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Archive for the tag “Occupy Wall Street”

Concerning Income Inequality

There has been much news coverage in the last 24 hours about the just-released figures from the Congressional Budget Office regarding change in income for each economic group over the last 30 years. Basically, the top 1% of income-earners have seen their incomes grow 275% over that time, and everyone else has either seen only minimal gains (the top 20% or so) or completely stagnated (the bottom 80%). I have already seen numerous charts, graphics, blog entries, and opinions on the internet talking about this statistic–one of the most comprehensive seems to be here. Let me add one more to the mix.

From: CBO

The phenomenon has been commented on by some astute observers previously. Last year, Bill Moyers gave a speech called “Welcome to the Plutocracy” that charts the long process of growing inequality, something he has talked about at other times in the past. It is rather long, but well worth the read:


Nevertheless, it is an interesting and positive development how much coverage this issue is receiving at this moment, exactly when there is so much public and popular backlash about inequality, rapacious banks financing corrupt politicians, a general sense of injustice, and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is also a bit ironic that this study was done at the behest of a bipartisan request of Congress, and was conducted by the non-partisan CBO. Given the results of the findings, it will only help to advance the Democratic platform, and weaken the Republican one. This does not follow automatically, but only because Democrats, by default, are the only party that supports anything like a progressive tax policy, whereas the Republicans have regressed from any earlier forms of progress they might have once embraced, however tentatively, in order to cling to what can only be described as “survival of the richest, and screw the rest.” I don’t think I am exaggerating, as I have been observing and trying to understand the political situation for some time, and can come to no other conclusion about the regressive intransigence of the Republicans.

Is it important to understand the source of the growing inequality over the last 30 years? Yes, it can be considered a recent historical trend that did not develop in a vacuum. It also helps us to understand the current situation of our national financial system, deficit, budget, political system, etc. We must first consider that these figures are so alarming to many people not because of the percentage itself, but because of the overall progression of inequality. For example, we know that there has always been a huge disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and that the richest 1% took home a similar percentage of income even at the time before the Great Depression. Thanks to a series of regulations, union growth, and progressive taxation, the disparity between super-rich and everyone was gradually lessened throughout much of the 20th century. ‘Trust-busting’ of huge monopolies used to be enforced by the government, and companies were not allowed to become what we now call ‘too big to fail’. For several decades, the richest earners paid income taxes much higher than today, but this not only did not hinder their success, but it helped everyone else to prosper as well.

From: moveon.org

So when did the trend of growing prosperity end and growing inequality reassert itself? The best (or at least simplest) answer is clear: the Reagan presidency. Multiple tax cuts for the top earners were coupled with an overall lessening of financial regulations, and refusal to enforce even existing regulations. All the charts and the figures involved clearly show the pattern of gross financial abuse of the system gaining considerable force during the Reagan years, while the simultaneous rejection of progressive policies on all accounts have led to stagnation for everyone else. I know that this is an over-simplication, but it remains true nonetheless. And during this time, the US has gone from being a sort of ‘beacon’ of freedom and equality, to a place that now ranks in the same sterling group of countries as Rwanda and Uganda–last in the world in income equality!

So what does this mean? I admit that higher tax rates for millionaires will not cure all of our problems, and in fact, will do very little in the big scheme of things. But that is beside the point. Allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire next year would automatically set the highest tax rate back up to 39.6% from the 35% of the last 9 years. This is the first step in a series of symbolic, but meaningful, steps to adjust the role of government back towards the successful progressive role it maintained in the recent past. Taxing the rich directly is the most effective single way to mitigate inequality, provide more means of assistance to the bottom 20% in poverty, and make way for a more just society. I always thought Robin Hood was a popular character for all time because he did what is intuitive to us all–robbed the rich to feed the poor. The difference with these tax rates is that no one is getting ‘robbed’–the rich will hardly notice the difference, and the extra revenue will make a world of difference to supporting programs such as education that help even the poorest citizens to have more control over their own ability to rise out of poverty. A full two thirds of millionaires have no disagreement with this same argument, agreeing with Warren Buffett that the rich should, in fact, pay more taxes. There is obviously much to say and many vociferous disagreements on these issues, especially regarding the rival political philosophies of liberalism and libertarianism. I will discuss those points in a later post. The most basic thing we must ask ourselves, however, is what kind of society we want to live in…one in which everyone has a possibility to attain a prosperous existence, or one in which the richest minority writes it own rules at the expense of the majority.

