On Occupying Wall Street

This has been happening for two weeks now, and finally, the media blackout ended. Somewhat. Some newspapers began to cover it; I’ve seen AM New York and Metro headlines. New York Times still won’t put it outside the New York section. And there have been 700 arrests on “traffic obstruction”, which is ridiculous if you consider one little bit: Wall Street hardly has vehicles in the area during business hours. So I want to know how the “obstructing traffic” charge on the arrests comes in, when Wall Street and its surrounding 5-block radius get the bulk of traffic at Broadway, Fulton Street, Water Street, and Whitehall Street. The actual pass-through traffic in the Wall Street area is minimal.

But all this aside, the fact of the matter is, this protest had been long, long in the making. After seeing the American Dream all but disintegrate in a wave of fraudulent foreclosings, bailouts, and corporate personhood, people – and most crucially, young people in their twenties – are standing up and taking action. There is an ongoing, rolling protest in more than just Downtown Manhattan. People finally, at last, had enough.

This made my month. I mean it.

Do forgive me as I wax social politics, but this has been in the making for a while.

It wasn’t that long ago where earning $30,000 a year in this city would at least guarantee you a cheaplet studio. Said cheaplet is now $800/mo and rising. Salaries do not keep pace with inflation and rise in cost of living. Jobs are consistently outsourced, just so that the company in charge wouldn’t have to pay those outrageous, how-dare-they expenses like overtime, health insurance, and workers’ comp. And what happens to the thousand or so people who worked in, say, a call center, before that call center got moved out to India? They’re the same ones who are now in the unemployment office and in staffing agencies, trying to survive.

Worse, if it’s a specialized job field that has been closed out or outsourced, then finding new employment would mean taking a job that one is grossly overqualified for. This is how we see expert technicians working in McDonald’s: there is nothing else for them. This is also how we see people with Master’s degrees in specialized fields either going back to school yet again for an entirely new career track or settling for a teaching job in their initial field, if one is even available.

Considering the conditions, and considering the fact that this had been allowed to continue – hey, the companies are reporting profits, right? – consistently for several years, the unemployment has become the new norm. There has been an obvious rise in living costs, but the salaries did not keep pace with it.

I clearly remember Reagan’s idea of “trickle-down economics”, with the concept that if the wealthy were wealthier, then it would “trickle down” to the middle class because if the wealthy had their money, they could use it to make more jobs available. It sounded lovely, except for a major, glaring flaw: the wealthy don’t become or stay wealthy if their money trickles anywhere. It’s simple psychology: you don’t get to climb the ladder to the top by giving away its rungs. It just doesn’t work that way.

Now, let’s look also at the fact that education became a business too. The goal and mission is now that everyone must have a college degree, no matter if the college they’re going to has risen to unaffordability, or if the degree is not going to be used. Tuition has been spiking across the country – why? Because to close the deficit gap, one of the things to get slashed were the grant programs. So where do the colleges get their funding from? Student loans and/or raised costs, or both. So who gets to pay the bill? The students. Many of whom, due to the aforementioned outsourcing and salary not keeping pace with inflation, cannot find jobs after graduating, and on top of that, are saddled with student loan debt that would take them their entire lives to repay, at this rate.

Medicine is a mess right now, I needn’t say it. It’s also very, very costly. People die every day because either they didn’t have insurance, theirs dropped coverage suddenly, or the medical costs in excess of insurance are sky-high. But that is another story, for a different time.

The circumstances have gone from where wages were sustainable and survivable, where college degrees were a mark of accomplishment, to where the college degree serves as the new demarcation of the poverty line and the words “living” and “wage” are often used with “I’d like to have” and “I’d kill for”. We’ve gone from where we could reasonably expect insurance to cover medical expenses to where if the doctor hands a diagnosis of the dreaded Big C, your immediate thought after oh shit is nearly guaranteed to be my insurance is going to drop me, how will I afford treatment? And let’s not even think about rent. If there was a candidate from a faction named “The Rent is Too Damn High” in NYC, that’s how you know something’s not right. Since when is a 400-sq. ft. studio supposed to cost nearly triple its square-footage? The answer: since it’s profitable.

And this is a huge reason behind the protests. Because profit is the buzzword to strive for. Profit is more important than survival. Profit is more important than basic human compassion. Profit has become more important than the basic tenets of common sense. And that is why there is now a protest happening on Wall Street, and it is a protest that so reminds me of the Gilded Age-era strikes that it makes me proud as all-get out.

Why proud? Because this is the American spirit. Not the “profit, profit, profit!” mantra that’s been shoved down the people’s throats, but this: the zeal to change things that are unfavorable and oppressive. Just like the workers and unions of the Gilded Age dogfought for their rights to a safe work environment, people of my generation are effectively fighting the battle for a future.

Bear the following in mind, please: this is not about changing the economic policy overnight. It is, however, about giving a generation’s worth of people a fighting chance for survival. Healthcare, housing, clean food and water – all of those are a fundamental right. Yes, I said right: you cannot, simply cannot tell me that a person isn’t entitled to have something to eat and drink, and not sleep in the streets. You also can’t expect me to believe that a person isn’t entitled to basic healthcare, as basic as getting a regular checkup to make sure they aren’t keeling over without their own knowledge. This is about the basic necessities needed to stay alive, most of which right now are a struggle. If people are choosing between medicine and food on the table, then something’s not right. If people are choosing between rent and electricity, something’s not right. That’s why there is an ongoing protest on Wall Street and across the country. Because this is not the way that people should live. 

