Saturday, December 24, 2011

Taking Responsibility for the State of Society

What has been most offensive about the media coverage of the Occupy movement has been the misrepresentation of both the issues that have prompted the protests and the response of the Occupy movement. We have yet another example of such coverage in (where else?) our local newspaper.

Martin Latulippe ("CSP, social entrepreneur and engaged citizen") is given an NB Business Journal column in order to tell us that he has been following the Occupy protests, and that while he is in favour of "these different demonstrations of indignation" he finds it difficult to understand "the absence of accountability among some demonstrators and the somewhat denigrating discourse aimed at people who spent their life honestly building their wealth."



While I applaud his effort to frame the discourse in the first few paragraphs, it should be pointed out right at the outset that many of the demonstrators observe that the richest in society have not been honest in building their wealth, that they very often skirt the limit of the law, if not overtly falling over it, and that they demonstrate time and again a tendency to ignore rules and regulations, engage in corrupt practices, and sometimes engage in outright criminality, especially in the developing world.

And to the extent that these people have come by their wealth honestly, their wealth has been earned not by themselves alone, as such framing suggests, but by dint of the fact that they work within the framework of a society, one that has been supportive of their efforts to build wealth, that provides them infrastructure and security, and educates and manages an increasingly expert workforce to support these efforts. 

Latulippe deliberately misrepresents the position of the occupy movement (I say "deliberately" because nobody could have studied the movement, as he says he has, and come to the position he describes). He says the movement "attacks the 1%, proclaiming that the rich should be taxed at a higher rate, in an effort to redistribute wealth; we also here (sic) this in our province and regions."

What the Occupy movement has observed is that the wealthy typically pay taxes at a much lower rate than the rest of us. The Bank Transfer day protest, for example, pointed to the fact that institutions like the bank of America pay less tax than their employees, like the single bank teller. The banks, meanwhile, entrench their positions through questionable and offensive practices. This is not a simple effort to 'redistribute wealth". It is a clarion call for a broad-based regulation of an out-of-control industry.

"I find this discourse quite simplistic," writes Latulippe. Well of course the does! He has deliberately represented it as such. He continues, "It is as if all the underprivileged in the world were being placed under the same umbrella, by saying that they didn't have a chance and that the rich - in addition to being profiteers - were lucky and must pay the tab!" But this of course is not the Occupy Wall Street position at all! Rather, the protesters are saying quite clearly that the game is rigged in favour of the wealthy. Simple fairness would be sufficient to satisfy the bulk of OWS's demands.

Latulippe tells us he is "growing tired of hearing the same things in our media and popular discourse." Rather, he says, "Media rarely looks at the thousands of hours some of these entrepreneurs invest to create their own wealth, the many hours of sacrifice and the risks they take to achieve their dream."

Quite the opposite is true, of course. Media devotes thousands of hours and acres of column-inches to coverage of the rich and the powerful, more often than not describing the sacrifices they made, their unique expertise and insight, and of course the work they undertook on their way to the top. What the media does not describe is the fact that everybody makes sacrifices to support themselves and their family, that expertise and insight are common in society, and finally that most people these days work long hours for the bulk of their lives just in order to get by!

As for the risks - a person putting a little aside for retirement is taking a much larger risk than the banks and corporations that are bailed out or deemed "too big to fail" by the government. Nobody sees their retirement savings disappear more quickly or regularly than the average person.

As much as Latulippe would like to make it seem the opposite, the underlying message of Occupy Wall Street is that the wealthy are not special. They don't sacrifice more, they don't have special skills, they don't take greater risks, and they don't work any harder than the rest of us. Therefore they should pay their taxes and live responsibly in society, just like the rest of us. They should not have a special voice at the legislature, they should not receive preferential treatment, they should not get away with criminal conduct, and they should not be able to manage their risks on the backs of everyone else in society.

