What are those rich 99%ers complaining about?

Those wealthy protesters

The above picture, and many variations of it, have been floating around the internet.  It is both helpful and unhelpful.

Yes, many (or even most) of the protestors are in good position relative to many others in our world.  But it must be asked – why are people in developing nations in the position they are in?

Many poor farmers around the world have been doomed to poverty by the trade policies of the US and other Western nations.  Four West African countries–Burkina Faso, Mall, Chad, and Benin–have called on the United States to cut the $1-3 billion it spends each year subsidizing American cotton growers, which then allows them to undercut the market for the rest of the world’s cotton farmers.

The World Policy Journal notes:

The protectionist policies of rich countries are indeed a serious issue for Africa, where farming accounts for about 70 percent of total employment and is the main source of income for the vast majority of those living in or near poverty. The 30 member countries of the OECD spend a combined $235 billion per year to support their agricultural producers, but only about $60 billion on foreign aid (about one-fifth of which goes to Africa). Subsidies, tariffs, and nontariff barriers distort global prices and restrict access to rich-country markets.

The global trading system discriminates against the world’s poorest nations, making their products less competitive and undermining opportunities for growth, employment, and, ultimately, economic and social development. Additionally, intransigence on the part of rich countries over agricultural reform also indirectly harms poor countries due to its effects on broader trade negotiations. According to one estimate, unimpeded global trade would boost developing country income by about $200 billion a year in the long term.

The New York Times, for example, argues that African farmers are “rightfully outraged that a nation [the United States] that enjoys all the benefits of open markets for its industrial products keeps putting up walls around its farmers.”

Many people say again and again the free market system is the best there is.  Perhaps.  But it is interesting that the market is actually free only when it benefits us.  If it appears otherwise, we are quick to make it a closed market, or rig the system in our favor.

Additionally, Organizations like the IMF and the World Bank conspire to get developing nations so deep in debt that they are in a hole they can never get out of, while we then condescendingly show up with charitable aid to help them, while never working to change the system which impoverished them in the first place.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, millions of people have died in brutal civil wars led by warlords who are fighting over resources they can sell to Western corporations to make our iPhones and what-have-you.  We do nothing, because it benefits us to have them fight over who gets to sell us their minerals (and other resources).

Places where we do get involved militarily are often because our access to such resources (particularly oil) are jeopardized.   (Let alone the fact that war itself is an incredible profit-making system for Western companies who lobby for rich government contracts).

We have a system which feeds off the resources and people around the world so that we can live in the society we do.  A system in which wealthy elites manipulate the laws at the expense of the majority of this country as well as the rest of the world.

In his book, Not Sure, CRC pastor John Suk notes:

Even a brief review of history makes it clear that so-called Christian nations have never had a great track record when it comes to ministering to the “least of these,” whether they were colonial subjects in Indonesia or India, or the slaves they traded in the Atlantic triangle, or the poor farmers around the world that Western nations have doomed to poverty by their protectionist agricultural trade policies.

…Western nations that have militarily occupied Haiti for generations, that have robbed Haiti of its wealth while protecting the interests of their Western corporations, that supported repressive dictators in the interest of stability while self-righteously and hypocritically declaring allegiance to human rights and democracy – these Western nations are delivering massive amounts of disaster relief to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.  Unfortunately, it is a case of far too little, too late, to effect the lasting change that might one day help Haiti achieve even a modicum of prosperity and peace.  When it comes to the least of these, Western nations seem to have a habit of beating them to within an inch of their lives, and then shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust while binding their wounds.

The fallacy that this photo perpetuates is that protesters are out there only because of their own situation.  The protest is not primarily about any one single person’s situation!  It is about a system – the system that helps create the starving realities in many nations – the same system that perpetuates corruption in our own.  People are protesting on behalf of people like the hungry people in the above photo, as well as the people living at subsistence level (or worse) in our own.

