Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

Summary: Individually, middle class Americans are generally powerless. But taken as a cohort, the American middle class is the single most powerful economic entity that has ever existed.


All photos courtesy fellow ZDNet blogger Michael Krigsman. See his amazing Flickr stream.

Unless you live under a rock, you're quite well aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's been going on for a month in New York, and there are splinter movements going on in major cities throughout the world.

And yet, a lot of us live under a rock.

A lot of us are only tangentially aware that there's a major meatspace event taking place across the world, fueled by the Babel that is cyberspace. A lot of us aren't in the big cities and a lot of us are far more concerned with making ends meet than with the latest protestor Meetups.

And yet, this is important stuff, worthy of attention and discourse.

There's talk of 99-percenters and 1-percenters, of have-nots and haves, of huge income disparity and bail-outs, of unions and disunity. The #OWS movement is both important and curious. It deserves attention here in ZDNet Government, especially since this is a story made possible primarily through social media.

I am not, by nature, a protestor. I've always thought it would be easier to be The Man than try to get on The Man's friends-and-family calling plan. I gave up sleeping in tents once I got my Eagle Scout award, lo those many decades ago. I much prefer room service at the Four Seasons over self-service or sleeping on the ground in a park. I respect the time-honored tradition of protest by peaceful assembly, but I'm just not a take-to-the-streets kind of guy.

But I do feel it's necessary to speak truth to power. That, more than anything else, is why I write. There are many ways individuals can be heard. Some of us write. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have big readerships and relationships with Washington insiders, so what we say is heard farther and wider -- and sometimes even listened to and acted upon.

Others protest. Even if you don't have an audience, a gig, or writing chops, merely showing up can be an act of enormous power.

Although I don't really identify with the current Tea Party movement, the real tea party, the original tea part was such an act. It was criminal, of course. It was destructive. And as such, if it happened today, it would not be something we could or should tolerate. But it was an act of desperation, it was a marketing effort, and it got attention. The backlash it created resulted in a series of Coercive Act laws that further restricted the colonists.

When old Sam Adams called for his big meeting in Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773, the meeting that led to the world's most famous mass tea-acide, he knew he was poking at a hornet's nest. He didn't quite know what would happen, but he knew stirring up anger would disrupt, and that would be good enough.

By the way, these wonderful pictures by Michael Krigsman you're looking at were also taken in Boston.

The destruction of the tea forced King George to react, and he reacted by making things worse. It was that making things worse that eventually led to the revolution and American independence.

It is with this in mind that we must think about the Occupy movements. It is important to understand that many Americans are hurting. Many Americans are unemployed and others are under-employed. Our people are having trouble making ends meet.

Even as millions clamor to buy an iPhone 4S or Kindle Fire, the price of a box of Corn Flakes has jumped 33% since 2008, while at the same time, median household income during the same period fell by about 10%.

In 2005, the average price for a gallon of gas was $1.83. By contrast, as of last May, the cost of a gallon was between $3.70 and $4.14, depending on where you live in the U.S. and right now, in my neighborhood, it's $3.35 a gallon.

The bottom line is simple: when, in a few short years, basic food costs (the price of Corn Flakes is a fair indicator) go up 33%, gas prices almost double, and income goes down 10%, people are going to be freaked out and angry.

Worse, most middle class Americans can't sustain much more of a cost-to-income slam and remain in the middle class. Many are underwater as it is.

News flash: it's the American middle class that drives everything in the world economy. Everything. Without a strong American middle class, the economic consumption engine will not turn over.

And that, Dear Reader, is why Occupy Wall Street is important. It's not that this group (such as it is) is more important or more relevant that any other group. It's not that Wall Street is even really the issue (although I, too, was personally enraged at audacity and mendacity of the Wall Street and banking bailouts).

#OWS isn't even important because of the rising income disparity between the haves and the used-to-haves.

Instead, the Occupy movements are important because they are an indicator that we've reached something of a boiling point. They reflect -- whether completely spontaneous, as the PR would have you believe, or organized by some agenda-wielding socialist-pinko cabal, as some others would have you believe -- they reflect a worldwide pissed-off-edness that could be a prelude to chaos.

The lessons of the original tea party are important, both for participants in the current protests and for our political leaders.

Peaceful protesting is an American right, the quintessence of the spirit of First Amendment to the United States Constitution. On the other hand, no government -- no government, whether local or national -- can stand by and accept acts of violence on its citizens or their property.