Listen to this crap from Latulipp: "I know hundreds of entrepreneurs throughout Canada and New Brunswick who, every year, find themselves facing serious workforce problems because some of their employees would rather take advantage of the system by illegally filing for employment insurance or deciding to remain on social assistance. Such practices often jeopardize the future of some businesses. But such a scourge can never be dealt with in the media or addressed by a politician without public outcry or the opposition up in arms. Defending "the big bad" rich is poorly perceived. And unfortunately it doesn't garner popular votes either!"

What Latulippe doesn't say is that these employers are paying minimum wage and campaigning for it to be lowered or eliminated, that they want to employ people only seasonably or part time, that they want to manage employee hours in such a way as to avoid paying benefits, and that they often create dangerous working conditions and lobby against safety measure that would protect workers. Nobody is living well on Employment Insurance and even less so on welfare - that a person would find it more worthwhile to break the law and live on such substandard means says a lot about how bad these jobs these hundreds of employers are offering.

What Latulippe also doesn't do here is offer actual evidence of any large numbers of people collecting Employment Insurance illegally. In order for such practice to jeopardize the prospects of hundreds of enterprises across New Brunswick, it would have to be widespread, involving thousands of employees. But there is no evidence of this. What is in fact the case is that employers here are paying such low wages and offering such poor working conditions that people would rather leave - and that's what they are doing, year after year. If these employers want their businesses to survive, they should consider paying fair wages.

And then, laughably, from Latulippe: "And yet, the reality is that there are as many rich profiteers as there are poor, but nobody wants to hear about the problems of those who keep the economy running... particularly when these problems involve people who have worked hard all their life to get where they are today." If we just run the numbers on this, given that the wealthy are one percent of society, then if even one percent of the poor are criminals, it follows from Latulippe's own reasoning that every one of the the 1% is criminal. That's probably not true either - some of the 1% were simply lucky enough to inherit their money - but it just shows how poorly reasoned Latulippe's screed has been.

He continues, "Popular culture is obsessed with painting an unkind picture of those who are financially well-off, portraying them as people who want to take advantage of others. Whether it's a Hollywood movie or in one of our Tim Hortons, we have all seen and heard the rich being denigrated."

Yes. There's a good reason for that. It's because it's true.  Time after time after time we see incidences of the financially wealthy taking advantage of the poor. That's why, for example, we see in Moncton this week a company that made $100 million last year locking out employees and then refusing to pay them money they had already earned and set aside while the dispute remains unresolved. That's what their talking about in the Tim Hortons - and if the corporations didn't do it, the people in Tims wouldn't have anything to talk about!

But Latulippe would rather have it otherwise: "It's easier to blame the 1% for all the hardships of the world and demand a share of their wealth, than to push up your sleeves and create your own happiness. The Robin Hood discourse has always sold well. But, personally, I find it appalling that some demonstrators blame only the rich and wealth, in general, for the ills of the world."

Let's remember that the Robin Hood discourse describes a gang that attacks rich people and forceably removes them of their wealth. These attacks are well-deserved - the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John are abusing the trust that has been given to them by King Richard and are oppressing the poor through means contrived and illegal simply to augment their own wealth, and causing widespread hardship and ruin in the land as a result.

We have all of this today except for the Robin Hood attacking the rich and distributing wealth to the poor. And while I know that it is a popular lament of the 1% to describe taxation as a form of theft, it is in fact the opposite of that. Nobody in the Occupy Wall Street movement is demanding the violent seizure of wealth from the rich - around the world, whether in Egypt and Tunisia, in Russia, Italy and Greece, across the United States, and in Canada, the call has been consistently to stage peaceful demonstration, to accomplish legal changes, rather than to promote armed uprising.

But Latulippe thinks the whole system is unfair - to the rich. "It's ironic that a young student who spent two months demonstrating out of an 'Occupy' camp is perceived as person with good values, whereas the young entrepreneur who worked hard during the same period to launch his business, take risks and believe in his dreams will soon be perceived as a crook, once he's succeeded!"

Let's pause and reflect on this for a moment. The person in the Occupy camp - who may be a student, but is just as likely a retired person, an unemployed, a seasonal worker, or any other member of society - is giving up their income and family life for two months in order to work toward an improvement in society. He or she is calling not only of redress of the social and economic problems being caused by the inequities in society, but also for a proper response to things threatening us all, such as the onset of global warming.

