What do you do at the carnival when you see that the game is rigged and you won’t win that giant teddy bear for your sweetie? You walk away. All the games are rigged. You don’t play them. You just walk away, or you stay and watch the suckers lose again and again. You can buy your girl a giant teddy bear – or something better – on your own. And Las Vegas is like that too. The house always wins – everyone knows that. But it’s fun to watch the suckers have their momentary luck, such as it is, and then watch them lose big. But that gets old pretty fast. You hop on the I-15 and drive back to LA – five hours of the endless desert will clear your head. That’s walking away too.
But what happens when you can’t walk away, if you have to play the game, even if it’s rigged and you’ll never win? You can’t leave the fairground – that’s all there is of the world. You can’t drive off into the big empty desert like Hunter Thompson, high as a kite in his big absurd Cadillac. It’s like that Sartre play from long ago – No Exit – three characters locked in a room together for eternity. L’enfer, c’est les autres – hell is other people. Or it’s the locked room. Or it’s the rigged game you must play.
There is more than a bit of all this hanging over the Occupy Wall Street movement. There’s no exit. We live in a free-market capitalist winner-take-all system, which as economic systems go is better than anything else anyone has ever come up with. But it’s rigged so that the house always wins – or the One Percent does, and the others, the Ninety-Nine percent, have their momentary luck, such as it is, and then they lose big. At least that’s the idea. And these people are saying that this stinks to high heaven. They’ve had enough of it. But listen to them – they just don’t quite know how to change the game to make it fair – or at least a little fairer for all parties. And they also know they cannot walk away from this game. It’s the only game in town, and there is no other town anyway. It’s an odd dilemma. It would make Sartre smile, ruefully of course.
But how rigged is the game? The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof tried to explain that in this detailed column on the Occupy Wall Street protests, including key statistics, like the fact that the four hundred wealthiest Americans “have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans” and the top one percent “have more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.”
And there’s this:
As my Times colleague Catherine Rampell noted a few days ago, in 1981, the average salary in the securities industry in New York City was twice the average in other private sector jobs. At last count, in 2010, it was 5.5 times as much. (In case you want to gnash your teeth, the average is now $361,330.)
More broadly, there’s a growing sense that lopsided outcomes are a result of tycoons’ manipulating the system, lobbying for loopholes and getting away with murder. Of the 100 highest-paid chief executives in the United States in 2010, 25 took home more pay than their company paid in federal corporate income taxes, according to the Institute for Policy Studies.
And Kristof addresses the common assumption, that economic inequalities are what happen in an economy as large and powerful as ours. It seems the opposite is true:
In his important new book, “The Darwin Economy,” Robert H. Frank of Cornell University cites a study showing that among 65 industrial nations, the more unequal ones experience slower growth on average. Likewise, individual countries grow more rapidly in periods when incomes are more equal, and slow down when incomes are skewed.
That’s certainly true of the United States. We enjoyed considerable equality from the 1940s through the 1970s, and growth was strong. Since then inequality has surged, and growth has slowed.
Everyone prospers when we grow. When the few prosper and everyone else gets next to nothing, the economy stalls. And Kristof doesn’t even mention the new report, from the International Monetary Fund of all places, that argues that inequality – what those on the right see as success – actually inhibits growth:
We discovered that when growth is looked at over the long term, the trade-off between efficiency and equality may not exist. In fact equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth. The difference between countries that can sustain rapid growth for many years or even decades and the many others that see growth spurts fade quickly may be the level of inequality. Countries may find that improving equality may also improve efficiency, understood as more sustainable long-run growth.
And that generates comments like this:
It turns out that the biggest advocates of restraining wealth concentration at the top should be CAPITALISTS! The only chance CAPITALISTS have to succeed is if they have access to capital, which they don’t get in wealth-concentrated societies … So I look forward to seeing signs that say “Capitalists for the Revolution” soon!
I don’t quite get the hilarity. It’s perfectly clear to me – and has been perfectly clear to political theorists throughout the ages – that extreme concentration of wealth hurts economic growth and destroys political comity. Conservatism has long sought to keep this inequality in balance – between the inevitable and beneficial inequalities that come with a free market, and the structural, harmful inequality that comes from one tiny segment of the society wielding such massive power over the rest. I think this recession, its causes and effects, combined with 30 years of middle-class decline and über-class enrichment, are what have brought us to this impasse.
But what Sullivan calls conservatism here has all but disappeared, and Steve Benen reacts to the Kristof column:
If I’m being completely honest, there was a point a few weeks ago at which I thought OWS needed to be more specific about an agenda. The most effective movements are those that are focused and striving towards clear goals. Occupy activists haven’t been, and still aren’t.
But Kristof’s column reminds me why that thinking was mistaken. Protestors aren’t demanding Congress pass a bill or approve a specific reform. They’re shining a light on systemic problems that can’t be fixed with one bill or one reform. It’s not about economic inequality, or TARP, or the need for tax fairness, or stagnant middle-class wages – it’s about all of it and then some.
Kristof says these inequalities are “a cancer on our national well-being” – but the metaphor is loaded. There’s still no cure for cancer. And it seems, for now, there’s no exit.
