“What’s the deal with this Occupy Wall Street thing?,” a friend asked me. “What do they mean ‘We are the 99%’?” A lot of people seem to be wondering this same thing (without much insight from the mainstream media). Saying “We are the 99%” aims to illuminate the vast inequalities in wealth in the U.S., mainly that the top 1% of the population owns 43% of the nation’s financial wealth. To make the math really easy, let’s say we have 100 people and 100 bucks. One person – that 1% – has $43. Now there’s 57 bucks to split between 99 people – 80 of whom need to find a way to share a measly $7. If you don’t believe me, see this. [1. You might be tempted to defend the 1% saying they’ve worked hard, and that they earned their place at the top. You wouldn’t be alone. This is what sociologists call the achievement ideology – the belief that financial success can be had by anyone who works hard enough, regardless of where they start. I can assure you that those in the 1% do not have rags to riches stories; the facts of economic success simply do not fit this belief. The achievement ideology is, perhaps, a topic for another day.]
So, the 99% is fed up with the corruption and greed of the 1%, especially because people are suffering in ways U.S. citizens have not seen (on a large scale anyway) since the Great Depression. “Okay, so we’re unequal,” you might be thinking. “But all those numbers don’t help me understand why people are camping out in a park in New York City. They didn’t see a pie chart and take to the streets, right?” No. They didn’t. Not exactly. The distribution of wealth as it is today is not a brand new reality. Yet the rich are getting richer, even in a time when the economy hasn’t been this bad since the 1930s. To understand the varied kinds of suffering I mean, hear it from the people themselves.
The 99% is fed up with the corruption and greed of the 1%.
After I spent a while engrossed in these stories of the 99%, I really wanted to get involved. I wanted to show my solidarity with the folks doing the really hard work: risking arrest, pepper spray, and the increasingly chilly NY nights. I heard about a local Occupy event and decided to go. It was important to me that I take my 6-year old daughter because I want her to understand what’s happening in the world. I also want to equip her with the knowledge and belief that she can change things; the road toward her generation’s economic future is looking like a dirt road up ahead. So I tried to think of a way to explain it to her so that she would be on board with going to a solidarity event with me. I got out the troll dolls and a jar of fuzzy balls.
“Okay kid, we’ve got 10 troll dolls and 10 fuzzy balls. What would be the fairest way to pass out these fuzzy balls?” “That’s easy, mom. Each troll gets one fuzzy ball.” And so she passed them out. Then I had to break it to her. “Would you believe,” I said, “that in real life, one of these trolls has almost ALL of the fuzzy balls!?” “What?,” she exclaimed. “It’s true. Look.” I asked her to pick out the troll who looked the meanest and we moved him aside (yes, him – have you seen the 1%?). Then I took 8 fuzzy balls from the remaining 9 troll dolls and piled them up in front of the sinisterly grinning troll. The math wasn’t quite right, but the message was clear. “Mom! That is not fair! That troll should not be so greedy!!!” I agreed.
We talked about what fuzzy balls might buy if they were money. She rattled off lots of things that money can buy: food, rent, gas in the car, a car, candy, a trip to the movies. I asked her if one fuzzy ball was enough for all 9 trolls. “Umm.. no!” I asked her what she thought the other trolls should do about it. “They should ask the greedy troll politely if he will please give them back their fuzzy balls.” “Do you think that will work?” “No, actually,” she said with a twinge of defeat.
She started role playing. One troll said to the others: “Let’s go get our fuzzy balls!” “YEAH!,” shouted the others. She led the masses of trolls to the greedy troll’s luxurious made-of-fuzzy-balls home. “You don’t need all of these fuzzy balls, you greedy troll! You’re not playing very nice! Now you give us back some of those fuzzy balls.” Playing along, I chimed in using my best greedy troll voice: “No! These are my fuzzy balls. I earned them. You can’t have them!” My wise first grader looked at me with a shrug, “What should they do now, mom?” I shrugged back, wanting to see where she’d take the game.
Without saying a word she started emptying a jar of fuzzy balls she’d ‘found’ at the greedy troll’s house and began passing them out to the masses – a few fuzzy balls for each. When the jar was empty, she looked at the greedy troll and his pile of 9 fuzzy balls with shame. Then she took a few of them – leaving him with at least 5, and gave out the rest to the people. At that point, things were relatively equal and she said, “Good. Now it’s fair.”
I was proud of her. Of course she learned these ideas from me and I won’t pretend she came to this totally on her own. But the complexity of the issue can easily be explained by a 1st grader. It is not fair for one greedy troll to have more than he needs when the other trolls don’t have enough to meet their needs. Period. It’s not really that complicated. This is the bottom line we should be concerned with.
The complexity of the issue can easily be explained by a 1st grader. It is not fair for one greedy troll to have more than he needs when the other trolls don’t have enough to meet their needs.
I imagined what some differently-minded others might say about this lesson. I think I have a permanent wrinkle on my forehead thanks to all the people who automatically cry “socialism” when progressives talk about fairness. Fairness is one of the first values we teach our children, regardless of our political persuasions. Can you imagine a parent reacting to a child who wouldn’t share a toy like this: “That’s right, Jimmy. You get all the toys. You earned ‘em so you don’t have to share anything. Don’t worry about that other kid crying. If they really want a toy they’ll get one. It’s not your problem – those toys are yours now.” Of course, this is preposterous! But even presidential hopefuls think sharing is over-rated. Most parents say “Now Jimmy, you have to share the toys, okay? Play nice or you’ll have to get a time out.” Can you imagine if our children’s classrooms were allowed to run amok like the economic system of our nation? You know that bully on the playground who takes other kid’s lunch money and then threatens violence if the victim tells the teacher? Well that bully is the 1% in this story; the violence is economic. And he’s paying the teacher enough to keep her from stopping him. The 1% has used unfair – and often illegal – practices to get very, very rich while the actions they have made have been economically devastating to hard working families, aspiring college graduates, our wise and already fragile elders, and our future generations. The bullied are occupying the playground in protest.
So that’s what Occupy Wall Street is all about, ultimately. Fairness. Don’t believe the ill-informed hype that they are against capitalism. It is greed they are against. See for yourself what they want.
1. Compare the official statement of Occupy Wall Street to the stories told by the 99%-ers. Do the people’s stories reflect the stated goals of the movement?
2. How and why does the achievement ideology make people resistant to movements that challenge the wealthy, even when they are not wealthy themselves?
3. Like the values about sharing, shown here as contradictions, can you think of other values we teach our children that adults in complex institutions are not expected to, or simply do not, follow. What do you make of the contradictions?