Tom Atlee: Understanding Occupy Wall Street

Blog Wisdom
Tom Atlee

Robert Steele to Tom Atlee:

From a very smart, very senior observer who is trying to understand how I see what I see. This is a problem. The movement needs some clarity for the externals.


One of us is wrong on what they want. You have been there and I have not. No matter what you say, I believe most, not all, are advocating a free ride. I do not buy the idea that everything being written is misinformation. Who is paying to support the people staying there. If they are students they are missing school. How many are engineers, scientists, and business majors? There is still opportunity in this country. Jobs are going unfilled because qualified candidates are unvavailable, mainly in the technical areas. I fail to see what these folks want. I can agree that there are too many people in Wall Street making obscene amounts of money on questionable trading practices. Do the protesters want these people tried and sent to jail or do they just want their money? They need to be specific.

For most, electoral reform means making sure the candidate they want wins. No corporate donations should also mean no union contributions, and the unions are supporting the rallies. Everyone should be entitled to support who they want. One person’s corruption is another’s bread and butter. Is bailing out banks any worse that spending money on energy projects that make no economic sense? I don’t think so and I don’t like either.

Almost everyone is upset with the state of the economy. I have not heard of any ideas from the protesters on how to improve the situation. They think government is the answer, mainly government spending.


I suspect there are at least 10% free riders.  After all, there’s a lot of support and fun action going on there:  You just have to get there and avoid the cops and you can get a free ride.  I donated $50 to a group raising money for them (winter is a’comin’) and from the looks of it a lot of stuff is getting brought down to them by locals.

In my daily life I am in frequent contact four young people who were university students within the last year.  They all have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.  One has a job that pays fairly well (associated with the University).  One has been trying for about 4 months to get a job and she’s brilliant, competent and very hard working:  No job so far.  The other two have low-paying jobs, one of which is going to end in a month and she doesn’t know what she’ll do after that.  The ex-partner of one friend, also an incredibly brilliant and competent PhD, got a job finally at a call center for a rentacar agency.

It is hard for me to understand this person you mention.  The stats show a tremendous increase in 18-35 year olds living at their parents’ homes.  The stats show massive college loan debts (that have surpassed credit card debt in total US amounts).  The stats show that youth unemployment is much higher than the rest of the population.  Some commentators have said that these occupations (Occupy Wall Street etc) can happen BECAUSE these people are unemployed; they have time.

The occupiers don’t say that there are too many people in Wall Street making obscene amounts of money on questionable practices who should all be put in jail.  They say that some of the top people in certain financial institutions took action to get rid of regulations which, if they had remained, would have prevented the kind of wild financial deals that triggered the crash – some of which were extremely unethical, such as profitably betting against bad deals you are selling as good deals – and that there have been hardly any consequences for those individuals or institutions, many of whom received raises and are multi-millionaires many times over.  These institutions were bailed out with people’s tax money with the explicit purpose of freeing up credit, which has been locked down while the profits and salaries and bonuses at many of these institutions have soared.  I mean, what about people’s anger about that is hard to understand?  What about that constitutes wanting a free ride?

Frankly, I’m fine with no union donations to candidates and so are most of the people who want campaign finance reform.  Fair is fair.  And if corporations are people, why can’t they be arrested?

Of course, those of us who share a worldview with the occupiers are more happy with them than those of us who don’t.  But I saw a Tea Party open letter agreeing with most of what they say.  And I have been rather impressed with the sophistication of many of these young folks’ arguments and greatly enjoyed John Stewart’s [or Stephen Colbert’s] satire about them being freaky ignorant idiots (not! – which was the point of his skit).

Sure they could use some clarity for the externals.  Maybe a major bank will pay for them to hire a pro PR firm to make their case for them…


PS:  Here’s a note I sent to my local Occupy Eugene group, which I am not joining because I have too much other social change work of my own to work on.

For a briefing on the top 1% compared to the rest of us see here.

For more detailed information, see here.

Note also (a) that about 55 percent of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile within ten years so no quintile is actually a group of people and (b) that the top 1/10th of 1% made way more than the other 9/10ths of 1%, a factor that is made visually vivid at this pointFurthermore, some of the top 1% (like Bill Gates and his dad Bill Gates) are actually advocates and activists for greater wealth equity (e.g., Gates Snr pushes repeal of Bush tax cuts and Gates Jr pushes establishing a financial transactions tax to fund poverty reduction). So it is not so much individuals we are targeting when we say “the 1%”. It is the systemic dynamics of income disparity that shape the consciousness and behaviors of _most_ people who pass through that class – at least while they “occupy” that strata of society. And, ultimately, everyone’s relative affluence (and ecological footprint) would look very different if social and environmental costs were embedded in the prices we paid for goods and services.  See here.

Such systemic dynamics are far more an “enemy” – and make more productive targets – than the individuals are (although it is much easier to focus anger on actual people). See here.