In Austin, Small Business is Big Business -everyday

On November 26th you can make a huge impact by shopping small on ‘Small Business Saturday’…one purchase, one purchase is all it takes. -From American Express’ ‘Small Business Saturday’ campaign

Americans, especially Austinites, have an affinity for entrepreneurs and the character small businesses bring to the community, which is why it is no surprise that one of the largest credit card companies in the world is behind “Small Business Saturday“. This Saturday will be the 2nd annual and it comes at a low point in Americans’ confidence in our financial system and in the midst of the Occupy Wall St. movement that was in great part inspired by that same lack of confidence. Despite the progressive nature of Austin the Occupy movement hasn’t been particularly headline worthy or boisterous. One reason for this is Austin has weathered the recession better than most major US cities despite its large gap in wealth disparity. But why? In the words of current Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, “small business is big business in Austin”. I think its safe to attribute Austin’s economic success to its commitment to community and pre-Occupy movements like the famed Keep Austin Weird that surfaced as a response to perceptions of over-commercialization and chain-ifacation of the city.  They had clearly tapped into something, a 2003 study published in the Austin Chronicle on the effects of a new Border’s bookstore next to locals Book People and Waterloo Records found, “each dollar spent at the local stores would generate three times as much Austin economic activity as would a dollar spent at Borders”. That Borders was never built. The bottom line is Austin is a place people want to live, spend their money and as a result businesses in touch with this community know the importance of reinvesting back into the city. In other words the citizens, aka taxpayers and consumers demand that money be reinvested here.

The Occupy movement on the other hand hasn’t made a lot of specific demands but it has been asking citizens to fire their banks and hire a local Credit Union. I guess there aren’t many local credit card companies, but I wonder if anyone on the American Express marketing team realized the irony in possibly tapping into some of this same sentiment? It recalls the Capital One commercials that feature Alec Baldwin after he personally expressed opposition to bank bailouts in his Op-Ed on the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Capital One Financial Group received 4 billion in bailout funds)

I have been saying for a while now that the only way we can kick the dust off our economy is by exercising some demand-side economics. Whatever discretionary spending we have left we must use it to strengthen our local economies and invest in those who are invested in us- small businesses that are tied to the community.  For decades we have supported major brands that were once local and American but now after years of stagnating wages, record corporate profits and outsourcing jobs we must recognize our role in this process that has done lasting damage to our economy’s ability to sustain growth. We can point to the top at those who are still profiting from the current system or we can start to change it, one purchase at a time. In general, encouraging communities to support and invest in themselves is what the “Small Business Saturday” campaign is about, with one crucial flaw- its only one day. But, is it a coincidence that American Express filmed the commercial for Small Business Saturday in Austin, TX? I think not.

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GOP candidates on Occupy Wall Street

The GOP field on Occupy Wall Street:

Mitt Romney -“I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare,”

Rick Perry – 1.) “We understand the frustration with the Obama economy, but the protests don’t make sense or help create jobs.”

2.) “You know Liberals are now pointing the finger of blame at successful employers under the guise of fairness, but when they utter phrases like “fair share” you just know, heh, they’re once again playing fast and furious with the truth. And the truth is you can’t reve up the engine of economic growth by heaping higher taxes on job creators, you can’t spread success by punishing it, you can’t unite our country by dividing it.”

Herman Cain– “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded, it is someone’s fault if they failed.”

Newt Gingrich– “I think the people who are protesting in Wall Street break into two groups: one is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who frankly are very close to the Tea Party people who care. And actually…you can tell which are which. The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it, so let’s draw that distinction.”

Ron Paul- “I think that civil disobedience, if everybody knows exactly what they are doing, is a legitimate effort. It’s been done in this country for many grievances. Some people end up going to jail for this. But to speak for a special group and say, ‘Yeah, I like what they are doing or they are not doing,’ but what I want to do is try to sort it out and tell people why they are struggling and that this was a predictable event.”

Michele Bachmann- “I don’t think that they’re similar to the Tea Party at all,” Bachmann said. “I ran across two of the protests in Washington, DC and one in Boston and they are nothing in common at all with” Tea Party agitators.

She added, “I think that if the Occupy Wall Street wants to be upset about something they should go in front of the White House.”

Jon Huntsman- Now, you can’t gather on street corners in China. You can’t create organized demonstrations in China. You can in this country, and may it always be that way,” said Huntsman. “And I have to say that some of what they’re talking about, a lot of Americans, I think, are sympathetic with. Trillions and trillions of dollars spent, with nothing to show for it in terms of any uplift in our economy.”

