Monday, October 10, 2011

#occupywallstreet: Arguments, Ruminations, Photographs

As Occupy Wall Street endures, so too does the "web blog sphere" chatter about Occupy Wall Street. If you're sympathetic to the movement (I think it has lasted for a sufficiently long time, attracted enough supporters, and spread to enough cities that we can appropriately refer to it as a "movement"), you will not mind. If you're trying to tune it out, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with it for at least a little longer.

The fact that Occupy Wall Street is calling attention toward a fundamentally broken component of American society is reason enough to at least pay attention to it, even if you can't totally support it. After all, the United States is a nation that doesn't snap out of its mass media and toy-induced coma very often, and this is especially true of its young people. The "Occupy" movement suggests that maybe Generation Y does in fact have a pulse, and despite whatever reservations I might have about the demonstrators' means and ends, what we're seeing is definitely preferable to watching the thousands of them shrugging, going back inside, and tweeting their minute-by-minute reactions to the new episode of Jersey Shore.

Yesterday (Sunday) afternoon I stopped by Zuccotti Liberty Park with James to drop off some food, clothing layers, and bedding for the campers before heading back toward Pennsylvania. Apart from mentioning the almost unbelievable increase in the demonstrators' numbers since my first visit, there is little I did or observed that some other local blogger hasn't already discussed himself, or that the photographs James has been taking throughout the week (some of which you can see below) can't illustrate with less verbiage and more eloquence.

Right when Occupy Wall Street began making the news about two weeks ago, my friend Jen and I shared our views on the matter over dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, and really got on each other's nerves. It spilled out into an email exchange that tapered off after we both got tired of being mad at each other, but Jen did raise some points to which I never had a chance to respond. I'd like to take a look at a few of them here -- but it bears mentioning that this isn't a case of me wanting to pick a fight and revive a disagreement (sup Jen). I just think some of Jen's points make useful starting lines for discussion.

Let's begin! 

Most of the corporations out there are providing commercial products/services or are supported by the public in some shape or form.

Again, personal responsibility.

It's good that they're out there voicing their opinions and making their concerns heard, but they probably don't consistently patron companies that are socially and economically responsible. If they did, these companies wouldn't be struggling to make a profit and this whole corporate-greed thing wouldn't be a problem.

Before we start looking at the legitimacy of her main point, I have a bone to pick about the "personal responsibility" chorus. Why should it only cut one way?

I worked at a Borders store for three years. When the company started having financial troubles, employee hours got cut; the worse things got, the less we worked. Perks were systematically eliminated. There was a "temporary" freeze on employee wages that ended up lasting for the remainder of the company's existence.

This in itself isn't the reason why many former Borders employees are so bitter. After all, when money is tight, everyone in the house has to make sacrifices. But in this case, it was the store employees who were made to absorb the splashback resulting from executive incompetence.

My friend Anna (a former member of the management staff at Borders' King of Prussia Mall location) can give us a few names and numbers, since her ear was much closer to the wall than mine:

(11:27:19 PM) annatheclamma: hmmmmmm
(11:27:22 PM) annatheclamma: well
(11:27:58 PM) annatheclamma: I think our wage freeze started in 2007
(11:28:18 PM) annatheclamma: in that time, we had george jones as a ceo
(11:28:28 PM) annatheclamma: who got ousted, but got a bonus when he left
(11:28:32 PM) annatheclamma: then ron marshall came in
(11:28:43 PM) annatheclamma: got a bonus upon being hired, and one upon being fired
(11:29:06 PM) annatheclamma: then mike edwards came in, who got a bonus with the promotion, and a severance package even after the bankruptcy
(11:31:09 PM) annatheclamma: I know everything was filed with the sec
(11:31:50 PM) annatheclamma: mike edwards got 125,000 in severance
(11:32:27 PM) annatheclamma: wait the top 4 execs each got $125,000
(11:32:32 PM) annatheclamma: just in severence
(11:32:47 PM) annatheclamma: from a bankrupt company that gave its workers nothing in severance
(11:33:51 PM) annatheclamma: george jones got 2.09 million in severance
(11:35:05 PM) annatheclamma: I was there for 5 years and made $10.75 an hour
(11:35:10 PM) annatheclamma: completely fair

Why do I get the feeling practices such as these aren't especially unusual, given how similar it sounds to reports of lavish post-bailout bonuses across the financial sector? And why is it that only the wealthy are allowed to lecture the lower classes on the issue of personal responsibility?

