John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Occupying forces

I've seen a lot of comments on Twitter recently about the "occupy" campaigns. In particular, there's an Occupy London campaign going on at the moment, which seems to be a direct response to the Occupy Wall Street campaign in the USA. Both groups refer to themselves as "the 99%", as distinct from the 1%.

I freely admit that I don't really understand much about economics. I'd like to, but I'm not sure where to start; my provisional plan is to go through some of the AS level textbooks. (I bought a copy of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" several years ago, but it was a bit too heavy going for me.) I think that there are problems with our current system, e.g. the idea that paying off debt is good for an individual but bad for society. However, I'm not sure how to improve it. One approach would be to hack the whole thing down to something I can understand, e.g. a barter economy, and there are people who advocate that type of freeconomy. However, that would be a drastic change, and would introduce new problems, so I think it's best to stick with the inertia of the current system until we have something better to replace it.

The "occupy" groups apparently feel strongly about this subject, so I'm interested to hear what they have to say. Unfortunately, I've struggled to get any kind of clear information about what they are actually trying to achieve, so I think that the London protest is basically a waste of time.

Let's start with this 99% business. The About page for Occupy London says: "After huge bail-outs and in the face of unemployment, privatisation and austerity we still see profits for the rich on the increase. But we are the 99%, and on October 15th our voice unites across gender and race, across borders and continents as we call for equality and justice for all." So, what does that mean? They don't define the term.

Doing a Google search for 99%, here's the first page of results:

  1. The 99 Percent - It's not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen. This seems to be some kind of management consultancy website, which probably isn't what the protesters have in mind!

  2. The 99, the world's first superheroes based on Islamic culture and society. Again, probably not relevant here.

  3. Wikipedia article about the year 99. Nope.

  4. Wikipedia article about the number 99. No again.

  5. 99% campaign. This sounds relevant, but it's not - it's talking about the vast majority of young people who don't commit crimes.

  6. IMDB page about the film 99. Not relevant here.

  7. We Are the 99 Percent. This does look relevant, and it has reciprocal links to the "Occupy Wall Street" site, but it doesn't have much useful information. I'll elaborate on this below.

  8. Tower Defense Games. This has nothing to do with the protests; I think it only shows up in the list because of game ratings.

  9. Toy Story 3 at Rotten Tomatoes. Again, nothing to do with this protest.

  10. Welcome to 99p Stores! Not relevant.

  11. Daily Mail article: Occupy Wall Street protesters: The 99% aren't all unemployed liberals. This is actually relevant.

Here's a general tip: if you want people to understand your campaign then provide the relevant information yourself. It will also help if you can avoid a generic phrase that's used in several other contexts. There is a theory that people shouldn't expect to be spoon-fed, i.e. it's my job to find the information rather than their job to teach me. (I've often seen that school of thought on feminism websites.) Personally, I disagree. When you run a protest/campaign/whatever, you're competing for my attention with all the idiots who think that the moon landings were faked and that the American government blew up the twin towers. If you can't convince me that you're credible then I'll ignore you.

Only two of those search results were at all relevant to these protests. The tumblr blog is basically a list of case studies: each post involves a photo of a person and a brief description of their financial woes, normally including the line "I am the 99%". However, the website doesn't really define the "99%" term anywhere. Who does it include? There's a brief blurb that says: "We are getting nothing while the other 1 percent is getting everything. We are the 99 percent." I assume there's some hyperbole going on here, since I wouldn't put myself into either category. I should also point out that the slogan they're using is fundamentally stupid. One person cannot comprise the vast majority of the population! It would (probably) be more accurate to say "I am part of the 99%"; illiteracy doesn't impress me.

I'm not a fan of the Daily Mail, and I don't regard it as an accurate source of information. However, it does at least offer a definition of the term: "the 99 per cent of Americans who are not classified as the country's wealthiest one per cent". Unfortunately it doesn't go into any detail about how this classification works.