It is absurd to suggest that we should not protest these abuses until we are as poor as the rest of the world.  In fact, speaking out might even be the Christ-like thing to do.

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25 thoughts on “What are those rich 99%ers complaining about?

  1. It’s great that you’re creating discussion, Bryan — nice job! But I do think your argument, while put forth with the best of intentions, really oversimplifies incredibly complex problems into a “we’re all greedy, hypocritical consumers” mantra.

    And frankly, I can’t figure out specifically where the OWS people want to take us and how specifically we’l get there.

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  2. Brothers and Sisters, thanks for your sharing, indeed we must be reforming always and be precise like in the response to Stan above “So many altars..” need us to alter the spelling. But seriously, Thank you, all! Pete

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  3. As always I come to the party late…great post and great discussion. Thanks, Bryan.

    Can I add something–even though it won’t get read anymore? I’ve tried, since becoming involved with OCCUPY TC, to articulate for myself why I’m doing it. I tried it this time in big words…because, you know, I’m mostly a person of short words, often only four letters. Anyway, here’s me, talking to me:

    When a sphere of society operates with impunity, gathering ever more power over every other sphere of society, independent of the defining boundaries of the common good, and to the advantage of a few “insiders,” we call this “tyranny.” When it does this across tribal and national boundaries, moving wealth and resources from those who have some to those who have most, we call this “empire.”

    When this sphere declares for itself that it is radically free, self-directed and self-correcting, the final arbiter of what is possible and/or permissible [as in “the market will not allow….” or “the market requires….”], and when this sphere asserts that its behavior and its value should govern other spheres [as in “X should be run like a business”]–when this happens, we call this a “god.” (One clue that this is happening is when we start to talk about this sphere of human endeavor as though it were a person [as in “the market today was upset with the report on….”]).

    It is incumbent upon people of moral integrity [I hope I’m one of them], regardless of whether they personally benefit from the present situation, to submit it to moral evaluation–not “pragmatic” evaluation [as in “does this work–especially for me?”–though that’s not a bad question if it is honestly about whether it works for everyone around the globe], but a “moral” evaluation [as in “is this just for humans, present and future, and is it in harmony with good care of the earth?”].

    It is further incumbent upon people of faith [that’s me–I’m a Christian, though I think people of other faiths should agree with me on this one] to expose and repudiate all god-claims of what is merely a human venture–in other words, to proclaim an idol to be an idol and refuse to obey it as if it were a god.

    It is the task of all of us, faith or none, to do all in our power to require that this sphere of human enterprise take its place with all other spheres of human activity–that is, for the good of humankind and appropriate stewardship of the cosmos.

    Ok…kinda corny, I know. I’ll go back to the street terms I’ve used most of my life. Another time.

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    1. Stan-
      So many alters we worship at, mostly blind to the fact that we have replaced God with a sacred cow. I wonder how much milk we’ll have to drain out of this sacred cow before it dies…. Of course in some ways I feel like I have blinders on. Some times I want to take them off, and sadly other times it’s just too comfortable to leave them on.

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  4. This image suggests all protests against unfair income distribution in America will be taken seriously only when Americans are washing their clothes in a river, walking 3 miles for a bucket of drinking water and watching their children dying of mal-nutrition and disease. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth – they would never take these protests seriously but would happily crush them by every violent means available.

    This image is a classic case of misdirection to minimize the serious issues OWS seeks to address. Strangely, it’s an image which gives an eerie glimpse of a future world pro 1% profiteers want Americans to live in.

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  5. Where have all the protesters been? The 60’s and 70’s understandably produced protesters. Then there were none. Or at least it seems that way. We need more protesters in a free society. Not simply for individual *rights* or from a sense of entitlement, but because there are those who simply are powerless and are taken advantage of. It’s not simply a self-entitlement posture. In this case it may be a posture that says our policies, not just those in the U.S., but throughout the developed world, have some unintended consequences. Without speaking about the heart, or the evil in other’s hearts, perhaps we can assume that no harm was meant, and unfortunately what started with great promise and potential, went south, ala Plato.