Should #OWS turn violent, local governments and the federal government will have to crack down. This would be the right-action of governance, for the greater good. However, should #OWS turn violent, and then, should the government crack down, it will all turn very ugly, very, very quickly.

This, then, is the fine line that the protestors and our politicians must tread. The protestors, if they choose to continue, must continue their protests in a non-violent fashion. New York's Finest (and those in similar roles, throughout the world), must maintain the peace by actually maintaining the peace. Each individual officer on the street must be slow to react in anger and thoughtful in all dealings with the protestors.

Bizarre as it may seem, we're witnessing something of a dance between civil servants and protestors, a dance where one or the other will need to lead at different times, and a dance that must not become a danse macabre.

Make no mistake about it. American economic policy has been flawed this last decade or so. Banks, healthcare providers, financial manipulators, and the politicians who suck at their teats have taken the American middle class both for granted and for a ride.

Individually, middle class Americans are generally powerless. But taken as a cohort, the American middle class of 2011 is the single most powerful economic entity that has ever existed on Planet Earth.

As we move forward to a year of primaries and elections, it would be wise for those who seek to govern and those who seek to continue to govern to remember that their true constituency is not their billionaire benefactors, but Ma and Pa Mainstreet.

For without the middle class, no other economic class will survive unharmed.

Topics: Banking, Enterprise Software, Government, Government US


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Can you really blame these kids

    They are waking up and finding money = power and that the ruling class has been running our country into the ground while it kept them blissfully unaware playing video games and playing sports. Kudos to these young people who want to take that power back from the ruling class. That 1% not only rules wall street, but the government too and they should move their protests to Washington just like the T.E.A. party.
    • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement


      Wall Street is only part of the problem. Unions are making unreasonable demands on business and the government is not creating jobs but destroying them through over regulation. Obama can't go to the bathroom without consulting his handlers from the SEIU.

      The real problem today is people do not take responsibility for their own actions. Just because you want the hottest car out there doesn't mean you can afford to pay back the loan you will take to get it. People these days think they are owed everything rather than having to work and earn it.
      Test Subject
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @Test Subject Ok, let's just stop that now. That kind of talk is over. Unions are the SOLUTION, not the PROBLEM. If unions had this immense power people have told you they do and you repeat, THIS PROBLEM WOULDN'T EXIST RIGHT NOW. Manufacturing jobs would still be here and people would be able to support a family on one income and have a pension the way they did a few decades ago.

        Who is saying they're "owed" anything? The American Dream is equality of opportunity, and that's gone. Politicians are off chasing PAC money and big donors and corporations are actually writing our legislation. BoA paid no tax last year, got a $1 billion refund and made $2 billion. The banks we bailed out are using our own money to hire lobbyists to petition the government and make conditions even more favorable for them. People's costs are rising through the roof and are more productive than ever but wages are falling while CEO bonuses are flowing. One man at the protests had a business that hit a rough patch and went to the bank for a $50K loan. The bank wanted his entire business equity, $850K, as collateral! Another man has two sons with a total of $200K in college loans who can't find jobs! Please don't spout the same talking points from the one percent, that people are demanding something for nothing. They're demanding their fair share which they've already paid for. We the People are sick of hearing the insanity that unions destroy jobs and Wall Street bonuses create them and that we're the source of the problems in this country. It's not going to fly anymore.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @Test Subject What is great about occupy wall street is that they have stopped looking left and right (partisan) and are lokking up and down (systems). This post is stuck in the partisan framework and can't really discuss the system. I ma a union member with SEIU. I don't know any union members (although I'm sure there are some) that tink that Obama is supporting us. Obama is good at supporting corporations. But Fox news doesn't want you to beleive that. It's better to keep up the partisan narrative than to say that in fact, on economics and foreign policy, the two partys are not that much different.

        There is a race to the bottom and because the union workers are going to the bottom slower than non-union workers, the powerfull want you to be angry that they are not getting as poor as you are. Have you noticed no one questions CEO pay? It seems only workers are over compensated, never executives. Of course American CEOs are paid exponentially higher than CEOs of the other nations.
      • jgm@... Unions are NOT the solution they are the PROBLEM

        @jgm@... so let's just stop that "Unions are the saviors" BS.
        Oh, and I'm speaking from experience as I was a union worker twice, and what it made me realize is that I am the master of my future, not some union representatives and the people with more senority then me.

        Unions workers are the ones that feel they are "owed" everything, and this is coming straight from their mouths! So saying that Unions are the solution is pure fantasy, IMO.

