Why I support the 99% movement

Paraguay is the second poorest country in South America. You’d never know it from visiting some neighborhoods in the capital city of Asunción, though. Shiny new SUVs cruise the streets between the golf course and the yacht club. Boutique malls sell the latest in European fashion. Not a bad country for enjoying the good life.

I lived in Paraguay for a time in the late 1990s, but not anywhere near the country club. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty frontier community 100 miles off the paved road. With a government salary of $220/month I was the wealthiest person on my street.  My neighbors, for comparison, had 11 children and somehow made do on about $400/year they made selling tobacco to a local distributor and onions in the nearby village. Many small farmers subsisted in the short term on bank credit, a sort of debt servitude that, carried out over years, funneled resources out of the community and upward to the elite. In the long term, some eventually lost their land and migrated to the city where I lost track of them. The slums were always growing around Asunción’s outskirts.

Most of the land was owned by only 350 people, according to a newspaper article in 1998. This statistic startled me, and explained a great deal of Paraguay’s dysfunction. 350 was half the size of my high school graduating class! The country was being run by an exclusive club of millionaires that all knew each other and, for the most part, didn’t pay much attention to the poor folks.

Paraguay was ostensibly a democracy, a 1989 coup having deposed a long-standing dictator. But the elections remained theater. A few rival millionaires would emerge from their mansions long enough to film TV spots featuring them bravely clearing brush at the ranch riding about on horseback looking folksy. To remove any remaining doubt about their populist roots, they would then toss a few bribes to the voters the week of the election. My community at the forest’s edge got free chainsaws. Thanks, General Oviedo!

In spite of the country’s political corruption, I am fond of Paraguay. The people are friendly, the natural history is rich, and the climate warm and forgiving. After my tour was up, I considered starting up a beekeeping operation and staying in country. After all, I calculated that I only needed about 30 hives to sustain a basic campo lifestyle.

In the end, though, I decided against it. The crime rate was phenomenally high, the ambient poverty depressing, and as an outsider the pervasive corruption certainly didn’t work in my favor. The society simply did not function well, and although it contained great charm it was too often punctuated by avoidable tragedy.

Mostly, I never had the security I felt in the middle class in the United States. In fact, Paraguay didn’t have much of a middle class. The wealthy were wealthy, the poor were poor, and any social mobility tended to be downwards.

Paraguay has natural resources: fertile soil, navigable rivers, and a pair of world-class hydroelectric projects. But the wealth never spreads beyond the aristocracy. The powerful have little incentive to run the country to benefit anyone but themselves. Income inequality was not just a problem, it was the single biggest obstacle to any sort of improvement to the lives of the populace.

It didn’t matter if you wanted to implement a liberal program, or a conservative program, or to regulate, or to deregulate. Ideology didn’t even really matter. If the aristocrats could make money, it would happen. If it would cost them money, it wouldn’t. Unless their family was involved. They’d fire competent staff to replace them with a nephew. If you knew the right people you wouldn’t have to work hard; if you didn’t you were basically stuck. If the powers that be didn’t like a new law, it’d never be enforced. If, heaven forbid, a rivalry among the aristocrats escalated, someone got killed. Paraguayan government was corruption in near-textbook purity, and the scam was all possible because the immense resource gap between the rich and the masses meant no one from within the system could challenge it.

Now, back to the United States.

I am not enjoying watching my own country develop the same internal dynamic that corroded the heart of Paraguayan society. As power and wealth concentrate upwards, the ability of a democracy to function in the interests of its people falters. Forget free markets, or single-payer health care, or whatever your hobby horse happens to be. None of it- left, right, or center- will happen once corruption becomes endemic. And corruption is a major product of wealth disparity.

This is why I support the 99% & Occupy movements. At long last they’ve gotten Americans talking about our nascent Aristocracy. I love Paraguay, but if I wanted to live in that sort of system I’d rather move back there than grow a banana republic at home.

45 thoughts on “Why I support the 99% movement”

  1. I’m not sure why Anonymous thinks scientists aren’t supposed to be eloquent. I know many that are. But I certainly agree that this was poignant and well-stated way to express this point of view.

