OPINION | Occupation U.S.A.


As the Occupy movement grows, pushback continues from some conservative quarters. Hippie-punching is easy, and it’s been a while since there’s been a truly substantial series of non-Tea Party protests, so I can in part understand their happiness to spar with an old foil in new clothes.

For those who want the Occupiers to go away, however, I’ve got a radical proposal: help them get an occupation.

Even better, help the people who aren’t at the protests get an occupation. If this was really just about lazy college students, nothing would chop the legs out from under the movement like a working class near full employment.

The thing is, this isn’t actually about lazy college students. The educated-but-unemployed twenty- and thirtysomethings that have become the public face of this movement are just the smoke that set off the alarm. The fire started years ago, and its real victims are the people who don’t make it in front of the cameras.

To place all the responsibility for their own employment on the Occupiers’ shoulders is ridiculous. We don’t have 9% unemployment in this country because of college graduates’ lack of gumption. We have 9% unemployment because our country is still suffering from the Great Hangover.

The Great Hangover is the necessary after-effect of the Great Binge. The Great Binge was not, as conservatives would have you believe, about government borrowing. The Great Binge was about getting tipsy on personal debt, which fueled the housing bubble and rising household debt.

Egging the country on were predatory lending and too-easy credit practices. Our designated drivers neglected their responsibilities by deregulating Wall Street and getting buzzed on a GDP-boosting cocktail of derivatives and subprime mortgage tricks. All of this led to “growth” built on money that wasn’t actually there, and it felt great while it lasted.

The first burblings of alarm started in 2007 as the housing market started to get shaky. Then came the financial purge of 2008, and our economy was left with no one holding its hair. Everything since has been the Great Hangover.

We drank some water with the early Obama stimulus package, but it wasn’t enough to really recuperate. All we did there was make our head stop spinning quite so much. It’s time for an aspirin and a regular supply of water; in other words, it’s time for jobs.

The private sector’s doing some good work on that front, but it can’t do enough without more aggregate demand from regular people. For regular people to start demanding things again, they need jobs. When more people have jobs, they can start buying more things. When they start buying more things, the people who make, sell, and ship those things do better. When those people do better, they can hire more employees, pay the employees they have more, and expand their business. When they do these things, they facilitate more demand, which facilitates more buying, and so on.

To get the ball rolling, we need an infusion of more jobs. Our current path of austerity and budget cutting isn’t doing it. The balance of private sector growth and public sector contraction means that our job growth the past several months has struggled to keep pace with population growth; that’s why the unemployment rate isn’t moving much.

If private employment can’t do this on its own, public employment must step up. This means more investment in infrastructure, for one, and to a degree larger than that in the initial stimulus (much of which got funneled into balancing state budgets rather than triggering new projects).

Of course, we live in Minnesota where many construction projects get a little difficult when the temperature drops. We need as many of them as we can get during the warmer months (and this will take several summers of sustained investment if it’s going to work), but we need other public investment as well.

Unsurprisingly, I see schools as a place where we can get some more people into the workforce. We have more teachers than we have teaching positions in Minnesota, so let’s shrink some class sizes and bring back some of those arts and music programs that have been hit so hard in the test-test-test NCLB era.

Let’s get some paraprofessional training programs in place to give our students a stronger academic support structure. Let’s put together some apprenticeship programs to funnel more money to local businesses and give our kids a taste of what their future careers might be.

Here’s the bottom line: instead of criticizing the Occupiers, let’s give them an occupation.