EDITORIAL: Are we occupied yet?

HAVING WORKED ON WALL STREET I felt unwilling to hang out again in that cement cavern. But I stumbled on the Occupy Wall Street sister demonstration in Boston a couple of weeks ago, where the nearly empty sidewalks on a balmy Saturday afternoon in the financial district suddenly blossomed into a mid-week-lunch-hour sized crowd. They just looked like people you’d see here or anywhere else, except for their signs.

This newspaper seldom covers national news, and since the big media organizations have told us that these demonstrators lack a focus and don’t have either a common plan or much money, this seems like something we should leave to others. There are plenty of issues right here in Columbia County, like staying warm this winter. That’s going to be tougher for some folks if the federal government cuts a program called LIHEAP.

LIHEAP is one of those government bailout programs. People with low incomes — that’s the “LI” part of the acronym — many of them our older neighbors — rely on LIHEAP to help paying their heating bills. Now the government says it will cut the program by 66% in this county. Maybe they’re onto something.

After all, the people who receive LIHEAP assistance aren’t required to pay back taxpayers for the help they get. If they took the risk of living here in the Northeast, why should the government bail them out? And consider this: most of the older folks who got LIHEAP help last heating season have stayed here until we’re on winter’s doorstep once more and they’ll need help again. Didn’t they get the memo on cold weather?

Let’s not be heartless about this. Let’s demand that Congress buy all these LIHEAP freeloaders one-way tickets to Florida and be done with them. Think of the money we’d save. A bill to that effect may already have been introduced in the House of Representatives for all I know.

The federal government plans to get tough on old people and poor people this winter: No heating help until mid-November; some folks must wait until January. And now the help stops in balmy March, not May. Well, poor people don’t vote or give big campaign contributions in return for special deals. So they’ll just have to shiver.

But you know what really happens. When the government decides it can no longer afford to help people who need help, and there’s a real and immediate need among the people, we run into on the street, the difference comes out of the pockets of the generous people of this county… until, at some point, generous people need help themselves.

The problem isn’t unique to this place, so it’s small wonder that people in communities around the country and the world have gathered in cities and towns not with a particular solution in mind but with a shared concern about where the money has gone that used to pay for programs like LIHEAP (or plenty of others they’ll be happy to tell you about). Many of them use a figure that economists don’t question: right now in the U.S., 1% of the population in this country controls almost 40% of the nation’s wealth. The protesters identify themselves as part of the 99% that must divide up what’s left of the pie. Regardless of whether you think that’s good or bad, the chances are, if you’re reading this you’re part of the 99% too.

There’s power in that message, because that’s what it is, a message not a program. Think about it in historical terms. When President Reagan went to Berlin and said: “… tear down this wall!” that phrase didn’t call for a specific set of proposals aimed at removing the Iron Curtain; but within a few years his words had become reality, and the tyranny of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe had ended.

No one can predict the lifespan of the 99% rallying cry, but it resonates in large part because it includes essentially all of us. And however many ideas we have for improving the economy or fixing other problems we face, a lot of people among the 99% share the belief that the way the 1% manages to benefit at the expense of the rest of us isn’t fair. The protests are a local story because 99% is who we are. 

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