        I do agree with much of the other stuff you said, but I will never agree with unions being a good thing. They did nothing but hold me back, and from what I see they chased alot of jobs overseas.
        William Farrell
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement


        No, unions ARE the problem. Over the past three or four decades they have consistently asked for more benefits, more wages, more time off, more, more, more. And now they have the audacity to be shocked that businesses want to go overseas where manufacturing is cheaper? Yeah, we can keep manufacturing here in the US, but it will cost 50%-200% MORE for goods and services. Unions at one time were valuable. I'm talking the 10 hour days six days a week work week (well, that's pretty close to mine, now) times before unions in the US existed. Nowadays, unions are all about protecting their own regardless of whether it's good for the union or good for the business. And face it, without these corporations that are being protested there wouldn't be any reason for the unions to unite workers; there's little reason for them now anyway.

        The equality of opportunity is still there. Anyone who wants to work hard enough at their dream can succeed. Equality of OUTCOME is what this bunch wants, and that simply cannot happen in the US. We are guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness... the PURSUIT of happiness, not the ATTAINING of happiness.

        We never should have bailed out the banks. We never should have bailed out Chrysler or GM, either. That's what our economy has been about, historically. If you can't cut it, you go under. Apparently our government didn't like that and now we have this. The Tea Party (that all the OWS crowd despises) wants a lot of the same things except they realize that the government is to blame for a lot of the problems. Who passed the "stimulus" bill? Government. Who passes laws that allow Wall Street to work the way it does? Government. Who passed laws that created the banking industry crisis that we simply had to then bail out the banks? Government. Quit blaming the banks and the corporations for creating the economic environment we have now. It's all on government.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @Test Subject . When unions were at there most powerful in the 50's and '60's the economy for most everybody was at its best. Unemployment for 40% of the two decades was under 4%. Recessions even the sharp ones were short lived lasting a year or a year and half. The only reason why you would not have a job was because you were a slacker, had mental problems or retarded or were black and discriminated against. The Unions act as a counter monopoly to industry monopolies forcing companies to give workers more. When 40 or 50% of the countries workers were unionized companies were forced to pay more in salary and benefits even to workers not in unions because of the competition. When the workers were raking it in they had more to spend. Consumer spending offset the paying more in salary and benefits for many companies, the government had more money yea to waste but also to help people who had no skills, defense, infrastructure. Both companies and government had more money for research and development. Even if you are making a good wage today you should be scared to spend because you are more likely making that good wage as a temp or as a contractor with no benefits and no assurance. The explosion of temp and contract work is the direct result of the destruction of the union monopolies over the years. This is basic capitalism
      • So all we have to do...

        @Test Subject <br>...is to outlaw collective bargaining, and repeal all commercial regulation and our economic woes will be alleviated? Remember that the vast majority of private sector workers are not unionized and haven't been in decades. Also that a large number of the commercial regs enacted over the last century were in response to well-documented abuses.
        John L. Ries
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        "Who passed the "stimulus" bill? Government. Who passes laws that allow Wall Street to work the way it does? Government. Who passed laws that created the banking industry crisis that we simply had to then bail out the banks? Government. Quit blaming the banks and the corporations for creating the economic environment we have now. It's all on government."

        That's technically true, but highly disingenuous. Yes, the government passed those laws, but only because the corporations put them up to it. The problem isn't the government in and of itself, it's that the government no longer reports to We The People; they've become a fully-owned subsidiary of Corporate America.

        It's very cynical of the corporate types to call for less government. Power is like a gas: it expands to fill the need for it, and they understand that. The power of rulership does not simply go away; if the government gets out of the business of governing, there will be a power vacuum for corporations to rush in and fill. And I don't know about you, but as long as that power is going to be held by someone, I'd really prefer to have it held by someone I can vote out than by someone who answers to nobody but the shareholders!

