#Occupy Wall Street!

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park

On the 31st of October we visited Zuccotti Park, the focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement, still fully in place at this time.   The occupation had begun a little over a month earlier, on the 17th of September.  A fortnight after our visit, the police would clear all protestors from the park.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park

The Occupy Movement is remarkable as a practical exercise in anarchy.   There is a commitment to non-violent action and collective decision-making with no leadership and no hierarchy.

The people who gathered in Zuccotti Park were open and inclusive and provided food and shelter to all comers.  One unanticipated though predictable consequence was that they became a magnet for people such as the homeless and the mentally ill who Society has largely abandoned.  They did what they could to assist those people but they did not set out to be a welfare group and this often made political coordination more difficult.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park

“We are the 99%” is the clarion call of the Movement.  It refers to the vast inequality of income and opportunity in the United States in particular and Western societies in general.  It is an issue of key relevance to the vast majority of people.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park

The website Occupy Together also lists other key issues including excessive influence purchased by large corporations, student debt, home foreclosures due to irresponsible practices of banks, “too big to fail” banks, profiteering of private institutions in healthcare, a living wage to the 99% and budget cuts affecting the 99%.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park – Stencil for application to T-shirts

Starting here in Zuccotti Square, the movement spread across the world to 95 cities in 82 countries, with numerous Occupy camps such as this one.  Though all the camps are now gone, they had considerable political impact and the movement continues in other ways.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park – The tent city, with elements of Halloween

The USA has the most unequal income distribution of any developed country, far worse than the best examples of Japan and the Scandinavian countries.  In the early 1970s, the top 1% of earners in the US earned less that 10% of national income; by 2007 this proportion had risen to nearly 25%.  The contrast is even greater in terms of wealth.  The top 1% own 43% of US wealth, while the bottom 80% own 7% only.

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

We can see a peak in this graph for the share of the top 1% in US income in 2007, just before the global financial crisis.   Tellingly, the previous peak was in 1928, just before the Great Depression and there has been a long fall and a sharp rise since then.

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Square

Occupy Wall St, Zuccotti Park.
(It is worthwhile clicking on this image to see it larger. There are many curious details).

Currently the top marginal tax rate in the US is 35% but it was not ever thus.  At the end of the Second World War it reached a high of 94%.   Through the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years it stayed at 77%.  Even in 1972 when the top marginal rate was still 70%, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate George McGovern was alerting the electorate to the fact that over a certain level of income, effective payment of taxation actually declined.  By the end of the Reagan era the top marginal tax rate had declined to 28% and then it  recovered somewhat to 39.6% during the Clinton years.  Recent Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney provided a dramatic example of the extent to which very wealthy people can avoid taxation.  He declared that he paid 13% in taxation as though this was a virtuous level of contribution to the US economy & people and even then he was highly evasive.

New York

Building at the edge of Zuccotti Park

At this point in time, it’s hard not to characterise the US as a declining country.  In 1950 the US accounted for 50% of world income; this has now fallen to somewhere between 17% and 18%.  Yet the US still accounts for 50% of world military expenditure.  This is likely to be a significant factor in the relative economic decline because military expenditure usually contributes little to economic growth.  It is also self perpetuating because once in place, a large military generates demand for their own activities.  This is also a relatively recent phenomenon.  The Second World War was the first time that the USA did not demobilise after a war.

from Zuccotti Square

Buildings at the edge of Zuccotti Park

It is common for many in the US to eulogise about freedom.  Yet freedom without justice and equity is an illusion.  Poor people who are effectively deprived in terms of education, health, housing and work opportunities can never be free to exercise the same choices as the wealthier members of their communities.  This kind of dispossession is what a deterioration in the distribution of income produces.  It’s not unique to the US but the US is leading the way by a wide margin and it’s not a good form of leadership.    This is not just a social concern.  Such inequalities mean that opportunities are equally uneven and in the long term all will suffer as fewer opportunities are available to capable people in the vast majority of the population.  Consequently, the overwhelming proportion of those who vote to support trickle-down economics are directly undermining their own welfare.

