The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Transcending Occupation

It has been two weeks since riot police cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from their encampment in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, and similar actions removed Occupy protesters from encampments in Oakland, Portland, and Salt Lake City. 

Deadlines set by the mayors of Los Angeles and Philadelphia for the departure of their Occupy encampments expire today.  Neither has yet left or been evicted; time will tell.

In the national capital, the two established (and though affiliated, distinct) encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza persist with periodic visits from the authorities -- in their case, the U.S. Parks Police, since both locations are Federal parkland and not under the control of the District of Columbia's municipal government.  In contrast to what has befallen their counterparts in other large cities, things have gone well for the D.C.-based Occupiers.  Last week, they celebrated the arrival of marchers dubbed "Occupy the Highway," who walked from New York to join them for protests against cuts of social spending envisioned by the so-called "supercommittee." 

These did not materialize, because the supercommittee failed, but the Occupiers went on to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast put on for them by the Occupy Faith D.C. coalition, a collection of local faith organizations whose affinity for the Occupy movement comes from its alignment with principles of social justice espoused by most global faith traditions.

Despite the evident support for the Occupiers themselves, however, I arrived at Thanksgiving Day wondering what comes next for this historic initiative.

Yes, with the help of the faith community and the many thousands of people who support the Occupy encampments with gifts of food, supplies, and other resources, the Occupiers might last the winter.  Depending on the response of the Parks Police, the D.C. encampments might both remain in place by the spring, and the notion of these camps still standing in April could bring new energy to the movement.

But what would that energy really mean?  Why does maintaining the encampments matter?

I'm a supporter of the Occupy movement.  I was one of the people who organized the Occupy Faith D.C. dinner for the folks here in the capital.  That hasn't kept me from having questions about the methods or intentions of those camping out.

Fortunately, my own holiday excursion took me away from this place, out to Reno, Nevada.  While there, I made a conscious effort to visit with the Occupy Reno group -- there's an Occupy group to be found anywhere at this point -- and I learned a lot.

It turns out that while everyone in the media and all of the political commentators are focused on Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and a handful of other big cities, the really exciting things are happening in smaller cities and even towns across the United States.  Isn't that typical?

Occupy Reno has an encampment, yes, but that's not its focus.  The people I met there, as usual, are a disparate group, but they have active purposes beyond mere existence.  They also have the backing of their city government, because while life in the big cities seems conspicuously normal, home foreclosures and economic upheavel are devastating places like Reno.

Here are some of the differences between Occupy Reno and its big-city brethren:
  • Inclusion.  The Occupy movement captured the public's attention with its chant, "We are the 99%," but as time has passed, the inevitable separation between those in the encampments and those outside has led many (including supporters) to feel that the reference is only to the Occupiers themselves.  Occupy Reno's signs and messages are outward-facing, reminding passers by that "YOU are the 99%."

  • Active focus.  Folks in D.C. often behave as if they are John Winthrop's City upon a Hill, whose mere existence is an example to others as to how they could live their lives.  What the Occupiers in D.C. and other cities have accomplished is impressive, but none outside of the encampments likely forget that these places are anything but self-sufficient.  The maintain themselves primarily through the generosity of those around them -- generosity that, with few exceptions, the Occupiers are at least unable and probably also unwilling to reciprocate.

    In contrast, Occupy Reno is not about simple existence.  The camp does get supplies donated from outside -- including from local businesses, and even members of the city council have pitched in -- but that just gives them a place to plan.

  • Business connections.  While the cities attract the anti-capitalist crowd, many of whom know little about economics beyond certainty that "capitalism's bad (m'kay...)," Occupy Reno has focused its efforts on supporting local businesses to keep money in the community.  They regularly leave their encampment -- which they opted to put nowhere near much of anything -- to demonstrate outside of big-box retailers and national chains; nothing new there. 

    But instead of protesting materialism or profit, they advertise for local businesses that sell the same things.  Reno is a largely suburban city, and as with most such cities, the routing of interstate highways has long made it easier to get to mega-malls (built with tax subsidies back when governments imagined that luring national chains to their locales would bring boom times) than to find places owned by friends and neighbors.  Their message is about informed choice -- the bedrock of true capitalism.

  • Tangible goals.  Changing the world is a fine goal for anyone to set out, but one need only do a quick tally of the world population (presently in excess of seven billion people) to appreciate the difficulties in brokering any sort of deal, particularly one based on a consensus model.  Most Occupy groups call for things like the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, but few know what it means.  (It separated the worlds of commercial and investment banking, preventing bankers from gambling with depositors' money, and was repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, signed by President Clinton in 1999.)

    Occupy Reno agrees with the need to reestablish the Glass-Steagall model of bank separation, but it also wants more tangible things, particularly in the realm of housing.  As I mentioned, foreclosures in Reno are very high.  Occupy Reno places real mortgage relief as a key priority, and it works with homeowners to publicize both bank stall tactics and foreclosure filings (especially is affluent areas) so that the true scope of devastation and malfeasence on the part of misincentivized services can be brought to public scrutiny.  Given the extent to which foreclosures have been disregarded by Republican Presidential candidates in particular, this focus is important.

On November 1, I laid out three things missing from the Occupy movement: better coordination, business affiliation, and academic backing.  Since then, the encampments in the big cities have withstood assaults, welcomed marchers, eaten dinner, and had a few rallies.  In short, they have devoted the majority of their energies to mere existence, subsisting on the generosity of supporters while behaving as if reforming our political and financial systems could be done on the basis of a few pitched-battle actions pitting comparative handfuls of people against hardened lines designed to ignore them.

This approach will not work.  The powerful interests in America are powerful because they have concentrated wealth and influence from across the broad population.  We do need to look at what the government is doing, but we can deflate wealth and influence most effectively by changing individual behavior -- things like buying locally, knowing your neighbors (and helping them), and realizing the awesome human cost of faceless greed. 

We should preserve the social safety net that is the most enduring achievement of the progressive legacy, but keep these three things in mind:
  1. Safety nets are effective only when the broader system doesn't require their constant use by large numbers of people.  Too many people relying on them for too long will always break them (and this applies to the support for the Occupy encampments as well).

  2. Sustained, broad-based prosperity comes from how we relate to one another, not how the government relates to each of us, because we are the government, and if a majority of us refuse to treat one another well, it is foolish to think that our representatives will nonetheless force us to do so.

  3. To the extent that we do need to change government, we will need to identify, vet, promote, elect, and support people who share our ideals of what government should be.  Refusing to have anything to do with politics while taking political positions is contradictory, confusing, and silly.
For too long now, American media, political commentary, and attention has been focused on the Occupy movement as it exists in the big cities.  These cities have not saved America from where it is today.  Indeed, the two cities most closely associated with the Occupy movement -- New York and Washington -- are most responsible for our being where we are today.

On a certain level, that makes them important battlegrounds, but keep in mind that any attempt to change minds in these cities that prosper even during a time of economic turmoil will be an uphill battle on difficult ground.  The real contest for the hearts and minds of the American people, the great debate of social justice(1), will and must be waged in the small cities like Reno, in ten thousand towns across the vast expanse that makes up our nation.

It is time that we transcended mere occupation and began a march towards returning progressive prosperity to the United States.

1 I'm referring to a contrast between social justice and market justice (i.e. pure market competition), the traditional line of contention between libertarians and progressives, but both sides of this line can find common cause in opposing the phony capitalism reflected by most American companies: a system where rewards flow primarily to managers rather than investors, where both parties use regulation to protect the entrenched interests of the powerful, and where any serious losses on the parts of those same plutocrats are covered by taxpayers.

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