Blair: Home Economics

by Peter Blair | 10/23/11 10:00pm

Don Casler's article on the Occupy Wall Street movement ("Pointless Protests," Oct. 19) makes the following curious case: The protestors are right about Wall Street greed and its culpability in our present economic crisis, and they are right that serious governmental reforms of our economy are needed, but really, they should just stay quiet about it.

His case for this seems to rest on two principal assertions. First, our present crisis is indicative of a systemic failure in our global political and economic arrangements, and the limits of our politics make the corresponding systematic solutions impossible. Second, it is governmental action, not public outcry, that can force economic change in America.

The second charge seems frivilous. Because we live in a democracy, governmental action is never divorced from public outcry our government is supposed to act or not act as a result of public opinion. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 failed in large part because several U.S. Senators were inundated with calls from constituents who opposed it. And that's not to mention the part protests played in the Civil Rights movement.

The first charge is much more serious. If it is true, it is a council of despair. Casler is, in effect, saying that American citizens have no real say over the political and economic forces that inform their lives, that they might as well give up and accept the fact that, at least for now, we live at the mercy of a global financial system that we can't control.

The scary news is that Casler is actually partly right about this. We now live in a global financial system that is characterized by extreme interdependence, but we do not live in a global democracy. That is, we are economically subject to decisions made by actors all over the world, but we have no political means to regulate those actors or stabilize the global market, and we have no political say in how these actors act.

This is potentially a very serious problem, and there are, at present, no political means of solving it. So the protestors take to the streets. And while Casler is probably right that protests and public outcry will not be able to force systematic change I leave it to you to assess what this means for us he's wrong in assuming that the protests are pointless unless they can be cashed out in immediate political victories.

There are two things that the protests should be forcing us to consider, even if they have not be so far successful in doing so, and neither of them will necessarily have any immediate political value. The first is that they should be forcing us to ask fundamental questions about our economic and political lives. We should be asking ourselves whether it is true that we are confronted with systematic failure. If it is true, as Casler says, that our economic history is characterized by regular periods of economic crisis, we should be asking ourselves whether there is something in our economic system that causes this, and whether such crises are the acceptable price we pay for our high GDP.

Secondly, these protests should be a encouragement for us to lead more frugal, sustainable and responsibile lives. The Occupy Wall Streeters have correctly identified the problems, but got the immediate solutions wrong. They suffer from the popular notion (on both sides of the aisle) that everything must be referred to the national government, that the national government is what should fix our economy.

Rather, I propose another solution: We should begin fixing our own economies. Economy, after all, originally meant household management. How do we protest a global financial market we can't control? We manage our own local and home economies. We become as economically independent from the global financial market as we can. We plant vegetable gardens, we build rain barrells and compost heaps, we learn basic facts about household management like how to fix our own plumbing or our own cars.

Doing these things will not solve the global financial crisis, nor are they a solution to poverty, nor will they even take individuals very far towards economic independence. But there is no doubt that we could all learn to live much more frugally, and doing so is a start. We've begun to take our affluence for granted, and that, in the end, may be the most dangerous part of this whole economic crisis.