Federal Reserve Police Car in front of Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has the world's largest holdings of gold according to their web site.

Federal Reserve Police Car in front of Federal Reserve Bank of New York
According to their web site, they have the world’s largest holdings of gold stored here.

I think that remedial action for the US should include to bring back a 70% top marginal tax rate and to change the tax structure so that something equivalent applies in the private sector.   Also, to devise some effective restrictions on the salaries of those who can effectively determine their own levels of payment – politicians, judges, management in large companies.  Then there would be scope for providing genuine opportunities for all, building up infrastructure, repaying debt and crucially, making more progress on sustainable development.

George Washington, Wall St

Statue of George Washington at the Federal Hall National Monument in Wall St.
This is where he took the oath as first President of the US in 1789.  Federal Hall on this site was briefly the US’s first Capitol building though the original building was demolished in 1812.

The same factors apply to Australia and most other countries in the developed world, albeit so far to a lesser extent.  It is of course easier to point out the problems than to specify effective remedies that are politically feasible, particularly since the small minority with an excessive share of resources will resist, together with the institutions that represent them.  Even so, public opinion can make a big difference and the situation has been much better previously so maybe it can be again.

31 October 2011

Searching for a More Benign Dystopia

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Myoshin-Ji temple complex, Kyoto

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Toranokowatashi Garden (“Young tigers crossing the water”), Nanzen-Ji, Kyoto

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There is a long history of activist photographers championing the preservation of the environment.  In Australia, Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis produced images showing Tasmanian wilderness under threat in association with the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.  For that matter, in the US there was also Ansell Adams, in association with the Sierra Club.  The images of Japan here show both historical traditions and the wildlife and environment that we must protect from the depredations of the world today.

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Pathway to Honen-In gate, Kyoto

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Much of the developed world is currently in a self-inflicted economic crisis caused by irresponsible economic policies. While this is not the same thing as unsustainable development, the causes are at least in part related.

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Diabutsuden, the Great Bhudda Hall, part of the Todai-ji Temple complex, Nara

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So where does Japan fit into this, how is it doing generally at the moment and what might the future hold?

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Otaru Lantern Festival

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Otaru Lantern Festival

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Japan is well placed in some respects and not so well in others.  One of the areas of concern is the level of debt.  Japan’s debt is over 200% of their GDP, the highest of any country in the world according to the IMF and much higher than Greece for example.  Unlike Greece, though, Japan has the third largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.

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Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa

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Jigokudani snowscape

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After recovering from the war, Japan grew at impressive rates from the 60s to the 80s until there was a crash in stock market and real estate prices in 1989.  The 1990s were stagnant and growth has been moderate since.  Japan remains a major industrial nation though some of its major corporations appear vulnerable.  We have recently seen Olympus lose hundreds of millions of dollars to corruption and kickbacks.  Sony, one of Japan’s largest corporations, has been losing money for the last four or five years and lost more than six billion dollars in the last financial year.  Panasonic is also under pressure and has a projected loss for this financial year of ten billion dollars.

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Baby macaque at Jigokudani, Nagano

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White-tailed eagle near Kushiro, Hokkaido

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Organised society in Japan started in the few large fertile plains and valleys.  Today much of that fertile farmland is covered by urban sprawl.  Of course Japan is not alone in this though as a mountainous country, Japan has a relatively small proportion of arable land.    Japanese governments have tried to protect their agriculture and encourage agricultural self-sufficiency but with only partial success.  Japan is also not favoured with raw material deposits so its prosperity depends significantly on trade.

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Dawn at Otowa Bridge, near Kushiro, Hokkaido

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Japan is the World’s tenth most populated country (at 120 million) though that level is falling and the population aging.  Japan does not encourage immigration which is probably advantageous for them in this era of increasing ecological pressures.

