miércoles, 19 de octubre de 2011

A report from the occupy wall street movement

Playing chess at Zucotti Park
Note the masked 99% guy in the background.

I guess it was just a matter of time. When both Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz take time off from their busy agendas to use the "human microphone" its a clear signal that you need to pay attention to what's happening outside the library. I made some time to take the 2 train to Fulton street and then walk to Zucotti Park. So what is this place? Well it's the closest park in New York City to what is known as Wall Street. It has been receiving a lot of attention in the past few days because of a non-unique movement that is occurring in quite some locations around the globe. Under the motto: "We are the 99%" quite a number of individuals are "occupying" the park to make their voices heard. 

The entrance to the OWS library.

I decided to push the pause button on my recurrent visits to Lehman in preparation of midterms to obtain a personal view of this movement and hopefully develop a personal opinion on what is happening here. So I grabbed my camera and a small notebook and after getting off the subway walked down liberty street to this, now globally renowned, park. My first impressions where of a quite organized open-street market. As I immersed myself into this micro-ecosystem I first came across the Wat-San working group (WatSan is short for Water and Sanitation in the international development jargon). This working group was created after the realization the so many people occupying a location without the proper infrastructure would sooner or later begin to produce to much waste. The working group is regularly cleansing the park. After this interesting encounter I came across a demonstration of electricity production with the use of a bicycle. The front wheel of the bicycle was connected to a power generator and with the help of volunteers a luminescent reflector was being lit. They say never judge a book by its cover but from a first glimpse this was clearly not just a mob dirtying the immaculate city of New York. Diving into the diverse mix of people with innumerable standards stating their more or less clear cause of presence I arrived to the sleeping quarters.  I found a young couple lying on an air mattress surfing the internet, and to my great satisfaction a pair of youngsters playing a quite interesting chess match.  A sign: "Informacion  en Español" drew me to a men probably in his fifties that was only able to explain to me that: "Yo apenas llegue ayer, solo se que somos el 99% y que la asamblea general es alla enfrente en 15 minutos". I kept wandering for 15 more minutes around, observed quite a diverse mix of people, eating or playing cards with signs that read: "Protect Endangered Species", "Veterans" and "Revolution in Progress. Please cooperate", before arriving to the meditation session in the southwestern corner of the park, here a group of people are sitting, trying to meditate in the midst of the curious band of first timers in the park. At 7:15PM, I sat within the the first eco of the human microphone of the general assembly. 

I learned that you need a city permit to use any kind of electronic voice amplifier in the city of new york. Lacking such a permit the crowd at OWS are using a very interesting technique that is known as "the human microphone". It consist on the use of neighboring amplification, where those immediately around you repeat in unison what you are saying, like a chorus of whatever statement you pronounce. The crowd was particularly large, probably due to the presence of Mexican Curious such as myself, and the group on the podium decided that a "double eco" was required. After several "MIC CHECK"... "MIC CHECK"... "MIC CHECK"... and "PLEASE RAISE YOUR HANDS IF YOU CAN HEAR ME"... "PLEASE RAISE YOUR HANDS IF YOU CAN HEAR ME"... "PLEASE RAISE YOUR HANDS IF YOU CAN HEAR ME"...  the assembly started. Struggling to fully understand the different signals to express yourself when lacking the modern speech amplification technologies, I learned some ways to express discontent, acceptance, request for clarification and solicitation of the use of the "Human Mic". My struggle to understand what people were saying was disturbing, I mentioned to some people around me that they should actually deploy a communication work group that should be live transcribing the conversation and put up a screen where they would project the discourse. A nice lad next to me just smiled and pointed his finger over my shoulder and smiled, silently to avoid any disturbance of the "Human Mic". Turning around, I discovered to my great satisfaction that a huge screen had been deployed in an area that had signs that read: "Library" some individuals were actually projecting the speech. I witnessed a quite nice attempt of covering several agenda points of the assembly in an experiment of a: "direct democracy" according to my not-so-silent neighbor. It was interesting to observe how this group of people where having trouble with the mechanism of message delivery.
Live transcripts of the general assembly statements - much more effective than the Human Microphone.

Indeed, in a direct democracy "where everyone has a voice" you can waste a great amount of time with individuals that want to vent, show-off or hijack the human mic for individual purposes or alternate causes. The idea that having the right to speak does not mean that you can say anything that crosses your mind is still hard to understand by some people. It seems OWS still is understanding how to handle this reality.

