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Middle classes let out another shriek of pain, this time in DC

The Irish Times – Saturday, November 5, 2011

Middle classes let out another shriek of pain, this time in DC


AMERICA: THE OCCUPY movement that started in the US seven weeks ago has been described as a shriek of pain by the American middle- class.

That pain was obvious on Thursday, when 2,000 nurses, trade unionists and government employees gathered in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, for a demonstration called Occupy the Treasury.

“This is the tipping point,” Ruth Poulin (55), an administrator in a federal health agency told me. “If this [protest movement] doesn’t work, we will have lost the country as we knew it. Now is the time for people to act, if they really care.”

Poulin has a home in the Washington suburbs, but she sleeps in a tent in the Occupy encampment on Freedom Plaza most nights. The protesters’ ranks have been swollen by a contingent of homeless people, who would not otherwise be allowed to have tents.

“When you live in the midst of it, you understand how hard life is and how thin is the line between those who have and those who do not,” Poulin says.

Poulin weeps when she tells me that her 23-year-old daughter works three jobs but cannot meet the interest payments on her student loans, which will dog her well into middle age.

A group of nurses from the Massachusetts Nurses Association complain that all-powerful medical insurance companies force patients out of hospital too soon, insist on replacing nurses with tele-monitors and ration care.

Brian Billiter (50), a nurse, is shocked by the number of retired colleagues in their 60s and 70s who are returning to work because their retirement funds were wiped out by the financial crash.

Billiter’s wife lost her job as a teacher. The couple have difficulty paying their mortgage and live from pay cheque to pay cheque.

Middle class America is being destroyed for the benefit of the super-rich, the nurses tell me. A congressional budget office report released on October 25th showed that the top 1 per cent of earners in the US more than doubled their share of the nation’s wealth in the past three decades.

This week, a report by the non-profit groups Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed that 30 of the US’s top 280 corporations, including General Electric, Dupont, Verizon, Boeing and Wells Fargo, paid no tax from 2008 through 2010.

“They’re squeezing and squeezing us,” says Jane Perkins (56), also a nurse, “but where is that squeeze going? Into somebody’s private airplane?”

A man wearing a sandwich board passes. “The real leeches are on Wall Street,” it says. A young woman with orange dyed hair holds a sign saying “Your system doesn’t f***ing work!”

The march on the White House and treasury was timed to coincide with the G20 meeting in Cannes.

It was co-ordinated with demonstrations in Cannes, Los Angeles and San Francisco to put pressure on leaders to agree to a financial transaction tax or FTT, also known as the Tobin tax – for Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin – or the Robin Hood tax.

The previous day, Democratic congressmen proposed a 0.03 per cent tax on stock, bond and derivative trades in the US, but it has no chance of passing. The FTT could provide hundreds of billions of desperately needed dollars for healthcare and social programmes and would put a brake the high frequency, algorithm-generated trading that led to a “flash crash” last year.

In his book Confidence Men , Pulitzer prize-winning author Ron Suskind recounts that President Barack Obama originally backed the FTT, but relented under pressure from his former economics adviser Larry Summers.

Summers has since returned to Harvard, but treasury secretary Timothy Geithner continues to defend Wall Street’s interests within the administration. “Tax Timmy’s Friends” said placards at Thursday’s demonstration.

In Lafayette Park, activists from the nurses’ union staged a skit in which French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel tried to convince Geithner to support the FTT.

“The President of Ireland is with us against the 1 per cent!” the young man who played Geithner told me when I said I worked for The Irish Times.

“The president of Ireland made a speech in Cannes supporting the FTT! I saw it on Adbusters!”

The young man had confused Michael D Higgins with Bill Gates, the world’s second-richest man, who had made the speech in Cannes supporting the FTT.

The video that was posted on Adbusters, the Vancouver website that launched the Occupy Wall Street protests, showed a speech in the Dáil by the then TD from Galway last December on the Irish minimum wage, under the headline “President of Ireland Condemns the 1 per cent”.

Michael D’s words foretold exactly the sentiments of Occupy the Treasury protesters this week.

“The economy has been brought to a point of near destruction by a small group of unscrupulous people in the banking sector,” the future president of Ireland said, expressing the wish “that impunity soon come to an end”.