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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It's easy to paint signs that say "eat the rich" or react to them by self-righteously ranting against “class warfare,” but a lot of people on both sides of the issue don't seem to get that the Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t just about money. It’s about values.
To get an idea of what I mean, answer one question: Which are you a part of, the 1% or the 99%? Chances are, you know exactly on which side of the line you stand. And chances are, your answer doesn’t have much to do with your adjusted gross income.
Technically, the top 1% is a tricky concept even when you limit it to salary, and calculators vary dramatically in how they define it. Kiplinger says it’s $344,000 a year. The Wall Street Journal says it’s $507,000 a year. Either way, it’s more than most of us hope to earn per year in our productive lifetimes.
It also happens to be a figure below that of my father’s, who as the owner of a small business – a neighborhood gym on the east side of Manhattan – takes in enough to be a part of the well-off bourgeoisie (we’re French, so I can call it that). When I told him, he was not at all happy with the characterization.
And that’s because it has always been clear what part of the divide we stand on: the 99% who want their voices to be heard as loudly as the voices that are backed by heaps of money.
I don’t quite remember how my parents led me to the idea that because I was born in the U.S. to parents of some means, I should give what I could to those without the same opportunities. But from a very young age, I knew I wanted to use what I had in service of others, so I served in the Peace Corps twice and spent a good amount of time volunteering for human rights organizations and aid agencies in the various other places I ended up. No matter what my family’s social status, I knew we needed to help people living in desperate conditions improve their quality of life.
Remember when it seemed like everyone you knew described themselves as "upper middle class" as a point of pride (whether it be aspirational or modest)? That’s not how it works anymore.
As the middle class melts away as fast as the world’s glaciers and the nation undergoes an identity crisis over what we are if we aren’t the strongest nation on earth, the Occupy Wall Street movement has one simple message: The system is broken, and we need to fix it.
And it’s not just about taking more of rich people’s money, even though Warren Buffett is right for calling attention to how little he pays in taxes. It’s about how the money is used.
We see large companies such as banks start to charge customers to spend their own money because they have this twisted idea that because they used to make a certain amount of money before the Dodd-Frank reforms (by opting customers into overdraft fees and charging small businesses ridiculous sums to process electronic transactions), they have a “right” to earn that much or more forever.
Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) CEO Brian Moynihan made the point explicitly: The company makes decisions that support shareholders (the people who lend it money) rather than its customers (the people who give it money).
Similarly, when our elected representatives are forced to raise millions of dollars every time they want to “serve their country” because, like it or not, their opponent is ready to pay for the best advertising and propaganda money can buy, the 99% is reminded that their voice isn’t worth anything.
Money undermines democracy when a company — beholden first and foremost to its shareholders — is allowed to give millions of dollars to buy their favorite candidate an election. There doesn’t need to be an explicit trade of cash for votes; the votes are assured when the cash supports the “right” candidate.
The result is that a person with six digits’ worth of money to burn on a candidate has more of a voice in making the law than you or I. And that is wrong. The rich guy already has a vote, but he can buy thousands more if he spends his money presenting opinion as fact on television every day.
If you simply get money out of politics, that person’s voice and my own are equal. That is democracy. Quite simply, that is equality. And that means the value judgment is a pretty simple one: You either believe in the fundamental equality of people or you believe in the privilege of money.
-- Follow the author on Twitter at @emersongreg