    It’s always good to examine and be honest about how broken something is and do something about it. That’s what the OWS folks are doing, unveiling issues and brokenness.

    MLK Jr. never claimed his marches or protests would directly change things or policies. But he knew they would bring drama to veiled and sometimes not so veiled injustice. This would move people to act, to live differently, and yes, ultimately change the hearts and minds of law makers. Our conscience trickling to those in power…. I can’t say that I’m purely anti-capitalist, but it seems to me that a capitalism without a conscience, or any other system that doesn’t allow for a a healthy middle class and care for the poor, is broken. It seems like “trickle down” economics have become trickle-up economics, only a few benefit. And how we care for the least of these, speaks to our spiritual health, so it seems. How do we best care for ‘the least of these’?

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    1. ” I can’t say that I’m purely anti-capitalist, but it seems to me that a capitalism without a conscience, or any other system that doesn’t allow for a a healthy middle class and care for the poor, is broken.”

      Does America not have a large middle class? Does it not care for the poor? I think it actually does those things very well, in fact a little too well sometimes. For the Bible also says “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10
      I hope you will examine the forces that are at work in the Occupy movement, I don’t believe they come from the Lord “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” 1Cor 14:33

      Here is list, I hope you will check out, of the groups and people that have come out in support of OWS. It is well-sourced.

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      1. You serious about the large middle class? Relative to what? The shrinking of the middle class isn’t because of mobility out of middle to upper middle or rich, it’s because the mobility is going from middle to poor. What has changed? Is it as simple as entitlement? Can we agree that the power of very few can either benefit or harm those with little power, And if harmful malicious intent is irrelevent.

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      2. I do believe we have a large middle class. Relatively, a larger and more upwardly mobile middle class than other industrialized nations. In fact, I read recently (sorry I don’t have the link) that the average poor person in America lives in more square footage than the average European – not the average poor European, just the average European.
        There will always be wealth disparity in under any system, including communism. The question is what creates the best life for the most people, and I believe the American free-market system does that better than any other system that has existed.
        Unfortunately, I think that if the OWS movement gets their way, there will be many Americans who realize that too late.

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      3. Sorry, one more point. When it comes to income disparity, it isn’t wrong to ask, “how do we make it better?” but it would necessitate one of two things, do we make the rich poorer, or make the poor richer? I would say that it would be better to make the poor richer, so the next questions is, how do we do that?
        There was a study that said that you are virtually guarenteed middle class status if you do three things:
        graduate high school
        get married before you have a child
        work
        One solution then to me, would be to emphasize in the education system that the way to a secure financial future is to satay in school, etc. It would seem like this is a no-brainer, but having two kids who went through public school, I think the emphasis is often more on victim status, and political correctness.
        Charter schools often outperform public schools on less funding, partly because of the emphasis on the childs responsibility for their future.
        Another solution is obviously, to have a healthy supply of good paying jobs. So again, how do we accomplish that? Government over-regulation and high taxation cannot be supposed to help in this. Protectionist policies, perhaps. But a non-combative attitude from government certainly wouldn’t hurt.

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  6. Friend “Average”, the story is not so simple. For one thing, the Western world introduced ownership of land, not an idea that was normal in many cultures. Think of the Native Americans.

    Then our government subsidizes farmers to keep the farm prices high. Do you remember farm programs that paid farmers to not plant their fields? The food is then given away,overseas, and no local farmer can compete with free. We also gave them equipment that they cannot afford to maintain, and agricultural methods that don’t work in their climates.

    Yes, there is corruption overseas. Many governments and local warlords maintain power by manipulating the food aid that comes into their area. But we are also not able to throw stones. Think of a group like Monsanto which has worked steadily to close all small seed companies. Why do you think the agribusinesses can get away with all that they do?