The New Sack of Rome

Two days ago, I was on the way back to my house in the center of Vicenza after a nice day in the country.  Suddenly, I found myself in the unfortunate position of being stopped in an unexpected traffic jam on a narrow road only one kilometer from the city center (just after passing Palladio’s ‘La Rotonda’ villa).  As I inched along on the out-of-the-way detour indicated by traffic police, I came to realize that the reason for the stoppage was simple: a calcio match (Italian for ‘soccer’) had just finished.  Tifosi (fans) of Vicenza’s team, nicknamed the ‘Biancorossi’ (white and reds) after the team color’s, were happily marching down the sidewalks loyally displaying their team scarves.  Then the traffic totally stopped.  Gradually advancing towards me from the other lane was a war zone on wheels.  First, there was a black, armored, tank-like vehicle of the Carabinieri, the Italian para-military police force, followed by…a privately-contracted, double-decker bus full to the brim with young soccer fans from somewhere or another.  They could be seen pressed against the windows of the jam-packed bus, screaming unintelligible obscenities at anyone watching, proudly waving middle fingers out the windows, and generally engaging in near-riotous behavior on board their own bus.  Each bus echoed the variations of the same theme, and each bus was separated from the previous one by another armored police car full of riot-gear-clad Carabinieri.  There were a total of ten such buses, and ten police ‘tanks’.  It is unclear who the police were protected–the small army of hooligans, or the (tax-paying) population at large.  It was very clear, though, that something was dreadfully wrong with this situation (even beyond my taking an hour to get home from what would have been a 5-minute walk, and my generally soured mood after what had been a nice autumnal Italian Saturday).  I later discovered that Vicenza had been victorious in a match against the team from Verona, which I can only assume is an ancient and bloody feud between the two neighboring cities (who can now only win annual ‘moral’ victories by proxy, by way of the prowess of their respective second-tier-league soccer teams).


I also discovered that Rome, this very same day, had witnessed a fully-realized display of violence that seemed to be rooted in a similarly anarchic ideology that I had just seen in person.  Rome was to be one of dozens of cities worldwide that would host protests both inspired by and in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement taking place in New York over the last month.  The turnout of peaceful protesters in Rome was possibly the largest in the world on this simultaneous ‘Day of Rage’ (as I have heard it referred to).  There were over 100,000 protesters from around the peninsula who descended on Rome to voice their discontent with the ineffectual and corrupt government, rapacious bankers, and Berlusconi (among other things).  This peaceful march was hijacked, and used as a shield against the police, by an organized group of a few hundred young men.  This relatively small group arrived wearing all black, with masks and motorcycle helmets, and weapons.  They uprooted cobblestones to throw at police and into windows, set cars ablaze, and caused widespread mayhem for several hours without any effective response by the police.  In the end, only 12 of the group were arrested, and something like 200 policemen were injured.

Berlusconi after a 2009 attack by a miniature model of Milan’s Duomo

First of all, let me comment about the political response.  It is no surprise that such a savvy media manipulator as Silvio Berlusconi (he actually owns most of the media, in fact) was quick not only to denounce the violence of the group (obviously), but to also openly associate them with the ‘Leftists’, his vague characterization of a faction who also happen to be Berlusconi’s political rivals.  Many of his loyal lackeys followed suit and condemned the ‘Left’ for the violence.  This is absurd on many levels.  The fact that the enormous protest was overshadowed by a dedicated group of anarchists is already a victory for the likes of Berlusconi, who needs all the distractions he can muster in order to continue to divert attention away from his desperate, power-hungry attempts to cling to office as long as humanly possible (he is currently the defendant in no less than FOUR lawsuits at the moment, while ostensibly ‘serving’ as Prime Minister).  This dastardly character may not have caused Italy’s systemic political dysfunction, but he has certainly exacerbated it and used it to his benefit whenever possible during his 10 years of rule (over the course of three terms).  At this point, it is painfully transparent to attempt to blame such wanton violence on his opponents–this is an old tactic that can be seen in such examples as the burning of the Reichstag in 1933.  It is not fair to blame Berlusconi for this event, but he should certainly be held responsible for helping to create or perpetuate the conditions whereby such events are more likely to occur.  As one blogger writes, “It’ll only get one result: to scare the vast majority of Italians and nurture in them a desire for a strongman.”  Luckily, Berlusconi will never be that strongman, but the fact remains that such relatively minor skirmishes always provide occasion for any would-be strongmen to consolidate power at the expense of civil liberties (maybe another day I will write about Bush’s “Patriot Act”, something straight out of Winston Smith’s “Ministry of Truth”).

