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Economic Inequality, #OWS, And Graphs

October 24, 2011

The 30 or so percent of Americans who don’t support Occupy Wall Street might not want to admit it, but the movement has already achieved major success by sparking multiple dialogues. Politicians have taken note, and the mainstream media has begun covering and interviewing in earnest. Perhaps most significantly, however, the internet has exploded; studies, reports, op-eds, interviews, and blog entries on any of the various issues that #OWS protestors rally against fly across my screen–the screen of someone who isn’t even hunting for this kind of information.

CEO pay as a multiple of average worker pay, 1960-2007

One such report is Who Rules America?, by G. William Domhoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz, which is studded with graphs such as this one:

It seems relatively difficult to argue with the fact that the top 1% of the American population (to a greater extent the top half of that number) possesses by all accounts an incredibly disproportionate amount of wealth. There is even some evidence that suggests that the deregulation of the financial sector both accounted for many of the factors of the financial crisis and facilitated record profit-earning for the 1%.

Another issue getting an increasing amount of coverage since the protests started is that of student debt. As reported this past week, student debt in the United States now tops $1 trillion, more than the country’s combined credit card debt.

The rising cost of education in this country is by no means the only citable illustration of a divide between the mega-rich and the rest of us, but it is perhaps one of the most prominent since the Occupy protests have begun. Critics target many of the protestors as “people who just want bailed out of their college debt,” but is there more at stake here? Is it really a good idea to cut off increasing numbers of people from becoming educated in this country? Or to prevent the educated from contributing to society on account of their crippling burdens? Is cultivating a culture that’s uneducated and/or broke really the best way to go forward?
At its core, the Occupy movements are about economic inequality, but not in the way that it first appears. The message of the movement isn’t centered around redistributing wealth or around jealousy stemming from not having as much money as CEOs do–it’s not about hating capitalism, wealth, or even wall street itself. The movement is about making sure that the interests of every group of people in this country are equally represented, about ensuring that wealth equals wealth, not power. Let the rich be rich, let wall street do what it was built to do. But let’s also get the money out of politics. Let’s also acknowledge that wall street is allowed to function, that CEOs are allowed to become rich, because of the society they are a part of; let’s ask that they acknowledge this reality and give back to that society.

Lest this come across as my own reading of the #OWS protests, I’ll quote Mike Konzal, who, after scouring all of the text posted at the Occupy Tumblr in an effort to document the ideology of the movement, reports in the n+1 OCCUPY-OWS-inspired gazette:

The actual ideology of modernity, broadly speaking, is absent. There isn’t the affluenza of Freddie’s worries, no demands for cheap gas, cheaper credit, giant houses, bigger electronics all under the cynical ”Ownership Society” banner. The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay. They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share. The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy. There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.” It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.

There is a new TED talk that outlines the correlation between high income inequality and a lower quality of life for the world’s developed nations, regardless of overall GDP:

The New Yorker’s latest “Political Scene” podcastis devoted to the issue of inequality, providing another example of #OWS’ success at moving issues into the spotlight. Meanwhile, Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” plan (oops, I meant “9-0-9“) has given us one final graph you must see:

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