Occupation

I just sent away for a sign in support of the Occupy Wall Street protest. It’s the least I can do.

The Internet makes this absurdly easy. You go to ActBlue and donate sixteen dollars or more (that covers costs and anything more is pure donation) and they send you this to put in your yard or window:

I encounter a lot of people whom I suspect of believing this is not their issue. They never took on a mortgage for too much house, they have savings in the bank, they chose a safe profession, worked their way through college instead of taking on a loan, whatever.  Bully for them, but:

I got a literature degree, something that along with a dime will buy you a cup of coffee, because I was sixteen with a family hustling me off to college over my proposal that I work for a couple of years and figure out something about the world. I had to pick a major, so I picked what I loved, knowing that someone with a background in literature and the attested ability to write ought to have a future teaching, at least, maybe in publishing or document-laden government agencies. It took me a few years to realize that I would rather cut my throat than deal with academic politics and that mag card typists’ skills were valued more than mine; worse, that I practically was cutting my throat if I had to take a job sitting down. So I learned to do something I loved all over again — fix bodies and maintain them. I didn’t want to be a doctor; people had been teasing me about being “Dr. Sled” since I was a tiny little Flexible Flyer, and I probably had the intellectual chops, but I didn’t want to sit in an office for the rest of my working days, poke people with sharp things, terrorize them, and insult their intelligence, which is 90% of my experience of doctors.

I work hard doing something that benefits people, I do it well, I live modestly. I drove my last car for twenty-two years and refinanced my house to bring the payment down and maintain it in good shape. I manage my money carefully and have the credit history to show for it. I socked away the legal maximum in my IRA until the Internal Revenue decided I was richer from being divorced; these days I can barely afford to save anything. (Strangely, our tax code can’t seem to conclude that people are richer from being richer. Who knew?) I pay my own health insurance — which now has a deductible roughly the size of my mortgage payment and does not cover preventive care — and hope I can keep on affording it. My retirement savings evaporated to less than half their highest level in the 2008 crash and have still not entirely recovered. Social Security will make a big difference to my retirement, if it is still there. Since I pay a double whack into it as a self-employed person, I damn well hope so.

My bank has started jabbing me with monthly checking fees unless I tie up another thousand dollars in my account. Good thing I don’t use a debit card because they are now charging for that too. There is so little real competition in the banking industry that I don’t expect to find a much better deal anywhere else. My business is dipping and I am having to hustle new clients for the first time in twenty-five years, because no one feels like spending money any more, or they are taking what they used to pay me and using it to help their unemployed brother with three kids. And while I hustle, I have to think that I am still better off than the unemployed brother.

Am I really just supposed to shrug and say “Shit happens” after finding that a quarter century doing a worthwhile thing that I love and that helps others, making frugal and cautious decisions, still leaves me wondering how I’ll afford to live in twenty years? Oh, I was supposed to find someone with an impregnable career and marry him? Should have gone into a profession I loathed? What do we tell my favorite kid, all of sixteen now and thinking about college, determined not to be as feckless and improvident as her parents? With no money in the cookie jar for even living expenses, do we tell her to saddle herself with the huge loan amount she will need even for a state school, and hope whatever occupation she has in mind doesn’t get offshored? Or maybe just make a little porn, what the hell? I think we have run out of glib answers.

There are a lot of people out there in worse shape than anyone I know. Some of them have so little to lose that they are camped out up in Zuccotti Park. I gather the broadcast media likes to interview the loopier ones they can find. The rest of them are speaking for me.

32 thoughts on “Occupation

  1. Aw, I like dark chocolate, though my upper limit is probably about five bucks for a fancy Lindt bar. That confection makes Eliot Spitzer’s 4-grand-an-hour call girls look like a bargain.

    I kept on thinking about this last night. This assumption, which the OWS people are protesting, that a social safety net is too expensive and somehow “unfair” and that it’s every man for himself and woe to you if you aren’t lucky enough to have a knack for a lucrative occupation, a rich family, or a ruthless streak that makes you willing to trade your soul for wealth accumulated by any manipulation the legal system makes possible.