Rick Santorum- “I certainly understand the frustration,” he told reporters after his speech at the Values Voter Summit on Friday. “I think the answers they have with respect to solve that problem, I would go in a different direction.”

Donald Trump– “I was in New York recently where you had—I wouldn’t call it a riot, but it got—you had thousands of people marching down Wall Street,” Trump said. “This is a group of in many cases very well-dressed, and I look at it and I say something has got to be done to break it up.”

Occupy Wall Street: Too Big To Fail?

The combination of Occupy Wall Street and Social media may mark the end of the invisible hand. With the rise of crowd sourcing and location-based services it could be that the consumer actually solves the economic crisis. It would mean a paradigm shift from the losing battle of employee vs employer to “the customer is always right”.

Occupy Wall Street is a testament to the concept of “jobless recovery”. Higher stocks and corporate profits don’t constitute a recovery when states are cash strapped and American’s are experiencing stagnant wages and record unemployment. The fact that lower-income wage earners experience a recession first and recover last is as old as civilization, but this time things may be different. When the Occupy Wall Street movement began I was surprised only in that it wasn’t a response to a single event or catalyst. Now I’m beginning to think it could be the catalyst.

Some of OWS activities included asking customers to close their accounts at bailed out banks and switch to local worker-owned credit unions. At the Occupy Austin event a couple of speakers mentioned shopping farmers’ markets and buying local. There could be something to this, Austin not only weathered the recession better than most cities, but even corporate chains here know there are consequences to displaying a questionable commitment to the community.

People would have probably remained blissfully ignorant of wealth disparity as long the 40-hr work week paid the bills, insurance, mortgage and allows for modest savings.  According to a Wall Street Journal article 53% of workers surveyed said they’ve taken on new roles, with just 7% getting a raise or a bonus. People are catching on to the more work less pay trend. Most American’s don’t want to be rich, they want to fulfill their own pursuits of happiness.

if U.S. businesses keep prospering while Americans are struggling, business leaders will lose legitimacy in society. He exhorted business leaders to find a way to link growth with job creation at home. Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria (Harvard Business Review Nov. ’10)

If our financial system were not on the brink of a double-dip recession and small businesses could get loans and hire people there would be no movement. Instead people have lost faith in their political and economic leaders whose only response has been to claim the climate is bad for “job creators”.  The Wall Street Journal reports that US multi-nationals cut their work forces in the U.S. by 2.9 million during the 2000s and increased employment overseas by 2.4 million. It could be that if the current leadership doesn’t get it together and address the jobless part of this recovery the people just may take it into their hands.

What Herman Cain and Occupy Wall Street have in common

There is an irony in the media trying to marginalize both Herman Cain and the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are both “the little guy” in their respective scenarios being picked on by the establishment.  Cain may not be their most obvious champion but he would be smart to be more sympathetic tho their grievance.  Saying things like, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”, could actually ‘Tea’-off some working-class stiffs on the right. Another consideration is the latest poll from Time on public support for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Even Fox News own (unscientific) online poll 70% responded,”Yes, These folks are right about corporate greed and what’s happening to the little guy.”

With little exception all sides agree there is a questionable amount of influence by lobby and corporate money in our political system, yet Herman Cain’s surge in the polls is not being taken seriously because he lacks the funds to match Romney or Perry.

Money is not always the best indicator of campaign success, just ask Rick Perry. He poll numbers fell even as he out-raised his opponents and thats not even his best example. In the 2002 Gubernatorial race his Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez spent over $70 million of his own money just to lose by over 20 points on election day.

http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/.element/apps/cvp/3.0/swf/cnn_416x234_embed.swf?context=embed&videoId=politics/2011/10/13/jk-the-truth-cain.cnn

Who is behind Occupy Austin?

