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Occupying America before it's too late

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When 1,000 people turn out in Indianapolis to protest the corporate takeover of the United States, you know something new is happening.

So maybe these folks don't have a plan. Maybe what they want isn't exactly clear. This can make them easy to dismiss, especially in a place like Indiana, where we're supposed to be practical.

We're so practical we call having a rate of household income that's below the national average "efficient."

The demonstrations that were first called Occupy Wall Street, and are now taking on the names of an increasing number of places around the country, may not have a lot going in the way of an agenda, but anyone who thinks this makes them trivial should think again.

The people who are showing up to occupy Wall Street, or in our case, the Veterans Memorial Plaza, are the canaries in the coal mine of a corporate global economic structure that makes some people very rich and leaves many, many others eating dust.

For the past three years, since the crash in September 2008, we've been told that what happened was cyclical, that the economy will come around eventually.

But as time has crawled by, it has become increasingly clear that what's going on isn't cyclical, but structural — and that when the economy comes around, it may not look very friendly.

We see this in that corporate profits and productivity are high, yet these things have had no impact on job creation or increases to household incomes.

People have been losing jobs and seeing cuts to their benefits, but the cost of things like health care and college tuition have exploded.

Over the past 20 years, according to AARP research, fulltime earnings for men have increased 3 percent, while the average cost of one year of college has gone up 73 percent, health insurance premiums have jumped 182 percent and the median debt being carried by middle class families has billowed 292 percent.

For 30 years, Americans have been given credit cards instead of raises. Meanwhile, jobs that involve making things, like clothing or kitchen utensils or power tools, have been moved to other countries where workers are paid a small fraction of what they used to earn here, and where benefits are nonexistent. This, of course, means that these goods cost a lot less to buy which, I guess, is fortunate, given that most Americans have less money in their pockets to buy things with.

Sometimes it takes awhile to really begin to get what's going on around us. We're like the proverbial frog in the frying pan that doesn't notice it's being cooked until it's too late. But the Occupiers get it. They get that the America that Democrats, Republicans and their corporate cronies have in mind doesn't look much like the America we were brought up to expect.

The Occupiers are beginning to see what's in store: wages and benefits that look more like those in Mumbai or Beijing than Madison or Boston.

They already see how our education system — from kindergarten to college — has been turned into a training program aimed to please corporate employers.

And they know that their health is considered less important than the bottom lines of big insurance companies.

They walk every day on broken sidewalks, drive across bridges that are rusting and park their cars in garages where the concrete is cracked because they're told there's no money to fix our infrastructure.

They hear from politicians that they have to make a choice between having energy we can afford and a healthy environment.

And that being safe means making endless war.

Most of all, the Occupiers see that their ability to have a hand in controlling their futures seems to be getting a little further out of reach with each passing day. In this, they may appear to be rather like some of the folks who have rallied around the Tea Party.

But, as Columbia journalism professor and author Todd Gitlin has pointed out, where the Tea Party is merely against government, the Occupiers want self-government or, at least, a government that's on their side.

Some people have wondered how many among the Occupiers have voted in the past for politicians or policies that have wound up contributing to the fix we're in, as if these demonstrations are simply large-scale expressions of buyer's remorse, with President Obama being Exhibit A. This view attempts to reduce the various Occupations to a conventional political calculus aimed at 2012.

But this, I think, misses the point. America is running a fever that pep talks about working hard and being exceptional can't cure. The people who have taken to the streets and occupied places where American business as usual is conducted feel this in their bones. Their survival instincts have kicked in. They may not be able to say exactly what they want, but the Occupiers know they've been dealt a lousy hand from a deck that's rigged against them.

They're sick from hearing people they voted for talk over their heads, as if they weren't really there. Something is happening here. The Occupiers are bearing witness.

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