    Because that’s basically what I hear from the Libertarians, Ayn Rand people, Tea Partyers, old-school Republicans or merely “I got mine” types.

    When my parents were young, a woman could leave high school without graduating, find a “women’s hotel” to live in and take a government job as an accounting clerk, providing she could tackle the work — stay in that line of work and retire comfortably in her sixties. A man could come out of a few years of Stateside wartime service, go to school on the G.I. Bill, find employment, buy a house, indulge a hobby for cars, and send his daughter through college without borrowing.

    People who started out where my parents did have no chance of any such thing in the current climate. There are no “women’s hotels.” Education assistance and job benefits keep drying up. Getting sick can wipe out your savings. And some people have the nerve to say that those who do accumulate obscene amounts of money still have too much tax “burden” although their taxes have been going down since I was a kid, and maybe we’ll just have to cut back Social Security..

    I’m tired of hearing it.

  2. Having spent 5 years at art school I’ve always assumed that we’d have to do ‘whatever’ to bring in cash – and so it has turned out. We live cheaply and never beyond our means. If we happen to have some cash we might buy something, if not, we don’t. The exception of course is having a steady supply of gingernuts for which I’d happily sell my soul if necessary.

    • What frightens me is that for the upcoming generation, spending five years at an art school is like signing up to be a homeless person (or one permanently lodged in the parents’ basement) — the “whatever” jobs are less available and less secure than at any time since before I was born. So we will have no artists, or artists too consumed with trying to survive to create art, or people who wanted to be artists working in a brokerage and dying by inches inside. It sounds like a very sterile world…

  3. I’m all the way with you on that, Sled. My grandchildren will never have it as good as I had or their father had even though we all worked darn hard to get and keep what we got.
    I worked 40 years for the same type of services, my daughters have been laid off, restructured or sold to another company every 3 to 5 years since they began working. I hate to think what awaits Alexis and Ariane.

  4. My parents used to say how, in the thirties, they would get to the end of the week and wonder, “Shall we buy that new pair of socks or go to the cinema?”

    Invariably, they chose the cinema.

    Trouble is, these days, I demand both as my right.

    It’s OK to make money out of money, isn’t it? We have a right to our pensions, a job and having all our illnesses dealt with after working hard for so long … don’t we?

    Sixteen dollars is a lot. Do I perhaps teeter on the brink of envy?

    • No problem here with making money out of money (it is what I am trying to do myself where my retirement savings are involved) but something is wrong when people who control an inordinate amount of a nation’s wealth play games that undermine the value of everyone else’s work and investments (including their homes), don’t get called to account for it and get even richer while everyone else gets poorer. It cries out for reform of the laws governing financial transactions, not for a whittling away of the social contract to compensate for the erosion of the tax base. The laws that prevent concentration of wealth, such as bank mergers, have been jettisoned bit by bit, and the result was that people who were inclined to risk and shady dealing had more assets to lose — other people’s assets, of which they were supposed to be stewards. That has to be fixed.

      It’s a fact that the wealthy are wealthier and the poor are poorer than when I was young; that those wealthy people pay less of their worth in tax than they did then, rather than more (and yet still complain that taxes “burden” them). And due to the power of political contributions, they own the government — something else that has to be fixed. We really appear to be run by an unelected oligarchy, composed mainly of wealthy male financiers.

      And since I have paid into that pension system all my life — a double outlay for most of it, since I pay both the employer’s and employee’s share of the funding — I do indeed have a right to that pension, along with whatever personal savings can provide.

      Some people are not even in a position to choose “socks or cinema.” I do have that sixteen dollars to spend, though you can bet I thought it over, but I decided that it was time to support the people who are pushing back.

      • Well said. Have you ever read The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert? It’s not mainstream because it’s considered science fiction but it basically explores the issues you are talking about (in a metaphorical way).

        • About the only Frank Herbert that I have not read. I was a total Dune freak, though I haven’t been able to work up an interest in the Zombie Dune Novels put forth by his literary heirs.

