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Occupy yourself first

I’m conflicted about the Wall Street protests. On the one hand, I wholly agree with the protesters that corporate power in government is out of control and that too much wealth is controlled by too few. On the other hand, I don’t think enough has been said about our own complicity in allowing this current crisis to arise.

I am the progeny of those who grew up during the Great Depression. My parents and their parents lived in an age when people knew that the world could fall apart. Their values were ingrained with frugality, modesty and moderation. My generation and several that have followed have moved steadily away from those values. We saw an economy that always grew. Housing and land were always a good investment. Money accrued easily through the magic of compound interest and that money was meant to be spent.

Corporations became instruments of the public good. Wages always climbed and benefits were good. We encouraged corporate growth because of the material things it could provide to us. Then something happened.

I have not yet come to grips with what that “something” was, but it led to people seeing themselves less as members of a productive and stable society and more to seeing ourselves as individual consumers. Corporate interests, of course, were there to take advantage of that change and in large part drove the process, but they were not the sole driver. We became consumers because we wanted to.

We no longer compare our lives to those of our friends and neighbors. Our examples have become those of us who are the best consumers. We no longer want security and stability. We want the shoes that Snooki wears. We want the pickup driven by Brett Favre and we have to have the $1,000 fly rod used by Robert Redford, or the latest tablet computer. As we align ourselves more with the examples of great consumerism, we feel less empathy for neighbors and those with whom we once shared our values. Spending on improving community and culture (taxes) becomes a burden on our ability to accrue more and is therefore shunned. We pay less in taxes as a percentage of our economy than any industrialized nation and yet we protest that burden.

The driving force behind corporations is profit maximization. There is nothing new about that. The motivation behind business has always been greed, but our unrelenting need for more drives corporate interests to supply that need and sets the example for them to follow. Corporations found that they could increase profits by paying workers less and real wages have fallen for decades. Retirement benefits and health care cost corporations money and thus they were reduced or eliminated. That strategy boomeranged on business as workers found themselves with less money and unable to buy many of the products those same workers produced. So, we created consumer credit. Now we can buy more while still having less wealth.

We have created a global culture of individual want and need. Where we were once concerned with social issues, we have become a society of individuals who are more interested in fulfilling individual desires. We attempt to substitute purchasing power for happiness. What and how we consume defines who we are, not whether or not we have a functioning society. We occupy our streets or we join corporate tea cliques in protest, but our protests are unfocused and driven by the latest technology on the latest i-phone with must-have apps that come to us through billions of dollars of corporate advertising that we pay for through our solitary purchasing power.

We cannot reform society by ending corporate greed. We must end corporate greed by reforming our society. We must protest abuses of power whenever they occur, but we must recognize that we are the ultimate source of that power and our protests will only succeed when we are united in our dissent and consistent in our message.

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