But the New York Times also ran a companion piece to the Kristof column, about how the folks on Wall Street see those protesters down in the street:
Some on Wall Street viewed the protesters with disdain, and a degree of caution, as hundreds marched through the financial district on Friday. Others say they feel their pain, but are befuddled about what they are supposed to do to ease it. A few even feel personally attacked, and say the Occupy Wall Street protesters who have been in Zuccotti Park for weeks are just bitter about their own economic fate and looking for an easy target. If anything, they say, people should show some gratitude.
“Who do you think pays the taxes?” said one longtime money manager. “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it. If you want to keep having jobs outsourced, keep attacking financial services. This is just disgruntled people.”
He added that he was disappointed that members of Congress from New York, especially Senator Charles E. Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, had not come out swinging for an industry that donates heavily to their campaigns.
“They need to understand who their constituency is,” he said.
That’s interesting. And at Balloon Juice there’s an explanation of this:
I can’t think of a better example of how Wall Street works politically, can you? “We bought these Senators fair and square. How come they’re backing these dirty effing hippies? They need to stay bought, dammit. That’s how it works in America.”
It’s not the 99% they’re blaming either, but Congress. It’s like they expect the candidate with the most money to win and then pay industry back with sweetheart laws or something, and that Wall Street needs Congress. Boy if these 99% guys ever figure out they can vote, Wall Street’s in real trouble, huh. The captains of industry should probably work hard to prevent that from happening by making it harder to vote so these hippies don’t get ideas that their opinion matters.
If you thought voter suppression was the top GOP priority before, it just got super fast-tracked in the wake of Occupy Together.
Yep, the game is rigged, and it’s getting rigged more. In the poor areas of Denver you won’t be allowed to vote unless you show your notarized birth certificate, the original and not a copy, or a passport. That’ll keep the riff-raff from messing up the game. Cool. Yes, it makes you just want to walk away. No giant teddy bear for you today. You can’t even play.
But consider this dispatch from the protests here in Los Angeles:
What we’re demanding – what people in the Occupy movement are demanding – is the same responsibility from these large institutions, and the so-called 1%. It’s really that simple.
When the financial industry came to the brink of collapse because of the reckless behavior of these “too big to fail” corporations, we saw an amazing ability for our government to come together to bail them out. In return, they’ve repaid the favor by working night and day to lift the already watered-down provisions of the Dodd-Frank reforms so they can continue with their same insanity, and to basically act like spoiled, entitled brats towards those of us who saved their butts in the first place.
Contrast this with any legislation in Congress that might actually help out rank-and-file Americans, and suddenly everything becomes gridlocked and impossible to achieve. From out here, it appears that when you have a lobby on your side, government works, and if you don’t, well tough luck.
We march for three simple things: tighter regulation of the financial industry (a return to Glass-Steagall would be a big step), a demand for shared sacrifice amongst 100% of this country, and to wake up those in Congress who have been listening only to the lobbyists and the media chattering classes, and losing sight of the fact that this country is a DEMOCRACY, of the people, by the people, and for the people.
These are not radical notions, and they’re not even strictly left-wing (personal responsibility seems like a classic conservative belief to me). This is the no-longer silent majority in this country, across the spectrum, who have finally had enough.
The game is rigged. It shouldn’t be. But it’s the only game. And Andrew Sullivan struggles with this:
I see the signs urging us to “smash capitalism” and remain unmoved. Capitalism has – even over the last decade – brought more people out of poverty than ever before in history. I see personal hatred aimed at people working in the financial services industry, which again leaves me unmoved and not a little nauseated.
But what I do see is – finally – a powerful cultural protest against the corruption of capitalism in the last decade, the crony-ridden political system that even now is trying to stall or gut Dodd-Frank, and against the staggering inequalities that now exist in this country and threaten to change its core democratic nature. And this is a good thing. It’s a good thing because it provides essential balance to the Tea Party’s case against government as a whole. Only one entity can restore some equity to the system and its government. Disempowering government at a time when the current system is consigning millions to decades of unemployment while rewarding a fraction of that with simply unimaginable rewards … that’s a recipe for social unrest.
So make it so the game isn’t rigged:
In other words, this street movement is emerging to demand some accountability from the bankers who helped destroy this economy, from the politicians who used our money to save them, from the GOP even now balking at basic regulations on Wall Street to help prevent another crash, and from Obama whose conciliatory style so many now regard as betrayal.
Still, Sullivan sees a lot of this as self-serving:
I don’t believe the debt binge – private and public – was conducted without the eager participation of large numbers of Americans, trying to get something for nothing. I don’t think you can leave government off the hook either, given its disastrous role in Freddie and Fannie. I think blaming Obama for all of it is absurd, when he is trying very hard in a deeply constrained Washington to enact core reforms. But reminding Wall Street and multinational corporations that they inhabit a polity, not a planet, is a good thing. Their fate is connected with ours, and until we return to a government that can balance its books, and to a banking system that seeks merely to make good loans, we are all in trouble.
