Occupy-the-Future

We tend to think of movements as akin to organizations—that is, as unified, bounded entities pursuing specified goals under the leadership of specific individuals. Biased by this conventional understanding, we urge Occupy protestors to pursue the goals we see as most important using the tactics and organizational structures that make the most sense to us. But given all that the Occupy protests have accomplished and continue to accomplish, why should those groups morph into the movement that you or I want to see? All broad, successful movements start somewhere, with a particular campaign or set of actions serving as the opening wedge. The Occupy protests have served that function, changing the conversation in this country, and creating space—literally and figuratively—within which others can act. The challenge for those of us who identify with the protests is to organize ourselves using whatever structures and towards whatever specific goals we find consistent with the broader struggle. Given the larger economic and political stakes, this is a challenge worthy of our efforts.

As a Brit, I still find it amazing and a little sad that in your country, people still have to fear getting sick. Though our National Health Service is far from perfect, you know that is you become sick or injured, you will get as good level of treatment without having to worry about the costs.

When my parents split up when I was young in the 70s, he moved to the US and for the next 15 years I made regular visits, thinking you where the coolest country on earth, hoping one day that I might be able to become a resident. My father always said it’s a great place to live if you’re well and working. Unfortunately at 59, he suffered 3 strokes and though having good insurance, savings and paid for home, end up losing everything, leaving my step mother bankrupt. I have American friends who tell me this is not uncommon.

After the WW2, the British people wanted something more and our welfare state was set up so that if times got hard, the state would help you until you got back on your feet. The US is still one of the richest nations on Earth, isn’t it about time you had a system for all Americans? Is it right to have a system where if you get sick, you are better to die quickly or risk losing everything you’ve worked hard for?

—  “Why in a country as rich as the US, people live in fear of becoming ill?"—a comment on Don Barr’s contribution to our ”Occupy the Future“ series.
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Hungarian students’ demonstartion, “The University is ours!”

The hungarian government is trying to take away the free places at universities and colleges. The number of the free places will be tierce of the current number, so the students will need loan, which is very expensive, or they will need to work during their semesters (more than the half of the university students have job, but I think this is the situation in the other countries), because their family can’t pay for their study. 

There are thousands on the streets even it’s lower than -6°C. The demonstrators are not even university students, but parents, teachers and students from the secondary school.

The govern is going to vote about this law tonight, and still don’t give a shit. 

Arts and Activism

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By Rhean Westerlund

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series of essays by Stanford professors and students on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.



I was drawn to art for its ability to make social commentary accessible to a wider audience. There are numerous forms of art from which to choose. For me, it was the graphic novel—an art form that combines the narrative arc of a novel with the sequential illustrations of a comic. The images and text work in tandem to tell a story: the words articulate only what is necessary while the pictures cut straight to the reader’s core. I discovered the form through a creative writing course at Stanford. Seventeen other students and I collaborated to write, illustrate, and lay out our own graphic novel. We decided it was the perfect vehicle for social commentary.



We each proposed a book topic. I was inspired by a BBC article about Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The eastern region of the DRC, where Virunga is located, has hosted the world’s deadliest conflict since WWII. The article focused on the park rangers who risk their lives to protect wildlife, including Virunga’s huge population of endangered mountain gorillas. Several gorillas had just been shot dead.



I cried, not just because the situation was sad, but also because hardly anyone knew about it. The lack of awareness seemed to diminish the rangers’ struggles. I had an overwhelming desire to tell people about it, thinking that maybe if they just knew what was going on, they’d start to care and maybe do something to help. My classmates agreed it was the right topic for our graphic novel and we began the long process of creating it.



As we researched, we realized we had put ourselves in an interesting predicament. The real story was, and is, still ongoing. We didn’t know how the narrative would end in real life, let alone in our fictional version. The more we read about Virunga, the more issues we uncovered: poaching, illegal coal trade, rebel militias, child soldiers, and rampant sexual violence. As our knowledge grew, so did our book, until it threatened to become unwieldy.  



It was our story’s protagonist, 11-year-old Malika, who finally led us to our conclusion.  Malika is an artist herself, ever-captivated by her surroundings and the animals that live there.  With her artist’s eye she finds beauty amidst ugliness and wonder in what others are too quick to destroy. In the end we decided to offer not just revelation but comfort—an alternative picture of what could be if only the effort were made to achieve it. 