Nevertheless I did get some clear messages from  this chorus. The main idea was that: "We are the 99%". When I finally decided to leave I had heard personally what these crowd is doing there. This is my very personal understanding from what I heard. Apparently they consider themselves a movement, I was surprised after reading many articles on the internet that the word revolution was never mentioned. On the contrary there was quite some emphasis in the fact that they consider themselves a "Non-violent movement". It was also interesting to hear that against what I've been reading in some papers they do have a clear objective. They state that they are part of the lowest 99th percentile of the american population on the income rank, and that they are there to protest. To protest because they feel that there is a problem, they do not understand how, after the financial collapse of the global economy caused by some very particular practices in the financial markets of Wall Street, the American government has not taken any serious action to secure that the system failure of 2008 does not happen again. They are "outraged" that the 1% of the population owns 25% of the wealth in the United States. They are angry because they feel that the collapse of the financial markets was caused by people from the 1%, that some people from this group actually benefited from this crisis and that the other 99% suffered from their actions.

15O in Times Square.
At first glance it seems that this guys are just ranting against the fact that there exist inequality in the world. When lingering one can realize that they are not just ranting but actually raising a red flag, a red flag to signal that there seems to be an indicator that is out of control. That the allocation of wealth in the american economy has gone beyond a safe threshold. That the wealth distribution between the 99% lower income and the 1% higher income is inefficient. Why do they believe that the allocation (0.99, 0.75| 0.01, 0.25) is inefficient? Because of historical reasons. There is very limited empirical evidence on this subject but the reality is that the last time that the american economy reached this allocation was in the year of 1928 right before the great depression. Based on this undeniable fact, some have decided to express their frustration on the fact that the causes leading to this, possibly, inefficient allocation have not been fully understood and that there are signs that no measures to make sure that this situation is avoided in the future have been set. The underlying message seems to be that they do not believe that a regressive tax system (a tax system where as income increases relative taxing levels decrease) is not reaching the desired outcome of creating more jobs by increasing private investment. 

I have to say that although I still have my reserves on what the OWS movement might develop into in the short term, it did trigger a deep reflexion in my brain. You see, as you can see in my older postings, there seem to be three important trends that should make anyone with at least two neurons worry. Scientific facts have proven that:

More than just inequality the movement appears to include other causes.
1- Human activities around the globe are affecting the natural environment. climate change, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and desertification are some of the more important issues that humanity is observing.

2- Population growth, although 1,000 Million humans suffer from undernourishment we are still growing in numbers towards an estimated peak of 9 to 10.5 thousand million individuals by 2050.

Now loss of natural capital or gains in population levels is not dramatic when observed independently, but when you think that individuals obtain their levels of well-being from transforming natural resources to satisfy their needs things change. If you create a ratio where you put natural wealth in the nominator and amount of population among which this wealth is divided in the denominator then these two trends amplify themselves. If the population is growing and natural wealth is decreasing then the ration is decreasing. This means that the amount of natural resources per capita to be transformed into well-being is becoming smaller and smaller. 

Now there is an additional factor that we have not mentioned yet, this is what economists like to call capital, sometimes they refer to it as machines other times it refers more to private (or public) investment to increase productivity. And here I would like to introduce the third worrying trend. It appears that the transformation of natural capital into societal well-being is catalyzed by capital. When you increase the levels of capital into any production process you increase the levels of output of the process and increase worker productivity. But it seems that in order to optimize the relation between Natural Capital (R), Human Capital (L) and the other capital (K) you require certain key assumptions to be fulfilled. I am no economist so I will not pretend to be versed in the subject, but as I mentioned before it seems from empirical evidence that when 1% of the population holds a relatively large amount of the total wealth GDP tends to plummet and economic growth is hampered.

3- The levels of inequality in the world are high. In the first decade of the XXIst century, 1,000 Million of the population are not being able to eat three meals per day, 3,500 Million people are still directly depending on agriculture to survive, 4,000 Million do not have reliable household access to a modern source of power, 5,000 Million do not have household access to a washing machine. Compare this to the 1,000 Million of people that are able to buy at least one flight per year and you start to realize that there is a high standard distribution in income per capita in the world. Within countries these differences are also troubling. In the USA 1% of the population held 23.7% of the wealth in 2008 and 99% held only 76.3%. With Israel, Chile, Mexico and Turkey, America is having a hard time to keep the American Dream Promise alive.

These three trends are strong signals pointing to the fact that apparently there is something wrong in our incentive system and our socio-economic system. Some symptoms of these three realities can be observed around the world. Climate change, high inequality, loss of ecosystems including important threats to the Amazon basin, piracy in the indian ocean and the recent riots in Europe are just manifestations of our inability to address these three important trends. 
15O in 43rd Street, NYC. 

It seems to me that these occupy movements around the world (some are already calling the 15O a date to remember in world history) are about stressing the leaders of the world to start truly addressing these worrying trends. In each "occupy" movement there seem to be a global objective as well as very local concerns that are related to the particularities in which they are developing. But from my poor understanding it would appear that there is a global demand that says: "Hey guys! Something is not working well, let's make sure that we are truly addressing the important issues that we are facing". The call seems to request politicians, corporate leaders and in general the civil society to solving effectively and efficiently the global economic system to change the business as usual grim future scenario.