The rich person, by contrast, has spent the same time to launch his own business. Well good for him, but let's be clear that this person is working for himself during this time - entrepreneurs are not launching businesses for the good of society, they are doing it to make money. And will this person be perceived as a crook? well - sometimes. Not always - most people doing business in the community are honest, which is why they remain small businesses. There will be some, however, perceived to be crooks - because they are!

After all - if the person after working for only two months is able to support with his taxes the protestor for that same two month period, then there is something fishy going on, because no honest person makes that kind of money after only two months effort. And more often than not, the accumulation of a lot of wealth in a short amount of time is a good indication of some criminal behaviour. If I suddenly bought a new house and began riding around town in a Hummer, you'd look at me sceptically no matter where I work. But when a businessperson does this, we're supposed to just look away?

The representation here is vile. We are being told that the rich people are the "job creators who help keep the economy rolling" while the rest of us - and especially those who protest - are ignoring our own responsibilities and simply trying to seek more of their wealth. What a load - frankly - of crap.

The rich do not create jobs, and directing more and more wealth in their direction results in a loss of jobs, not a creation of them. Societies with the greatest and most stable employment, as well as the most enduring and dependable wealth, are those societies in which there is the least disparity between rich and poor. Actual job creation is accomplished though the concerted efforts of the entire society to make the most of natural resources and trading opportunities, not through the singular largesse of some rich person working for his or her own self-interest.

What we see the rich doing, more often than not, is using their wealth not so much to create new wealth but as leverage to acquire other wealth that already exists. Sometimes this is accomplished through the purchase or acquisition of companies that actually do produce things (their new wealth will now be directed to paying the interest on the borrowing needed to acquire the business, not on new development or research). Sometimes their wealth is used as leverage against politicians to make decisions that create windfall profits. Again, this often works against the interest of the community.

Now after this blatant simplification and misrepresentation of OWS, Latulippe is going to claim some nuance for his own position. He's always there to support the disadvantaged, he says, but we must bring citizen accountability to the forefront. "Conservatives blame Liberals. Liberals blame Conservatives. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich. Parents blame teachers; teachers blame parents, and so on and so forth." What he would rather see is "a box with a nice little mirror inside, so that people can look at themselves and see where the true solution really starts."

That's fair enough, and everybody should be accountable for their own part of the problem, but it follows that those causing the greatest part of the problem have the most to be accountable about, and need to make the greatest redress. And that's just it: I can accept my own responsibility while at the same time still be protesting with those of Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, taking part in these protests is actually a part of taking responsibility. It would be easier, and a lot more safe, to quietly go to work day after day and not make any waves.

But what I observe is that the damage to society being caused by the rich is  too great to allow for such luxury. We have observed the predatory and often criminal acts of the wealthy bring our society to the edge of collapse (and we may yet fall over). We have seen the inequity in society not only harm the economy and not only impair the work we are trying to do in health care and education, but also cause a great deal of hardship and harm. People lose their jobs, they lose their pensions, and the social supports like EI and pensions, into which they have paid all their lives, are being destroyed in order to subsidize the rich.

I live in a province that has at once two of the richest  families in Canada and at the same time some of the lowest levels of income in Canada, a province in which the wealth of one family is remarkably similar to the provincial debt. The prevalence and influence of wealth in provincial politics and the widespread poverty are not coincidence: one is the cause of the other. And it is a part of my responsibility, indeed, my prime responsibility as a citizen, to respond to that situation, not for my own benefit (for most surely there will be none) but for the benefit of the people of the province.

Make no mistake. More and more of the poor and the wage earners and the retired are "taking responsibility" for the state of their society. And the rich will not like that one bit. Because the poverty of society has not been caused by these people working hard and saving and sacrificing their entire lives. It has been created by the wealthy, who have manifestly and most obviously have stolen that wealth. It is not simply time to force them to give it back. It's time to reform our democracy, so that this can never happen again.

Here's the Moncton Occupy protestor, speaking out:

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