Rhean Westerlund is a student at Stanford University.

Happy Anniversary, Occupy

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The United States is a country deeply committed to principles. We believe that everyone, not just the rich, should have the opportunity to get ahead or otherwise lead a good life. We believe that everyone, not just the rich, should have a right to be heard when our country makes decisions about its future. And we believe that everyone, not just the rich, should have an opportunity to participate fully and meaningfully in society.

But we don’t always live up to our most cherished ideals. Our country’s history has been driven instead by a tension between our principles and our practices. Now and then, the disjuncture between our ideals and institutions has been exposed and led to dramatic reform. We’ve ended slavery. We’ve extended the franchise to women. And we’ve secured basic civil rights for all. Some of these projects remain works in progress. But the defining feature of our country is our commitment to making our most cherished principles real and meaningful rather than hollow.

Are we entering another moment in history in which the disjuncture between our principles and our institutions is being cast into especially sharp relief? Are new developments, such as the rise of extreme inequality, opening up new threats to realizing our most cherished principles? Can we build an open, democratic, andsuccessful movement to realize our ideals?

Occupy the Future is a series of opinion pieces that address these questions. Our simple purpose is to lay out what our country’s principles are, whether we’re living up to them, and what can be done to bring our institutions into better alignment with them.


Ethics and Inequality
Should the Occupy movement oppose all forms of inequality? What makes a particular type of inequality objectionable?
Rob Reich and Debra Satz



Political Inequality in America
To what extent does our political system live up to the ideal of providing an equal voice to everyone? Is extreme inequality and corporate power undermining that principle?
David Laitin



Economics and Inequality
Why have income and wealth inequality in the United States reached unprecedented levels? Does this outcome reflect the operation of a fair and open contest?
Kenneth Arrow



Education and Inequality
How does our education system fail our commitment to equality of opportunity? How can educational access be equalized?
Sean Reardon



Capitalism Versus the Environment
Why do we continue to place so little weight on the possibility of catastrophic climate change and other environmental disasters? Is it because corporations, rather than individuals, drive politics and generate policy outcomes that cater more to short-term profits than the long-term well-being of humans?
Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich



The Double Binds of Economic and Racial Inequality
Does the persistence of racial inequalities call into question our commitment to a fair and open economy in which everyone, regardless of race, has equal opportunity? What might be done to end racial inequality once and for all?
Prudence Carter



Thinking Big
Have humanistic disciplines become too specialized to understand our current historical predicament? How can cultural studies help us grasp the significance of the Occupy movement?
David Palumbo-Liu



Occupy Your Imagination
How have the arts historically addressed inequities and injustice? How might the arts play a role in the Occupy movement?
Michele Elam and Jennifer DeVere Brody



Rationing Education Protects the Rich
How does our educational system favor the rich and sustain poverty and inequality? What can be done to reform it? 
David B. Grusky



Momentum for a Millionaire’s Tax
How does one decide how progressive our tax system should be? Is current practice inconsistent with our values? 
Cristobal Young



Inequality and Health in America
How have health outcomes between the rich and the poor become so unequal? Is this form of inequality inconsistent with our ideals? 
Don Barr



The End of the End of History
Is the law protecting the rights of everyone equally? In what ways do corporations, the rich, and the powerful establish laws and exert influence to further their interests? 
Gary Segura



What I Learned from the 2004 Presidential Election
Are elections in the United States fair? How are some constituencies restricted from voting and what can be done to rectify the problem? 
Frances Zlotnick



Threats to Democracy in Americaand What Should a Sustained Movement Look Like?
What recent political trends are undermining Amercan democracy? Does the Occupy movement offer a viable way to counter them?
Doug McAdam




Scars of Fortune

by Esther Oh



Editor’s Note: This piece is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series of essays by Stanford professors and students on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.



When I was five years old, my doctors discovered that the oddly shaped red mark on my left side was actually a rapidly developing benign tumor. I was left with a large scar that spans most of my left back.



The result of two surgeries and multiple hospital visits, my scar cost at least $30,000. Without medical insurance, my parents would have had to pay this sum out-of-pocket and our bank account would have been sucked dry. It is nothing but pure luck that my tumor developed at the time it did, when my family had insurance to cover the exorbitant price of my medical care. A year later, my father’s business nosedived, and my family could no longer afford family health insurance. Had my tumor developed just a year later, my family would have gone bankrupt from the medical expenses.



