To Occupied to Occupy

One afternoon the other week my office was dismissed early from work due to unfounded fears that the Occupy Wallstreet movement was planning to shut down the NYC subway system. Now for my French readers the shutting down of a part of the city’s transit system due to a strike or a protest is a regular occurrence that provokes some grumbling, some shrugs, and, usually, begrudging support. In New York, however, it seemed to be provoke a lot of fear and confusion.  As one of my Facebook friends smartly commented, “Don’t the protesters know that the 1% does not take the subway? They take taxis, sheesh” (or have private cars).

This got me to thinking about my (largely unexpressed) thoughts on the Occupy movement. First and foremost, this fall I’m far too occupied to participate, unfortunately. In this terrible economy I made the decision to go back to university for my master’s degree and continue to work full time. When I began in the fall of 2009 I had the vain hope that by the time I finished the economy would be improved and I would be able to find a leadership position in an arts organization that pays a living wage. Still waiting on that one. However, this leaves me very little time for anything that is not work, school or a pressing concern related to my life or one of the many projects I have going.

But more seriously and to the point: what do I think of the Occupy movement? And isn’t contesting the policies that large corporations, banks, lobbyists and the US government supported that got us into this economic mess more important than my selfish concerns? In short, yes, they are, but…

Overall, I support the Occupy Wallstreet movement wholeheartedly. I think that their biggest victory has been to move forward and reframe the political and media discourse in the United States and world-wide. The movement has brought critique of the United States’ unequal, inefficient and unethical economic, labor and education policies to a mainstream audience. It has brought a more progressive tone to debates around the role of government in the economy and private life, which is a real relief after the rise of the Tea Party movement last year.

For me personally it is very heartening to see this style of protest come back in the United States after it the anti-globalization and anti-war movements (both of which I participated in) were squashed by Bush and the general post-9/11 political climate.  It’s also disgusting (and sadly unsurprising) to see how power continues to react when threatened, whether those are police on a California college campus or on the streets of New York.

However, as a student (soon to be graduate!) of public policy, the Occupy Wallstreet movement has not articulated any concrete list of policy goals. This is a strength, because it allows the movement to appeal to a broad range of people. After all, if you are claiming to represent the 99 percent (or even the 95% or the 90%) that is a huge range of people and opinions. However, this is also a weakness because it prevents the movement from gaining political support in a way that laws can be enacted and policies can be changed.

The Occupy movement has also gained much attention because it is led and fueled by young people. It has captured the imagination of highly educated people who have found no gainful employment due to the economy and have every right to be frustrated. Of course, organized labor, activists of all stripes, veterans and a diverse crowd has also joined in the movement. Many people involved in their early twenties are coming of age politically through their participation. I remember the feeling of being 19 to 22 and protesting, feeling like it could radically shift the way the world was organized. I do not write this condescendingly when I saw that protest is a right of passage and an inalienable right. However, many “occupiers” did not experience the way the Bush administration squashed opposition to the war in Iraq or debate around any number of his policies. I feel in many ways the institutional memory between US protest movements is short (or nonexistent) and the Occupy protestors are learning lessons that those protesting for years, between the 1950s and the 2000s, had to learn again and again.

I think what I feel is important to note is that in the United States we live in an economic and governmental that is incapable of radical change. It was set up that way and that has only become more entrenched. Do I think this is right? No, I think it’s an incredible inefficient, undemocratic system, but I also think that to retain any sense of democracy it will only change gradually. This is again why I am grateful for Occupy Wallstreet for re-framing  political debate, which Nicholas Kristoff wrote about eloquently in the New York Times.

To shift the conversation in the media and the mind of the general public away from “Will their camp be cleared again? Will the protest movement survive the winter? Who are these hippes?” it is high time that Occupy Wallstreet (even though it is leaderless, I know) put forth some policy alternatives for debate and discussion. This may mean that less than 99% of people support what they are trying to accomplish, but it will also increase their changes of having a lasting impact on our policy and not just our political imagination. It’s also important for the movement to grasp some political and economic realities of the political process in the US. Paul Krugman and Adam Davidson have a few important points to consider.

These economic times have produced a lot of uncertainty, a lot of hardship, and a lot of anger. It’s important to have a public place to go with those feelings and to find a place of hope and inspiration. However, it’s also important to construct sustainable survival strategies, to help people in small ways every day, to promote equity throughout society, and to think about economic and personal innovation despite the system we live in. That’s the role I’ve carved out for myself working in education and the arts. It’s not for everyone, but it’s what works for me. It’s small, it’s quiet, but I believe in it and that’s what I will continue to push for, day-in, day-out.