But everyone has an axe to grind. And there will always be inequalities that reflect different talent or just plain dumb luck. But Sullivan is still troubled:
Equally, though, when inequalities persist that are structural, that are rigged by one economic sector dominating others, and when the global trends point to even greater polarization, I think we should worry. This inequality will not hold over another decade of mass unemployment. Globalization is beginning to find millions of middle class victims in the West. This, in some respects, is the middle class’s 1968.
And what is Obama going to do now?
So far, he’s been as vague as the movement itself. But if Obama can reframe his political future as harnessing this street power to hold the powerful accountable, if he can leverage it into passage of the American Jobs Act, and if he can cite this inequality as a reason for major tax reform with entitlement cuts and revenue increases, then Romney suddenly looks like a defensive plutocrat.
But Obama flew down to North Carolina and spoke in Asheville – the start of his bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia – and he delivered his usual jobs speech. But this time he added a new section to his speech, given recent developments in the Senate. So he noted that independent economists have projected his American Jobs Act would create nearly two million jobs, and added this – “It turns out one poll found that 63 percent of Americans support the ideas in this jobs bill. So 63 percent of Americans support the jobs bill that I put forward; 100 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against it. That doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
He said those guys voted against you out there, and their alternative idea was odd:
Now, it turns out that the Republicans have a plan, too. I want to be fair. They call – they put forward this plan last week. They called it the ‘Real American Jobs Act.’ The “real one” – that’s what they called it – just in case you were wondering.
So let’s take a look at what the Republican American jobs act looks like. It turns out the Republican plan boils down to a few basic ideas: They want to gut regulations; they want to let Wall Street do whatever it wants. They want to drill more. And they want to repeal health care reform. That’s their jobs plan.
So he laid it out. Republicans want to help industries pollute. Democrats want to put teachers back to work. Republicans want to gut the health care system; Democrats think it won’t help the economy to take Americans’ healthcare coverage away. They want to rig they system for the big boys. It was rather brutal, and Steve Benen comments:
This is precisely why Democrats have been pleading with GOP lawmakers to present a jobs plan – not just because Dems wanted a target, but because they knew the Republican approach would be a joke, especially when compared to the popular, economist-backed Democratic plan.
Republicans assumed they’d at least get a talking point out of this – those big meanies at the White House keep saying there’s no GOP jobs plan, so Republicans will prove them wrong. But this assumption was backwards – Republicans have given Obama a talking point, allowing him to mock the pathetic GOP agenda and use it prove why Republicans lack any and all credibility on the subject.
And then Obama added this:
Remember those independent economists who said our plan would create jobs, maybe as many as almost 2 million jobs, and grow the economy by as much as 2 percent? So one of the same economists that took a look at our plan took a look at the Republican plan, and they said, “Well, this won’t do much to help the economy in the short term – it could actually cost us jobs.” We could actually lose jobs with their plan. So I’ll let you decide which plan is the real American Jobs Act.
The news media doesn’t like to report that independent assessment of the two plans, but there it is – Benen has the details. It seems that Obama can reframe his political future by harnessing the street power out there, to hold the powerful accountable, and maybe he can leverage that into passage of the American Jobs Act.
But he has to deal with Eric Cantor:
The Virginia congressman, the most recent and prominent Republican whipping boy for Democrats, is heading to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to talk about income disparity and how Republicans believe the government could help fix it, an aide said. The speech will zero in on how Washington could help a “a single working mom… a small business owner… and how we make sure the people at the top stay there,” the aide said.
“He’ll talk about the various socioeconomic classes and how Washington should stop pushing different people down the economic ladder and instead can work together to ensure that all people have the ability move up,” the aide said.
Yes, his aide did just say Cantor sees his job as making sure the people at the top stay there. As in Vegas, the house always wins, as it should. And Charles Pierce is amazed:
Ever since the spittle-drenched results of the 2010 midterms swept him into being the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, Cantor has demonstrated a remarkable ability to combine complete ignorance of practically every major issue with the unctuous personality of a third-string maitre d’ at a fourth-string steakhouse…. Lo and behold, the country seems now to disagree with him, and, on Fox News Sunday, Cantor announced his earthshaking discovery that the United States has a problem with income inequality, and that his Republican party is poised to do something about that. Of course, every single proposal to emerge from his caucus would work to use the tax code to cement that inequality from now until Eric Cantor VIII is flunking economics somewhere. …
True, Cantor’s argument is that the Republican plan would allow all the poor people in America to rise to become the owners of their own hedge funds, and is utterly insincere, where it is not complete bullshit. But the fact that the words “income disparity” were spoken by a member of the congressional Republican leadership, in public and without his tongue turning to fire, is proof that the elite pundits are right. The OWS crowd never will affect the country’s politics until it develops a “coherent public message.” Pity.
The sarcasm is a bit heavy there, but when the game is rigged, and it’s the only game in town, such things happen. But what can you say when the game is rigged – and there’s no exit and you can’t walk away? Here it may be time to hop in the car and take a long drive out through the big empty desert, as that will clear your head.
Or maybe it’s time to help the Occupiers change the game, somehow. It’s the only game in town after all.