A dangerous economic cocktail: high unemployment, population growth, falling incomes

High unemployment, a growing population, and falling incomes are scaring me—and a lot of other Americans. So far, the only sane and hopeful response to this toxic economic cocktail is Occupy Wall Street, a movement that has as its slogan “the 99%.”  It’s sane because it is independent from politicians and political parties that, for decades, have favored the needs of corporations over working families. It’s hopeful because there is growing popular support for the movement. Occupy Wall Street is saying publicly what everyone is feeling privately—that we are living in a country that has been hijacked by the top 1%.

Unemployment is here to stay
The U.S. unemployment rate stays stuck at 9.1%. On October 7, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the broad U6 unemployment rate jumped from 16.2% to 16.5%. (The U6 rate includes the officially unemployed plus discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work, marginally attached workers who are looking for work but not recently, and part time workers who would like to work full time.) Corporations, if they are hiring at all, are hiring at the low end of the pay scale, and favor new entrants into the job market over the long-term unemployed.

According to Reuters, on October 7, 6.24 million people had been unemployed for more than six months— up by 208,000. The long-term unemployed —those having the most difficult time getting back to work—are now 44.6% of the total, up from 42.9% last month, and 41.8% a year ago. What little employment growth there is, is being absorbed by population growth, leaving no new jobs for the 14 million unemployed Americans. An additional eleven million work part-time, but would like a full time job.

Population continues to grow
As of October 2011, the U.S. has an estimated population of 312,448,000. The population more than tripled during the 20th century from about 76 million in 1900, to 281 million in 2000, reaching 300 million on October 17, 2006. We are now the third most populous country in the world after China and India. And according to official estimates, we can expect a dramatic increase in our population during the next decades.

The Census Bureau projects a U.S. population of 439 million in 2050, a whopping 46% increase from 2007. So, given how badly the economy is functioning now, where are new jobs for this growing population going to come from? And will young people today be able to make a decent living and raise a family on what those jobs will pay?

The income gap widens
For decades, middle class incomes have remained stagnant or fallen. CBS reports that, in the past year, roughly 99 percent of Americans earning less than $200,000 saw their earnings fall a collective $4.5 billion. Meanwhile, the nation’s wealthiest saw a big boost in their income. The collective wage earnings of the top 1 percent rose dramatically by $120 billion. Those earning at least $1 million a year reported payroll income totaling $224 billion in 2010, a rise of 22 percent above 2009.

While the average U.S income last year was $39,959, the mean income— the figure where half earn more and half earn less— was much lower, $26,364. Median compensation last year was just 66 percent of the average income, compared with nearly 72 percent in 1980.

An unhealthy economy based on consumer spending.
With high unemployment and less money in our pockets, our consumption heavy economy falters. Yet, the rich continue to get richer while the rest of us get poorer. And, to make things worse, corporations don’t need us anymore. Markets are opening up in developing economies around the world. If you can’t afford to buy a new pair of Nikes, middle and upper class people in India, Singapore and Brazil will.

If our economy continues to be controlled by banks and corporations whose loyalty lay solely with board members and stockholders, it is highly unlikely that there will be decent, well paying jobs for the tens of millions who need them now and in the future. When it comes to jobs, cheaper labor can be found abroad, and corporations will always make hiring decisions based on their bottom line. If our government continues to be controlled by corporate money, there is nothing to put the brakes on an inevitable downward spiral for the 99% of us who work for a living.

Occupy Wall Street, or the “99% Movement” has adopted the term “occupy” from the anti-capitalist tradition, in which people have occupied workplaces as a way to take control of the means of production. However, most of the public understands the Occupy Wall Street occupation as temporary. They see is as a symbolic and creative way to petition politicians and the government to crack down on corporate greed and corruption. It is seen as a demand that government meaningfully regulate the out of control financial markets that caused the Great Recession.

Is it greed or just free market capitalism?
As history has shown, even increased regulation, or tax law changes, while momentarily positive, will only be undone in the future when corporations and banks regain influence over legislators. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 under a Democratic administration, which was put in place after the Great Depression to control banks, is a perfect example. From the moment it was passed in 1933, the banking industry fought to weaken it and eventually repealed it with the help of corporate Democrats.

The nature of capitalism is to maximize profits. The ruling elite views regulations and taxes for funding for social programs as cutting into their profits, so it is always necessary for them to fight to dismantle them. This is the reality of class warfare, which is always initiated by the ruling elite against working families for the purpose of increasing their power and net worth.  Yet, with practiced Orwellian doublespeak, they are quick to accuse those who push back as waging class warfare against them.

Economic reforms are helpful, but they are temporary fixes and ultimately do not prevent the inevitable toll capitalism takes on working families. Deeper, systemic changes are needed to prevent the boom and bust cycles of free market capitalism that inevitably enrich the wealthy but eventually destabilize and harm the 99%. The socialist democracies of Northern European countries like Norway, Sweden or Denmark might serve as a model. They manage to maintain a market economy while providing strong social safety nets.

With unemployment remaining high, our population growing, and the income gap widening between working families and the rich, the United States is at a dangerous tipping point. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the first meaningful response to this dangerous confluence of forces. But, even if the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement fails to produce meaningful change, it’s important not to lose hope. It represents an important step in reclaiming the country for the majority who produce value for the 1% through their labor and tax dollars.

We have come together in a national movement, building networks, developing analyses, and figuring out what does and doesn’t work in combating the corruption that exists on Wall Street and Washington DC. We’re learning to function together politically and democratically without the mediation of money or political parties. No matter how long it takes, it is only through a genuine progressive grassroots movement like Occupy Wall Street that we will be able to counter the conservative myths that have captured our psyche against our own interests. With hard work and persistence—and it may be a long haul—we can envision and effect meaningful change.