          • If you liked Dune I think you’ll like Dosadi Experiment–same amazing feats of imagination. I agree about the new books, but keep rereading the original trilogy.

    • I don’t see why it’s ivory-tower thinking to require accountability from people who control massive quantities of a nation’s assets, nor to expect a sharing of the tax burden comparable to that which existed when the American economy was healthy enough that nearly everyone willing to work could find a job that offered some security and benefits.

      When people are getting kicked out of their homes while the banks refuse to modify mortgages in ways that would still allow them to profit, what necessity is served?

      My engineer friend would like to refinance a home mortgaged up around seven per cent and take advantage of the current rates. A couple of years ago, he asked for a modification after having to deal with a number of expenses and an unemployed roommate. He was told by telephone that the modification was in force and given a lower payment amount for the next month’s installment, documents to follow. Several months on, he was still asking for documents, and the bank said “Oops! We lied! You have to start the request for modification all over again! And you are now behind, which means of course we can’t refinance until you have been current with payments for a year.” So he’s still trying to catch up — at least no one tried to foreclose. When there’s no recourse from this kind of abuse, something has to change.

      Multiply this situation by millions of people, some of whom were not so fortunate in hanging onto their homes, and you kick the stuffing out of the whole economy — while the financial institutions who participated in promoting and reselling dodgy mortgages, taking advantage of deregulation and gullible consumers, can still hand out bonuses.

      An AP article quoted a passerby at the New York demonstrations:

      “Sandra Fox, 69, of Baton Rouge, La., stood, confused, on 46th Street with a ticket for “Anything Goes” in her hand as riot police pushed a knot of about 200 shouting protesters toward her.

      “I think it’s horrible what they’re doing,” she said of the protesters. “These people need to go get jobs.”

      Can you say “Doesn’t get it?” If most of them could find jobs, they wouldn’t be there.

    • Yup, Sled, it’s a hard old world.

      As far as mortgages are concerned, foreclosures are self-defeating. Flood the market and your capital is devalued.

      In better days, the “building societies” here were non profit-making organisations (and still are in theory), could not lend more than 80% of valuation and were tightly controlled on other investments. Borrowers had to offer collateral, find another source or save to make up the difference (often by safe interest-earning deposits in the building societies themselves). This enabled mortgage providers to have a social conscience when borrowers ran into difficulties.

      Alas, under Thatcher and her mania for cut-throat competition and profit, they were, encouraged to turn themselves into second-rate banks. The majority did and their first responsibility switched to shareholders. Inevitably they invested in securitised loans on dodgy properties to raise money to lend even more. Thus the maelstrom was created. You know the rest, for the first bank to be bitten here was Northern Rock, a former excellent building society The whole fantasy was revealed and it wasn’t long before the big boys followed suit.

      We witness the exhaustion of both capitalism and socialism, the one seeking to avoid work by making money out of money (that major cause of inflation and so injustice), the other over-taxing the wealth-producers to give them their own money back according to misplaced priorities. Both dodge the realities and in practice there is little to distinguish them.

      All we can do is jog along with some uneasy compromise and mitigate injustice without destroying that unpredictable source of all economic activity and livelihood, the market-place for goods and services.

      • The marketplace is a great thing. I compete in it myself. But there have to be rules and accountability for breaking those rules — for all players,including the ones with the majority of the assets, which goes to the heart of the Occupy movement’s #1 beef. There is also no sense in structuring the tax code so that people with modest incomes feel the sting in their purchasing power while providing more and more tax cuts for others who make anywhere from ten to hundreds of times the income a person actually needs to live quite well. I don’t see that as over-taxing, and it’s a jump to assume that government spending involves misplaced priorities.

        Of course your public officials can screw up and underwrite a theater complex instead of building classrooms — one of the local hot issues here.

        Neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism work, but I sense a superior scorn in your saying “It’s a hard old world,” as if you believe I think solving this problem is easy. What’s easy is ignoring it and hoping it’ll get better on its own, or throwing up your hands and saying there’s nothing anyone can do.

