The Other I

October 25, 2011

Would fixing the causes fix the problem?

Filed under: The Economy: a Neophyte's View — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

The Occupy Wall Street sit-ins have spread to over 900 cities and 80 countries.  It is not a unified movement.  In fact, it is both quite varied and vague, but the protesters are well-disciplined and are tapping into some deep, if unclear, dismay in the wider public.

It is impossible to get a coherent view of what the protesters want because they want quite different and sometimes even contradictory things.

But it is possible to look at the research of events which have been associated with these kinds of protests in the last fifty years.  Two variables stand out:  austerity and inequality.

Austerity, whether it is in the form of government cut-backs, increased taxes, or high levels of employment triggers protests.  Joblessness causes unrest, and it is particularly toxic if the unemployment falls disproportionately on the young.

Inequality is the second process connected with unrest.  Between 1960 and 1985, social unrest was highest in countries with the highest inequality.

It is inequality that might provide some unifying variable to many of the protests, especially in America:  58% of real economic growth in America in the last 30 years was earned by a mere 1% of the population.  That’s what the OWS sign “we are the 99%” means.

Even worse, the greatest losses of income have been felt most broadly by the middle class.  It is the middle class wages which have been decimated, creating a hollowing out between the richest and the poorest in America that looks more like what we used to think of as a Latin American country.   We Americans didn’t have that:  America was the land of opportunity.

I strongly suspect that if we can’t fix the profound problem of joblessness among the American youth, and if we can’t do something to rebuild the middle class, anger – even rage – against bankers and politicians, even against the entire capitalist system will continue to swell.

Anger is blinding, and destruction often becomes an end in itself.  If we get mad enough, anything, even nothing, seems better than the system that is seen as corrupt, unfair, and greedy.

PS:  On the other hand, a helicopter flying over the tents in the London version of Occupy Wall Street last night found using thermal imaging that 90% of them were unoccupied.  Apparently many of the protesters are going home for a warm night’s sleep in bed and returning every morning to continue the crusade.

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