    Interestingly, medical research is finding that many in African countries die of AIDS not because they have sex more often than the US does, but because they are so physically weak, that they cannot fight off the disease. Poor water, poor diet, and limited access to medicine are huge factors. And they are supposed to compete with the Western world?

    My church has Burmese refugees and the children born in the US are large compared to their parents. What caused this? Our pastor asked and found that the parents all experienced frequent incidences of hunger and malnutrition. The children don’t have this experience and so are much larger and healthier.

    Are we in the US responsible for every failure? No. But we are not innocent in many, either.

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    1. “The food is then given away,overseas, and no local farmer can compete with free. We also gave them equipment that they cannot afford to maintain, and agricultural methods that don’t work in their climates. ”

      I’m just curious as to what the solution is then? Is it bad that we gave them free food? I’m sure it was with good intention. Should we not give them equipment? Are we responsible for all of these things, or isn’t anything we do in the name of compassion a good thing?
      The only answer seems to be to me to give them a government that respects their individual rights and allows them to flourish. But I don’t know how you’d accomplish that without violence.

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  7. I agree with “Can Do”

    You speak about the problems in Africa as if they were the result of American protectionism. I’m not an expert, but I believe that the largest problem in Africa is their dictatorial governments. All attempts at aid and in establishing some semblance of a free society have failed in most parts of Africa, thus the economic ruin.
    America, for all her faults, has done more for the good of the planet than any other nation in history. I say that not as a boast, but in wonder of what freedom and faith in God can do. The current Occupy Wall Street protests sound to me like the rebellious Isrealites:

    1 Samuel 8: 5- 22
    And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
    And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
    According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
    Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
    And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king.
    And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint [them] for himself, for his chariots, and [to be] his horsemen; and [some] shall run before his chariots.
    And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and [will set them] to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
    And he will take your daughters [to be] confectionaries, and [to be] cooks, and [to be] bakers.
    And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, [even] the best [of them], and give [them] to his servants.
    And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
    And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put [them] to his work.
    He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.
    And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.
    Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;
    That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.
    And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD.
    And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, Go ye every man unto his city.

    It’s very important to remember that freedom is the state God created for us. What He designed was the system of judges. Each person was to follow the law, and if they broke it, or had a dispute, they were brought before the judges. Kind of like what we have here today.
    By wishing for an all-consuming government to solve our problems for us, we reject are rejecting God, as he said “they have not rejected you (samuel) but they have rejected me, that i should not reign over them.”
    Ouch.

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  8. It is absurd to suggest that we shouldn’t protest these abuses until we are as poor as the rest of the world – but it also might be equally absurd that we haven’t protested them with the passion we’ve seen in the Occupy movements – until our own livelihoods, (as we’ve defined them) have been on the line. The assessment of the abuse is right-on. However, I also think it isn’t prudent to avoid looking at what may possibly be, (in some regards) the shadow-side of the movement. Which, by many of the signs written and carried by the protestors themselves, has very much to do with individual situations. This is understandable – heck, I’ve been there. It’s a scary, scary place to be. But, instead of being reactionary to the somewhat inflammatory images like the one at the beginning of this post, perhaps it’s a chance to say, “Oh shit. Why are we suddenly angry enough to be moved to protest systems that are, and have been, dragging people under with greed only when our own asses are on the line?” I personally feel a great sense of remorse and even embarrassment that it takes us loosing a little comfort to call comfortably numb people, (for which the system is “working”) out of complacency regarding systems that have been screwing people the world-over for years. I’m speaking collectively and personally. I’m embarrassed that I ever thought I was owed anything when the systems started “failing” us, and I certainly was an entitled kind of angry for a few years. Looking back and at the big picture, I’m remorseful about that. Because when it comes right down to it, I didn’t earn that breath I just took.

