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Trying to Make Sense of Occupy Wall Street – Part 1/2

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My previous post about what I see as broken with the Occupy Wall Street movement was the result of several

College grads fill the ranks of Occupy Wall Street as well

conversations, both on twitter, and in-person.  As a result of that post, I’ve been able to discuss the movement with a diverse group of opinions, not only in the comments , but also on Facebook and Twitter, and including a meeting with a friend who may end a long absence from political movements soon.

The more I talk and write about Occupy Wall Street, the more personal the conversation becomes to me.   I’m going to continue writing about Occupy Wall Street, and this week you can look for a few posts coming from my conversation with Eugene and with my experiences with Occupy Austin’s Capitol Occupation.

Once again, I haven’t begun taking a stance on any of the issues.  I’m going to continue to listen and digest to get a better understanding of what Occupy Wall Street actually is.  The movement continues to intentionally leave itself open to individual interpretation and this is the source of its power  - millions are able identify with it.

 

I’m making sense of Occupy Wall Street as the expected angry response to and product of dual broken narratives in America. How broken both of the narratives are is not trivial.  Both are essential to sustain the fervor of the movement which has already changed the focus of our media to the plight of the working class.  What follows is my impression of what motivates Occupy Wall Street.  Why is this relevant?  It’s the place to begin answering the question, “How will we know when Occupy Wall Street has accomplished its goals.”  

When Occupy Wall Street has realized its potential, we’ll see a new set of cultural narratives defining our nation.

Broken Narrative One:  The American Global Political Decision-Making Process
including….

  • The relationship between politics and corporations – it’s corrupt
  • The way the Fed is structured with regard to leadership and conflicts of interest - it’s corrupt

 

Broken Narrative Two: The Personal Economic Capitalistic Creative and Productive Process
specifically…

  • The formula to make money that middle and lower-class children learn in school – it’s flawed
  • The relationship between a college education, debt, and competitively paying jobs – isn’t linear
I’m going to start with the second narrative, and then work my way backwards to the first.
The Personal Economic Capitalistic Creative and Productive Narrative that influenced how the middle and lower-classes have defined the process of growing the economy and making money.

In 2008 the markets took a nosedive, we suffered a recession, and millions of Americans suddenly found themselves underwater in their mortgages, out of work, and unable to service the debt they had or make ends meet in many cases.  Job opportunities were scarce but foreclosures were common.  Confidence in the economy dropped, and businesses began to implement hiring freezes and lay off wave after wave of American workers.
The result?

No wonder people are angry.

An entire American workforce that had been used to the economy’s promise of stable work, regularly scheduled raises, and an ever-increasing standard of living since the 1950s were suddenly thrown into an economy that could no longer keep many of those promises.  Without work, and with rising inflation, the 99% found it increasingly difficult to pay for simple things like gas and healthcare.

The cultural narrative that defined “work” as a well paying job that would be waiting for you the day after college graduation suddenly wasn’t playing out.  There weren’t enough jobs for all the workers anymore.  The graduating class of 2008 and 2009 (I graduated from college in 2009) found an economy that was in fact not waiting to hire them.

This was when I graduated from college.  Many of my fellow graduates moved home, lots of us took service industry jobs, and all of us wondered why we had taken out all those loans….

We did it because the narrative we heard in high school provided very specific instructions to take on debt that future jobs would be able to service.
The cultural narrative said:  

Go to College (no matter what the cost) + Get 5-6 figure loans for increasing tuition costs + Get Good Grades =  Guaranteed jobs that will easily pay off your debt

In essence, the Personal Economic Capitalistic Creative and Productive Process to make a good living for the middle and lower-class was the result of a high-priced college education.

But when we look around, we don’t see that as true.  We see college graduates sending in resume after resume for jobs with lower salaries than last year, or jobs that don’t require a college degree, and a lot of debt.

Instead of college setting graduates free, it actually enslaved them to decades of debt, and without a good job that will actually pay off the debt.

The psychological hit is as bad as the emotional one: If we were to ask a sample of college graduates if they felt prepared to find a place to contribute to the economy and make a living in 2011, I think that we would find a scary number of them saying, “no.”

What are people supposed to do in the face of the rising cost of living, scarce jobs, low paying jobs, expensive health insurance and on…?  What do people do when the narrative they were using to live their lives turns out to be a myth?

And it leaves me asking two questions.

The first question is if a college education is in fact where jobs come from?  If not from education, then where do they come from?   What’s the real answer to the Personal Economic Capitalistic Creative and Productive Process?  

How will this generation of Americans find meaning and purpose in the Creative process of their work?

A better way to ask this question is to look a few hundred years back and ask, what did people do before big companies could pay their salaries?  They fed themselves.  

Entrepreneurs do this, and they don’t usually need a degree to create a sustainable business that will take care of their needs.  The issue here is that entrepreneurship is hard, and it’s easy to say that it’s not for everyone.  But I truly believe that when the chips are down we are all capable of solving the problem of how to eat and how to feed our families.  My faith in the human spirit to prevail insists upon this.

The second question is what to do about the system of inequality that is baked into our nation.  Our country is in very real danger of going the way of the buffalo, and shaking the foundations of democracy.  We cannot continue to trust the leadership that has gotten us to this point or let anyone enforce the status quo.

But we can’t throw stones either.  1% or 99%, we’re all in this together.

Which brings me back to the economic crisis of 2008, and Broken Process One:  The American Global Political Decision-Making Process.

I’ll post that part tomorrow.  Thanks for reading.

 

Hope this helps.

-Austin W. Gunter

 

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