        • I could never feel superior in your company, Sled, and you mercilessly draw attention to that fact.

          If you have a fixed rate of income tax, say, then those on higher incomes do pay more and if the rich spend more they pay more sales tax.

          If laws are being broken, then the matter is a question only of law enforcement and if there are no laws then it is a question of legislating justly, That is more a question of rational analysis than selfish, rowdy demonstration without thought.

          You pick only at the edges of the issue and even then provide no means to apply your remedies.

          But I love disagreeing with you. :evil:

          • If you want an essay on politics and government, I suppose I can bore you but I am not sure it would be the most productive thing I could do about all this.

            We don’t have a fixed rate of income tax in the US; there is in fact such a confusingly footnoted and nuanced system that some people cry out for a flat tax just in frustration at trying to do the arithmetic. You get a break for this, a break for that. Warren Buffett’s recent cri de coeur addressed the exact issue that, as a man making money off money, he paid a lower rate on “unearned income” than his secretary did for the hours of her life she sold for cash.

            My understanding of the rationale for this state of affairs is that people who have socked away a nest egg and need to live off the proceeds, as I will when retired, deserve a break in the amount of tax they pay. But it stands fairness on its head when this rule indemnifies someone whose personal worth exceeds the wildest dreams of most.

            Clearly an adjustment is called for there, and various other loopholes can be listed. Corporations who off-shore their labor costs are investing in the economies of other countries before our own; do they deserve the same tax exemptions as corporations who pay US workers with money that they will spend here, paying payroll tax, paying sales tax? No one wants to come to grips with these questions — they’re all up on Capitol Hill going gaga over gay marriage or Planned Parenthood.

            And if you have lived your life out in Britain you cannot fathom the impact of having no national health insurance. People are chained to jobs they hate for the sake of the insurance, if not for themselves then for a family member. And they consider themselves lucky because they can get the insurance, which until the most recent health care act was even more unavailable because of restrictions that excluded applicants or denied care based on the flimsiest of excuses (acne as a “pre-existing condition” that would raise the premium, say). In turn, medical care is, at least IMHO, defined by a cartel involving the AMA and the pharmaceutical industry, which shuttles its executives in and out of regulatory positions in the government. Hence it becomes a legal requirement — a “standard of care” which can lead to law suits if disregarded — for a doctor to recommend to nearly everyone in a certain age range or test result range, a statin drug which costs five bucks to make and sells for fifty, despite the fact that it will reduce mortality by a fraction of one per cent of the population and cause a list of side effects requiring more drugs and medical care. This is a racket and the government furthers it because no one is willing to confront the deception. In even partly nationalized systems, whatever their other issues (and it happens that my British Ex was a manager for the NHS, so I know some of them) I gather it is a lot harder to institute this sort of corporate welfare.

            Oh, I can get specific if you want, and you are quite right that I do not yet know how we overcome the cozy relationship between big money and big government, but I am willing to get behind anyone who keeps the country from ignoring the problem; the first step to a solution is to keep talking. I guess if a little rowdiness bothers you more than the risk of ignoring the problem, I suppose there is a reason to complain about demonstrations, but so far I don’t see anything selfish going on, and quite a few thoughtful things being said.

            http://coupmedia.org/occupywallstreet/occupy-wall-street-official-demands-2009

          • The language of demand is not the language of reason.

            Yet in substance (though not in emphasis) we agree, and that without a demonstration.

            Your sixteen dollars should have been better spent, Sled, but who am I to demand?

          • Our government is our government and we have reason to make certain demands of it — unless you wish to codify the de facto oligarchy that we have increasingly had in your country and mine for years, per your own discussion. It doesn’t appear that you do, so I am really not yet sure what puts you off about the whole matter, other than some “rowdiness,” which is on an order with stuff I see in Washington DC all the time.

            The sign I bought was purchased through one of several groups seeking to put more progressive candidates in political office, and it will serve to remind people who pass my yard that economic justice is not just a concern of unskilled, feckless people who are out of work, but of prudent, hardworking people who own their homes.