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Things That Make Me Go “Argh”

"Winning a bike race"

I enjoy biking and public goods like the shore parkway bikelane, a relatively clean New York Harbor, and the Verrazzano bridge (even though bikes and pedestrians cannot go on it)

It’s been a long time since there’s been anything “political” on this blog. I’ve honestly stayed away from it, letting my politics play out in my real life and letting the blog be for posting pictures of pretty things that I find and snapshots and reflections from my adventures near and far. But these past few weeks I’ve found myself the maddest I’ve been about politics since George W. Bush was in office! There’s a few big issues that are sticking in my craw, but I feel that they can all be understood via the prism of economic analysis.

First, the issues:

The lawsuit against NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan over the (amazing!) bike lane on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn and general backlash against bike lanes, bikers, and traffic calming measures in New York in general. Never mind that traffic accidents are down, speeding is down on Prospect Park West, bike ridership is up, and business has increased in areas where traffic calming measures have been put into place, such as Broadway.

The backlash against NPR and the move by the federal government to remove all federal funding from NPR and PBS. Despite Republicans constant whining that NPR does not represent them fairly or give them enough air time, NPR often features more republican interviews than democrats and is really one of the few truly balanced news options available for the US. And never mind that PBS is the only channel on television that offers intelligent, non-hyperbolic analysis of the evolving situation in the Middle East (thank you, Charlie Rose).

The move to severely reduce funding for the National Endowment for the Arts on the federal level, and the New York State Council on the Arts on the state level. Yes, we have a deficit, but is cutting funding to the arts, which provides jobs and enriches our culture (in fact, defines it) worth the benefit and savings? I say no.

The move by the federal government to remove all funding from Planned Parenthood. Barefoot and in the kitchen, here we come.

Excuse my sarcasm, but others have done a much better job outlining the situation than I. The question on my mind lately has been, “Where is the coordinated, energetic movement to support and protect these important public assets?” Yes, there’s been campaigns to write your representatives, and some nifty protests, but not widespread, public support. “Why?” I asked myself, “When many people benefit from these resources.” Fortunately, there’s economics.

Basically, it goes back to the theory of public goods versus private goods. A good is public when anyone can access it (as in they are “not excludable”) and one persons use does not diminish another person’s use. Rival goods are when anyone can access it, but a person’s use of that good takes away from another person’s enjoyment of that good. Economist Jonathan Gruber states that most goods we think of as “public goods” are really “impure public goods,” because they are not fully non-excludable or non-rival. ANYWAY… economic theory goes that people undervalue what they can get for free or don’t have to directly pay for. While we all pay for public services like roads, parks, and libraries via our taxes, we tend to undervalue them because we are not directly paying for that service.

Then there’s the problem of a “free rider,” someone who doesn’t pay at all for these services (as in “public goods”) and enjoys their benefits. NPR is a good example. I’m a total free rider. I haven’t given to WNYC in about 4 years, but I listen everyday! Bike lanes are another example. I have absolutely benefited from the work of Janet Sadik-Khan and the Department of Transportation to make the city a more bike and pedestrian friendly place. I just joined Transportation Alternatives last year to put my money where my wheels and feet are, but mostly I just took for granted that things would get “better” for those of us non-drivers.

So my theory is that most people who enjoy services that tend to be championed by the democrats (but really cross party lines and have nothing to do with political parties really) are free riders who enjoy the benefits without thinking about the cost. In addition, people like drivers who are angry that their parking has been reduced by a bike lane and that they can no longer drive 50 miles an hour down a city street are not thinking about the fact that public resources like city streets can be rival in consumption and that their use of streets takes away from the ability of others to use it. In addition, drivers and parkers are “free riders” because they don’t think of cost of streets and parking and when they are asked to bear even a little bit of it (such as in Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal for downtown Manhattan) they freak out and bring a lawsuit.

This also relates to theories of positive and negatives “externalities”- the additional social benefit (positive) or cost (negative) generated by a good or activity. I would say that bike lanes are a positive externality and thus undervalued, and driving is a negative externality, which means that society bears a cost for driving (through air pollution, dangerous and congested streets, etc.) that is not borne by the drivers themselves.

I was totally vindicated because a writer for the Economist came up with almost the exact same theory in respect to the bike lanes! I am so grateful for the Economist I will certainly renew my subscription!

But my message is this: Think about the benefit you receive from the things you value, whether it be safe streets, quality news coverage, reproductive health and choice, and a vibrant arts community, and think about how you can support those. It need not be with money, but think about the opportunity cost here: when we are talking about public goods, whatever we give up, be it our time, money or energy, we get back even more than we could possibly put a price on.