People have a lot of opinions about money and the economy.
In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.
Today, Carey Tan, an active member of the Occupy Wall Street protest, shares why she's been spending her nights and weekends in New York City's Zuccotti Park.
Some people seem downright perplexed about why I have devoted so much of my time in the last week to the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Learn more about the protests here.)
After all, I'm young, I've been blessed with a great job that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, I have health care, and I'm at a point now where I'm able to pay off my bills and enjoy a relatively good standard of living.
What could I possibly have to gain from participation in this movement?
My Reasons for Being There
I believe we all have something to gain from occupying Wall Street. I'm there because the current distribution of wealth and power in our country is unhealthy, unjust and inefficient, and I believe we need to address it now, before our democracy disintegrates to a point beyond repair.
I realize that to a few people this makes me sound like Chicken Little, so let's look at the facts:
- According to a study released by the Economic Policy Institute earlier this year, "The wealthiest 1% of U.S. households had net worth that was 225 times greater than the median or typical household’s net worth in 2009. This is the highest ratio on record."
- Growing wealth inequality doesn't just fall along class lines, it falls along racial lines as well. According to Pew Research Center's analysis of government data, the median net worth of white households in 2009 was $113,149. For Hispanic households that figure was $6,325, and for blacks it was $5,677. "These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago," the report states.
- In 2010, average CEO compensation was 343 times that of the average worker. 25 of the top 100 highest-paid CEOs took home more money than their company paid in 2010 federal corporate income taxes. These kinds of statistics are, of course, embarrassing for corporations, so they are currently lobbying hard so as not to have to disclose them.
- Census figures report that approximately 1 in 6 Americans is currently living in poverty. In New York, it's 1 in 5. Additionally, the poverty rate in the U.S. has reached a 17-year high.
- According to the most recent monthly jobs report, the average length of unemployment is at its longest since the government started tracking the information in 1948. Moreover, the unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has risen to 11.7%, while the rates for blacks and Hispanics are at 16% and 11.3%, respectively.
- This July, the percentage of young people who were unemployed was 51.2%, the highest such figure since the government began collecting that data in 1948. Only 19% of the college students who graduated in 2009 had accepted job offers before they finished school. Compare that with the 51% of the class of 2007, and you can start to understand why there are so many young 20-somethings currently occupying Zuccotti Park.
I could bore you all day with statistics, but hopefully this paints a picture of how most Americans are suffering right now.
How the State of Our Union Affects You
Chances are, these stats will upset you on a moral level—and they should. But let's be clear: This is not just about morals. There are also practical matters to consider.
Worker productivity suffers when you have to struggle to keep a roof over your head and put food on the table for your family, while juggling multiple jobs/and or large and unexpected medical bills. When millions of American workers are facing those very situations, we have an productivity problem on a national scale, and our economy suffers.
The economy also takes a huge hit when millions of people no longer have extra money to spend on non-essential goods and services. This is a problem we are currently facing, and if you've owned or managed a business in the last few years, then you've probably experienced the negative effects yourself.
The End of the American Dream?
Perhaps most disturbingly, economic stratification is threatening to make the American Dream a thing of the past. As wealth and power become more and more concentrated and the middle class vanishes, it is becoming increasingly hard for the average person to improve his or her lot in life.
Or, as a comprehensive study by the Economic Mobility Project put it, "For most of our history, Americans have experienced rapid economic growth and therefore upward absolute mobility. Over the last generation, however, economic growth has slowed without evidence of an offsetting increase in relative mobility."
"In fact," the study observes, "the best available evidence suggests that the U.S. stands out as having less, not more, intergenerational relative mobility than Canada and several European countries." So maybe we should be calling it the Canadian Dream instead?
Economic inequality affects the shaping of our nation's laws, as well. We all know that political influence follows money in our country, and this has been particularly true since last year's Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence candidate elections. As our politicians become increasingly focused on the agendas of their wealthiest donors, your personal say in the direction of our country is diminishing.
What Protesting Taught Me That College Didn't
I have personal reasons to support Occupy Wall Street, too. Each time I'm down in Zuccotti Park, I meet fascinating people from different walks of life and learn from them. Whereas in college I could barely stay awake through economics lab, now I find myself having intense discussions with economics professors about the Fed's approach to inflation and the tradeoffs to consumers. And I'm actually enjoying it.
I know that the popular perception is that we Occupiers are a homogenous bunch: white, hippie, trust-fund college kids who can't resist a drum circle. But I'm here to tell you that's not an accurate portrayal. I don't fit any of those descriptions, for example, and my fellow protesters also come from many backgrounds and perspectives.
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Of course I've been booed by bankers, but I've befriended them, too. Just the other day, a gruff, sharply dressed banker from a nearby office came by to gripe that, "None of these people know what the hell they're talking about." With my encouragement, he ended up sticking around for several hours, educating groups of protesters about where the real problems on Wall Street lie and how those should be addressed.
Where I Hope All of This Will Lead Us
Which brings me to this: While personal development would be motivation enough for me, I also want to see concrete political and economic changes arise from this movement. That's why I started the #ConcreteIdeas Twitter campaign, to encourage people to put their ideas up for discussion in a public forum. So far, here's some of what they've proposed:
- Limiting corporate influence on politics through campaign finance reform, the elimination of corporate personhood (through constitutional amendment, thus undoing the Citizens United decision), and restrictions on the revolving door between government regulators and the corporations they're supposed to regulate.
- Breaking up "too big to fail" institutions and bringing back the Glass-Steagall separation between investment banks, commercial banks and insurance companies.
- Curbing or outlawing the risky financial practices and instruments that led to the 2008 crash, such as short selling and credit default swaps.
- Closing tax loopholes and shelters. Through creative accounting practices, many corporations end up paying little to no federal income taxes, and very wealthy individuals are able to avoid paying taxes on much of their income as well. Closing these loopholes and shelters would help ensure that the people who are most able to afford paying taxes are paying their fair share and contributing to the common economic good.
- Improving our public education system. Ideas for this include abandoning Obama's Race to the Top, paying teachers more and giving them better training, hiring more teachers and building more schools in order to decrease class sizes, providing every child with free preschooling, and generally spending a bigger percentage of our national budget on public education.
How You Can Help
This is by no means an exhaustive list; just as there are many problems we as a country currently face, there are also many solutions. I think that the vast majority of these goals are achievable if we can get our fellow protesters and supporters to participate.
And that leads me to my last hope for the movement: If there's one thing I want to get across, it's that we have to hold up our end of the democratic bargain. We have to vote in every single election—not just the presidential ones—and we have to hound our representatives in between so they know what we want, that we're paying attention and that we're ready to create change.
I'm hopeful that we can turn this ship around and build the kind of society that all of us would want to live in, regardless of what cards we were dealt in life.
Carey Tan is 26 and works at a mid-sized non-profit in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @OccupyIdeas.
Photo Credit: Marty Ingber