John Langmore on ‘Occupy’

Thursday Forums: ‘Occupy’

 John Langmore

 As we all know, the principal catchphrase of the Wall St Occupiers was ‘We are the 99 percent’.  The protestors gathered in Zuccotti Park near Wall St did not focus on a demand: they were apparently more concerned about process, a new, full equitable and participatory form of democracy.  One participant said ‘Its an outcry, pure and simple, an outcry that has cut through miles of cynicism’.   Part of another’s declaration was that ‘We are here to end corporate influence on government.’  Obama commented that he thought ‘it expresses the frustrations that American people feel’.

I spoke with three of the Occupiers while in New York in December.  They were articulate and impressive but made clear that there was no agreed program of action.  So we have to be careful of writing our own preoccupations on the movement.  But there is no doubt that the opinions already mentioned express many of their concerns, nor that the enormities of inequities of income and wealth in the US were a major cause of the resentments of the 99 per cent.  The Washington Post calculated that in 2010 the top 1 per cent of US income earners had average annual incomes of at least half a million dollars and had an average wealth of $14 m. 

The Economist published figures on the US last week which show that ‘income gaps reached extremes last experienced in the late 1920s.  The top 10 per cent of American earners brought in 46 percent of the nation’s [pay] in 2007’ just before the GFC.  These huge inequities have occurred because between 1993 and 2010 over half of all real income gains in American flowed to the top 1%.    

We are all aware of the same types of trends in Australia.  Even after the GFC, in 2011, all the CEOs of the five largest banks were paid over $8.5m. (The Age, 13 March 2012)  Compare that with your own annual income and see how you feel.

Within our own society there are also many other causes of a deep sense of injustice, insecurity and anxiety.  These include environmental destruction, severe under-employment, exclusion of minorities and the disadvantaged and family violence.  Globally the future is threatened by climate change, the difficulty of multilateral cooperation, major impediments to nuclear disarmament, and the continuing impoverishment of half of humankind. 

            The ideology of market liberalism is perhaps the most powerful force underlying the neglect of these issues in Australia and other English-speaking rich countries.  For more than 30 years the dominant Australian political narrative has been about maximising personal income and increasing consumption.  Governments and large numbers of people have measured national success by the speed of economic growth: personal success by the size of houses or television.  Strengthening competitiveness – in both the economy and education – has been said to be the key goal of public policy.  Cutting public spending has been advocated by the business lobbyists as a necessary requirement.  Acquisitiveness has been applauded and rewarded more than altruism.  Market liberalism has been a widespread religion amongst economists and business people.

The global financial crisis should have blown apart the self-interested claims of the money marketeers, corporate managers and other market fundamentalists. Market liberalism has been shown to be profoundly flawed yet it is still affirmed and taught by most business people and economists.   

Wise economic policy enabled Australia to avoid the GFC, yet few lessons have been learnt.  The principal goal of macroeconomic policy this year is to return to budgetary surplus, rather than to reduce the underutilisation of over 12 per cent of the labour force and to take modest steps to improving services. 

Wellbeing as an alternative to income maximisation

So is any alternative possible?  If we are really a democracy the answer is yes, because the survey evidence suggests that a substantial majority of people would prefer a scenario focused on family, community, equity and harmony with the environment to one focused on individual wealth and economic growth.  Surveys have repeatedly shown that the majority prefer improvements in health care, primary and secondary education and environmental protection to further tax cuts.  There is clearly widespread hostility to the explosive growth in the pay of corporate executives. 

Most people acknowledge ‘too much emphasis is put on improving the economy and too little on creating a better society’.   There is widespread and growing recognition that as well as income, well-being also depends on many other factors.  Quality of life is more than the standard of living.  Our happiness depends on such qualities as loving and being loved, security, autonomy, productive work, enjoyable leisure, achievements and harmony.  The goal of economic security has a vital place in any framework for public policy, but so do seeking to improve the quality of life and the common good as core public policy goals. 

A growing number of analysts, commentators, scholars and concerned community organisations are suggesting that happiness is a more complete indicator of well-being than income.  Research in many countries has led to the conclusion that personal happiness depends principally on seven factors: family relationships, economic security, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and cultural and spiritual vitality.   

Working for the common good is a fundamental aspiration of those seeking happiness and well-being for all.

            Of course such happiness or wellbeing is the result of the way each of us lives our lives and governments can do little about some of those centrally important dimensions like the quality of relationships.  But even there, local, state and federal governments have the capacity to adopt supportive programs which are designed to facilitate strengthening of friendships and community solidarity.  Sporting facilities and parks, community centres and spaces for NGOs are obvious examples.

So as a description of an overarching orientation for public policy, improvement of capacity for happiness and well-being makes sense.  The way to make such an orientation operational is through adoption of policies that contribute towards those ends.  These must include access to high quality education and health services, opportunities for paid work for all who want it, adequate income support for those who cannot work, stable climate, gender equality, equity in the distribution of income and so on.  These policies can be integrated and mutually supportive, for strategies are available which improve efficiency, equity and sustainability simultaneously. 

Increasing income tax rates on high incomes would be an appropriate start.  Another readily manageable means of reducing the dominant power of international financial markets would be introduction of a currency transaction tax.  France plans to do this: the EU is advocating it.  It is only sites of financial power such as the City of London and Wall St which are passionately opposed.  The present Australian Government is also opposing such a progressive tax, yet if Swan were serious in his critique of the super-rich he too would be planning to introduce a Financial Transactions Tax. 

Foreign Policy and Global Peace and Justice

The domestic goals of improving wellbeing and the common good also apply to foreign policy and global issues.  For example, it is vital to build up Australia’s capacity for domestic and international peaceful conflict resolution.  Peaceful resolution of conflict is a necessary condition for wellbeing in all countries. 

All UN Member States have an obligation to attempt to become peacemakers.  It is far more cost effective to resolve disputes peacefully where possible than to try and settle them through war.  The cost of mediation is a tiny fraction of the cost of military intervention. The possibility of minimising death and destruction through concerted peacemaking and peacekeeping is a strikingly attractive possibility wherever it can be achieved. So the humanitarian and financial incentives of peaceful conflict resolution are enormous. 

It is not utopian to imagine that Australia could make significant moves in strengthening multilateral engagement, reducing provocative and wasteful military spending, inaugurating official work on peaceful conflict resolution, adopting official programs aimed at nuclear disarmament and being more active in support of development. Such policies are in our national interest.

Conclusion

We know that the relative spaciousness of our land, the quality of our services and the security of our lives makes us highly privileged.  Yet, these privileges are unfairly distributed.  Major reforms are needed to strengthen equity, inclusiveness, kindliness and vitality.  Yet a major weakness of current public discourse is the neglect of the extent of our privileges and the even greater neglect of the capacity these privileges give us for contributing to the global common good.  ‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required’. 

langmore@unimelb.edu.au

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