  2. Well put, it’s unfortiunate that sometimes what it takes is an entomologist who wants to explore the world to see whats really going on, shame.

  3. I am proud of you and thank you for being a Peace Corps volunteer. I applied for that but at that time they didn’t have a position for me.

    Thanks for posting this. I greatly appreciate your reflection.

  4. Been following this blog from an RSS feed on my homepage…(I found it from all the ant photo credits throughout the web…) Have to say…I like it more and more every time I read it.

  5. I’m from Brazil and lived in US for 4 years and I’m also a biologist. Most of what you have written here applies to Brazil as well, in fact you right. Seeing people being wounded in a peaceful protest as happened in Oakland made me think about that when it come to discuss about the mean of power in the society even the solid democracy from USA became fragile. We all should learn with ants that work to support the anthill but not only the queen.

  6. Well put, Alex. I guess I’ve been seeing the converse of this in Australia: here we’ve got universal healthcare, pretty fair taxes (at least, from my perspective), and dramatically lower income inequality, and the country seems to be running just fine (Qantas notwithstanding). ( http://geocurrents.info/economic-geography/difficulties-calculating-inequality-and-the-gini-coefficient )

    Makes me wonder why the majority of folks in the US don’t look at Canada or Australia and ask “why can’t we do that?”

  7. Sounds great. It always does until you run out of other peoples’ money.

    I agree corruption is the killer and the rule of law is the answer. That is why I despair at our current government where crony capitalism is the rule and the rule of law is subordinated to political advantage. Lobbyist rule and Chicago Politics triumph. We have not had a small government advocate in office for decades and it is about time for someone to clean house.

    Government is not the answer. Government is ALWAYS the problem. We have Department of Education SWAT teams ! Fabulous. We have 1800 Obamacare waivers ! Delicious !! We have billions lost to bankrupt Solyndra’s ! Way to go !! We have Unions as new owners of General Motors and bond holders screwed out of Billions legally theirs ! Fair and Balanced !!
    We have 4 trillion (that is 4 Thousand BILLION) pissed away in 2 years with absolutely NOTHING to show for it.

    Share the other persons wealth !! Yes indeedy, Occupy Portland paypal account emptied by one of the crowd !! Outstanding !!

    The problem with the governments of the Parguays in this world is not that they are not powerful enough – the problem is that they are TOO powerful. If you want to increase the power of the citizen you must decrease the power of government. It is that simple.

    The tea party is the kind of answer needed, not the fascist left #ows, as you can see from the latter’s everyday violence, anarchism, and careless law breaking. Starve the government of money and they are weak; a better balance is required since ours is sticking it’s nose into our personal business and its wide open mouth into the public trough. Gobble gobble.

    “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty. ” Thomas Jefferson

  8. That’s quite a rant, BioBob. I won’t presume to take on the whole thing, but this comment seems particularly unfounded, “We have 4 trillion (that is 4 Thousand BILLION) pissed away in 2 years with absolutely NOTHING to show for it.”

    There is no way to know for certain what might have happened to the economy without that 4T injection. It couldjust as plausibly be stated that we would have gone into a full-blown depression without it. The thing is, neither this statement nor yours are backed by any stated data or analysis, so I am absolutely UNCONVINCED. A careful (and dauntingly exhaustive) analysis with the benefit of hindsight will tell us more.

    In any case, if the past is any indication, it seems safe to say that regardless of the current hand wringing and personal misfortune, on the one hand, and shameless, opportunistic accumulation of wealth by fewer and fewer of us, on the other, the economy will cycle back upward again, as it has done many times before. Of course, everyone with a point of view will claim that theirs was what allowed it finally to happen.

    By the way, I love the Jefferson quote. Few in government today, whatever their stated political stripe, fear the people. They’re mostly way too insulated from us to care. That’s why the 99%/Occupy movement, and I’ll admit, the Tea Party movement are both good for the health of our democracy. They instill just a tiny bit of fear into the politicians. To wit: Look how the Republicans are running scared, spouting off things they don’t even believe, to appease the Tea Party, and thus fully exposing the arguments to inspection.

