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Oct 15 2011

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The Primal Scream of the “Occupiers”

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Not Quite, But They Are on to Something

A growing chorus of GOP leaning pundits and officials have stepped up their criticism of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which started in lower Manhattan and is spreading to other cities.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) called the protests “mobs” who have pitted “Americans against Americans.” Presidential candidate Herman Cain was among the most caustic, stating that the protesters were “jealous Americans who play the victim card and want to take someone else’s Cadillac.”

But a careful look at the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement shows that conservatives have this all wrong. Indeed, in their zeal to demonize the movement, they may be missing a key opportunity to tap into another manifestation of financial anxiety brought on by the current Obama economic climate.

Not all protests are equal.

By way of example, what we have today going on in New York has almost nothing in common with say, the highly organized, well funded and hostile left wing protests against Scott Walker in Wisconsin, when the governor submitted common-sense proposals for public sector union workers to pay slightly more for their retirement and health benefits.

By all accounts, the OWS is something very different.

Yes, the protest has attracted anarchists, anti-capitalists and the regular, plethora of single-issue leftists; from folks who want complete college debt forgiveness, to the end of the internal combustion engine.  And it’s true that the “coordinators”  – leaders would certainly be too strong a term, and probably offensive to them – of the protest haven’t issued any official idea of what they’re against or what they are for.

But this is not a hostage situation with concrete demands regarding what the protesters want.

Instead, it is very much about how the protesters feel. 

From that vantage point, you could say that OWS is emerging as one of the largest, public “self-help support groups” in US history.

Call it “Frustration Anonymous.”

Because at its core, after you get past the publicity-seekers and the professionally aggrieved, this protest is a citizen reaction, rooted in the hopeless despair of those who feel that their voices are not being heard in the corridors of power and money.

In this sense, historically speaking, the OWS is very much a spectrum book-end to the Tea Party.

Consider the chronology.

Barack Obama won election based on the genuine disaffection of millions of Americans who were fearful of the new and uncertain economic conditions created by the financial collapse of 2008. But almost immediately, Obama’s governing policies became a radical departure from his cotton-candy, centrist campaign rhetoric.

The resultant eye-popping government spending, expanded government power and crushing regulation, catalyzed the creation of the Tea Party, which rose not primarily because of prevailing economic conditions, but because of the Obama economic prescriptions and governing philosophy.

The two-year rise of the Tea Party, from town halls protesters to organized power brokers in the 2010 election, represented a profound, organic grass-roots reaction to the direction and impact of the President’s progressive policies.

But now, having altered the balance of power in Washington, the Tea Party mantra of regulatory reform, reduced spending and debt reduction has deadlocked with the President and his Senate backers, who want to continue on the course the nation has followed for the first two years of Obama’s term.

So instead of promoting constructive, bipartisan solutions, Washington is now the scene of “trench warfare;” a wasteland of failed initiatives unable to command a majority, where recrimination and rhetoric have substituted for action.

But inaction in Washington has not suspended the continued disintegration of economic conditions across the country, which are materially worse than 2008.

Consider that American citizens lost more than $10 trillion in wealth in 2008 as a result of the stock market meltdown and immediate, lost value in their homes.  That’s more than 2/3rds of the national debt, dating back to 1789, lost in a few months.

That wealth wasn’t just  the holdings of hedge fund gurus, bond managers and the idle rich  Those were ordinary Americans who had invested in mutual funds and IRAs  and pension plans, or who had scrimped to make on-time payments on their homes so that rising property prices would allow them to send a child to college or cushion retirement.

While the stock market is off its 2008 lows, the housing market has dropped precipitously and now is in the worst crisis since the Great Depression, with values down 33 percent since 2006.

It is the greatest loss of wealth in modern American history.

And it is compounded by the impacts of the economy at large. Unemployment is stubborn at 9.1 percent. Add in the pool of labor that is forced to work part time, or those who have given up entirely, and the number is closer to 16%.

But while labor has been traumatized across America, corporation have internalized the financial lessons of 2008 and have significantly bulked up on capital reserves, brutally cutting waste from operations, shedding unprofitable divisions and slimming payrolls – all the while keeping a sharp eye on Washington for the continued regulatory and tax uncertainty that hobbles potential new investment.

So we have the contrast of a crisis in labor at the same time that Corporate America has roughly $2 trillion in the bank and is posting respectable earnings, despite a teetering economy.

More personally frustrating to many Americans is that the very financial institutions that required a $700 billion government bailout for reckless behavior, have redoubled their efforts foreclose on the very taxpayers who made their rescue possible.

And where’s Washington?

If you want to understand the wellsprings of the OWS protest, it is found in this profound dichotomy.

As a matter of character, Americans believe in a fundamental fairness.

Not the Obama-Van Jones-Reverend Wright “social justice” of wealth redistribution, but the century’s old custom of justness rooted in equitable integrity.

But since 2009, politics, policy and business have been at fundamental cross purposes, the impact of which has been to break the social compact of fairness that Americans have come to expect and depend on.

Americans sense that something is fundamentally wrong and unfair. The OWS is a physical manifestation of that sense.

Smart politicians and business leaders should recognize the core sentiment, shorn of its ideological frivolity, as a barometer of how badly America is hurting and, correspondingly, how imperative it is to formulate solutions that address real problems.

 

 

 

 

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