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Dear Occupy Wall Street: Read Jeffrey Sachs!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“Eat the rich, feed the hungry.” “Occupy Wall Street, Not Afghanistan.” “The Left Never Left.” “Take the Bull by the Horns.” “The Beginning Is Near.” “The Empire Has No Clothes.” “Frack Me, Frack You.” “I am a revolting citizen.” “Jesus was a Marxist.” “Auto-plants fill the Earth with Machines Designed for Death.” “I love this goddamn country, and we’re gonna take it back.” “We are the 99%.”

These were some of the signs I saw on Saturday when I visited New York City’s Zuccotti Park, the base camp of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which boasts a kitchen, clothing dispensary, health clinic, media center and lots of cool music. For weeks Occupiers have fanned out through New York City protesting—well, they are protesting many things, as the diversity of signs makes clear. But here is how a flier handed to me by a young woman at an “Information” table described the movement:

“Occupy Wall Street is an otherwise unaffiliated group of concerned citizens who have come together with the general purpose of holding Wall Street (as the drivers of an increasingly undemocratic power structure) accountable for their fiscal recklessness and criminal perversion of the democratic process. We are a bunch of people like you and me who came together and said ‘enough’! We will not remain passive as formerly democratic institutions become the means of enforcing the will of only 1-2% of the population who control the magnitude of American wealth.”

The Occupiers emphasize that they have nothing in common with the Tea Party, which as they rightly note identifies with an era “before the end of slavery, before the workers’ rights movement, before the women’s movement, before the civil rights era, and before the environmental movement.” The Occupiers are resolutely nonviolent (the same cannot be said of New York police, who have pepper-sprayed some Occupiers), and they have been inspired by the recent democratic uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab nations.

The crowd, which included people of all colors, ages and sartorial styles, gave off a strong 60s vibe—and as a peacenik who marched against the Vietnam War, I mean that as a compliment. I also sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street complaints, which have inspired similar protests elsewhere across the country and even overseas. The power of money is subverting democracy, allowing an elite few to enrich themselves while many struggle to get by with low-paying jobs or no jobs.

I have a humble suggestion for the Occupiers. They should consider reading The Price of Civilization (Random House), the latest book by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, long-time consultant to the United Nations and former columnist for Scientific American. Sachs was once an unabashed believer in the benefits of capitalism. In fact, early in his career he was faulted for advocating that Poland, Bolivia and other struggling nations rapidly adopt free-market principles, an approach that critics dubbed “shock therapy.”

Over the years, Sachs has become increasingly concerned with those left behind by modern capitalism. His first two books—The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005) and Common Wealth (Penguin, 2008)—focused on the plight of the world’s poorest people, especially the billion or so defined as “extremely poor,” living on less than two dollars a day. Sachs spelled out ways in which we can eliminate extreme poverty while also preserving the environment. In The Price of Civilization, Sachs turns his sights on his own country, the U.S., which he believes is in peril.

“The American economy,” he writes, “increasingly serves only a narrow part of the society, and America’s national politics has failed to put the country back on track through honest, open, and transparent problem-solving. Too many of America’s elites—among the superrich, the CEOs, and many of my colleagues in academia—have abandoned a commitment to social responsibility. They chase wealth and power, the rest of society be damned.”

Sachs, like many of us, feels let down by Barack Obama. “The President,” he says, “has continued down the well-trodden path of open-ended war in Afghanistan, massive military budgets, kowtowing to lobbyists, stingy foreign aid, unaffordable tax cuts, unprecedented budget deficits, and a disquieting unwillingness to address the deeper causes of America’s problems.”

Sachs fleshes out our plight with data. Compensation for CEOs, which in 1970 was 40 times the average pay of workers, was 1,000 times greater by 2000. The gap between rich and poor is greater than at any time since the late 1920s, just before the Depression. Meanwhile, the IRS allows powerful corporations to “hide their profits in offshore tax havens.” Even Google, which is supposedly so hip and progressive, engages in a “tax dodge.” According to Sachs, Google funnels billions in profits into off-shore subsidiaries, which pay lower tax rates than the U.S. corporation does. Sachs points out that Sergey Brin’s “ingenious work in creating Google’s search engine” was supported by the National Science Foundation, which means that our tax dollars helped Brin get his start.

Sachs’s book is loaded with information and anecdotes like these, as well as with proposals that would make it harder for the powerful to rig the system for their benefit. If you want to change the system—and you should, whether or not you share my admiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement—read this book by someone who knows how the system works. Or rather, doesn’t work.

Photograph of protestor at the Occupy Wall Street base camp in New York City taken by Valerie Cates.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. zampaz 4:26 pm 10/11/2011

    Mr Horgan;
    I’m an analytical problem solver, but there are some
    problems in social sciences beyond my ken.
    Here are some of the problems:
    We have an economy based upon a fiat currency.
    435 members of a house of representatives representing
    300 plus million constituents. Incomprehensible taxation system. Impossible budget deficit. People who engage in
    unethical activity protected by the corporate veil.
    Increasing threats on the fourth amendment and privacy in
    the name of security.
    Media controlled by large corporations beating the drum of fear: “The war on terror.”, “The war on drugs.”,
    “The war on Everything else.”
    More money spent on prisons than education.
    We, (the United States), have attacked sovereign foreign nations without just provocation.
    We have secret courts without due process of law.
    We have created “detention” centers.
    We have used torture to extract information from prisoners.
    Ordinary citizens communications are being routed to the NSA by telecoms, protection from liability for these actions has been granted by Congress.
    The MPAA and ISPs seek internet censorship and a right to determine what online content can be accessed subscribers.

    Protesting the “rich getting richer” is as effective as
    protesting the “sick getting sicker.”
    While “Occupy Wall Street” concerns are clear, what are the proposed solutions?
    There is no clear goal or objective.