There has been flak about no concise “list of demands” from the protesters. The Internet has plenty of such lists, and I’ll be happy to chime in with mine:

Repay the bailouts that were funded by the US Taxpayers.

This is the first and basic demand, and the banks are in immediate focus on this. Banks have received billions in bailout money. None of it has come back. However, there are new fees for the customers of some banks, most notoriously BoA, which effectively amounts to the banks charging customers to use the customers’ own money. There’s also record profits for bank corporations. There’s also record bonuses for their CEOs. And these are the same banks – again, Bank of America, I’m looking at you – who will foreclose on a mortgage without there being concrete proof of delinquency, or worse, screw up modification and/or refinancing paperwork and then foreclose based on those screw-ups.

Bottom line is that a CEO doesn’t need a multimillion-dollar bonus, a new yacht, whatever. There’s a debt to the government to repay those bailouts, and they must be repaid. The taxpayers didn’t want or like these bailouts to begin with, and if the banking industry ever wants to have credibility, then these loans need to be repaid, with massive interest. After all, they do it to their consumers all the time. Fair trade.

– Forgive student loan debt across the board.

Seriously. We know that the jobs crisis won’t be resolved quickly. Is it seriously necessary to have an entire generation get their credit and their lives wrecked before they even begin to build either one? Is it absolutely inevitable to garnish their wages – which, if you consider the job situation again, is likely a minimum-wage job just to keep food on the table – to pay back a degree that they can’t use, again, because of the lack of job availability? And if someone does want an education, should they be required to choose between feeding themselves and paying for college?

Which brings me to…

– Cap and curb tuition costs.

There was a time where local city colleges were free. There was a time where state universities’ tuition was within 4 figures. And there was a time where Ivy League universities, while still expensive, were still accessible financially and had paid enough in scholarships to make their attendance actually feasible. That needs to happen again. If you want more people getting an education, make sure they are actually able to attend the school and be able to feed themselves at the same time.

Moreover, and this is on the government, federal and state level: never cut education programs. For all the lip service on education, accessing it is soon becoming difficult, if not impossible.

 – Cap and curb costs on food and rent. 

Repeat after me: no rent in the world should ever exceed its square footage. Now repeat this: no basic staples for a week should be more important than fast-food for the same time period. Also note this: if a person is paying for their house, ensure that they stay in it long enough to pay it off.

This is not asking for luxuries. This is basic common sense. This is having people survive, with a roof over their heads.

– Regulate, regulate, and regulate.

Again, basic common sense. If deregulation didn’t work the first time, it won’t work again. If the market is not going to collapse, it needs to be in such a regulatory vise grip that an actual vise will be envious. We all saw what deregulation led to: the current state of affairs. Want to know what else it led to? October 29th, 1929. Oh yes, that little bit about history again…look, either learn it or repeat it.

– Outlaw outsourcing. Or if not, tax it so heavily that it’s more profitable to hire at home.

I’m sure that this will have the corporate world in a tizzy, but honestly? This absolutely needs to be done. Outsourcing has been the most contributing reason that jobs have been vanishing: it’s cheaper to hire someone in another country if they can be paid below wage. This needs to change now. Call centers, particle-board-furniture factories, what-have-you – it needs to come back. Why? Work.

– Maintain and re-enforce FDA, EPA and environmental regulation.

Not to use a buzzword phrase, but won’t anyone think of the children? As in, think of the sort of planet they’ll be inheriting if the EPA regulations aren’t there anymore. And they food they’d be eating. FDA is crucial, and if you need to know why, read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. That book put Teddy Roosevelt off meat, and the man was a hunter. And it’s because of that book that people got the FDA.

And that’s just the start. The actual demands for social equality – because that’s what it is about, at the deep core of it – go far longer than that, but these, I think, are a start.

Note: none of the above are luxuries. Not a single damn thing. All of these are building blocks, but those are building blocks that can and will alleviate things in the long run.

And in response, the people at a disadvantage heard it all in response to their grievances. “Try harder!” doesn’t work if the system had been skewed so much that trying anything to rectify the situation is both ineffective and will deplete any effort thereto. “Get a new job!” sounds great, except there are no new jobs. “Get another degree!” sounds like a good idea, if you completely disregard the debt affiliated with it. It doesn’t work. Platitudes don’t work. The “climb by the bootstraps” mentality doesn’t work, because those bootstraps have started to fray and snap the minute that the outsourcing began. Suggestions don’t work. Know what works? Action. And that’s why there are protests on Wall Street. Three weeks strong and going, and expanding across the country.

Yes, I have a day job. I also have a struggling business that I would love to expand. Yes, I’m lucky to have a job, all of that. But to shed a little light on an unpleasant bit? There’s absolutely no way out of my current situation. I can’t get the second degree I want, don’t have the time or capital to expand my business, and it will be a damn long time until I do any of those things.

I am part of the 99%.

The Wall Street protesters have my complete support. Donate. Support them. They’re doing this for the rest of us, and everyone across the country who got screwed over by corporate profiteering.

And as far as their arrests? Right to an assembly and redress of grievances were written into our Constitution. I should like to think that the Manhattan district courts, which will undoubtedly get an earful as far as these arrests go, will respect those rights.

K.G.

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