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Why Occupy Wall Street Won't Make a Difference

By       Message Bob Burnett     Permalink
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Occupy Wall Street is getting positive reviews and is viewed favorably by most Americans.  Does OWS  indicate the US political process has hit bottom and Americans are ready for radical change?

Recent polls indicate that Americans view Occupy Wall Street favorably.  Poll respondents have a more favorable view of protestors than they do of Washington politicians or denizens of Wall Street.  What counts most is public sentiment on key issues and here, too, OWS seems to be winning.  The most recent CBS News/New York Times poll asked: "Do you feel that the distribution of money and wealth in this country is fair, or do you feel that the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among more people?" 66 percent of respondents answered yes.

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Nonetheless, it's one thing to believe that money and wealth is distributed unfairly or that government is broken or that the US is spiraling downward, and quite another thing to say "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"  Are American voters -- the 99 percent -- at the point where they are willing to take to the streets and join Occupy Wall Street?   No.

Americans may be disgusted with the way things are going, but they're not in enough pain to get up out of their easy chair and take action.  That's the conclusion VANITY FAIR contributing editor Michael Lewis reached in his article "California and Bust."  Lewis considered "the pressure point in American finance: the fear that American cities would not pay back the money they had borrowed."  "The states that had enjoyed the biggest boom were now facing the biggest busts."  Not surprisingly, the biggest problem is California.  Lewis discussed California with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the mayor of almost bankrupt San Jose, and the city manager of Vallejo that declared bankruptcy in 2008.

Mayor Chuck Reed remarked that San Jose suffers from "service-level insolvency," adding, "I think we suffered from a series of mass delusions."  UCLA neuroscientist Peter Whybrow observed, "We've created physiological dysfunction.  We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of society."  Lewis concluded that Californians "want services and not to pay for them."

California's situation reminded Lewis of " Bernard Madoff's investment business. Anyone who looked at Madoff's returns and understood them could see he was running a Ponzi scheme; only one person who had understood them bothered to blow the whistle, and no one listened to him."

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Occupy Wall Street is a collective exercise in whistleblowing.  Judging from the number of ordinary folks stepping forward to describe how the American system has failed them OWS  is asking us to recognize that the US economy has become a form of Ponzi scheme -- where the wealthy 1 percent take money from the 99 percent with promises of returns that do not materialize.  Sadly many of the 99 percent have been brainwashed to not listen to the grim truth.

Americans entered the twenty-first century hypnotized by three basic tenets of Reagonomics: 1. Greed is good: helping the rich get richer would help everyone else, 2. The free market is your friend: global markets were inherently self correcting and therefore there was no need for government regulation; and 3. Government is your enemy: trust the market.

Then came two calamities.  On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States.  The message from Washington to the 99 percent was "we've got this handled; go on with your lives; don't worry, keep shopping."  Then on September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers Investment Bank filed for bankruptcy triggering a financial meltdown.  Once again the message from Washington to the 99 percent was "we've got this handled; go on with your lives; don't worry, keep shopping."

The Reagan era sold the Ponzi scheme with its dogma that unrestrained self-interest ultimately benefitted everyone.  But the Bush Administration took the same magical thinking to an absurd new level with its assertion that the US could engage in two wars and not pay for them.  Then in 2008 the Bush White House told the biggest fib of all "we can't hold any of the big banks responsible for the financial meltdown, because that would be bad for the economy, so we will bail them out but you, the average citizen, won't be affected."

More than a decade of dreadful leadership has produced the current crisis: the US is broken financially and politically.  But during the same period many Americans were lured into a "cult" that preached: "self-indulgence is good," "government is bad," "debt is good," and "You can enjoy government services without paying for them."  While many of the 99 percent feel the current system is unfair they're stuck in a state of conditioned helplessness.  As a consequence, they won't be able to take action until they are deprogrammed.

Occupy Wall Street is a step in the right direction, but it won't produce radical change until most of the 99 percent take control of their lives.  That's asking a lot.  It's unlikely to happen until conditions in the US get much worse.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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