    1. bah, here is a simple way to know:
      notional unemployment rate 2007 prior to 4 trillion = 9.3 %
      notional unemployment rate 2011 after 4 trillion = 9.2 %
      actual unemployment is MUCH higher, since all they report are those qualifying or applying for UI.

      – another way – Food Stamp recipients:
      2007 = 27 million
      2011 = 45 million

      You want to tax the rich ? Good luck finding any ! The number of filers claiming income of 1 million or more went down by 40% since Obama took office.

      “If Congress imposed a 100 percent tax, taking all earnings above $250,000 per year, it would yield the princely sum of $1.4 trillion. That would keep the government running for 141 days.”

      Read up on what a Laffer curve is. Soak the rich ? Good luck with that. They will just move to Paraguay since they aren’t exactly clueless, unlike the #ows. ROFL

      Fix the corruption, enforce the rule of law, decrease the size of government, pay off the debt, and remove the power of lobbyists and the rest will follow.

      But it probably won’t happen anyway – the corruption could be too pervasive, the population too ignorant of the realities and sidetracked into “useful stupidities” like the 99% and #OWS.

      1. “bah, here is a simple way to know:
        notional unemployment rate 2007 prior to 4 trillion = 9.3 %
        notional unemployment rate 2011 after 4 trillion = 9.2 %”

        In a previous thread, you whinged about the statistical illiteracy that’s rampant in scientific literature. True enough. Yet here you take two points in a time series, with absolutely no control data, and run with it.

        Is it only idiocy when other people do it?

        1. gimme a break – this isn’t science – this is politics and alinsky

          go look at the full unemployment time series yourself and weep – it’s not my numbers – its your precious governments numbers and they aren’t any secret. I suppose you want them to begin in 1492 or 1783 or something? The point was that Obama spent 4 trillion on his “job stimulus” and various bailouts in 2008 – 2010 and unemployment was virtually unchanged.

          consider this – divide that 4 trillion pissed down the craphole and divvy it up by the total population of the USA (300 mill) or just the unemployed and what do you get ? We or they would all be millionaires instead of being unemployed, no ? So well did that redistribution of wealth work for them ? Do the math; it’s not rocket science or probability theory.

        2. I’m not buying it. Without a proper control those numbers don’t mean anything. If baseline unemployment would have been a few points higher without the stimulus, then it was worth it, if just to maintain ground. Or maybe it wasn’t, if the non-stimulus unemployment was small. I’m willing to be convinced either way, but it all depends on what would have happened in the absence of stimulus.

          “this isn’t science – this is politics”

          If it’s your argument that rigorous treatment of data only applies to non-economic spheres, then you’ve got nothing of value to add. You’re another ideologue just making shit up to suit your political perspective, and that’s not worth my time.

        3. who cares if you buy it ? Check the Labor Dept stats at the link yourself if you don’t believe it. they are not my numbers and it is reality, no matter how long you put your fingers in your ears and sing lalalalala

          you think that fed under obama did not deficit spend 4+ trillion on bailouts, job stimulus, crony capitalism, union paybacks, graft and corruption in 2 years ? it’s all there in black and white and nobody argues about that amount.

          We are now 15 trillion in debt, 9 trillion debt in 2007, and it is unlikely that we will be able to pay it off, since it will amount to millions per citizen. When the crash comes, it will be bad because we will finally have run out of other people’s money.

  9. “As power and wealth concentrate upwards, the ability of a democracy to function in the interests of its people falters.”

    Well said Alex. Thanks. What would happen if all were as well spoken as you?!

  10. Thank you, Alex. The reasons you stated are why I support the 99 percent, too. Very nicely stated.

    And BioBob, no offense, but were you asleep from 2001 to early 2009, when a certain group of small-government enthusiasts were running the show? I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets a big chuckle whenever some self-professed conservative goes off on the putative corruption of the Obama administration.

