Throughout history, American movements for social justice have been given life by protesters exercising their freedom of speech. However, the ones that succeeded did so by coupling the voices of the people with concrete goals and actions. In recent months, Occupy Wall Street, utilizing the empty rally cry “We are the 99 percent!” has gotten only half of this formula correct. Everyone, including the protesters, is confused by the movement’s complete lack of a clear message. Occupiers, as they’re being called, despise corporate America, people with generously-paying jobs, and anything with a semblance of elitism.
At its foundation, their grievances are not unreasonable: unemployment is at a high, the middle class is hurting worse than ever, and Americans are struggling to pay their mortgages and put food on the table.
Times are tough, but can these problems can be solved by causing a fire hazard in the financial district? If people really want to improve their lives, they need to seek higher education.
“But crushing student debt is part of the reason we’re standing out here!” Occupiers would reply. However, higher education need not always come with a hefty price tag. State schools, like New York’s SUNY Stony Brook, provide an excellent education for a few — not 50 — thousand dollars a year. The College Board reports that 44 percent of students attending a four-year college are paying less than $9,000 dollars per year in tuition and fees. With an on-campus job, that hardly seems like a debilitating amount of debt. There is also the flexible and cost-effective option of community college, which would endow people with practical skills necessary in the workplace.
People are occupying Wall Street because they’re standing up against greed, entitlement, and the deteriorating quality of life for the middle class, right? Wall Street is an easy scapegoat because a select few at the top are making fantastic sums of money, the so-called “one percent.” Their protestations are fundamentally hollow because they identify a very small portion of people as the reason for all the ills we face. But the Puritan spirit that once animated this nation still resonates with people, and Americans are still believers in the virtue and reward of hard work.
What people have forgotten is that meritocracies are inherently unequal, and this is not the problem. It’s just the deceit and illegal activities of a small group of business leaders, along with the laxity of financial regulators, that has wreaked havoc on the system. People must distinguish the ill-gotten gains of illegal activities from the legitimate rewards of hard work. Furthermore, blaming those with money is the outlet of a frustrated population. Given the chance, every person who is occupying Wall Street would want to be fabulously wealthy — the issue is that they are not being given the opportunity to do so. This is a flaw stemming largely from irresponsible government spending and a dismal economic climate. It’s just more convenient to let the blame fall on those who are unaffected.
The recent “Occupy Harvard” movement is an even stranger stepchild of the main movement. I happened to be in Harvard Square the night it began. My first impression was that it was an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement protesting the perceived elitism attached to Harvard. Multiple sources, including the college, have confirmed that some of the protesters are Harvard students seeking greater equity within the university (for example, decreasing the 180:1 pay ratio between administration and custodial staff).
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to increase the salary of hardworking custodial staff, I find the slogan “We want a university for the 99%” ludicrous. Ninety-nine percent of American universities are for the 99 percent. Much like the main OWS movement, Occupy Harvard lacks a clear message and clear demands. If students are fighting for more equity for employees of the university, there are certainly more effective and mature ways to get their point across.
As it stands, the merit of their claim is lost in a maelstrom of grumbling, and diluted by the undercurrent of random protesters using the uproar as a platform to advance unrelated complaints. Furthermore, walking out of an introductory economics class probably isn’t the best method for a student to improve the country’s fiscal practices. If these students wish to provide leadership on economical issues in the future, they’d be better off staying in the classroom. We’ve all seen the havoc people without a firm grasp on economics can wreak when put in charge of the financial sector.
The frustration of Occupiers is genuine. America needs to change, but we require ideas and action, not lip service. First, the country needs leaders who can inspire people to put the nation first, and navigate the conflicting needs that lie at the intersection of industry and government. The bitterly bipartisan, highly lobbied nature of Washington and a political climate hostile to any legislation that would lose money for big corporations is a real issue. This time, empty rhetoric about cooperation from both sides of the isle is not going to do the trick. One interesting idea advanced by Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, is a boycott of politicians — that is, halting campaign contributions until Americans get results from the government.
The business of America is business. Big business may be reviled, but it is also part of the solution to unemployment. A New York Times article by Jared Bernstein, former economic advisor to Joe Biden, explains that small businesses, contrary to popular belief, are not the engine of the country’s economy, nor are they the key to new jobs. It’s larger businesses that create wealth, and the growth of small businesses into larger ones that provide work for Americans.
Finally, there should be a renewed focus on self-reliance, on public involvement in improvement from the ground up. Everyone knows the economy has tanked, our public education system is broken, and the healthcare and Social Security systems are a fiasco. We need change. But we’re not going to effect it by sitting in the streets. Citizens can get involved in their local school boards and help to enact education reform. Americans can strive to enrich their children’s learning experiences and broaden their cultural knowledge, better preparing them to compete in a global economy. Change will not be easy. However, I can’t help but feel that those who truly wish to change the lot of “the 99 percent” should be devoting their energy to these matters instead of simply being content to express discontent.
Laya Rajan is a member of the Class of 2014.