They are the ones who have worked tirelessly, often criminally, to take from the poor and give to the rich, to turn our democratic ideal on its head. We talk to our children about how to deal with bullies. It's time to show them how adults deal with bullies. This is a time to role model how to be a citizen in a democracy. We stand up, we hold our hands in front of us, and we say, "Stop!" And when they don't stop, we say it again, louder. And when they persist in abusing us, we come together, peacefully, but with the knowledge that we are right and shout, "Stop!" together. And we shout it until they hear us.

And they are finally starting to hear us. I know because they've started ridiculing us, the second stage in Gandhi's formula for democratic success, calling us names, joking about us, laughing at us from their Wall Street balconies while sipping champagne:

Some, however, have already started to take us seriously and are starting to fight. The police simply do not behave like this unless ordered to. They are using violence against us although we have remained peaceful:

They are even arresting our children:

I don't blame the police for this. Most of them are doing their job to the best of their ability, and by many accounts they are expressing sympathy with our cause, many protesters are reporting that cops are saying to them, "Don't give up." After all, their families are struggling too. They know that with their decimated 401Ks, non-existent pensions, and weakened safety net, they are only one round of layoffs away from poverty themselves, so they follow orders in the hope that they won't be the ones let go. They are also part of the 99 percent.

Some have complained that this "movement" seems to lack a focus and indeed if you read the laundry list of complaints in the declaration that emerged from the New York group's general assembly, it might seem that way, but as I see it, it boils down to five things: 1) a fair tax code that requires even the super wealthy to pay their fair share on all income, and that closes down loopholes, including those that allow them to hide their money offshore; 2) a reinstatement of the banking reforms originally instituted in 1933 under the Glass-Steagall Act which were designed to prevent banks from engaging in exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that tanked our economy; 3) policies that reward companies for actually creating jobs here in America; 4) elimination of the Federal Reserve which is really just a private club of bankers designed to enrich one another; and most importantly, 5) public financing of elections in order to eliminate undue corporate influence by getting their dirty money out of politics. This is how we level the playing field.

I am not against capitalism, I'm a capitalist myself, but I've been witness in my adult life to the destructive influence of the kind of uncontrolled monopoly capitalism that has resulted from the economic policies of the past 30 years.

For the second day in a row, I went down to Westlake Center where we are occupying Seattle in support of the protesters in New York. On Saturday, there were about 200 of us. We organized ourselves into leaderless work groups and planned what we were going to do. We exchanged emails and phone numbers, committing ourselves to work together, reminding one another to stay peaceful and inclusive. It will be educational to see how it goes. Sunday, there were fewer of us there, but there were at least 6 tents. People are starting to occupy the space around the clock.

Still, it was a little deflating to see so few people there, after witnessing the thousands in New York. I wandered around a bit and thought about heading home when I saw a girl, maybe 6 or 7, arrive with her mother. They were carrying a sign they'd made at home. I watched them shuffle about uncomfortably for a bit, then carry their sign to the curb where passing cars could see it. That's when I picked up a sign of my own that read, "We are the 99%," and said to the girl, "I picked up this sign because I saw you holding yours. Thank you." She beamed at me proudly.

I stood with my sign for about an hour, urging passersby to join us, "even if it's only for 5 minutes." Many of them took me up on it. No one disagreed with us. Maybe that's because there were no billionaires wandering around downtown on a Sunday afternoon. When I left, the girl was still there with her mom.

That experience, and that little girl, are why I had the courage to post this today. As I say to my own child, or the children in my care, when someone is hurting you or scaring you or taking something from you, hold up your hands and say, "Stop!" This is me saying, "Stop!"

I'm just one of the 99 percent, and so are you.

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Candi B. said...

Thank you for posting this, Tom. I am scared of what's happening in this country—the lack of knowledge and foresight; lack of empathy for the poor; the blatant disregard for our nation's children. People are running around oblivious to how this affects them. The bottom line is that if something isn't done, the middle class will disappear, and I—we, all of us—will either be poor, or absurdly rich. I know which way most of us are going in a down economy. It's frightening.