My scar is a symbol of luck.



After my family’s main source of income faltered, we could no longer afford the out-of-pocket coss for visits to the doctor’s office, and there were no decent community clinics in the area. My family’s annual household income placed us squarely in the working class; we never qualified for the type of aid afforded to the disadvantaged, and my parents, both small-business owners, did not have access to employer-provided health insurance. I went without insurance for the remainder of my childhood. Things like visits to the doctor’s office or the dentist’s chair were luxuries, not necessities. Except for occasional illnesses and that tumor, I was largely healthy.



Those who are unable to afford health insurance or decent health care are unable to regularly engage in preventative measures. Instead, these citizens are forced into an inefficient pattern where pure necessity drives them to emergency measures, after waiting hours in emergency rooms for care. Had my family lacked health insurance at the time of that tumor, I wouldn’t have been able to see the doctor at the first sign of trouble, and my tumor would have spawned something much more ominous: more uncertainty, more worry, more debt, and possibly bankruptcy and poverty.



People in the middle and lower end of the income distribution are increasingly facing the same risk. Not only should access to health insurance be increased, but the cost and quality of health care should also be equalized. Families should not have to think twice before sending their children to the doctor’s office. The burden from health-care costs isn’t just economic; consider the anxiety that is alleviated from having a safety net in case of illness or injury. 



Fortunately, I had such a safety net at just the right time. I am one of the lucky ones. But there remain others out there who are not so lucky. Their scars are symbols of inequality.



Esther Oh is an undergraduate student at Stanford University.

A Collaborative Endeavor

By Sharon Jank



Editor’s Note: A version of this op-ed appeared originally in The Stanford Daily on November 30, 2011. It is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.


The old proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” captures the reality that people and families don’t exist in isolation, but instead are socially connected member-citizens of larger communities and, increasingly, the world. One of the most profound implications of this truth is an economic one: just as children exist in a larger social context with varying levels of contributions from family, teachers, doctors, and countless others who invest in their upbringing, so too do all products in society, from test scores to share prices, result from a series of interdependent group processes to which many people contribute.



Take my college degree, for example. While it took countless hours of my own work, I didn’t earn it on my own. In fact, if it weren’t for the support of myriad others, I’d likely still be cleaning floors in upstate New York. Contributions and investments from friends, family, and advisors made it possible for me to work full-time while slaving away at a bachelor’s degree. Overstretched co-workers, such as Jackie, took on parts of my workload so that I could study for tests and prepare class presentations. Fellow students offered advice on my admissions essays, lent me their expensive GRE prep materials, and made sure that I knew which internships and student positions were desirable. Administrators figured out how to make every credit that I took work for me. The city bus driver picked me up near my home every morning so I didn’t have to walk to work in the dark at 4 a.m. My family cooked meals for me because I had neither the time nor the energy to cook myself. Academic advisors and mentors encouraged me, believed in me, and kept me on course. The local union reps fought to protect the employee benefit program that allowed me to attend classes while working. 


The list of people who contributed to my college degree goes on and on, yet, I get all the credit for the result. When we think about upward mobility and achieving economic success, we tend to think in terms of meritocratic ideals and individual success. But what does it say about our notions of success when some of the people who helped me climb the social ladder remain trapped at the bottom?  


As the nation grapples with inequality, a question commonly asked is whether the extraordinary levels of income and wealth inequality in the United States are the result of a fair and open contest in which the most talented and productive secure the most rewards? Have the “rules of the game” become corrupt and unfair, calling into question the legitimacy of inequality? The trouble with this question is that it offers only two options: either the rules of society are fair and inequality is justified, or the game is corrupt and inequality is not justified. In other words, inequalities are a given, and even if we could root out corruption then whatever we’re left with—no matter the level of inequality or suffering it includes—would be legitimate and fair. 


Unfortunately, corruption and nepotism aren’t new, nor are they restricted to Wall Street. So while this set up between fair or unfair inequality is alluring in its simplicity, we must resist this dichotomy and entertain alternatives. Fairness isn’t simply the absence of corruption, but rather an ongoing commitment to re-examine and re-evaluate the opportunities and outcomes that our society jointly produces. Corruption isn’t just about individual people taking advantage of their position, but also about a system that allows people to contribute to the success of others with no improvement to their own material standard of living. Why is it that chances for upward mobility are so few and far between? What I hope for is a shift in the way that we think about how value is created in our society, and a realization that what we produce—for better and for worse—is a collaborative endeavor.     


