R.I. Needs Occupy Providence More than Ever

By TIM FAULKNER

"Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered." I first heard that saying from the instructor of an accounting class I took back when I worked in the financial services sector. (Yup, I was a jolly banker for a spell, albeit a poorly performing one.) The phrase, he explained, meant that the IRS tolerated a small degree of bending the rules on tax returns, but blatantly flaunting the tax code meant trouble from the feds.

It's a great truism on many levels. "Hog-ism" implies that it's OK to do your own thing, behave a little piggy at times, but don't go crazy or there will be consequences. In order to be a responsible citizen, or farm animal, you can't have it all. As we all eventually learn, moderation and compromise lead to a longer and more fulfilling life.

Unfortunately, there are far too many hogs running wild these days, and none of them appear headed toward the slaughterhouse. In the retail sector alone, big entrenched businesses, such as Walmart, Bank of America, Dunkin' Donuts and CVS, are unwilling to give an inch in their quest for growth. Size was supposed to be a win for consumers, instead big companies have suppressed wages, reduced product quality, trashed the environment, stifled innovation, and basically turned the country into one endless strip mall.

There are few if any checks and balances to keep Big Biz in line. Not just legal ones, but consumer-driven backlash. The push back from the masses gets muted by massive PR campaigns (seen those BP ads lately?) and shills for unfettered capitalism: well-funded politicians, millionaire pundits and even Big Religion. Somehow unbridled capitalism is now integral to the American Way. It's been deftly turned on its head to champion the weak and downtrodden.

Even nonprofits, by and large, seem to shy away from corporate criticism — for the record, ecoRI Inc. has accepted money from CVS — for fear of alienating corporate donors. 

After the near collapse of the global economy and subsequent bank bailouts, it would seem logical that massive financial institutions would be a bit humbled and willing to make nice. Well, not quite. In fact, there's no fundamental change in the way national banks operate. The financial sector is simply free to glom onto the next sexy investment product, fly it to the moon and then crash it deep into the backyard cesspool — all in the name of strong and free capital markets. 

Thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, we also now live in a world where corporations are people and people are corporations. Despite recent and ancient history revealing the perils of excessive corporate influence, unlimited money now funds campaigns and politicians who advocate for fewer rules and oversight, making the tolerance for hog-ism as acceptable as ever.

The same formula for buying public opinion has succeeded in reversing conventional wisdom on the dangers of oil drilling, climate change and harmful chemicals in everyday products, all of which are backed by mountains of evidence showing enormous health and financial costs down the road.

At the federal level, it seems very little change will occur to turn the tide. Any attempt to rein in Big Money will be crushed by a well-funded marketing and news campaign that paints regulations as bad for business and unpatriotic. Just consider the coordinated outrage over the Durban and Copenhagen climate summits. Not even voluntary emission caps survived those efforts for a large-scale climate agreement.

But Big Business isn't causing all the harm. Local businesses, and dare I say the Rhode Island psyche, is a bit hardwired to resist change. Several environmental bills in the General Assembly last year were scuttled in committee after a local business — along with a strong corporate lobbyist — opposed arguments for the tiniest of restrictions on plastic grocery bags and BPA in baby bottles.

Which brings me to the Occupy movement. It took a while, but it finally caught on that growing corporate influence isn't so great for the majority of the population. Running a system that caters to investors and shareholders simply hammers a lot of the middle- to lower-income folks. In our service economy, it means there are a lot of crappy, low-paying jobs out there. Jobs that will multiply as the economy expands, but nonetheless, crappy jobs with little financial security. 

So as I surfed the Internet Sunday night, safe in my natural gas-heated, suburban home, I was feeling a bit of suburban guilt about those frozen occupiers at Burnside Park in Providence. I came across a video interview of Rupert Murdoch at the Golden Globe Awards. Murdoch, the grand poobah of hog-ism and defiler of journalistic principles, took to the red carpet with all the other celebrity doofuses, showing no ill effects of the phone-hacking scandal that even that day resulted in another high-profile resignation. Hog-ism, it seems, no longer has accountability.

Just before midnight, 14 degrees outside and windy, I visited the Occupy Providence encampment. The tents were staked down but most looked ill-suited for the cold. After looking in on a few empty dwellings, I found Steve Smith, a 20-something, one-time Massachusetts resident, out looking for spare blankets to help him through the frigid night.

Smith explained that there are 75 tents in Burnside Park, but only about 15 occupiers stay through the night when the weather gets tough. He has slept in the park most nights since the protesters moved in Oct. 15. On a rare night he stays with friends. But he's not looking for a roof over his head, nor does it seem he's there to sleep off a buzz. In fact, Smith was quite lucid when he explained he's protesting corporate greed and the meager career prospects that have ensued.

"I'm a well-qualified, educated individual," he said. "I don't know why it should be so difficult to find a job."

Whether Steve Smith gave me his real name or told an honest story isn't important. What matters on Martin Luther King Jr. Day is that this mass protest movement needs to grow and be supported. Whether it's to rein in greed or reform a lousy health-care system, or support funding for the poor and workers' rights, the Occupy movement is about the only effective national and local recourse to turn the tide against the hogs who make and shape the rules and public opinion.

There must be more bank sit-ins, pipeline protests, online consumer boycotts and other actions. Otherwise, the economy will become bloated by the next gimmick, then steamrolled into a recession; and once again crappy jobs, if any at all, will be all that remain.

Tim Faulkner is the senior reporter for ecoRI News.