Next, I would like to examine why such violence happened at the protests in Italy, and nowhere else.  We must obviously recognize that such things, while unexpected and condemned by the majority of Italians, are by no means unheard of in this country.  There is a long history, even since WWII, of violent political groups and chaotic protests here.  The leftist ‘Red Brigades’ orchestrated a series of terrorist acts and assassinations during 60’s, 70’s, and into the 80’s.  Right-wing and anarchist groups also continue to perform acts of violence–the ‘Black Bloc’ group responsible for Saturday’s riots is an example.  In 2002, there was a violent confrontation in Genoa at a protest of the G8 summit.  Strikes and protests in Italy are not uncommon, and they do occasionally end in some type of violence or destruction.  In my own town of Vicenza, since 2006 there has been an ongoing and well-organized protest movement called ‘No Dal Molin’, which is fighting against the expansion of an American military base into an old local airport.  Despite huge support for the movement (95% in one vote), the fight has basically been lost, as the base has been approved at all levels of national government, and construction has been underway for a couple years at Dal Molin airport.  This movement has sponsored scores of peaceful marches and occupations of local building and landmarks, but also, on at least two occasions, their own train station was occupied and ransacked by various protesters.  Soccer violence is common around Europe and around the world, and Italy is no exception.  Inter-city matches often descend to levels of chaos and animosity not usually witnessed outside of full-fledged wars.  The case of a policeman murdered by hooligans in Sicily in 2007 is but one of the most infamous examples.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers as to why violence is more prevalent in some societies, but I do have some ideas about the solutions.  However over-optimistic it may seem, a society in which people have freedom, opportunity, and at least a notional voice about how the government works will always be more stabile, prosperous, and peaceful than societies without this.  Italy, however wealthy and steeped in culture and history, is home to one of the most ineffective, inefficient, and overly-bureaucratic governments in Europe.  The economy is stagnant and young people feel like they have no opportunity here, and no ability to change the huge political problems their country faces.  This is a recipe for potential violent confrontations.  There is another way, though.

I have already praised the Occupy Wall Street movement in this post.  The good thing about this movement is that seeks to exert political influence in a peaceful, and totally democratic, way (it is really the very definition of participatory democracy).  It understands that violence does not improve anything, especially in politics, and that the best method for creating an effective system of reforms is to publicly express dissatisfaction that gains the attention of hordes of sympathetic citizens, journalists, and, ultimately, politicians.  As Thoreau said, “A man more right than his neighbors already constitutes a majority of one.”  Any group fighting injustice even against entrenched powers that want to maintain the corrupt status quo will always have the moral high ground (or maybe the ‘moral majority’).  Let more people join these movements and influence the issues, and let our societies gradually seek to move more towards a new contract of political freedom and justice.  But let it always be non-violent.  Hopefully, these movements will continue to grow and to remain peaceful, just as our friends in the Syrian resistance continue to be, even in the face of thousands of thousands of wrongful deaths and imprisonments.

In Praise of the ‘Mob’: Occupy Wall Street

The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement has weathered a slow start, and an all-too-predictable hazing from the NYPD, to find itself growing in numbers, spreading across the country, and becoming noticed by mainstream journalists and top politicians. President Obama himself, and several Democratic leaders, have rather cautiously praised the spirit of the protests, while obviously holding back a bit to see what it finally morphs into (though I think they need not worry about blood on their hands). More interestingly, we know that the movement has ‘arrived’ because of the universal condemnation it has garnered from Republican officials across the board. Democrats hope that it can become a tenacious and energetic grass-roots, left-wing version of the Tea Party (only with youth and education, not ignorance and latent racism). On the other hand, we have Republican examples such as House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who provides his own shamelessly twisted version of the events. According to Cantor, the protests are a mere “mob” (with all the pejorative connotations that word implies), reacting to “the [Obama] administrations’ failed policies.” Everything that is bad begins and ends with Obama according to hyper-partisan mandarins like Cantor. Let’s just ignore the fact that the standard dictionary definition of “administrations’ failed policies” always shows a mugshot of George W. Bush– the Republican president supported for years by Republican legislators such as Cantor and John Boehner, especially in regards to increasing the deficit as much and as quickly as possible with unpaid-for gambits such as starting and mismanaging elective wars whilst inexplicably lowering taxes for the top income bracket (isn’t it typical to raise taxes, rather than cut them, in order to fight wars? I think even French king Louis XIV could tell you the answer to that one.).

