Some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, unemployed at home, live better than they did before the protest began. Numerous people and organizations have donated food (both cooked items such as pizza and raw ingredients from which volunteers prepare appetizing, healthy meals), clothing, and other items. Some of the protesters earn pocket money by charging tourists for photographs. (Cf. “The Occupy Wall Street Economy,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2011)
The Occupy movement continues to gain momentum, with an increasing number of protesters involved at a growing number of locations around the world. The movement is still too new to discern if it will last or if it will succeed in refocusing the government’s attention on the legitimate needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Sadly, the United States seems to move inexorably toward a government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.
Several commentators have noted parallels between conditions the Occupy movement is trying to protest and what happened during the Depression. One of those parallels strikes me as especially important: large corporations flourished then and now. During the Depression, corporations cut costs by reducing employment, achieving efficiencies and often-greater production by using technology. In the current weak economic recovery, corporations are reluctant to hire new employees, often managing to trim their workforces while expanding production. “Doing more with less” is the new mantra.
Many U.S. citizens disdain minimum wage jobs, especially if those jobs require backbreaking manual labor under unpleasant conditions, such as much farm work that, like harvesting many fruits and vegetables, cannot be effectively mechanized.
On the one hand, employment seems preferable to unemployment. Having lived for several years on an income well-below the poverty level and yet unwilling to accept any social assistance, I find it difficult to understand why a person would not choose any available employment over public assistance. Incidentally, by February 2012 unemployment benefits for more than 2 million of the long-term unemployed will run out - unless Congress extends the benefits. That seems unlikely, as the extension might cost $40 billion or more.
On the other hand, I reasonably expected that my years of poverty (living with no phone, no TV, little furniture, no car, etc.) would end when I finished my schooling. Sacrificing quality of life enabled me to complete my studies more quickly than if I had become a part-time student. Persons with little or no education have little prospect of ever earning a living wage in this country (of course, most of us know an anecdotal exception to that generalization, but the data overwhelmingly supports my generalization). Without hope, why choose to work under unpleasant conditions in hazardous circumstances (e.g., farm workers have a high rate of the on job the injuries) with no hope of promotion and still not earn enough to support self or family?
The Occupy movement prompts me to ponder several questions:
· Has technology progressed to the point where people with decent paying jobs should only work 30 or 35 hours per week in order to create more jobs and to distribute income more equitably? Reducing the workweek has probably not created more employment in France, where many seek to circumvent the number of hours allowed per week to boost their income.
· Have standards of living plateaued? If so, should we raise the minimum wage to a level where a full week’s work earns a reasonable standard of living? Will doing so further increase unemployment? Are jobs eliminated by increasing the minimum wage really jobs worth having (if firm eliminates the job, apparently the firm does not need the work performed; the job does not pay a living wage)?
· What, if any, job-training programs have demonstrated a consistent success in landing their graduates good paying jobs? Programs that fail to meet that standard are wasteful at best and fraudulent at worst.
· How much would legalizing marijuana expand the legal economy? How many new jobs would it create? How much would it reduce government expenditures and increase tax revenues? (Since marijuana is the largest cash crop in many U.S. states and the cost of imprisonment per year per inmate generally exceeds $50,000 these are highly relevant questions.)
· What does Herb Cain’s popularity as a GOP presidential candidate say about the validity of Occupy concerns? Cain’s 999 tax proposal will increase the tax burden on most low and middle income persons, but decrease what the wealthy pay, i.e., reducing the top (the only!) tax bracket to 9% and eliminating all taxes on capital gains and investment income.
The growing disparity between the rich and the poor, along with associated feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, and disenfranchisement, bodes ill for national well-being and unity. The nation has real problems. Polarizing solutions that result in disadvantaging the least among us and the most vulnerable are immoral, unchristian, and will only exacerbate national problems. We should never forget that the American Revolution began when a group of colonials felt economically exploited and excluded from government.