As a writer, it's usually only in hindsight that you know which topics will strike a chord with readers. Sometimes you write something you think is great, and it flops. Other times you write what seems like a mild article, and the response is deafening.
I had an experience with the latter this week. In an article titled "Attention, Protestors: You're Probably Part of the 1%," I showed that those who might be considered low-income Americans could actually be classified as the 1% richest of the world. "[T]he poorest [5%] of Americans are better off than more than two-thirds of the world population," I quoted a World Bank economist as noting. I then linked it to the current Occupy Wall Street protests: "Many of those protesting the 1% are, ironically, the 1%."
That opened up the floodgates. The article has generated upward of 10,000 comments on various forums across the Internet. Bret Baier of Fox News did a segment on the article Monday; CNN followed on Tuesday.
While quoting from the article directly, the Fox segment might have used the piece to portray an anti-Occupy Wall Street message. Indeed, one of the most common interpretations of the article was that it directed protestors to "quit complaining, shut up, and go home," as one reader wrote.
That wasn't my intent. In fact, I support much of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Protesters are rightly upset. Many feel the economic system doesn't work for them anymore. It goes well beyond inequality or bank bailouts. Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, there are 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress, and the one program the majority of Americans want more public spending on -- education -- was the only major federal program to see a spending cut in 2009. Reports emerge almost daily of insider-trading scandals, Wall Street compensation surged after being bailed out, and the nation's highest-paid people are hedge fund managers exploiting other people's misery. What new regulations have been put in place to prevent another financial crisis are either toothless or the target of lobbyists actively trying to repeal them. Meanwhile, unemployment is at a generational high.
That should spark protests, as it has in the past. Consider this quote from the book Since Yesterday, describing life in the 1930s during the Great Depression:
It is usually not during a collapse that men rebel, but after it. There had been riots and hunger-marches here and there but on the whole the orderliness of the country had been striking, all things considered.
Yet men could not be expected to sit still forever in the expectation that an economic system which they did not understand would right itself. The ferment of dissatisfaction was working in many places and taking many forms, and here and there it was beginning to break sharply through the orderly surface of society. ...
These [people] were not revolutionaries. On the contrary, most were by habit conservative men. They were simply striking back in rage at the impersonal forces which had brought them to their present pass.
Today, many do understand the economic system they live in, in large part thanks to Internet and social media giving everyone a voice. As my colleague Brian Richards wrote after visiting the protests in New York, many occupiers have a clear, cogent message -- things like encouraging people to switch from banks to credit unions, providing personal finance courses in public education, and being dismayed with the short-term-oriented culture that pervades Wall Street. I think most Americans agree at least in part with these grievances. That's likely what's made the movement successful so far. Only a small minority are actively involved in the protests, but many Americans sympathize with their views.
But I still stand by the message in my original article: Perspective is key when discussing these issues. Many protesters indeed are among the 1% richest people on the planet. America might be packed with injustice and wrongdoing, but it's important to remember that on the whole, our system has created more prosperity -- even for our poorest members of society -- than most of the world can fathom. That's why it's crucial that protesters not turn anticapitalist, but instead remain focused on perversions of capitalism like cronyism, bailouts, and corruption.
Pointing out the global distribution of income isn't a jab against protesters. It's just another perspective. And when you automatically reject perspectives, the propensity for critical thinking nosedives. Stepping back and asking, "Have you thought about it this way?" is rarely a bad thing. Even if you think about it that way and don't like it, that's fine. Adding perspective doesn't mean you're for or against something; it simply allows people to think about a topic in a way they hadn't before.
So keep fighting, 99%. But keep things in perspective, too.