Cantor goes on to say that the protests are “pitting Americans against Americans.” First of all, have Americans ever agreed on anything? There are over 300 million Americans, which means that there will always certain issues in which there are “Americans against Americans”. That is how it is supposed to work in a (Representative) Democracy. There are many ways to analyze the absurdity of this quote, so I will just touch briefly on its hypocrisy. As we all know, Republicans couldn’t be happier to have the Tea Party Movement giving them a certain unmeasurable ‘enthusiasm’ factor, which manifested itself in Republican victories in the 2010 mid-term elections. People like then-Minority Leader Boehner were more than happy to disavow all knowledge of the sideshow “birther” conspiracies, as well as the racist elements of the most right-wing extremists, while at the same time explaining it all away by saying things like “I can’t tell other people what to think. If people think Obama wasn’t born in America, then I can’t tell them they’re wrong.  If Obama says he’s a Christian [and, thus, not a Muslim], I have to take him at his word.” This must be the only time on record when the leader of a political party can’t tell people what to think about an issue, trusting that they can just figure it out on their own in this case. Anyway, the whole idea behind the Tea Party movement, different political parties, and even politics in general, is that there are, and will always be, “Americans against Americans” on every single issue. We’re not re-fighting the Civil War again; we are trying to improve public policy to benefit as many “Americans” as possible. The Tea Party, which is a disparate group of Americans strongly against another group of Americans, was not sowing discord, but “fighting for democracy” according to Cantor in 2009. Now that there is a rival, left-leaning, populist uprising, suddenly Cantor wants them to be crushed with all the oppressive power of the ruling (financial) elites that he faithfully serves.

Similarly, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, has arguably gone a step further– he has accused the protesters of “trying to take away jobs of people working in this city.” Forget the fact that it is not just New York City anymore, but now an ever-growing list of cities across the country– Bloomberg knows the secret truth that jobs are to be protected more than even the life of worker itself. I think the rhetorical dichotomy of “job creator vs. job killer” must have become the new “terrorist vs. not a terrorist.” Ones sees Manichean echoes of G.W. Bush’s “you’re either with us, or you’re against us.” There is no middle ground. If you are not creating a job, you must, by definition, be destroying a job. Mayor Bloomberg is the 8th richest man in America. He is worth $17,500,000,000. In addition to his media company (which is decidedly pro-Big Finance), I think it’s safe to assume a lot of that money is tied up in… you guessed it: Wall Street. Bloomberg might not exactly be the biggest friend of the “little guy”, but he knows how to protect jobs in New York City: by condemning poor and unemployed college students protesting against the systemic corruption and abuse of our national financial system by morally-bankrupt, mostly psychopathic (really! I recently read an article that said that corporate CEOs have a greater than normal probability of being clinically ‘psychopathic’) bankers and gamblers of the financial casinos that are Wall Street banks.

What do these protesters want, anyway, that is so offensive to the ‘conservative establishment’. They want a lot of different things it seems; but first and foremost, they do not want to ‘conserve the establishment’. There are obvious systemic problems with the political and economic state of America, and these problems can be reformed. But if no one tells the politicians to do something then they will, almost by definition, do nothing, and the status quo will continue. Is there such a problem with angry and motivated activists learning that, in 2011 in America, they do have a voice, and they can organize and make the voice heard. Maybe they will never achieve their diverse goals, but I think there is no question that they can help to shape the debate. We have all put up with the Tea Party long enough, without ever denying them the ability to organize, make their voices heard, and even get some people elected. I don’t think they will go away anytime soon, and that is a good thing because it is good for a country to have more, not less, people being involved in politics. I don’t think I misunderstand the concept of democracy when I say that it is a system that not only encourages people (‘demos‘) to make their voices heard and influence collective decisions, but it actually fails and evolves into something different when this does not happen. Let the debate begin.

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