    I, and a group of my colleagues are deeply concerned.
    If this was an issue in the physical sciences or engineering we could improve our observations, re-factor our theories, debug systems, re-engineer.

    I’ll buy the book, but what are some of the proposals made in “The Price of Civilization” by Jeffrey Sachs?
    I hope that Political Scientists, Sociologists, Attorneys, Economists, Psychologists, and Business people or anybody else would be willing to share their proposals for solutions to these issues.
    How can those of us whose foundations are based in analytical problem solving help?
    Mr. Horgan, what are your proposals?
    Are there good authoritative forums where practical solutions to these issues are discussed?

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  2. 2. Andrei Kirilyuk 1:58 pm 10/13/2011

    No, they have no solutions, not really, they only “protest” against what is to “force” some others to change it all. And while that popular, street part of protests may at least be sincere, the “sympathetic” golden-left company of academic or hi-tech origin just practises infinite hypocrisy: they actually criticise themselves, their own way of life – and then continue to practically fight to preserve it and especially their privileged personal positions within it, at any price (including world destruction). We have known it too well from internal science dynamics of the last time, especially in fundamental sciences, where those parasitic science priests have been both the main, unconditional system beneficiaries and its permanent “critics”. They criticise and grab it all, grab it all (for nothing in exchange) and criticise activities THEY continue to perform (as if pertaining to impersonal “organisation” or at best “all of us”), ad infinitum. It’s enough to actually propose them real solutions, however realistic and efficient, to see that their true purpose is only to preserve their destructive domination, in particular by way of that kind of “criticism” (and the more efficient, problem-solving the solutions proposed are, the more definitely they will be rejected as a stronger danger to the army of privileged parasites). Now it happens in the same way on the level of entire social life (but often with the same kind of “well educated” priests as actual directors of the show). They will reduce you to nothing, destroy everything you have and after that they will tell you, “You see, we have warned you in our criticism”. No limits of lie in this world, there are only limits to destruction (when everything is destroyed – and you’re not so far away from it).

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  3. 3. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:17 pm 10/13/2011

    Zampas: “Are there good authoritative forums where practical solutions to these issues are discussed?”

    If the strong, deeply rooted contradiction between “authoritative” and “good” did not exist in this world, we would not be discussing these problems now, at least not for a country with the technical and communicative power of USA. If you still believe in goodness of “authoritative” (especially “officially supported” or “widely recognised”) structures, then you’re hardly ready to help those poor guys in their struggle. “Practical solutions” are not only “discussed” but widely applied for many decades already (John should remember, yet since his good-old-days marches), with the results we have. Try bad unauthoritative forums.

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  4. 4. Venomlust 2:31 pm 10/13/2011

    “The Occupiers emphasize that they have nothing in common with the Tea Party, which as they rightly note identifies with an era “before the end of slavery, before the workers’ rights movement, before the women’s movement, before the civil rights era, and before the environmental movement.”

    A few things…

    First:NOTHING in common, huh? Nothing? The phrase “No taxation without representation” couldn’t possibly draw any parallels to the proposed plight of “the 99%” who are frustrated that the minority (rich Wallstreet types influencing corrupt political types)has far more power and political influence than they do. DANG.

    NOR could parallels be drawn between the Boston Tea Party, a group of citizens taking direct action to remedy a situation they’re unhappy with, and “the 99%” a group of citizens taking direct action (albeit one of the few realistic non-violent actions) to remedy a situation they’re unhappy with. SHOOT.

    Second: Yes, the obviously Neolithic era of the original Tea Party took place before abolishing slavery, workers/women’s rights, etc. So did the alleged birth of Christ. So did our declaration of independence. So did our formation as a country. So did the writing of the Constitution. Invoking our founding fathers or “what America really stands for” must be evil as well, finding their origins in these proverbial dark ages.

    As best as I can figure, every part of the present is rooted in the past, for better or worse. We can use historical analogies to make any meaning we want; to make an idea seem better or more important, or RIGHT (in the sense of being correct, heh heh).

    I take issue with the underlying jab at Tea Party conservatives via reference to those “dark times.” It’s so easy, isn’t it? Don’t discuss legitimate issues and differences in philosophy, just brand them as some group of nutsacks who live in the dark, evil, freedom-and-America-hating past.

    Thank you for reading this far.

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  5. 5. Venomlust 2:38 pm 10/13/2011

    Also, “they rightly note identifies with an era that…”

    More like LEFTLY note, am I right folks? Folks? Eh?

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  6. 6. Roberoo 7:05 pm 10/13/2011

    This is a lot of semi-intelligible yammering about people who
    just want a job, a fair shake, a level playing field, and access
    to the American Dream.
    A dream that fewer, and fewer American’s have access to.

    Link to this
  7. 7. rroto1 9:27 pm 10/13/2011

    This is the left end of the bell curve throwing mud at the right end. In Horan’s new world order the least qualifed whould be in charge and everyone would be paid the same.

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  8. 8. Wilhelmus de Wilde 10:32 am 10/14/2011

    Our society has a new religion called ECONOMY, the GOD is called PROFIT, and the result is EGOISM. Wall Street and all the other Temples of this religion are governed by super egoists called share holders, people who just have money and nothing else to contribute to the system, when there is is fly sitting down on the nose of a president of one of the companies, the share holders sell their parts, the work achieved in the company stays the same, but their so-called value is going down, and so on, till the whole world is going down because of “just a bad feeling” of one of the egoists.

    keep on thinking free


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  9. 9. Rituparno 7:56 am 10/18/2011

    Last night, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was captured on video making an appearance at the protest site, reportedly to inform protesters that the area was due for a cleaning. This is one of the videos of his visit –

    Link to this

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