But we've already veered from Jen's main point, which was about how it is upon the concerned consumer to patronize the right businesses and eschew the "wrong" ones, and I cannot dispute this. Nor can I argue with the fact that we essentially voted in Exxon, Bank of America, and Wal-Mart, despite never actually pulling a lever for them in any ballot box. None of these huge corporations with questionable ethics would have ever made it big unless large numbers of people hadn't willingly directed portions of their incomes toward purchasing their services or swag.

Participating in public demonstrations, getting the word out, making yourself heard, and, yes, even voting in public elections are all important toward creating the momentum that carries reform.

But all of these are relatively easy and quick methods of trying to foment social change -- and real change is never easy, and it most certainly isn't quick, especially not where systemic reform is concerned.

A tremendous majority of the population adheres to a lifestyle that pumps money into the coffers of multinational corporations, many of which don't necessarily behave in ways a responsible, respectable person should be expected to. (If corporations want to be treated as "entities," i.e., people in our legal system, I see no reason not to hold them to the standards to which we hold any United States resident.)

We can bitch about the evils perpetrated by oil companies, but our whining doesn't make a difference if, for all our righteous umbrage, we're driving fifty miles back and forth to the office every day and taking the car to cover any distance greater than half a mile. We can lament the decline of the manufacturing sector, the death of locally-owned shops, and the rise of wage slavery, but our grievances ring hollow when we willingly support businesses like Wal-Mart (which contribute to these problems) out of frugality or convenience. 

Smaller retailers exist, just like better companies do. You and most Americans are too lazy to seek them out, or refuse to spend extra money to buy them. It's not worth your effort or the inconvenience to look on the internet for a small bookstore (despite your claims, they do exist - like the Strand, and a couple of ones in New Brunswick, there's one that i go to in Watchung Plaza), research the companies that you choose to buy products from, or utilize the services of many smaller independent companies on the internet, but its easy to blame the worlds woes on something bigger and more powerful than you.

I actually think this speaks for the necessity of the changes for which Occupy Wall Street's anti-corporate core is pushing.

Let's say you're living out in the suburbs somewhere. You want to buy a new pair of shoes, but would also like to keep true to your newfound sense of social responsibility. You establish a small set of criteria for the shoes you buy and the store from which you buy them. First, it is necessary that you can be completely positive that the shoes were not assembled by child laborers or sweatshop workers, and you would also prefer that they were made in America. You consider yourself an environmentalist, so you want to invest in a company you can be assured isn't just offering consumers a shallow "we've gone green!" platitude and is actually taking significant, proactive steps toward curbing their emissions. And since you yourself are an unpaid intern, a retail worker, or are attending graduate school, it is no less important that these shoes are affordable.

So: where do you go to buy these shoes?

Even if somebody wants to adopt more responsible purchasing habits, it is EXTREMELY difficult to practice them. Finding an accessible business that's committed to screwing over as few people and leaving as small an ecological footprint as possible can be flat-out impossible, unless you happen to live in a major urban center.

("Where do you find them? The Internet, duh!" someone has suggested. Hm. Well, remember that we are making our imaginary purchase as environmentalists trying to minimize our carbon footprint, and the jury is apparently still deliberating the emissions output of a shopping trip vs. the emissions output of home delivery, but excellent point. That duh was well-deserved.)

On Sunday evening, James recounted an argument he had with someone who got a kick out of pointing out that he supported Occupy Wall Street despite keeping a checking account with TD Bank, carrying a BlackBerry in his pocket, and stopping by Subway for lunch. James argues that there is no double standard: he can patronize particular businesses, he argues, and still lobby for tightened regulations and business reform. This makes James something of a moderate within the Occupy Wall Street ideological spectrum: he doesn't believe the whole commercial landscape needs to be altogether bulldozed, but nevertheless requires some overdue pruning and edging.

But let's assume James is incorrect, and the only ethically consistent path of action is for him to withdraw all his money, cancel his credit cards, get rid of his phone, eat only organic, locally-prepared foods, patronize only locally-owned business, only purchase products that he knows were manufactured by companies concerned about human rights and environmental impact. What can he do? 

I'm sure there are people who would be fine koombayaa-ing around a campfire and hanging around drum circles in their free time, good for them. But you can't expect everyone to want to live like they did in the olden days in simple housing constructs eating vegetables that they pick from gardens that they grow themselves.