        What's needed is not to decimate the government, but to get corporate money and influence out of government so they'll stop making bad laws and start to be accountable to We The People again.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @jgm@... Unions are the answer? You have got to be kidding right? Now lets talk about your two examples of people at the protest. The guy that went to the bank needed money to keep his business going. If it wasn't a high risk load then the bank would not have wanted that much collateral. If it wasn't a high risk loan the guy wouldn't have worried about what collateral the bank wanted because there would be no risk of losing that collateral. What is the point of two college grads having $200K in loans but can't find jobs? You didn't give any details on what their degrees are in. Just because they have degrees doesn't mean they got them in fields that there is any market for. They decided to go that far into debt, nobody forced them to. Just because they decided to borrow all that money doesn't mean that anybody is obligated to provide them with a job. Are you suggesting that when employer is deciding what applicant they hire they should ignore qualifications and hire the person with the highest student loan debt even if that person won't benefit his business? <br><br>I do agree with a few of the points that OWS is making but the majority of what I have heard out of them is so far out in left field that I all but dismiss them as having a clue.
    • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

      @zmud Very well said! Except the protestors aren't just college kids- they're from all age groups and occupations, including Army, Navy, and Marines, as well as retired people and military vets. They do need to expand even more in to Washington like the Tea Party did, but hopefully not carrying their loaded guns... But what you wrote is absolutely true and it's discouraging to see so many posts on this article by people who fit the description of 'the blind being led by the blind'.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        only a brain washed liberal can see anything but class warfare and demands for new handouts in this 'movement'.
        Real Americans reject it overwhelmingly!
        The Linux Geek
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @Linux Geek -

        Class warfare began when employers demanded more work from workers, sometimes with lower pay. Class warfare began with any means to stagnate or lower worker wages, just so the top can profit.

        Class warfare began with the sham of "trickle down economics". Since nothing has trickled down, except more "unpaid internships".

        Real Americans know the truth.

        And real handouts continue to go to the top. After all, "tax cuts create jobs" certainly prevented the job-less economic mess we're in today, yes? As did "trickle down economics" where profits trickle down to help workers, yes? As did all the corporate welfare going to wealthy companies, yes?
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @HypnoToad72 [i]Real Americans know the truth.[/i]
        So based on your post what you are trying to say is that you are not a real American?
    • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

      @zmud why would any sane person side with these bums and foment class warfare?
      the vast majority of the Americans see this dirty movement as it is: a lame attempt by the devilcrats to divert attention from their job killing policies.
      The Linux Geek
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        @The Linux Geek Class warfare and flat out lies is all Obama can run on for reelection so no surprise of the timing of the protests.
  • why are you praising the latest liberal fad?

    these 'occupiers' are nothing more than a bunch of anarchists, liberals and hippies that are part of the problem not of the solution.
    We need to cut the government spending and make sure that everybody pays reduced taxes including these bozos that disrupt the tranquility, daily business and hamper the good fight for job creation led by the conservatives and the tea party.
    The Linux Geek
    • Hillarious...

      @The Linux Geek
      Bashing Occupy Wall Street in one sentence and praising the tea party in the next. You've taken a page from the Mike Cox archive. Next you'll be telling us that your Wall Street broker has assured you that everything is a-ok.

      Wall Street and government have been far too cozy for far too long. This cozy relationship has crossed political parties and has cost our country dearly. Government spending is a tiny fraction of the problem, but it is indeed part of the problem. A larger problem is allowing trade with communist and third world countries that American workers can never, ever compete with on a level playing field. Had oru politicians taken the same approach towards the Soviet Union as they are taking towards China, the Soviet empire would have never fallen and we would have sunk to this point decades ago.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

        Don't forget that Obama has more Wall Street insiders on his White House staff than any other president in history has had, including both the Bush Presidents. Yes there is a problem and as Ronald Reagan would say "Government isn't the answer, it's the problem." The government can not be a cradle to grave system to take care of our every need and want. We have seen how well that works in communist countries. Spreading the wealth doesn't do anything other than drive the country to the bottom as fast as it can. Why work hard if they take everything to give to others who don't work. Pretty soon no one is working hard because it isn't worth it and its easier to slack off and get the government to take care of things, until there is no money to spread around and the country crashes in a fiery ball of flames.
      • RE: Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement


        The only commonality between the two is that they are protest groups.

        The Tea Party cleans up after itself. They leave parks, streets, sidewalks and such CLEANER than when they got there. They can all coherently describe why they are there and what they are protesting. They may carry guns, but they all have carry permits and have taken safety classes. They are legally protesting the fact that government is wasteful and has set up loopholes for special interest groups (like banks and corporations).

        The Occupy Wall Street bunch camps where it is specifically banned and wonder why they get arrested. They detain or completely stop traffic and then wonder why they get arrested. They defecate on police cars and in between their illegal tents. They are caught on video doing the horizontal mambo in public. Very few can answer the simple question of "What are you protesting?"; they treat it like a trick question or simply look amazed that someone would have the audacity to ask such a thing. Some of them say they protest against corporations but they merrily use the goods and services that those corporations provide.