Alec Duncan of Child's Play Music said...

Thank you so much for posting this, for standing up and saying that what is happening is wrong. Like you, I am a capitalist - I run my own small business - but these protests are not about capitalism or socialism, they are about justice and equity.

I deplore the excesses of the so-called "free market", where ever-increasing deregulation has allowed a tiny minority to gorge themselves on the blood of the people. Here in Australia the very same forces are at work, as giant corporations and billionaires manipulate the political system and the media to get an ever-increasing share of the wealth, while paying less and less in taxes.

I am horrified by what I saw in those videos; I saw nothing that could have justified arrest, let alone arrest with that level of violence. Peaceful citizens were exercising their right to protest in the most restrained manner, given the circumstances. I felt sick.

I hope that justice will prevail. Good luck, and keep protesting.

Mary said...

I don't know if I feel like we are all being "willfully ignorant" or if we all know how much misinformation there is out there and how often what we have believed to be true turns out to be false. No one likes to feel duped and if you feel that you have been duped too many times, you just stop believing anything. We can't believe the media, we can't believe the politicians, we can't believe the economists... it can be so overwhelming to try to develop a strong opinion based on FACTS and hard science when so many people are distorting the facts and the science to serve their purpose. But, whether you ultimately agree with the protestors or not, its protests like these that, at the very least, make you want to make a choice about what your opinion is and that leads to investigation - and that is where real truth begins. Thanks for your courage - and for empowering that small child.

CARRIE said...

I just started reading your blog, but I am so behind most everything you say. Including this. As a former teacher. As a stay-at-home mom. As a secular humanist. Rock on, Teacher Tom.

Unknown said...

Well, isn't there already a higher rate of taxes as your income increases? I don't agree with raising taxes on the rich, but I do agree on cutting out the loopholes that reduce their taxes. What happens by raising the rates is that those in the lower six figures are treated the same as those making millions a year which hardly seems comparable.

Teacher Tom said...

Actually Rebekah, the top marginal tax rate is at historically low levels with those making in the lower six figures paying the same as those making billions. The argument is that low tax rates on the wealthy encourages them to "create jobs." So where are the job? There are none because it's just a theory that has never been proven in reality. But more importantly, as Warren Buffet points out, the wealthier you are the more likely it is that your income is derived from interest, which is taxed at the ridiculously low rate of 15%, less than half of what my family pays on our income.

The proposal on the table is to create a new higher tax rate for those making over $1 million per year. Since they seem to be the only ones benefiting from our current economic policies, it only seems fair that they should pay more. But the REAL tax reform will be to raise the capital gains tax so that they are paying their fair share on ALL of their income.

Listen, during the time that we grew the largest, most prosperous middle class in the history of the world (1940-1980) the top marginal tax rate was MUCH higher than it is today. Under Eisenhower, you paid 90% in taxes for everything you made over $3 million. Kennedy was the radical who cut that to 75%. The idea was to compel companies to keep their profits in their companies, thus creating jobs, rather than take it out in the form of dividends and executive salaries. Reagan came in and slashed the top marginal rate and since then the middle class has been in decline because there is no incentive to create jobs, only an incentive to wallow in abject greed. This is not an accident. And this is why I will not remain silent.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I had just become aware of the Wall Street protests, today when reading our national paper, The Globe and Mail. My sense was that this is a grassroots protest, and that is a good thing. I do feel this is a way for the ordinary person to express the frustrations most ordinary people are feeling with the large gap between the wealthy and the poor.

I live in Saskatchewan, Canada, and we have the same concerns here. We have a strong tradition of social democracy in Saskatchewan, and Tommy Douglas, our premier in the early 1960's brought in the first medicare program in the country.Premier Douglas did this under considerable duress and personal harrassment, but he believed in this, and he persevered.

In Saskatchewan, we presently have a conservative government, and with this it seems a widening gap between the rich and poor has developed.

Good post here.Thank you.

Mary Boyle said...

Thank you, Teacher Tom!! So incredibly well-said and well-written - I've re-posted this all over facebook and my own blog today - everyone should know this.