            For this, I don’t mind parting with sixteen bucks.

          • Demand implies compliance. Hence the rowdiness and the bullying. There is no way of showing that the demands are being made other than by special minority interests, unless by normal democratic process, and that is haphazard enough.

            The protests amount to little more than selfish, childish tantrums or else are sinister attempts to undermine the social fabric that most people subscribe to.

          • Richard, it sounds as if we are not even reading the same news. I am not talking about the students who rioted in Britain and deteriorated into a looting-fest. I am not talking even about people in Europe who are now claiming inspiration from the Wall Street protest and overturning cars in Rome, etc.

            No group in New York or anywhere in the US is doing this kind of thing en masse, and very few individuals have been confrontational. They are practicing civil disobedience, letting themselves get hauled away to the lockup, accepting being corralled behind nets, getting pepper sprayed, and generally behaving as protesters have not in America since the Civil Rights movement.

            Sinister is what I would call the things they are protesting: pay-to-play government, welfare for the wealthy and every other manipulation of the system that widens the gap between haves and have-nots. They are coming together and speaking out in a way that daily clarifies the actual priorities for social and financial reform.

            Is it unreasonable to demand that the Congress at least consider legislative wishlists such as the one I linked at http://coupmedia.org/occupywallstreet/occupy-wall-street-official-demands-2009
            ?

            Is “demand” the word that frightens you? Is it disturbing because it is… gasp… rude?

            Would you have said the same about the suffragists who chained themselves to the White House fence in the course of seeking the right to vote?

          • Thank you for your reasoning approach to this highly-charged issue, Sled. It is as well to remember our objectives are identical.

            A shrill exhibitionist is no more automatically right than a violent anarchist. There are better and more effective ways in a sophisticated democracy with advanced means of communication to argue a case. This leads me to suspect the true motives of the protagonists, who profess to seek preferential treatment for those they consider more deserving.

            What is there to suggest that the accidental martyrdom of Emily Davison, say, did anything to to bring about earlier women’s suffrage?

            I practise ignoring rudeness, although I can’t tolerate the over-vocal for long.

          • We may have a sophisticated democracy with advanced means of communication, but those with the power to change the situation, whether in the legislative, regulatory or financial sectors, appear to be ignoring the million and one cries for redress that have been going up nonstop since the financial meltdown began. Take my friend who got screwed-over by Bank of America as an example, and a mild one at that. He did everything exactly as he was instructed and got the rug pulled out from under him by the bank, and a search for every kind of assistance currently available to a homeowner came up with bupkes. Sophistication and communication are amounting, in most cases, to so much “hold” music.

            At least the bank did not try to take his home. People who are swamped by job loss, illness, and foreclosure all at once are not getting any help, and they can’t eat promises. Crimes were committed and three years later most of those responsible are still unscathed. Porous regulations created the temptation to the crimes and they are not being tightened nearly aggressively enough; inequities in the tax code continue to stand and politicians are too afraid of offending their big-ticket contributors to reform them. If the people enduring the burdens in this economy remain quiet and polite, those with the power can ignore us indefinitely. Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.

      • There is so much noise and quarrel, Thomas, that the simple truths are being ignored – that is to say 1. there is no economic growth if no-one wants to buy and 2. the amount paid is established in the market place. If the worst consequences of this failure are bypassed it will be by luck rather than judgment.

        None of us can expect a pension, a job and healthcare as of right for there is no true way justly to test entitlement and settle competing claims.

        Clear as mud?

        • If you pay money to someone on the understanding that you will receive a certain payout after a certain age — compare, for instance, term life insurance — and the age is moved up, or your payout is diminished, then would you not say you had been cheated? That has already happened to many people who paid into retirement funds. Social Security pensions supported by payroll taxes should be the last entitlement the government preserves. The quality of everyone’s life is affected, not just the recipient’s.

