Editorial: Wall-flowers No More

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

Round four of the boxing match that is the dawning of the Internet Political Era has begun, and the battle appears to be heating up quite nicely.

Anyone who pretends to have an in on the outcome, however, is sorely mistaken.

No, round one was not Al Gore “inventing” the Internet. It was the primary campaign of pioneer Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) for president in 2004, which cleverly used online fundraising and volunteer schemes to sneak up on the pack.

By 2008, both the left-wing grassroots group MoveOn.org and then-candidate Barack Obama had perfected the electronic vehicle for their needs, and with the aid of media savants (in Obama’s case such as David Axelrod), parlayed a brilliant mix of content delivery to discontented voters. Round two to the Democrats.

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The Tea Party, an amalgam of libertarian and conservative interests, grabbed the baton next, showing progressives that new media were no longer their exclusive sandbox. Starting as a social anti-revolution and morphing into a political movement, the Tea Party brought a wave of right-wing devotees into public office on the heels of Obama’s presidential win. The third round belonged to those who felt their voices had largely been ignored as new technology overtook the party bosses and machines.

Then came Occupy Wall Street, and everything has changed again. Despite some disruptive and vulgar elements trying to glom on, we think the consciousness-raising aspects of the incipient movement will play a major role in public economic policy going forward. 

As with the origins of the Tea Party, the OWS assemblage both in New York and elsewhere, including our own Kiener Plaza, has been angry, diffuse and amorphous, mounted by those frustrated with the major gap in wealth and income that has grown so malignantly in America over the last quarter century.

The resonance is so significant that the Tea Party darlings have begun a public relations campaign to persuade Americans that Main Street’s prevailing culture must be libertarian capitalism, and that there’s no room for those who rail against the success of the wealthy. As House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) put it, Occupy Wall Street is “pitting Americans against Americans,” and that just can’t be a constructive exercise.

But herein lies the problem, and it’s one that Tea Partiers cannot truly counter.

In 1980, the bottom 90 percent of families made an average of roughly $30,000 per year. A quarter century later, the same bottom 90 percent made roughly the same $30,000 per year. In 1980, the top one hundredth of one percent of families made an average of $5.4 million per year. In 2006, that number was $29.6 million or roughly 976 times the amount of the average family in the bottom 90 percent. (The above figures are all inflation-adjusted to compare apples to apples).

The last time this unbalance occurred in American history before the last decade? The Great Depression and utter economic collapse, which was only staved off by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (which, lest we forget history, was derailed in 1936 by fiscal conservatives, leading to a severe recessionary downturn that offset much of the momentum created by FDR’s programs) and was only much later fully reversed by the factory bustle necessitated by America’s entry into World War II.

This move toward a major concentration of wealth in smaller and smaller numbers of hands was maskable when the American economy was growing. But now expansion is at a snail’s pace, is devoid of manufacturing and meaningful job growth, and what we thought was our manifest destiny – American economic leadership in the world – is a ship that seems to have run ashore in shallow financial waters. Make no mistake, that narrative took hold long before Obama took office.

We are ardent capitalists, but we are also earnest in our belief that the economy must allow any hardworking American citizen or immigrant a shot at financial success. That’s how Jews were able to pull themselves up. Today, sadly, the odds are stacked heavily in the casino’s favor, and it’s making for a return to feudal economics and the denigration of the truly American invention, the Middle Class.

The Occupy Wall Street folks are stirring a batter that demands jobs, safety net, transparency and honesty among financial institutions, and governmental conduct to encourage all of the above. They’re not about idealogues like the late Milton Friedman on the right or Paul Krugman on the left, and they’re tired of hearing about how nobody inside the Beltway can get along. They’re about a fair and sustainable future that works for all Americans. This is not to say that every protestor has finely honed ideas; quite the contrary, there are some disgusting voices, some of them anti-Semitic, and whatever lasting movement arises from the protests will have to toss these elements by the wayside to earn our support in the long run.

So to those who condemn the angst playing out in New York City and elsewhere, forgive us if we think it’s not a fair conclusion that the protestors are the precipitating cause of “class warfare” in this nation. They are instead reacting to a 30-year trend exacerbated by a series of financial circumstances, events and scandals that have mostly punished those who can least afford it.