A recent article contrasted the Occupy Wall Street movement with the Tea Party movement.  Both groups are angry, loud, and demanding change; both groups feel the financial bind of the recession and believe reform is needed to alleviate their situation.  One of the key differences highlighted was that OWS blames corporations (and government for not regulating them) while the Tea Party blames government directly (and taxation that supports government programs).  Given that, it’s also interesting to note that Tea Partiers have been more likely to make change within the system by electing their own (although that could certainly be an eventual outcome for the Wall Street Occupiers). 

 The way I would characterize the two movements is that the Occupy Wall Street movement overthinks things while the Tea Party underthinks them.  OWS (seriously, check this link for some whacked up nonsense in the OWS movement) is too consensus driven and indecisive whereas the Tea Party is decisive to a fault, knee-jerk and stubborn – dare I say, crotchety?  Both groups have their cranks and wing-nuts.  But the movements are full of the same moral outrage at the economic situation.

This weekend, an article in the Straits Times talked about why this movement that has been so successful globally didn’t fly in Singapore. Some of these reasons are related to the Singaporean culture of saving face, not wanting to go to a movement unless everyone else is (or the bathroom, for that matter), and feeling that the movement’s unclear objectives make it destined to fail.  However, the other reason the movement didn’t get off the ground in Singapore is that Singapore is thoroughly devoted to capitalism and does not villify banking; even if Singaporeans forget where their bread is buttered (and at 2% unemployment, the bread is sufficiently buttery), Singapore won’t let them forget.  In addition to discouraging grass roots protests, the government is also very quick to respond to concerns raised by citizens, and obviously problems can be a little simpler to solve in a country the size of Manhattan. One criticism the author of the OP levied that I had to take exception to is the Asian stereotyped view of the West that the Wall Street Occupiers didn’t do the hard work required to get ahead in life.  In conclusion, the author of the OP deemed OWS a “pity party.”  That may be accurate, but that doesn’t mean pity isn’t warranted.

There are some legitimate complaints, IMO.  College education has gotten increasingly expensive, with less and less return on that investment as the supply of certain jobs (especially high paying jobs) has outgrown demand for those jobs.  Many well-educated and hard working students can’t find a job in the field they’ve spent years studying and mortgaged their future to pay for.  Additionally, due to this job supply and demand misalignment, solutions will likely take another generation to bear fruit, leaving this generation lost, faring worse than preceding ones.  CEO pay has grown disproportionately higher than average workers’ pay.  And gap-riddled government regulations have allowed inexperienced, incompetent and dishonest people to make ill-advised decisions that make markets unstable in the long-term.  When a majority of companies in an industry post record short term gains due to toxic investment strategies, even smart companies that generally avoid those unsustainable risks are forced to take steps to mitigate the impact to their stock price and protect investors.  Our over-reliance on the market to right itself left us vulnerable to these types of mistakes.  Those who look to government to fix the corporations should bear in mind that government is the same “corporation” that routinely overspends its budget and fails accounting audits.  Physician, heal thyself!

There is some faulty thinking behind these movements also.  Both are quick to criticize, but slow to diagnose and even slower to find real solutions forward. 

The idea of the 99% vs. the 1% is also a bit of an oversimplification, although it makes for a nice slogan.  Is the 1% based on earnings or based on net worth?  Any way you slice it, income tax goes up the more money you earn.  Sales tax, OTOH, is often a lower percentage of total earnings for the wealthy because the lower earners are spending more (if not all) of their income.  The higher earners are putting a chunk of those earnings into savings, which is why taxes paid by them are higher on income but lower when retail taxes are included. 

Of course, the 1% is a pretty big group, regardless of which way it is defined:  one in every 100 Americans.  According to Washington Post, that’s a group that includes CEOs making over $30M per annum along with any middle level managers or small business owners making $516K + per annum (including bonuses, investments, capital gains, etc.) as a household.  I doubt these folks are running into each other at cocktail parties in the Hamptons or outbidding one another in auctions at Christie’s.  If based on net worth, the top 1% includes only those who have $14M or more socked away, which seems a fairer way to cut it.  If the 1% is based on geographical area, top 1% of earners in NYC are much higher than the national average (over $1M per annum income), but how could they not be when a studio apartment in Manhattan costs the same as a mansion in Dubuque?

CNN puts that threshold quite a bit lower:  just under $345K per annum in 2009.  Why the discrepancy?  Possibly because CNN is based on IRS records, and the lowest earners don’t pay income tax.  If they are disincluded, it will skew the cutoff point downward. According to CNN, the top 1% earned 17% of the nation’s wealth (not the much touted 42%, even with the lower cutoff) and paid 37% of the taxes.  31% of these top earners are executives and managers in non-financial fields; just under 16% work in health care, and over 8% are lawyers. Either way, the 1% is not that easy to nail down.

There has also been criticism of the OWS group’s tactics.  One article noted that Occupiers made a mess of a Walmart in Texas, lobbying for better union representation; yet the people who had to clean up the mess were the very people they were claiming are victimized by Walmart.  Additionally, some have expressed concern about the inconsistency between a term like “occupy,” generally used to describe military takeovers, and participants singing the Beatles’ anthem, “Give peace a chance.”  Although Occupy Wall Streeters have been loath to be confined to one party, many have observed that they are the Tea Party of the Left (which may be apt since the Tea Party is to the right of the right).

The final criticism of the OWS group is its failure to articulate demands and its hesitancy to name leaders or ally with existing leaders.  It’s a movement that wants to govern by consensus, even if that means it can only run as quickly as its slowest or most outlying member.  In that regard, the movement parallels the National Assembly during the French Revolution, a movement of sans-culottes dedicated to decrying their condition, the wealthy, and the ineffectual government, but without an understanding of how to get out of the economic spiral.  I doubt we’ll see beheadings without a Robespierre, though.  I suppose Occupy Wall Street is to the National Assembly what Mock U.N. is to the actual U.N.:  a bit of educational theater, but not a revolution that creates a new form of government.  Yet protest can be a catalyst to change.  It can be the spark that lights the fire that lights another fire that eventually spreads to another building and burns something down in the process.  Protest may not get exactly what it’s after (difficult to do when demands have still not been articulated), but it does add punctuation and tone to a conversation.

What do you think will be the result?  What will it take to get the economy back on track and to get the unemployment rate back to pre-recession levels?  Do you ally with either the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movement or neither and why?  Discuss.