          There is no economic growth if no one wants to buy but many factors other than the market price affect the choice to buy. If I get a tax break for buying new windows in my house (I just signed a contract, and I do) I may be more likely to buy those windows. The government has therefore paid me to buy something that remains mine alone, but if the windows raise the value of my house and the tax that all who eventually own it pay on the property till it ages out, money will return to the local government, which will not need to look for Federal money when it comes time to repave my street. Etc. In other words, public policy can and does affect buying decisions.

          A job is not a right, but as a population, we have the right to seek laws that protect working people and keep more jobs in this country, where we need them.

          It’s more complicated than simply waiting for the price of goods and services to enter a range that will entice people to buy.

          • The taxpayer as taxpayer and the policyholder as policyholder make no promise to any aggrieved beneficiary as to retirement funds, life assurance or social security, so you seek remedies against other than the wrongdoers and would balance without scales.

            The market place should be left alone, undistorted by tax or private capital. It is a poor measure of worth, but it is the only one we have, is democratic and is a place where activity leads immediately to buying and selling. Moreover, it works. There needs to be room for the relief of suffering: thus we proceed by uneasy compromise without losing sight of the fundamentals in a mass of irrelevant complication.

          • Richard, we are discussing two different things, which can easily happen because the topic is so complex. Similarly, the people who are paying $16 to OWS all have different motivations and reasons for doing so.

            During the Vietnam war, protestors were originally thought of as antisocial and dangerous, and a lot of them probably were. But they started a discourse that finally ended the war. If OWS starts a discourse that leads to a more equitable society, that will be a good thing.

          • So you would prefer a purely laissez-faire system and devil take the hindmost? That always sounds good until you or people that you love fall among the hindmost. I cannot square your arguments for a completely free marketplace — which in itself sounds like an idealistic pipe dream — with the apparent wish you express to relieve suffering.

            As for the grand-sounding statement you make about the taxpayer not making promises, etc.; it is our representatives in government who are supposed to execute the will of the people, and are charged with the stewardship of the taxes we pay. (I know of very few working people who actually object to Social Security — though I know a seething Libertarian who rails against the Nanny State while drawing a disability pension from that very source.) When they mismanage that money or give it to their cronies (before God, the US Government threw money at McDonald’s for overseas marketing some time in the past few years) and then say “Oops, cash has run out, might have to raid the pension fund,” a trust has been violated. Exacting penalties or identifying the malefactors may be difficult, but that does not mean it is pointless.

            Or are you telling me it is wrong to levy taxes to keep old women and men from dying on the street (my ex-husband almost did, but thanks to the American taxpayer he died in a hospital bed), because the taxpayer is not the final author of whatever economic injustice leads to that risk? (By the way, my late and ex was very simply mentally ill and incapable of prudent decisions, but no law in the land would give me control of his predicament — and don’t think I didn’t try.) As soon as you create jobs stemming from the goal of relieving such suffering, you have already affected the market place, have you not?

            Where did I say I sought remedies against other than the “wrongdoers?” What I want, and what the people in OWS protests appear to want, is a system of financial regulation and public policy that curbs economic wrongdoing, whether it is changing the rules about the social safety net in midstream or engaging in unsustainable mortgage fiddles that throw homeowners onto the streets in the hundreds of thousands (and getting away with the profits nonetheless).

            Are you saying that it is just so difficult to identify the people responsible for this fiscal meshugges that we should just shrug and move on? In a data-heavy society, nailing some culprits is just what we can do, though that wasn’t where my focus was when I started this post. The question is,. who has the political will to call them to account? Do people have to be as flamboyantly crooked as Bernie Madoff before we decide to prosecute them? You’ll notice that financiers have been seeking pre-emptive immunity from any investigation of the mortgage crisis.
            http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904070604576521282894534152.html

            Obviously, they have reason to worry.

        • Would you mind identifying those two different things, Thomas?

          The complication is artificial and self-perpetuating.

          I see no parallel between a call for peace and a demand for special exemption from market forces.

          • Um, I believe it is the financiers, with personal worth in the millions and billions, who have enjoyed special exemption from market forces, and the OWS protestors who are asking why the rest of the population, much less prepared to swim, was left to sink.

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