Politics and Governance

Beyond the Anger and to the Goal

From its inception, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement was attacked on all sides for a lack of clear goals and subsequent policy prescriptions. It’s as if pundits expected a succinct public affairs memo: 12 point font, 1-inch margins and clear policy recommendations to ease whatever woes have beset those who participate in the movement. As stated by David Brooks, my (normally) favorite columnist from The New York Times:

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.

This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves. All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization.

The need in the policy world to boil down complex issues and movements into bumper stickers can have catastrophic consequences. The Tea Party movement was able to garner political influence through superb organization and one clear message: We want smaller government. The less government the better. They’ve advocated spending cuts as one of the primary mechanisms to achieve this goal.

Yet, when members of the movement are asked if they would accept cuts to their Social Security or Medicare benefits, most respond in the negative. The complexity of the policy world, if boiled down and neatly packaged, may result in unintended consequences and oversimplification of issues that diminishes constructive debate.

Policymakers and Wall Street executives look down from their office windows and scoff at these protests. “They don’t even know what they want” is probably ringing through office corridors among snide remarks about hippies and deadbeats. Yet, the “99%” of the population these protests claim to represent display, in stark terms, a rage about a system – at the top of which lie corporations, the rich and government – that is not working.

This movement is not about specific policy prescriptions: It is about the corruption of a democratic system. To miss the larger point of this movement is to miss an opportunity to reflect upon a societal construct which simply is not working for the majority of people – red and blue.

While it is clear Occupy Wall Street anger is rooted in the unfairness of an economic system that appears to reward those who bring an economy to its knees while punishing the very taxpayers giving those rewards, let’s not stop there. Let’s not stop with the fact that we live in a society where wealth has become so concentrated that some have commented the Occupy movement should really hold signs with “99½%”.

Confronting the issues at the heart of this movement requires a new approach to governance – one that seeks to address the long-term issues that will continue to plague this country if left on their present course. This includes transparency in government, the influence of money in politics, the fiscal deficit, increasing polarization of our congressional leaders, public education of our citizens, U.S. standing in the world, and many, many others.

It would behoove the U.S. government, as well as corporations, to heed the message and begin a deeper reflection of some of the structural issues that have gone so long unattended they have begun to look normal.  We need policymakers and corporate leaders who begin to see the benefits of long-term plans that may not affect next quarter’s balance sheet or election results; the solutions are out there, the question is whether or not leaders can see past their own myopia to enact them.

There is only so long the proverbial can will be kicked down the road before it finally falls off the edge.

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