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Whooper swan at Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido

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Steller’s eagle, Nemuro-kaikyo Strait, near Rausu, Hokkaido

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Where Japan does have an advantage is in a reverence for the environment coupled with a willingness of both Government and the population to undertake longer-term actions for the greater good of all.  Many Western countries are dominated by the illusion of the individual – that nothing should get in the way of the greed of an individual or the rapacity of a corporation.  Japan has its share of corruption and organised criminal activity but even so – the Japanese are more inclined than other developed countries to ameliorate the self gratification of the individual for the benefit of society as a whole.  This may assist them to take more effective action on ecological change.

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Silver birch in farmland near Shari, Hokkaido

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The tradition of reverence for Nature may also assist the Japanese to find more effective paths towards sustainable development.  They have an advantage here over a significant minority of the population of the US and Australia who deny the scientific findings on global warming and have no awareness of sustainability.   The danger here is that mindless exploitation of resources may lead to a illusory pinnacle of prosperity.  A concurrent exhaustion of resources may mean that no changes in individual, corporate or government behaviour can maintain anything like that level of prosperity.

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Tamozawa Imperial Villa, Nikko

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The Government of Japan adopted measures to conserve forests as early as the ninth century.  In the seventeenth century, after one of the fires that devastated Edo (now Tokyo), a Tokugawa shogun was struck by the devastation of forests required for the reconstruction effort.   This led to a system of conservation both enforced from the top and guaranteed from the bottom, as individual families were given long-term responsibility for patches of forest.  However, this responsible attitude doesn’t necessarily extend to the resources of other countries.  Australia, for example, has been harvesting old growth forests to turn into woodchips for paper-making in Japan – partly because the Japanese would not be so foolish at to use their own scarce forest resources in the same way.

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Cornice details, Taiyu-In, Nikko

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Sleeping cat, Tosho-Gu, Nikko

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I read an interesting account recently that suggested that as the Roman Empire expanded it compromised its original agricultural resources and replaced them with newer lands further from the centre of the Empire.  Dacia is one example, for wheat.  Losing some of these remote areas was then a significant factor in the decline of the Empire.

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Ryuzu Falls, near Lake Chuzenji, near Nikko

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Something similar appears to be happening today but the empire is the developed countries’ Empire of Trade.  Many developed countries, including Japan, have compromised their agricultural capacity through industrial development and population growth.  This agricultural capacity is likely to become further compromised over time for reasons including rising population (both in those countries and worldwide), unsuitable agricultural practices, effects of global warming and water shortages.  This may be why countries such as China are currently buying up agricultural land world-wide.  As well as that, demand is greatly increasing due to rising prosperity in China, South-East Asia, India and Latin America.  If agricultural supplies become slowly compromised then trade could become a two-edged sword.  Japan is well placed to deal with this due to its superior social organisation but poorly placed due to its own shortage of agricultural land.

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Lake Chuzenji after sunset

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko

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In Conclusion:

Globally, we’re in need of a better dystopia. We’re eating the planet and our future as well. World population is out of control, causing many countries to strip their environment. Developed nations are consuming unsustainable amounts of resources while emerging countries from Asia and Latin America vie to reach the consumption levels of developed countries. Agricultural land and many resources are relatively finite and we’re all so interconnected that no social group or country will be able to hide away for long and pretend they’re not affected.

For a more careful account of these issues see Easter Island – A Parable for Our Times?, especially if you think anything I said above was overstated or inaccurate.  My bibliography for that account is at Easter Island – Wrapup and Contents.

 

Update – Easter Island: A Parable for Our Times?

Moai at Ranu Rararaku

Easter Island – A Parable for Our Times? looks at our most important political issue – sustainable development – in the light of what happened on Easter Island.  I have added a brief introduction, seventeen new monochrome images and a  new conclusion.

(It is now a separate post).