Individual conclusions will vary -- but if we really are looking at a binary choice, it seems tragic that it must be one.

I've met and spent time with a handful of people who, when faced with this one-or-the-other dilemma, chose The Other. These are the people who go completely off the grid. They drift, they join communes, they squat, they get their food and clothes from dumpsters. In brief, they effectively sever themselves from society. They can't "vote" with their dollars to support sustainable and ethical businesses because they have no money. No mainstream politicians represent their interests. They are pretty much excluded from public discourse; after all, who cares what some dirty, dreadlocked bums have to say about anything?

We have wandered into a point where we are essentially required to support multinational, profit-fixated, too-big-to fail businesses in order to participate in mainstream culture. When the thinking man's pair of alternatives is either enduring the prickings of his conscience (which consumer spending can nicely numb) or self-imposed exile and asceticism, what's the easier choice to make? (Thus, we call the ones who make the hard choice "crazy people.")

The media has been mentioning an announcement made by Occupy Wall Street's "organizers" -- even though, in reality, the person responsible is not affiliated with OWS's planners and corrallers -- encouraging supporters to simulataneously withdraw all their money from the Big Banks on November 5. I'm not sure precisely how much the banks might stand to lose from something like this this (it's not as though the people supporting Occupy Wall Street control a big slice of the national wealth, which is sorta why they're protesting to begin with -- but never mind that), but let's say, for argument's sake, that for some reason enough people do cancel their checking and savings accounts, taking enough money out of the banks to do them some serious damage. (Again, this is not likely.)

What would happen then?

Probably nothing good. Shockwaves would diffuse throughout the economy; companies enact another round of layoffs, consumer spending decreases, more companies begin laying off more people as a result, the stock market plunges, wealth is lost across the board, and the threat of a double-dip recession stops being just a threat. (Or maybe nothing happens at all? Who knows?)

But we'll imagine that this is a real and likely possible result if enough people follow through and stop patronizing the Big Banks on November 5th. Upon first glance, threatening to derail the (agonizingly slow) economic recovery in order to make a point might seem irresponsible and perhaps even terroristic -- but remember that these people are not threatening the government, civil institutions, or the populace itself. They are threatening to stop patronizing a set of for-profit commercial institutions. Free market logic not only gives this sort move the okay, but actually encourages it: everyone has the right to take their business elsewhere, after all. This is one of the very pillars of our economic system.

But where are we when, by taking their business elsewhere, a crowd of discontented consumers could actually endanger the public good? (Remember Too Big to Fail?)

Something is undeniably rotten when we have to support certain commercial institutions in order to preserve the welfare of the state. It is equally vile that we must make a choice between patronizing these businesses or otherwise living on the fringes of society (if that is indeed the reality of the situation).

Economic inequality remains the issue on which Occupy Wall Street keeps its focus. But, really, this isn't just an economic problem: the culture itself is in need of reform. 

Granted, most corporations certainly need a massive slap in the face, but if those principles were applied to everything (even good businesses), there wouldn't be much of an incentive left to take risks and start a business if there's a massively oppressive cap to how much they can gain from it and if the chance of going bankrupt is dramatically higher.

Again, this implies the duplicitous narrative that only two alternatives exist: either business becomes almost totally deregulated and everyone gets to have money again, or else excessive and pointless regulations will make it impossible for anyone to ever make money again.

I refer to you a cartoon that has been making the rounds lately:

We've been imposing regulations and reforms upon businesses for years, and it doesn't look to me like business is doing all that horribly -- at least, not where the multinationals are concerned. It is more accurate to claim that excessive regulation can hamper small businesses, which is why regulation cannot be one sided: the legal reforms that compel businesses to behave more responsibly must be drafted, implemented, monitored, and, if need be, modified with the utmost diligence and responsibility. (After all, it is no less duplicitous to suggest that all regulation is necessarily helpful regulation.)

There is no recipe or guidebook for such procedures; no universally-applicable principle by which we can strike that balance between too much or too little regulation in every case. But it is counterproductive and pointless to squabble over whether it should be all or it should be nothing instead of putting in the difficult and necessary work of finding a suitable mean.

And now, in the interest of the public good, I am going to step down from the soap box and turn the rest of this update over to James and his camera.

More pretty pictures might come later. I'll point you toward higher-res versions as soon as James makes them publicly available.

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