Occupy Deconstructed



(Don’t) Occupy Oakland


I keep wanting to say a few words about the Occupy movement, but everything I want to say has been said by someone at this point. Yet the urge to say a few words about Occupy doesn’t abate, so I’ll go ahead and say this much:

I was all in favor of Occupy when it started. Didn’t know exactly what it was going for, but I like the simplicity of its formulation:

Ninety-nine Percent
One Percent.

Yup, I thought, that nails it. That’s the root of our socio-political ills today. And I liked the populist feel of the movement. Like most Americans, I have long been craving a broad-based movement to reclaim this country and its ideals, some movement that the overwhelming majority of us could agree on.

The Tea-Party-thing had the populism, but sadly its analysis was 99% dumb and 1% smart. What’s worse, the one percent of its analysis that was smart was wrong.

The dumb part included all the culture-war stuff as remedies. “Everything will be okay if we can just stop gay people from getting married.” That stuff. Or: “Everything will be okay if we can just get the government to stop women from having abortions.” Or: “Everything will be okay if we can just turn education over the Church.”

And the dumb stuff included the old chestnuts. “Everything will be okay if we can just pry the fingers of government off our Medicare.” Or: “Everything will be okay if we can just cut taxes enough to shut down the government.”

And then there was the debt hysteria. “Too much debt in this country, we all have to cut back, tighten our belts, the government too.” Okay, too-much-debt is a problem. That’s the smart part of the Tea Party analysis. The disparity between the government’s revenues and the government’s expenditures, and the accumulation of government debt offset by government borrowing, is trouble in the making.

Someone should do something.

But who should do it and what should they do? That’s where Tea Party’s analysis veered away from smart into wrong, with a whole lot of dumb sprinkled in. The Tea Party’s idea was (and is): If we all stop spending money we’ll all have more money

There must be a name for the logical fallacy involved in this conclusion, something like Universalizing the Particular. What’s true is that if everyone goes on spending as they have been, then any one person in the system who cuts back on his expenditures will grow richer. When water is flowing, you put a dam somewhere and you’ll create a pool behind it. But the water has to be flowing.

It’s erroneous to conclude from this particular that if everyone stops spending, everyone will grow richer. Yet that’s the core of the Tea Party argument, the part of its analysis that doesn’t offer regressive social ideology as the answer to our ills.

The Occupy movement is based on an entirely different analysis, encapsulated by that simply ratio it calls to our attention: 99 percent/1 percent. That’s brilliant: just four words to nail the flaw in our current ointment. So elegant, so concise, so precise. So true.

I have to admit that when I first saw the phrase, I took it as hyperbolic. Admired the intent but figured the truth was more like 80/20 or so. But recently I saw an article in Newsweek by Nial Fergusson, illustrated with charts and diagrams, one of which showed that half the annual income in America now goes to 1% of the people. The other 99% of us share the rest. (And even there the disparity between top and bottom is dramatic, since 75% of the total income goes to the upper 10%.) I had no idea.

What’s more, those top earners aren’t making their money doing jobs that pay really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really good wages. They earn their money mainly from investments which, as Romney’s tax returns recently dramatized, are taxed at about a third of the rate applied to the sort of income most of us earn, even those of us who are lawyers, doctors, and movie stars.

The salient point is not how many people are getting half the income. It’s the fact that half the income earned in this country–the upper half–is hardly taxed. The other half must be making up the difference. Taxes may be burdensome by taking less from the undertaxed top can only add to the problems of the overtaxed bottom.

Which brings me back to Occupy. The genius of the movement at the start was that it encapsulated this whole complicated tangle in just four unmistakable words, clearing away all distractions the expose the single most important point.

But what has the Occupy movement been doing? In my area, at least–in San Francisco, and even more especially in Oakland–the supposed Occupy activists have been setting up permanent tent cities in public parks, making them unavailable as parks for the general public and turning them into unsavory place for average-income families to bring their kids. These “activists” have trashed small shops in downtown Oakland, breaking windows and driving away shoppers who previously patronized those stores. They’ve shut down the port for periods of time, costing port workers substantial income. They’ve mounted demonstrations that drew police from other neighborhoods, causing crime to spike in those other areas. They’ve argued that they were demonstrating against police tactics, shifting the conversation to “Who started this?” in a quarrel between demonstrators and police, both of whom belong to the 99%. A few weeks ago, Occupy activists swarmed into Oakland City Hall and damaged children’s art works on display there.

What does this have to do with that astonishing ration, the 99 percent and the 1 percent? Do these activists think the one percent hang out in city parks and are suffering now because Occupy Oakland activists have cut off their access to these parks? Do they think small shop owners aren’t part of the ninety-nine percent? Do they picture the leading one-percenters huddling in fear and whispering, “Oh my God, we’ve got to start sharing the wealth before those guys in Oakland trash another children’s art show”?

The only productive actions are those that keep the public focused on the ratio originally summarized by those four words. Ninety-nine percent. One percent. Only thus will we start steering toward political solutions that address that one bottom-line fact (from which flows so much else.)

Creating divisions within the 99%, arousing hostilities that pit people from one level of the 99% against people from another level of the 99% sabotages the very thing that made Occupy such a powerful idea. I can’t imagine any course of action better suited to the interests of the one percent than sowing clamorous divisions within the 99 %. If I were a Conspiracy Theorist, I would be looking for evidence now that the Occupy Oakland activists are minions of the one percent. I would be asking how much they were paid to do these things they’re doing, and I’d be trying to discover where the secret payments were deposited.

But I am not raising these points, because I don’t believe in Conspiracy Theory. What I do believe in is stupidity and venality. These, unfortunately, are the secret forces that undermine the best laid plans of the noblest idealists. These are the only charges I’m bringing against Occupy Oakland: stupidly and venality.


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