Occupy Wall Street and its progeny around the world have the potential to improve our country and our planet, but these movements also have an element of class warfare and demagoguery that could do great harm.
Occupy Wall Street
For a month, protesters have been assembled in Lower Manhattan and called themselves "Occupy Wall Street" - OWS. The OWS movement started out looking too weak to last this long. It turns one month old today and shows no signs of slowing down. OWS participants are protesting against economic inequality and corporate greed. They have adopted the phrase "We are the 99%" as one of their key slogans; it alludes to their view that the top 1% wealthiest Americans are controlling the politics and economics of our country, failing to pay their fair share of taxes, and abusing the other 99% of us. The movement has shown staying power and seems to be strengthening.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has close to $300,000, as well as storage space loaded with donated supplies in lower Manhattan. It stared down city officials to hang on to its makeshift headquarters, showed its muscle Saturday with a big Times Square demonstration and found legions of activists demonstrating in solidarity across the country and around the world.
The legions have been demonstrating in 70 major cities around the world, and the number seems to grow every day. It all started in Lower Manhattan.
While the movement has compared itself to the Arab Spring, the movement lacks the revolutionary momentum of the Arab Spring. While the Arab Spring set its sights on ending generations of dictatorships, OWS has a generic and contradictory message that has not yet jelled into a massage that calls for anything specific to change in our society. Arab Spring sought to topple governments, replace leaders, and usher in democracy. OWS needs to find a voice that speaks to what it wants to achieve and move beyond the simplicity of opposing greed.
The OWS movement has been criticized for, among other things, 1) lacking specific demands, and 2) reflecting many obvious contradictions.
These criticisms are legitimate. While some have dismissed the need for a coherent set of goals for the OWS movement, no movement can improve our country or our world unless it is demanding that improvements be made. Simply opposing inequality and greed is insufficient. The movement must have steps it is demanding be taken to reduce inequality.
Also, the vagueness of the anti-inequality stance of OWS leaves it vulnerable to appearing to be anti-capitalism, anti-wealth creation, and anti-economic-success. OWS seems contradictory when its participants and leaders use Twitter, Facebook, and Apple products to organize their activities and promote their agenda, because these companies thrive today because they previously received the support of "greedy" venture capitalists who provided them the cash necessary to have the dramatic effects they've had on our planet. These companies have changed lives and spurred economic opportunities with the help of the wealthiest in our society who supported these companies in an effort to become even wealthier.
The country believes that wealth inequality is too great in our country, even though the country underestimates the level of inequality. If people understood the level of inequality, the focus on finding solutions to it would likely increase. Perhaps that is the genius of OWS, it will simply educate people that the inequality they already dislike is far more pronounced than they believed. One might argue that contagious diseases get more focus from policy makers because voters fear being infected, while genetic diseases, even if more deadly and more common, do not capture the same level of focus. If OWS can make wealth inequality, which has thus far been treated as a genetic disease, the recipient of the focus we give to contagious diseases, OWS will have made a very big difference in our society. Swine Flu was defeated by our country within one year. Imagine if the Swine Flu was the cause of wealth inequality.
Robert L. Johnson, the founder of BET, has proposed a step the American companies can take to reduce wealth inequality in our society between white and Black households.
We have focused in the past on the racial wealth gap - the median white household has twenty times the wealth of the median Black household. 20 to 1. That is a shocking statistic, and it represents a major barrier to improvements in the quality of life of Black Americans.
Robert L. Johnson's approach is called the "RLJ Rule."(a) encourages companies to voluntarily implement a plan to interview a minimum of two qualified African American candidates for every job opening at the vice president level and above; and
(b) encourages companies to interview at least two qualified African American firms for vendor supplier/services contracts before awarding a new company contract to a vendor.
Johnson makes clear the purpose of this voluntary rule is not to suggest quotas or that companies hire any individual or minority firm that is not qualified. Johnson notes that the RLJ Rule, if implemented properly, will further enhance a company's already established commitment to diversity and inclusion.
OWS needs to find its "RLJ Rule" proposal. What should our country do differently to improve opportunities and reduce inequality.
As the world watches Lower Manhattan, I hope that OWS will be more than an attack on wealth and economic achievement. It must be a force for improving lives and expanding economic opportunity.