fresh voices from the front lines of change







Being in the 99 percent, and living in Washington, DC, is to live and work in close proximity to the 1 percent. (Especially if you work in Capitol Hill.) When you do so on a daily basis, it's easy to forget that — as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote — "The rich are different from you and me."

Today, I came across two web campaigns that serve as a reminder of just how different we're talking about here.

The One Percent

Brave New Films has launched a website called "Who Are The 1 Percent?", where visitors can vote on "the worse of the one percenters."

In just the last generation, the richest 1% almost quadrupled their incomes.

The average wealth of the 1% is 225 times bigger than the wealth of the typical household the highest its ever been.

Three decades ago, CEOs made about 40 times as much as an average worker now CEOs make almost 200 times as much as regular employees.

Last year, half of Americans earned less than $26,000 while CEOs at top 500 companies raked in an average of $11 million.

Over the past decade, earnings for middle-class Americans actually fell. In fact, working Americans wages are now a lower percentage of our economy than theyve ever been.

The divide between the richest and the poorest is worse in America than it is in nearly all of Europe and Asia and much of Africa. Its about as bad as in Rwanda and Serbia and its bad for our economy.

The 1% is not an accident it is the result of policies our government chose to pursue.

Head over to their site, and you can cast your vote for the worst one percenter. Rigt now, the top vote-getters are:

  • Rupert Murdoch
  • Jamie Dimon
  • Rob Walton
  • The Koch Brothers
  • Lloyd Blankfein
  • Larry Summers
  • Erik Prince
  • Paul Singer
  • Rush Limbaugh

Other contenders include Darrell Issa, Robert Rubin, Don Blankenship, Angelo Mozilo, and Dick Cheney. It's an impressive line-up (or depressing, considering what's happened to the players in the financial crisis — nothing)

Still it seems lacking. Don't get me wrong, any of these guys is more than deserving of your vote. But there are plenty others who could've made the list.

Where's Alan Greenspan? You know, one third of the "committee to save the world", whose malignant negligence nearly brought it to ruin instead? The guy who ignored multiple warnings about the impending housing crash?

What about Peter Peterson? You know, the guy who spends his fortune bribing once respectable newspapers, renting movie theaters, and even staffing the president's deficit commission, to create a false Social Security "crisis" and foment "generational warfare"?

The 99 Percent

You get to vote for "the worst of the one percenters" at the Brave New Films site, but you don't get to be a one percenter. At "Spent", the online game created by the Urban Ministries of Durham, which I learned of thanks to Laura Clawson at Daily Kos, you get to be a low-income 99 percenter.

There's the fantastic online game Spent. Created by the Urban Ministries of Durham, Spent walks you through a month as a low-wage worker, offering you dilemma after dilemma, detailing the realities behind them and not letting you pretend that there are perfect choices. In Spent, you have a kid, and even if you can pretend you could go to work sick, refuse any pleasure, eat ramen noodlescould you say no to sports or a gifted and talented class for your child? Spent makes clear that your answer to each question might have a backlash just a little down the road. And it uses Facebook to integrate the moments when, in real life, you might need to ask a friend for help. Still, when Spent asks you to go grocery shopping, it can be a lot easier to tell yourself that sure, you could live on ramen noodles and beans than it would be to actually live on those things day in and day out.

Click the red button inviting you to "Accept the Challenge," and right away you have to start making decisions, like which job to take, whether to opt-in or opt-out of a health insurance deductible that's a significant chunk of your paycheck, whether to go to the doctor about your chest pains or ignore them, which bills to pay this month, and how much and what kind of food you can afford to buy. I went through it twice, ended up losing my job both times (once when the car I needed to get to my job was impounded because I couldn't afford to pay the impound fee incurred because I couldn't afford to pay a speeding ticket or take a day off work to contest it, and once because I talk to a union organizer). I still had money by the end of the month, but not enough for rent, and no more money coming in.

In other words, you go through the "decision tree from hell" that millions of unemployed, underemployed and low-income families is every day life. Of course, you don't know what it's really like by the time you finish the game. Your one virtual "month" among the poorest of the 99 percent is over in about 10 minutes, and you can go back to checking your email or watching YouTube videos. But it might make you think about what this recession is like for millions of Americans — and how dangerously close you might be to life imitating "Spent."

In that sense, it's kind of like the Food Stamp Challenge joined by some members of Congress.

The SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge gives participants a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans. Most participants take the Challenge for one week, living on about $4 per day worth of food the average food stamp benefit. Challenge participants are forced to make difficult food shopping choices, and often realize how difficult it is to avoid hunger, afford nutritious foods, and stay healthy.

Members of Congress, governors, state officials, journalists and other community leaders have taken the Challenge and have learned first hand what it is like to try to make ends meet on the average food stamp benefit.

After paying for housing, energy and health care expenses, many low-income households have little or no money remaining to spend on food without food stamp benefits. In addition, most food stamp households report that their food stamp benefits do not last the entire month and many are forced to turn to food pantries and soup kitchens.

While living on a food stamp budget for just a week cannot come close to the struggles encountered by low-income families week after week and month after month, it does provide those who take the Challenge with a new perspective and greater understanding.

Oh, and you don't have to be a member of Congress to take the food stamp challenge either. But you may get the same benefit: deficit reduction. Empathy deficit reduction, that is.

When rich people run for office, they typically spend their campaign time doing two distinct things: (1) they spend upwards of five or six hours a day calling the wealthy and the super-wealthy for money; and (2) they spend the rest of their time at "grassroots" events, parades, or debates trying pretend that they didn't just spend the bulk of their day courting max out checks and listening to the needs of the 1%.

...The fleeting sympathy exhibited at campaign events can often be genuine. But it is often fleeting. One need only look at our federal politics to see that too many members on both sides of the aisle choose to cater to their wealthy call time donors than to the throngs they meet on the trail.

Can wealthy politicians empathize with the plight of the American working class? Of course they can. Not all politicians grew up in privilege. Vice President Joe Biden is a classic example of an elected official whose working class roots guide him today. And even among those who were lucky enough to be born into the 1%, wealth and a just heart are not mutually exclusive by any measure.

...And that's why Occupy Wall Street is so important.

Because while it's easy to shake the hand of a supporter at a county fair and move on, it's not easy to shake off the narrative-changing protests that are still taking place across the country. Whatever the end result of the protests, they can and have caused members of Congress to perk up their ears and, at the very least, listen. Some members of Congress will give OWS protestors the same amount of attention Gingrich gave to the Greek workers during that luxury cruise. Others, however, will afford the movement and its growing voice a longer listen. Perhaps that sliver of sympathy is all we can expect out of this Congress. Perhaps that's the best of a bad situation -- until we get OWS to occupy seats in Congress and bring true representation to the 99%.

A little empathy for the 99 percenters of "Spent" who are bearing the brunt of the consequences the shenanigans of the one percenters profiled by Brave New Films might go a long way indeed.

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