Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Albany

Occupy Wall Street may not come up with solutions, but at least it is asking the right questions in a nonviolent setting. I don’t believe that love can be forced, but I believe it can be provoked. I don’t believe that generosity can be forced, but it can be provoked. Occupy Wall Street is provoking generosity.

Shane Claiborne, co-founder, Simple Way, in Christian Century, 10-20-2011

The Occupy Albany folks are camped out in the park outside my office window. I can’t actually see them thru the trees; the western part of the park, which I overlook, is the responsibility of the State, while the eastern section is managed by the City. The occupants choose to test the City’s resolve on the 11PM curfew, rather than the State.

The Occupy movement has taken lots of hits over its perceived lack of focus. The themes appear to be corporate greed, banks, and the financial structures of society. The rallying numbers are 1% and 99%, the former representing the percentage of the population that owns over 40% of the wealth in the country. The media also seems to pick up on a leadership issue: there is no one organization that commences, manages, and stimulates the urban-based occupations, and no specific individuals that make the speeches in front of the camera – the usual ‘official spokesman.’

In the end, that may be a positive paradigm. The ultimate democracy: the group is the power and the power is derived from collective decision-making. A romantic notion, certainly, but it gives the group the ability to fend off singular ad hominem attacks. Push on one part of the balloon, and another part expands.

The group’s argument is appropriate – wealth is distributed inequitably in this country, and major American corporations have been a primary driver. But the focus of the protest is misplaced.

In our system of capitalism, the purpose of a corporate entity is to earn profits for its shareholders – a system that applies to the small corner store owner as much as it does to a multi-national. Corporations are going to act in their best interests to maximize profits and reduce costs through every means available: closing plants and offices or cutting staff; seeking property tax cuts from local governments; lobbying for a lower capital gains tax; pitting one town against another and one state against another for gimmies like free ‘shovel-ready’ property, tax abatements, or interest-free grants; threatening to leave town unless taxes are reduced or waived; pushing for reduced regulations, higher tariffs on foreign goods, or tax advantages for foreign investment. Major companies have successfully argued for bailouts from the federal government to stave off failure – thus privatizing profits (it’s mine, I earned it, I’m not sharing) and socializing risk (durn, we failed, everybody must kick in to save us, the shareholders can’t do it alone).

Corporate America can’t be blamed for working that system – no matter how questionable or ethical the tactics.

We are to blame for letting it happen.

We have a structure in place for countering these activities. That’s what government is for. This is the role of government, the people we select to set policies in the form of law and regulation, and the agencies created to implement and enforce them.

That role has been distorted for the past 30 years, as we have tilted the balance of our assets, our income, and our wealth through regressive tax policies, poorly-conceived investments, and lax regulatory enforcement.

Somehow, government is now viewed as a bad thing.  And we are worse for that image.