  11. Nice post. I think there is a certain optimal point where the necessities of the free market are in balance with the needs of the majority of the population. Scandinavian countries seem to have found that optimal balance; the further you go from it in either direction, the worse off you are. And it is very easy to overshoot that optimal point. I’ve seen Russia jump from a too-egalitarian society to an oligarchy in just ten years.

    What apparently happened in the US was that Cold War pro-market rhetoric became too entrenched in people’s minds. As a result, the country doesn’t even have a major left-wing party: there are centrists (the Dems) and the ultra-right (the Republicans). Until there is a major shift to the left in popular understanding of how society should work, the US will continue sliding to the right, further and further away from that optimal point.

    1. So sorry, Vlad, but you don’t seem to get it.

      Russia went from mostly incompetent corrupt marxist inspired Politburo oligarchy to a incompetent viciously corrupt wealthy ex KGB etc. oligarchy in just 20 years. Not much has changed. Along the way they ripped off everybody by defaulting on their sovereign debt more than once and beat up their weakling neighbors.

      We have plenty of leftists, socialists, green watermelons, atheists, the captive-zombie-poor, ingenuous idealistic young, useful idiots, even commies – they control much of the universities, unions (shared by the Mafia), educational system, and much of the mainstream media. They are called Democrats.

      We also have a amalgam of oligarchs (country club types), social conservative religious-right, fiscal conservatives, small government conservatives, libertarians and jacksonians – they control a portion of the blogosphere, radio talkshows, and a minority of the media. They are called Republicans.

      In each party, the subset fight for control over the whole – this is called balance of power, similar to the way our government was designed to work. Along the way, we beat up our weakling neighbors and anybody who kicks dirt in our face and could soon rip off everybody by defaulting on our sovereign debt.

      We greater unwashed ‘mericans don’t do 3rd or 4th parties well and we don’t play nice. ;>D

      1. BioBob, since you just explained to me what had really happened in Russia (thanks, I had no idea!), I feel obliged to return the favor.

        Balance of power is supposed to work between parties and branches of government, not within parties. You see, US parties are not really parties – they are more like parliament coalitions in other countries. The reason for that is not that Americans are unwashed, and not that they “don’t do” 3rd parties, but that their electoral system is among the world’s most outdated. There is no such thing as runoff elections, so any attempt to create a third party results in handing over the power to the opposite camp, like it happened with Nader giving victory to Bush. If this glitch was fixed, American politics would immediately get much healthier, but there is no incentive for the two existing “parties” to change the status quo. It’s as simple as that.

        1. hey, Vlad, you apparently are not suppose to lecture me on USA politics because you are not an American, LOL. I find your views funny and I don’t mind them. but you still don’t get it.

          we don’t consider our electoral system outdated, and balance of power applies to everything under the sun. We won the cold-war and you lost for instance. And we have the left-zombie-poor vote here courtesy of ACORN. Top that for the latest in Political Invention !

          BTW, we do have runoff elections of various types here and every state does elections in its own way so it isn’t as simple as it appears. But you won’t find a better description of how our system works than my previous response despite the sarcasm and camp.

          Reread it and learn something since it has worked ‘fine’ in it’s present configuration continuously since Catherine the Great annexed the Crimean peninsula, which is more than one can say about yours.

      2. BioBob: It’s a free country, so I can lecture whoever I want on whatever I want. If you don’t want to get lectured, just don’t read the rest of this comment and don’t answer it 🙂

        If you don’t consider American system of presidential election outdated, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t. It mostly worked fine until recently, but now it doesn’t anymore. That’s precisely what outdated means.

        As for the Cold War, Russia now has decreasing unemployment (currently at less than 6%), negligible debt, and affordable military, while the US is still so obsessed with its military that it wouldn’t cut its defense budget even under threat of systemic meltdown. I am not a big fan of current Russian regime (or any of the past ones, for that matter), but as winning the Cold War goes, I think the winner was whoever got out of it first 😉

  12. There are some aspects of the OWS movement that I agree with — the most important is getting government out of businesses. A big issue, I feel, is that the work ethic in the United States is terrible for my generation (18-30). Many feel entitled to what their parents and grandparents have earned over their lifetimes, without having to put some serious man hours in. People don’t appear to save as much as they used to and aren’t as frugal. Many must always buy the latest gadgets and expensive cars once they come out. People don’t manage their finances well and don’t make calculated decisions. A lot of money can be easily wasted on junk and knick-knacks — it adds up!

