Occupy this and that…

Occupying in the name of?

Couple of weeks ago I was touring Japan and focused on my mission to follow the footsteps of historical characters Murasaki Shikibu and William Adams. I read the newspapers regularly but skimmed past the stories about the Occupy Wall Street movement in favour of the radiation and renewable energy stories which are not surprisingly a particular preoccupation in Japan at the moment and also denote a very hopeful shift in priorities. I did note however the point was made that the Occupy Wall Street movement had attracted support from a broader community and not just the usual anti-establishment types. Unfortunately the sloganeering of the “counter-culture” was visible and every bit as predictable and mind numbing as that of the garbage-peddling corporate “establishment” these types convince themselves they’re in the process of toppling. It is a sad irony that sometimes a cause’s impact can be diluted or even diminished through a constituency that differentiates itself, marking it’s arrogance toward others and thus switching off the very people who need to be won over in order to advance the cause. Getting around calling ourselves “The 99%” demonstrates the same type of conceit John Howard did whenever he liked to tell us he spoke for “the silent majority”, only this latest slogan is laughably implausable (and yes I know the figure originates from the distribution of wealth but used in the context it is there’s an undeniable double-entendre). A more accurate guess would be that approximately 99% of people have not asked to be spoken for and a good number of them would resent it.

The cause spread to other cities in the US then to other parts of the world, including my country, and wherever it’s gone the unfortunate tang it leaves is just more of the old counter-culture routine that never got anywhere in the past. So we could be forgiven for speculating it will run out of puff, get bored and eventually go home having said and achieved essentially nothing new.

Out there in the suburbs however mums and dads and other plain people are among those calling for change. Neither the mass media’s penchant for 5-10 second grabs nor the counter-culture’s penchant for Che Guevara flags and indelicate slogans distills or articulates exactly what it is that has ordinary average folks riled up.

In my country we’ve mostly not yet felt the brunt of the global financial crisis. We are aware of the GFC in a broad sense but it’s hard to get a feel for it through the TV news. I have friends and family in the US however and the insecurity and loss of affluence is palpable, more than just a feeling. It manifests itself in so many ways in daily life – reduced activity and income at work, shuffling jobs to stay afloat, the dream of a higher education for your kid that seemed a real possibility a couple of years ago now a topic to be avoided, even postage to loved ones overseas suddenly prohibitively expensive. Real tangible every day stuff that disappoints, saddens and astounds people. Here in Oz I do sense a growing commentary that the cost of living is becoming noticeably more stressful.

On the macro-economic front developments in Europe are the big news currently. Back in 2008 when key players in the banking industry suddenly discovered they were no longer liquid, the genesis of what we call the GFC, Great Britain was the first country to move to take public funds, taxpayer money, and prop up the banks to keep them afloat. Other governments around the world followed suit, including of course Barrack Obama’s US administration. Yes, Barrack Obama took taxpayer money and handed it over to the banking industry, the machinations of which we are advised were responsible for creating the crisis. This was a necessary evil we were told because should the banks fail it would have dire consequences for all of us, the way our whole society works is dependent on the liquidity of the banks. Thank you the banks said, we will take the taxpayer’s money.

The French Government offered cheap capital to the country’s banks, at 1% interest. Like elsewhere the theory was this would make capital available for business and citizens to borrow money to drive the broader economy by building houses, buying and selling services and manufactures… But it didn’t happen. People instead tightened their belts, decided they didn’t need the second plasma TV, held off buying a home, wouldn’t take more risk in their businesses. The French banks being banks after all, decided instead to invest that cheap cash where they could get returns. Greek Government bonds were paying 14-15%. Sounds good – borrow money from the French taxpayer at 1% and get 15% return for it from the Greek taxpayer. Mind boggling in its simplicity.

Like much of the rest of the world economic activity in Greece floundered and the Greek Government’s speculation that it could actually pay those sort of returns turned out to be grossly optimistic. In recent weeks a new buzz phrase has appeared in discussion of a Greek bail-out “allowed to default in a controlled manner”. But what do these economists mean by ‘controlled’? Well, a bail out of the Greek Government includes not only ensuring funds are available to cover public sector salaries and services, but also bailing out the banks who would otherwise bear the brunt of the default. Did you catch that? So the taxpayer, not only in France but throughout the developed world, bankrolled the banks in response to the GFC in 2008. Now that that money has simply disappeared taxpayers across the EU are being asked to pick up the tab. Huh? Understandably some of those mums and dads literate enough to follow this are feeling like they’re being swindled to a historic degree. It’s creating a rift in the EU with the French Government demanding more for the banks and the German Government, contributing most of the funds, pushing for less. The compromise proposed yesterday has the Eurozone and the IMF calling on the banks to accept a 50% loss.

Back here in Oz not only crusty fringy anti-globalismists but plain old suburbanites do take note of the growing cost of living and the diminishing service and commitment they get from business starkly juxtaposed against growing profits and/or the greed of many elite business people as they take ever increasing executive salaries, bonuses and severance payouts. Telstra is but one example but an excellent case in point. Under Ziggy Switkowski and then Sol Trujillo the company’s value slid. The company lost market share for the simple reason it treated consumers and shareholders with an arrogant disregard. An explosion in the different types of products and services could not make up for the dive in commitment to and respect for the customer. Yet the executives who oversee such mindless short-termism are remunerated rapaciously and walk away when the brand has been trashed.

Ordinary people notice when their taxes are handed over to business interests and this practice is broader than just the current crisis in the finance industry. They do sense the irony in this in light of capitalist principles that guarantee in ordinary people’s small businesses if they lose liquidity the business ceases to exist and often along with it they lose homes, cars, and marriages. No-one suggests the Government – taxpayers should pick up the tab. They notice when the cost of things increases sharply and they notice when as consumers they are treated with disrespect. They notice when business elites take remuneration that is so dispropportionate that it can only be described as greed. They similarly notice when companies make stratospheric profits out of resources that belong to all of us yet seek to share the wealth only among the business elite.

I can’t help feeling though this movement will ultimately have no role in bringing it to an end. Short of an armed revolution change will only ever occur from within,… or if the situation simply becomes untennable. I think the insecurity many people feel is a sense that government and finance industry bail-outs are merely buying time and setting us up for an even harder fall when the system is finally utterly bankrupted, which we’re wondering may be inevitable because it’s hard to see how it can be sustainable. Eventually either society says ok let’s stop propping it up or society becomes incapable of propping it up. That’s the importance of the current debate in Europe around Greece and the French banks. You have to wonder if it might be better to let the whole thing collapse in on itself leaving no money to operate public services, no money for you and I to buy a home, but also no money for the Sol Trujillo’s of the world to pilfer. Maybe only that would truly result in renewal.