Letter: Is “Occupy” Really That Confused?

Last week, Thomas Munka, a USF business major, wrote an editorial in this paper accusing the movement of a cognitive dissonance in their tactics and a misrepresentation in their goals.

Why, asks Mr. Munka, if the protesters desire a “just economic climate,” would they disrupt the port of Oakland, vandalize small businesses and foster economic unrest? While it’s admittedly difficult to square these types of actions with the movements stated, it’s equally difficult, if not impossible, for a leaderless movement to control an inchoate mob of angry protesters, particularly piqued over their violent confrontation with Oakland police a week earlier.

But is it fair to extrapolate from these and similar incidents that violence is the defining characteristic of Occupy Wall Street? One cursory glance at the movement should sufficiently answer that question: There are no admission tests or background checks set up at entrances of the Occupy encampments; there is no way screen out disgruntled applicants. Last week, a man at an Occupy movement in Vermont committed suicide by shooting himself in the head; to my knowledge, no one has since accused the movement of being either pro- or anti-suicide.

To emphasize the unpopularity of such actions, Mr. Munka cites a recent poll showing 30% public approval of the movement. While this may not seem like much, getting 30% of Americans to agree with you on anything is an admirable feat in today’s polarized climate; compare this to Wall Street’s 16% approval rating, the Tea Party’s 28% and Congress’s 20%.

Next, Mr. Munka turns to what I call the “American Dream” argument. In a familiar iteration, he relates how his parents, after emigrating to America with a scant knowledge of English and little means, eventually rose up through the ranks of society to secure comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyles. For Americans, this argument is a seductive one: It appeals to our abiding faith in equal opportunity—that ours is a system built on a level playing field. Sadly, this is far from the reality.

Sure, for our parents and grandparents, America was the land of opportunity. But since the mid-20th Century, social mobility has become much “stickier”. To that point, Katherine Bradbury of the Boston Federal Reserve published a recent study finding that, “over the 1969-to-2006 time span, family income mobility across the distribution decreased, families’ later-year incomes increasingly depended on their starting place, and the distribution of families’ lifetime incomes became less equal.”

If the lower and middle classes were seeing rising incomes, such staggering inequality might be overlooked, but middle-class incomes, even among the college educated, have stagnated over the last decade while those at the top have skyrocketed. There is also evidence showing that inequality (both economic and political) may impede overall economic growth, shooting an arrow through the heart of the argument that wealth concentration isn’t a society-wide problem.

These points, rather than framing a portrait of opportunity, draw a stark picture of a country with one of the worst social mobility rates in the industrialized world, one in which the American Dream has been moribund for years.

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