    The jobs situation is certainly tough, but the jobs are out there if you make finding a job your job (and it might not be the job you want). I know several unemployed men my age (~25) who spend most of their time on video games at their parents house instead of spending their entire day job hunting. I graduated from college in December 2010 and was unemployed for nine months despite hundreds of mailed resumes. Nine months! I just got a job in September.

    Anyone with a job in the United States can become a millionaire, even someone who is making minimum wage their entire working life. http://www.dailyfinance.com/2011/08/19/become-a-millionaire-on-a-minimum-wage-salary/

    Many millionaires are self-made (“rags-to-riches”) and have put in so many hours and seen so much rejection that would make most others give up. They put it all on the line when most people would stop. I think that is the key difference, which is why most (including myself) are not millionaires. It will take some serious work, serious saving and many decades, but I plan to be there by living my life smart.

    The situation in Paraguay sounds very dire, and the arguments I have made for our country certainly do not apply to Paraguay. I truly feel for these people and the majority of the world that do not have the opportunities we have here in the United States (which many take for granted as shown by this movement).

    1. I agree with George, too many people in the USA feel entitled, and since it is so widespread I’d call it a bigger problem than corporate greed.

      Here’s something I’d like to inject in the the discussion though, since we’re on the topic of people being forced into a financial bind to get what they want or to simply get by.

      Why is it that college tuition has been increasing twice as rapidly as inflation over the past few decades? At the current rate, for a baby born today it’ll cost 3 times as much when they reach college age. At the same time, the quality of education has plummeted. Students spend a laughable amount of time studying compared to decades ago, socialize most of their time and apparently learn almost nothing at the undergraduate level.

      I’ve experienced this firsthand, I graduated recently (in entomology) and got a job as a commercial pest control technician. I felt like I worked hard in college, but I really only did compared to many of my classmates. I don’t feel like it was rigorous enough to REALLY prepare and qualify me for entering the working world. Of course I’m doing what I need to so I can ”catch up,” but I begin to wonder what has become of my classmates. Scenes of so many of them complaining about how much time/effort they had to put into things, and the general lack of wanting to learn.

      They were there to get a diploma, not an education. Even though I wanted an education and tried to involve myself in all classes/subjects I took, my experience was still severely stinted because of the general attitude of my classmates. I could and should have put the time in to get the education I wanted, but the establishment for whatever reason gave me no incentive to do it even though I assume that’s what I was paying for (I’m not demonizing the professors because I associated with many of them closely and knew they loved and wanted the best for their students)

      I feel this applies to the occupy wallstreet movement since a large portion of them are college students who often have enormous college debt and little prospect of being able to pay it off easily. They were shortsighted to get such large loans (which have horrendous interest rates), but does our government or society teach them anything different?

      Doesn’t seem like a much different situation from Paraguay when I look at it from this angle

      1. Starting one’s life and career with a huge college debt is terrible. This is especially true if you cannot find a job for many months after graduating. I don’t blame college grads that are in debt for feeling ripped off.

        I also felt that my education was lacking, and it seemed like several of my professors assume that you will learn more at your job after you graduate. Employers, however, are complaining that it is the university’s job to prepare them. Hopefully others will add their thoughts since mine are nearly identical to yours, Matt.

        1. Your bit is all well and good, George, but I think it’s mostly anecdotal & neither here nor there in terms of grappling with policy.

          It is possible to work up from nothing to great wealth in the United States. But rather than tell stories, as an empiricist I prefer to look at relevant economic statistics. And these show pretty clearly that 1) the U.S. is not the only, nor even the easiest, country where bootstrapping your way up is possible; and 2) someone in your generation has to work on average a great deal harder than someone in your parent’s generation to generate the same outcome. Unless, of course, you were born wealthy. In that case the U.S. is one of the best countries to coast on your family’s wealth.

