Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and What it means to the U.S.

Recent polls in the U.S. show that public confidence in government is abysmally low.  Distrust is not centered on one particular party, and extends to both the executive and the legislative branches of government.   Two social movements, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, while very different in their political prescriptions, are both manifestations of public discontent with the status quo. 

The Tea Party’s manifesto focuses on protection of individual freedom as the most important function of a society.  Since all government action is in some sense coercive, this group believes government functions should be pared down to a bare minimum. 

The Tea Party’s focus on the individual and its attachment to liberty as a supreme value has a long history in the U.S., as demonstrated by the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” 

While not unique to the U.S., these values are more muted elsewhere, and it is hard to imagine an organization like the Tea Party taking root in most other countries of the world. 

In contrast, the Occupy movement started out as a protest against the financial services industry, and government protection of financial services firms.  The movement does not have an agreed manifesto, but in general, its members are more concerned about social and economic inequality than about liberty.  Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy is not an exclusively U.S.-based movement. 

The two groups are generally portrayed as opposites, occupying the left and right wings in the U.S. political spectrum.  Implied in this is the notion that equality and liberty are fundamentally at odds with each other.  I believe, however, that both liberty and equality represent core American values, both have been compatible policy imperatives through most of U.S. history, and it is a specific set of contemporary challenges that have given rise to both these protest movements. 

Several commentators in the U.S. have pointed to the fact that protests from both sides of the political spectrum are concerned about the ordinary person’s exclusion from decision-making, and domination of political and economic life by a privileged elite.  They point to the fact that in the last decade, accentuating a trend that began in the late 1970s, income and wealth in the United States have becoming increasingly concentrated at the top, with deceasing income mobility up and down the distribution. 

Combine this with the growth of financial services as a share of GDP in the U.S., the extremely high salaries earned by top executives in this sector, and the role of the industry in the current U.S. economic downturn, and you find the genesis of Occupy Wall Street.  Combine the decrease in economic mobility with increasing diversity and decreasing job security for the middle class, and you find some of the foundations of the Tea Party’s anger. 

When Americans are confident about the future, they tend to believe that liberty and equality of opportunity will meet the needs of all, and that liberty can tolerate some redistribution by government to create equal opportunity.  Economic uncertainty, 9/11 and the change in the balance of power in the world have shaken American confidence and converted Americans from intrinsic optimists into worried pessimists.  On both the left and the right, I think Americans today are fundamentally concerned about opportunity, and it is because opportunity is viewed as severely limited that liberty and equality are seen as competing priorities.  And on both the left and the right, they blame government to some extent, resulting in those terrible poll results. 

The U.S. is graced with a well-educated, demographically favorable and industrious population.  We have incredible natural bounty, tremendous intellectual property, a decent infrastructure and good will internationally.  I’m confident that, while it might not happen as quickly as we’d like, the trends that have eroded Americans’ confidence will reverse themselves and with growing optimism about the future, the sharp divisions in today’s political spectrum will narrow.  In the meantime, while I may not share the protestors’ views, I’m proud that my countrymen will stand up to try to make a better world for their children, and I’m proud that my country allows its citizens to protest peacefully for what they believe. 

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