Friday, December 16, 2011

My Op-Ed

UPDATE: Here is the link to the OP-Ed in The Oregonian.

Well since The Oregonian never got it on the web page, I suppose it is safe for me to do so now.  Here is my original text (its all I have in a digital version) with my addition of the word 'substantial.' As far as I can tell it is the same as was published.

I have written a number of Op-Ed pieces that have been published in the Oregonian over the last few years, but never had nearly the response as I have had on this one, nor even close to the level of passion people have surrounding the movement, both for and against.  What this tells me is that the movement is really striking a chord that resonates with a lot of people.  The point of the editorial is that the movement can't just vent the frustration and anger symptomatic of the deep unrest with the outcomes of our political and economic system over the last few decades and be successful. It has to become a focused agent of change or it will all come to nothing; they now have to pivot from protest to advocacy.

I have been attacked by both those for and against the movement for in my words they managed to paint me as either opposed to the movement or a fellow traveler.  The truth is I am neither, I can't tell you if I support the movement because I am not entirely sure what it is they are advocating for.  And by the way, you can be critical of something and still support it - one would hope self-analysis and criticism is a key part of the occupiers themselves.  If they can't take my mild criticism, I have little hope for the movement.

Anyway, here you go:

The Occupy Portland movement managed to close down terminals as the Port of Portland Monday in an act of protest, putting a number of their fellow 99% out of work for the day. The reasons for targeting the Port were vague: apparently they were trying to hurt companies that do business at the port which are responsible for some rich people getting even richer. I fear the Occupy movement has lost the plot.

There is nothing unique about these businesses. It is hard to find a business that is not in some way connected to the global economy and that supports, however indirectly, a very wealthy person’s income. Imagine a small local business that gets a small business loan from a local bank. This seems safe enough, right? But that small local bank probably does business with a larger bank whose bosses are the very villains the Occupy movement is targeting. And the local business may ship goods to customers in foreign countries, enriching shipping magnates and importers, and so on. In other words, in trying to identify and protest a particular part of the economy they are chasing their tails and muddling their own message.

Thus the problem with the Occupy movement is not the general sense of a growing disenfranchisement of the middle and lower classes – this trend is real and identifiable – but what they suggest to do about it. What policies do they oppose exactly? What do they propose as alternatives?

I understand the general sense that the modern economy, ever more global and huge, is responsible for the growing inequality in the United States and how this inequality translates to a lack of political power. But it is not the global capitalist system itself that is causing these outcomes, but how we as a country restrain the system through our policies and our laws. And therein lies the genesis of a real and well-articulated message.

For example, it is now well known that our financial regulations were inadequate to restrain firms that were involved in a returns arms race – forever trying to best each other by producing impossibly high returns on loose credit without regard to the sustainability of such actions. We have made very little progress in improving such regulations.

It is also well known that the modern and global economy is creating ever more dramatic differences in returns to education. High school graduates have hardly made any advance in earnings for decades, while those with four-year university degrees and higher are continuing to advance. But instead of redressing one of the real root causes of inequality, we are dramatically disinvesting in public education in the United States.

Given the ever increasing inequality, the collapse of the financial sector and the worst economic downturn since the great depression, it is remarkable how little is being done in Washington to improve financial regulation and invest in the education of American children. Which leads to another policy lacuna: the inability to balance the needs and rights of corporate America with that of the vast majority of its citizens that have not seen their standard of living [substantially] improve in two generations.

So here is a suggested start for the Occupy movement. Do not put port workers out of work for a day: port workers are impacted dramatically by such economic disruptions while the fat-cats hardly notice. Use the collective energy of the movement to call for real financial reform, for a reinvestment in public education and to restrain the influence of money on government. It is a just a start, but an articulate one.

Finally, I realize I should get the Oregonian to mention my blog because it provides a forum for those who would like to debate the issue. [Perhaps this is why they never posted my Op-Ed: to save me the inevitable abuse that would have come from the generally caustic comments that appear on the O's web page] Anyway, I will not answer any more e-mails about this. You want to discuss, do it in the comments here, but keep it respectful.


Rick Attig said...


Your piece didn't appear (until now) on The Stump, The Oregonian's opinion site because the staff member who blogged it failed to take the last step to publish it earlier in the week. I found it in the system unpublished, and now it's up. Our apologies.

Rick Attig, Associate Editor

Patrick Emerson said...

Cool, but I still can't find it. Can you provide a link?

Cameron Mulder said...

This Op-Ed basically sums up how i feel about the movement also. I am personally glad to see people on the streets protesting issues around inequality and economic injustice but the Occupy movement is keeping way to vague on what they want to see done about it.

coaster said...

I get you point about the the Occupy movement being vague about the specific policy actions they seek. But, really, what do you expect from a “movement”? The roots of our economic malaise are deep and complex, and there are no simple bumper sticker solutions. It's more that enough for the Occupy movement to bring attention to the core problem (economic injustice) and raise its visibility to the public and policy makers. When the public and policy makers are sufficiently convinced that something needs to be done, then the appropriate technical and political resources can be brought to bear to formulate solutions. We're still a long way from that point as is demonstrated by the push-back from the power elite in government, industry, and the media.

Concerning the port boycott, sure most large enterprises are global capitalists with ties to Wall Street and the international banking industry. But the real question is what target will resonate with the core Occupy message and garner the most attention from the press and the public. On this score, the port boycott is a good symbolic choice. Intuitively a port is a focal point of global capitalism. It brings to mind images of outsourced American jobs, cheap foreign products manufactured by near-slave labor, the international race to the bottom that enriches international corporations but leaves American workers behind. And it's visible and attracts attention – something that boycotting, say, a computer chip fabrication plant or an e-commerce data center wouldn't accomplish nearly as well.

We could do with a lot less whining about a lack of specific policy recommendations from the Occupy movement and a lot more support for their message that the system is rigged in favor of the corporations and the wealthy and is leaving 99% of Americans (and the world) behind.