Chanting: "This is a peaceful demonstration"
In the case of the occupy wall street movement important personalities have expressed interesting opinions about the why's and what's of their protest. According to them the problem is that the current governmental regulation of the financial sector in the USA has led to a situation where  "profits have been privatized and losses socialized" - Joseph Stiglitz - Nobel prize in economics. According to Paul Krugman, respected economist that writes a famous NYT column called "the conscience of a liberal", the 99% are protesting because no measures to "prohibit banks backed by federal guarantees from engaging in risky speculation". The problem according to him is that some of the creators of the great 2008 recession " have paid no price for their actions, their institutions were bailed by the taxpayers. The current situation is that the outcomes from flipping a coin are: Heads: they win the benefits - Tails the 99% loose their share". Other quotes form his blog are that "it's not just the vast wealth accumulated by these guys but how it was earned and how it is being used" and that it's "not about criticizing capitalism but the lack of free markets". Jeffrey Sachs went down to Zucotti park and used the Human Microphone, he states in the hufftington post that it is normal to see this kind of movements rise when: "the 12,000 wealthiest households in the USA dispose of the same aggregated income than the poorest 24 million households in the country". He also finds the fact that: "50% of he members of the american congress belong to the wealthiest 1% slice of the population". Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute stated that these people are right to be frustrated because of the "bail out of the institutions that helped create the economic crisis" and that this kind of movements should we expected when we think that "hourly earnings (adjusted to inflation) in america has stagnated for the past 50 years while CEO earnings have increased 300% since the 1990s". 
Revolution in progress, thank you for your cooperation.

The chaotic expression of this movement still requires some important logistics but I found the following quote in an interesting article stating that: "There is no real danger posed by too many messages as long as the central message remains clear and undiluted". 

When you actually see a nobel prize winner (again professor Stiglitz) presenting himself to Zucotti Park to explain why the latest public policy related to Wall Street has allowed this situation of profit privatization and socialization of looses and clearly saying that: "that is not capitalism, that is not a free market economy, that is a distorted economy and if we continue on that path, we won't succeed in growing and we won't succeed in creating a just society" you start to think about the legitimacy of the ideas expressed in lower Manhattan.

Peaceful sweeping of the street by the police.
To conclude this post I have to say that I have done some research and it appears that given my current monthly income endowment I am not within the wealthiest one percent. If I am not within the wealthiest 1% the  it must be that I am also part of the 99%. If this is true then when they say "We are the 99%" I should probably feel called upon. At least I feel the responsibility of understanding what they are saying, and by they I guess that I should be saying we. But I am a skeptic, I cannot rush to conclusions yet. Let's see how this global movements develop. Let's hope that they manage to stay calm when face to face with NYPD as the days pass.

I have just very recently turned my head to look at the occupy global movements, I was surprised that the viral contagion around the world has also hit my home country, in Mexico people gathered around the Monument to the Revolution (yes we have a huge structure in the center of the megalopolis called like that) mexicans gathered to raise their own voice. Their message was a bit harder to understand from the youtube/distance, it seems from the little I saw that they still haven't been able to grasp on the modernization of the issues discussed. We are now talking of transitioning into a sustainable development paradigm, a low-carbon green economy where inequality is kept within a certain efficient threshold. My fellow mexican are still using the big words: "Capitalism versus Communism" I hope that this movements help them understand that we are now in the XXIst century.

I appears there are many "Indignados" around the world that are still struggling to understand why they are paying the broken dishes of the international trading of toxic assets exported by american banks during the months previous to the great recession. 
Be creative. 

One important message I want to tell these new dreamers of a "better world" is that they need to fully understand that direct democracy might mean that everyone has the right to raise their voice, but that the right to raise your voice is also a big responsibility and that using this right irresponsibly also leads to inefficiencies and even to a loss of functionality of such a system. It seems that we need to understand that raising your voice is like driving. Everyone can obtain a license if they show they are worthy of such a right, misuse this right and you might get your license revoked for a time. So direct democracy does not mean that anyone can say whatever they want in a disordered manner but that in a participative democracy there are some very important self-restraining measures to take into consideration, especially when you have to rely on a Human Microphone to express your ideas.
Meditation session.

But the most important message is that they need to remember of Non-Violence. This is the key to their movement. Forget it and you will loose any support from the moderates of the world that are today listening to what they are saying.

Remember that the key is non-violence.
So be creative, no one really knows all the answers! Keep meditating, keep playing chess, keep going to the library, believe in the power of positive action and keep anger and fear under control. We probably need a change in our value system, we probably need a more real democracy, a more real capitalism, we are probably optimizing the wrong indicators but this doesn't mean that all the models are wrong.

I leave you with a quote from a Mexican 15O protester I found on youtube: "Ora si que ojala que podamos ir contruyendo un mundo mas chido"...

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