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  9. As Terry Eagleton put it in the Guardian today:

    Rather than squat down with a placard outside the Jerusalem temple, [Jesus] staged his protest within its walls… The fracas Jesus created in this holiest of places, driving out the money changers and overturning their tables, was probably enough to get him executed. This itinerant upstart with a country-bumpkin background was issuing a direct challenge to the authorities. Even some of his comrades would probably have seen this astonishing act of defiance as nothing short of sacrilegious.

    We are not told whether the riot police (temple guards) dragged him off, but they would surely have felt fully justified in doing so. Some members of the Jewish ruling caste would have been searching for an excuse to shut the mouth of this populist agitator.

    Not long after this piece of political theatre, he was dead. Not only dead, but crucified, and crucifixion was a punishment the Romans reserved mainly for political offences. You were pinned up on public view as a warning to other prospective rebels.

    What did Jesus have against money changers? It can’t have been that he was opposed to commercial transactions. In fact, he seems to have had a money man, Judas Iscariot, on his own staff, though admittedly not the kind of man to give accountancy a good name. Nor would he have thought that religion should have no truck with such lowly affairs. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is not a declaration that politics is one thing and religion another. Any Jew familiar with scripture would know that the things that are God’s include justice, compassion, welcoming the immigrant and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich.

    It was the system of which the money changers were part that probably stirred Jesus to such fury.

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    1. Good question, Vern.

      In sharp contrast to the oppressive Roman military occupation of the first century, Jesus called people to the Kingdom of God, which was characterized by peace, justice, concern for the poor and love for enemy.

      The first-century Pax Romana was a “peace” won through violent military action. Jesus preached a different kind of peace—a peace that surpasses all understanding—and a kingdom, not of Caesar, but of God. The Romans executed Jesus because he preached on this other kingdom, a kingdom based on peace and justice, over the empire of Rome, which ruled by violence and force. For Jesus [and Paul], peace could not be won the Roman way, through military victory and trampling their victims, but only through justice, love for neighbor and enemy, and submitting oneself to God.

      Paul, in fact, frequently calls Jesus ‘Lord’, which is a direct slap in the face to the emperor. The entire book of Revelation is a contrast between Jesus and Caesar, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Rome.

      For more on this, I would recommend John Dominic Crossan’s book: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now, or Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire, or, for more on Paul, Crossan and Reed’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. Another good book is E. Stauffer’s Christ and the Caesars.

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      1. Right- sometimes we can gloss over John 14:27’s “I do not give [peace] as the world gives” and make it a dualism between God’s way and world’s way. How did Jesus’ world give peace? Complete domination (with a catchy name like Pax Romana). How did Jesus give peace? That might be the right question.

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  10. Excellent perspective Bryan! Thank you, this is the first writing of this type I have found on OWS. I have actually been struggling to reconcile just these points, knowing that there was more to it that the pictures did not tell.

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  11. From a man who has sacrificed 5 vacations to work in a orpanage in Guatamala who knows many of the same mind I say your theory is skewed. Not only has America stomped out communism, fascism, and many other isms we have done more good than harm. Yes China is a product of our own greed and that needs to be changed but overall America has done more good than harm. That will change when then individual quits buying junk.
    So what is the alternative? You seem to say the problem is Capitialism. Is there any other ism that is better?>? Yes the Capitialist system is not perfect but it is a far cry from the alternative and we seem to have fought against all others AND CRUSHED.
    The problem in this world is the evil that lies in each persons heart. Our system gives the individual the right to overcome evil within, therefore wealth and prosperiety, faith hope and charity can exist.
    I’m tired of my America being villified as if it is the problem. Other countries have had the opportunity to fight for the same freedoms we enjoy. If the collective spirit of freedom does not flourish in other countries it is not our problem. It is our responsibility to be “A city on a hill” and that is it! We have spent BILLIONS and continue doing so to spread freedom. Whether or not others choose that is not our responsibility.
    Don’t tread on me or my children. I will come off the top rope with a flying elbow smash.

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  12. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the system we are protesting has hurt hundreds of millions of people in other countries far worse than it has hurt us. All the more reason to work to change that system!

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