      2. Well said, Matt. Education has been ruined by recent Federal intervention at all levels. Universities scramble to get as much from the Federal public teat as they can and then distribute that largess according to the Iron Law, and you have described the results.

        Sucks atm, but it will change as soon as they run out of other peoples money, which should be real soon now.

  13. Thanks for this post Alex! It is one of the best pieces I have read on the subject!
    What I find most problematic with the economic system in the US and other places like it, is that financial risk accrues to the public (via bailouts), but the profit is solely private.
    Also, here in Canada, we produce shitloads of oil. The oil belongs to the Crown (i.e. the public). Yet the year after year record breaking staggering profits that the oil industry makes do not seem to trickle down to the rest of society, although you bet your ass the downstream toxic legacy costs will be borne by the people. . The Norwegians have the right idea when it comes to what to do with a petroleum industry.

    1. Sean,

      When you say we in ‘Canada’, I hope you mean ‘we in Alberta’. We get the pollution, but damned little of the profit. Still, it is more than most of Canada gets.

  14. Thanks for this post Myrmecos, it confirms two of my hypotheses about politics and science blogs: (a) the best way to attract hits and comments is with a post on politics/religion and (b) science/sceintific reasoning is the first casualty of such a post. Well, civility may go first, but civility and science go hand in hand (as opposed to, say, academics and civility).

    Vladimir – the best book I ever read on my country’s (or one of my countries’) govenment was “Parliament of Whores” by PJ O’Rourke (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_of_Whores)
    If you haven’t read it, it is worth picking up. Be warned, thoough, that the author is a conservative and so, no doubt, a bad person.

  15. Alex,

    Thanks for posting this.

    These are systematic issues that, to me, seem to be inherent in many systems: power will tend to consolidate with the powerful; concentrated interests will be better coordinated in exercising their power than diffuse interests.

    A lot of what makes me proud of what we’ve accomplished as a species has happened because power was wrested from the powerful and vested with the people. Democracy has gone a long way towards allowing us to focus our attention on the constructive. But of course no system is perfect, and no democracy is immune to the inexorable drift towards plutocracy.

    Our republic, if we can keep it, will be kept by normal people demanding a voice. I love these atypical posts — politics on an ant blog! They’re like gospel being sung in a library, all the more inspiring for being unexpected. Thanks for reminding us that we need to use our voice!

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  17. I hate to pile on so late in the game, but this is indeed a wonderful post. Thanks Alex.
    I also want to respond briefly to BioBob. You say: “Government is ALWAYS the problem” I beg to differ. There are some things that the federal government has done remarkably well, often local government and the free market cannot do these things. Take the EPA: The clean water act (CWA) has been quite successful. Point source pollution has become much less of a problem in the 4 decades since the CWA came into effect. The same cannot be said for non-point source pollution, where states have the primary regulatory responsibility.

    If the federal government is so bad at what it does, why has point source pollution dropped so dramatically? if it has primarily been because of state government or free market actions, why hasn’t non-point source pollution decreased? If these clean water actions are a rare example of the federal government doing the right thing, why do republicans want to shut down the EPA?

    I didn’t write this to point out how right I am. I am legitimately curious about your thoughts on these issues. I have not seen anyone really answer these questions, but to be fair, most of the other freshwater ecologists I know are just as liberal as I am.

    1. Grim

      Government can NOT STOP. It starts off all sweet and kind and effective and I would be first in line saying the regulations of the 70s were needed and effective. But are you REALLY saying that growing it times 20 is just as needed and effective. Government must always be under control or you face the opposite. The US started off as an extremely weak confederation of states funded only by customs duties and look at it now.

      Is CO2 REALLY a pollutant ? The EPA says so now. They really do want to control our breath, just as the ancient joke says.

      You are deluded if you think that the EPA, Greens and governments have not gotten out of control and can progress from effective and needed onward to being more like a religion and even insane.

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  19. I didn’t write this to point out how right I am. I am legitimately curious about your thoughts on these issues. I have not seen anyone really answer these questions, but to be fair, most of the other freshwater ecologists I know are just as liberal as I am.

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