Going back to the "Occupy London" site, there's a comment which links to the Wall Street Journal blog: Top 1% Increased Their Share of Wealth in Financial Crisis This seems to be where it all stems from, and people are divided up based on their "share of national wealth". I realise I've been a bit long-winded here, but there's more to this than just a detective hunt. For one thing, this breakdown refers to the USA specifically. That may make sense for the Wall Street protesters, but I can't find any evidence that we have a similar breakdown in the UK, nor can I see any reason why that would be the case. This implies that the UK protesters are using a phrase without understanding what it means, which undermines their credibility. Even in the US example, I think it's a false split. According to the WSJ blog, the bottom 90% of the population held 25% of the national wealth at the end of 2009. This implies that the top 10% of the population held the other 75% of the wealth. So, why focus on 99% vs 1% rather than 90% vs 10%? Do people actually know which percentile they're in? Also, does anyone have figures that are more up to date than the ones from 2009?

It may also be useful to look at this from a global perspective. Totem have a poster on their website about this: If you have food in your fridge... According to that: "If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world." I'd guess that this applies to most of the people on the "we are the 99%" blog, so should they rename themselves to "we are the top 25%" or would that conflict with their message? However, I'm also not sure where these figures came from, or whether they are still accurate. The definition of wealth seems to change over time, e.g. freezers weren't common in the 1940s so people would get blocks of ice delivered to their houses. Nowadays I'd expect most people to have a freezer at home, or at least a freezer compartment in their fridge, but that's relatively modern: my grandparents didn't have that when they were young, so this has changed within living memory. I've tried to find more information about that online, but all I can find are lots of other people sharing the same poster. This is the problem with campaigns like this: they turn the internet into a giant echo chamber, and style takes precedence over substance. I wrote something similar in August (Misleading statistics) in response to @InjusticeFacts putting out a stream of unverified "facts" from anonymous sources.

Moving on, let's look at what the protesters want. There's a cartoon on Facebook which shows a reporter ignoring all the placards and saying "They don't really seem to know why they are protesting!" However, even in that cartoon, a lot of the signs are vague, e.g. "We are 99%" or "The 1% broke it - now fix it!" Regarding the UK protest, the clearest thing I can find is their Initial statement. However, it's still quite vague.

For instance, they say: "We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis." What does that mean? I remember when BCCI (the Bank of Credit and Commerce International) crashed in 1991. Anyone who had money in a bank account there couldn't get at it; they had to wait their turn with all the other people who were owed money. If the government hadn't bailed out the high street banks, would the same thing have happened to their customers? If so, would that really have been a good thing, or would it have penalised the "99%" (sic)? Also, I could be wrong about this, but I believe that the bailout was a purchase/investment rather than a gift. In other words, the state now owns those banks, and we should get the money back from them in due course.

The protestors' statement also says: "We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable." Looking at the Treasury's Spending Review 2010, it's intended to reduce the deficit, but it won't eliminate it altogether. That means that the national debt will keep increasing, i.e. we will (collectively) still be going further and further into debt, just not quite as fast as before. This seems like a fundamentally bad idea to me. If the protestors disagree, I'd be happy to hear their point of view, but "Let's spend money we don't have" isn't a very compelling argument.

Coming back to Twitter, here's a tweet from @OccupyLSX earlier today: "#OccupyLSX Act II: Our second site at Finsbury Square EC1 is now occupied. London is ours." What does that mean, exactly? Are they now claiming control of the entire county? I'm in the London borough of Croydon, and I haven't noticed any difference down here, so this just seems like empty posturing, which dents their credibility.

Going further back, @jdpoc wrote: "British Public ... Ignores Bankers thefts, NHS stripping & Vodafone tax avoidance. BUT Flips when Facebook changes its layout. ... Explain." Honestly, I think it's quite simple. I'm not an accountant, and I don't know what tax Vodaphone should or shouldn't have paid; all I know is that "tax avoidance" is legal (exploiting loopholes) whereas "tax evasion" is illegal. Similarly, I don't understand all the implications of the proposed changes to the NHS. However, if I see that a website has a new layout then I can understand that and make an informed choice about whether I like it or not. Personally I don't have strong feelings about Facebook, but if other people do then I won't mock them for it.

Looking at the protesters who are "occupying" London, it's possible that they understand macro-economics a lot better than I do. However, I haven't seen any evidence of that, so this just seems like a simplistic exercise in finding someone else to blame.
Tags: economics, journalism

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