Sharon Jank is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Stanford University.  

  

The latest BR Book is out now from MIT Press:

The Occupy Wall Street movement has ignited new questions about the relationship between democracy and equality in the United States. Are we also entering a moment in history in which the disjuncture between our principles and our institutions is cast into especially sharp relief? Do new developments–most notably the rise of extreme inequality–offer new threats to the realization of our most cherished principles? Can we build an open, democratic, and successful movement to realize our ideals? Occupy the Future offers informed and opinionated essays that address these questions. The writers–including Nobel Laureate in Economics Kenneth Arrow and bestselling authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich–lay out what our country’s principles are, whether we’re living up to them, and what can be done to bring our institutions into better alignment with them.

Contributors: David Grusky, Doug McAdam, Rob Reich, Erin Cumberworth, Debra Satz, Kenneth J. Arrow, Kim A. Weeden, Sean F. Reardon, Prudence L. Carter, Shelley J. Correll, Gary Segura, David D. Laitin, Cristobal Young, Charles Varner, Doug McAdam, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Donald A. Barr, Michele Elam, Jennifer DeVere Brody, H. Samy Alim and David Palumbo-Liu.

Buy now while supplies last!

Occupy and the Fight for Global Justice

by Tomer Perry



Editor’s Note: This piece is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series of essays by Stanford professors and students on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.



The Occupy movement is not just an American phenomenon—it is global. On October 15 alone, citizens in more than 1,000 cities across 87 countries mobilized in public spaces to protest various forms of injustice. Naturally, protesters from different cities and countries don’t necessarily share the same opinions or face the same inequities. Yet there is a form of injustice that should concern all members of this worldwide democratic movement: global poverty.



Wealth inequality on a global level is starker than that within the United States alone. According to one recent study, the richest 1 percent of the world in 2000 owned 40 percent of global assets, while the bottom half owned around 1 percent. Members of the richest 1 percent are concentrated in a small number of countries in North America, Europe, and certain Pacific-rim Asian countries. Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report    found that around 35 percent of total global wealth is held by 0.5 percent of the world’s population. Such inequality fixes the outcomes of countless people worldwide. As an economist from the World Bank notes, it is a striking fact that within our interdependent global economy “more than 80 percent of your likely income is determined at birth by your citizenship and the income class of your parents.” Anyone who believes in equality of opportunity should be concerned that a morally arbitrary fact such as country of birth has such influence on the prospects of one’s life. For those who are born unlucky, the prospects can be quite grim. The World Bank  estimated that, in 2005, 1.4 billion people survived on less than $1.25 per day, falling below its international poverty line. In concrete terms, this can mean lack of such basics as clean water, sanitation, nutrition, essential drugs, and basic education. On a global scale, the dire condition of the least advantaged is severe and pressing.



Apart from protesting local and national injustices, should we also fight against global injustice? Global poverty, many agree, is unfortunate. But are we required to do something about it? Or should we, rather, focus first on injustices in our own country before we do anything about those occurring elsewhere? Everyone believes that the world would be a better place if there were no children starving, but few, it seems, believe that they have to do something about it.



On the contrary, here are three reasons we should take action to diminish global poverty:



(1) We can, therefore we ought to. One big reason to care about global poverty is that we can save lives and greatly improve people’s living conditions. Peter Singer has argued that if we can help save children’s lives by forgoing luxuries, we are morally obligated to do so. The mere fact that many of the world’s poorest die from eminently preventable causes suggests that they die, in part, because we have decided not to help them, even though we have the means to do so.



(2) Countries are not independent islands. Many people believe that we have no strong duties beyond those to our compatriots. In particular, many believe that considerations of distributive justice are confined within the boundaries of national communities or sovereign states. Some think that states are unique schemes of cooperation and therefore give rise to special duties that do not exist outside of them, while others hold that the coercive nature of state power is the source of these special duties.



I disagree. First, the idea that states represent any unique scheme of cooperation is a decreasingly plausible idea. In this era of globalization, states and their citizens are more interrelated and interdependent than ever—economically, culturally, socially and in other ways. Extensive trade relations mean we use the natural resources of other countries and enjoy the labor of people in these countries, sometimes to their great disadvantage. It is therefore our responsibility to make sure that we do not, at the very least, harm our trade partners, impose unfair and abusive terms of trade on them, or become complicit in gross human rights violations.



