Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Us Versus Them

If you're been following the news much lately, you've surely heard about the "Occupy Wall Street" protest that's ongoing. Thousands of people are taking to the streets of Manhattan to protest...something or other. I wasn't sure of their goals until I read their statement. A related trend is stories from "The other 99%" from people struggling to get by in life, implicitly contrasted against the luxury the top 1% of America's wealthy presumably live in.

First, a quick aside from what I remember from economics class. Much of the protest is about decrying the perceived selfishness and greed of "Wall Street". (A convenient geographical metaphor for faceless corporations) The OWS statement specifically mentions "corporations which place profit over people, self-interest over justice..." They expect too much from businesses. We expect businesses--and individuals--to act in their own self-interest. The purpose of businesses is, first and foremost, to make money, not to improve their community or the environment or anything. (Unless this is what they're making money for doing)

Obviously there are countless ways for this to go wrong, as we've seen, which is why business needs regulation, so that we can expect corporations to also behave ethically and legally, which is often not the case. But the simple pursuit of profit is to be expected from businesses, not decried. Companies aren't beholden to public opinion but to their stockholders and their profit margin--the best way to make a statement to a corporation isn't a protest, but a boycott.

But that's just a minor correction. What really troubles--even frightens--me is the "us versus them" mentality I see behind both of these protests. It's an incredibly explicit, even objectively decidable division--"us" is the bottom 99% of earners in America, "them" is the top 1%. As history has shown over and over, painting the situation like this is one of the best ways to motivate people. Forget trying to learn and understand the complicated economic truth behind the recession--the super-rich are bleeding this country dry!

Occupy Wall Street is an example of the anger that blaming your problems on an external source can foster. I'm afraid of how ugly having all these disgruntled people in one place could become. If you're concerned about the direction America is going like the OWS protesters, know that positive change can only come if people start thinking rationally, compassionately, and above all, constructively. As one wise Jedi Master said, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

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