Second, state coercion extends beyond its citizens, and is regularly applied to foreigners. The coercive power of the state is applied in a familiar place: the border. The current global system of states is a vast network of coercion that restricts individuals’ movement between countries Immigration policies, therefore, have a tremendous effect on the prospects of individual lives. Scores of people risk their lives to cross state borders simply because these borders stand between them and various opportunities: a job, an education, a different way of life. We cannot dismiss state coercion against foreigners as insignificant. If state coercion gives rise to special duties of justice, then these would bind us to foreigners as well as fellow citizens.



(3) Advocating for global justice does not come at the expense of fighting for local justice. Some people think we should first fix injustices in our country before discussing global problems. But I believe we can do both at the same time: we can and should care about domestic as well as global injustice.



As the Occupy movement and the October 15 demonstrations have taught us, we can learn from one another and be inspired by what happens in other parts of the world, though our immediate problems may be different. We are interconnected across state borders—personally, professionally, economically, culturally and now politically. We need to work together towards alleviating suffering and battling injustice everywhere in the world, near and far.



Tomer Perry is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Stanford University.

Beyond the Honor Roll

By Ron Alfa


Editor’s Note: A version of this op-ed appeared originally in The Stanford Daily on November 29, 2011. It is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.


Stanford students, and Americans generally, are inculcated with a strong attachment to meritocracy: that success in some area is distributed based upon merit. Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in education. We are submitted to examination from our earliest years, and our performance may ultimately decide our class standing, both in school and in society. If our education system is meritocratic, then how do we define merit, and in what context is it expressed? Importantly, how do inequalities define this context?

 

My parents were immigrants. Sitting at about double the poverty line, they used most of their income and burned through their savings to enroll me in private school for the first three years of my education. This was unsustainable. And so I moved to a public school during third grade, where something remarkable happened — I became a phenomenal student. The reality is, much of the material I was then being taught at public school I had already learned, and in more detail, in my previous semesters at the private school. My teachers were impressed by my “intelligence.”

 

In this case, a small inequality — created by my prior education — increased my merit in the eyes of my instructors, and I was recommended for an advanced middle school. To be sure, the effect was real. I certainly had an easier time comprehending material that I had previously learned. The types of inequalities that enrich the performance of an individual are widespread in education and stratified by socioeconomic status. Just consider how many undergraduates at top universities spend their free time tutoring middle and high school students at no less than $60 per hour. Indeed, it is no coincidence that children of educated parents fare better in school. Society cannot expect to eliminate these inequalities. They will always exist to some degree or another, but they ensure that meritocracy is never grounded in a fully level playing field.

 

I attended a very average middle school and was enrolled in very average courses. My parents were not educated, and did not understand the class stratification of the public school system. We were an unruly and unmotivated group of students often at odds with our young and inexperienced teacher. My most salient lesson from seventh-grade math was learning how to fire paper projectiles with rubber bands. Receiving my schedule the second semester of that year, I realized that by mistake or intervention I had been moved to an “honors” math class. This class was much smaller, with half the students, all of whom were quiet and attentive. But on day one, I was already too far behind to catch up. I returned to my previous class.

 

This second type of inequality is one that need not exist. It involves the stratification — or segregation — of students into classes based on false or incomplete measures of merit. It creates institutional inequalities whereby those students already benefiting from inequalities rooted outside the classroom (in families and socioeconomic circumstances) are given the increased benefit of inequalities within the classroom, such as personalized attention, smaller classes and more experienced instructors. Education is cumulative, and the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged group widens yearly. I know this because I spent two years catching up on high school math before even beginning calculus at community college. These types of inequalities create long-lasting disparities, even if individuals manage to “catch-up.” Every day, in simple conversation with classmates, I’m reminded of how large the gap is and where my own deficiencies remain. More importantly, institutional inequalities cut against the claim that educational opportunity is based on a meritocratic system.

 

We can no longer accept a social mobility grounded in rare or heroic examples. Students of all socioeconomic backgrounds should occupy our institutes of higher learning. Inequalities exist, and they will always exist. But if we wish to progress toward a more just society, we must stop building them into our institutions.


Ron Alfa is an M.D./Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University School of Medicine.