Several people have contacted me regarding the #OccupyAustin movement. Some thought I maybe participating, others that I might actually be a chief organizer. Neither is the case but they were all right to assume I had a strong interest in understanding what its about, who’s behind it, and what if any connection it has to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I had heard about satellite events popping up across the country but my first tangible experience with the Austin version was Oct. 5th when I came across the website OccupyAustin.org. It prominently displayed customized fliers advertising the Oct. 6th launching of the local movement. I could tell by the graphic design and advanced nature of the start up website that these folks had access to some very talented human resources. The facebook page had over 8,000 likes and the event had over 4,000 RSVPs and I began to wonder how such a movement could gain so much steam right under my nose without my knowledge. I have built many websites in my day and designed even more fliers which is why I was initially skeptical that a real grass-roots movement could work together so seamlessly, (at least digitally) without a real funding source.  This led me to believe there was most likely some preexisting group that was attempting to establish themselves as a mouthpiece of the Austin faction of OWS. I started perusing their website for clues like links to other organizations, names of prominent individuals or even sponsors. What I found was a page of over 10 email addresses all at the “OccupyAustin.org” domain. I was curious if there could really be this many individuals involved so I began sending emails. Within hours I received replies thanking me for my interest and jumping right ahead in asking me what skills I might have to offer. I explained my interest was from a media perspective but that it could offer away to help others understand what their movement was about. I was given a couple of names and signs to look for once I reached City Hall. I knew that if I wanted to understand better who was behind this intense effort I would have to get there early and start asking questions.

Once I got to City Hall at about 11am I sat for a moment and observed the crowd looking for someone who was clearly asserting authority. There were a few folks sitting around taking notes and doing busy work but it wasn’t until a young gentlemen, named Ronny,  stood before the crowd and announced a “General Assembly” meeting would be held at 3pm that afternoon that I knew who to talk to. When he returned to the crowd I visited with him and asked him a barrage of questions regarding the web site, the General Assembly and the difficulties of “representing” a movement that claimed no leader. Addressing the website first he listed an IT guy, web designer and content manager and assured they were all volunteers. He said the General Assembly met once a day and “made decisions based on consensus”. They developed elaborate hand gestures to keep meetings from devolving into shouting matches. At some point the General Assembly broke into smaller groups called “magnets” run by “facilitators” with specific issues such as media, fundraising, childcare for demonstrators, housing, legal, web and so on. Each would take minutes and report back to the GA. They then would discuss strategy and the future of the movement’s activities such as which bank to march on and on what day. Though we live in a constitutional republic this group was exercising a primitive form of direct democracy and every meeting the facilitators rotated to prevent any inkling of “centralized power”. After a few days the General Assembly released a list of  goals and demands attempting to ally themselves with the Occupy Wall Street movement that included: “economic security”, “financial fairness” and “corporate responsibility”.

I was amazed to see pop-up tents, a large PA system and a network of supply chains for food, water and even shelter for demonstrators. They attracted a little over 1,000 people that day from all demographics but generally the young and frustrated. Each day since has seen smaller numbers in comparaison but those that remain are a determined group. Ronny said they not only planned to grow the “occupation” in Austin but to help other groups across Texas organize within their cities. There has been a lot of talk in the mainstream media about who these people are and what they stand for, but one thing I am certain of is they are not lazy.

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Mike Huckabee, Occupy Wall Street and how Supply-side Media works

In his monologue Mike Huckabee referred to Occupy Wall Street as ‘young and the wanna be young’ who would rather ‘yell’ than work. He continued, saying they should put down their iphones and get jobs in a field picking vegetables. He was trying to be clever and infer these people were hypocrites for using technology invented by billionaires. Its not clear where he got numbers on how many, “lived with their parents” or actually have iphones, but lets assume that most do in fact have iphones, facebook accounts and twitter; people do not go to protests to “yell” about products they like.

He knows exactly what Occupy Wall Street is about. He wrapped up his introduction with an assurance that he was against the bailouts and tax funded bonuses for corporate executes who ruined our financial system and violated the public trust. He also knows this is the majority sentiment in the country but its important that he condemn the protest and controls the message. This folks is how supply-side media works.

I will post a link to his monologue if it becomes available in the internet. It was from the Sunday Oct. 9th episode of “Huckabee”.

Rick Perry jabs Occupy Wall Street at Value Voters Summit

He may not have addressed it directly but Rick Perry referred to the Occupy Wall Street movement in his latest address to the Value Voters Summit.

You know Liberals are now pointing the finger of blame at successful employers under the guise of fairness, but when they utter phrases like “fair share” you just know, heh, they’re once again playing fast and furious with the truth. And the truth is you can’t reve up the engine of economic growth by heaping higher taxes on job creators, you can’t spread success by punishing it, you can’t unite our country by dividing it.

The answer to our troubles lies in a positive optimistic vision with policies rooted in American Exceptionalism.

He has the last part right but most Americans would not look at the state of the financial sector as a “success”. The lack of rules and ethics that allowed for multi-national credit card companies to prey on young people at college campuses putting them and our country further into debt is not my idea of American Exceptionalism.

Perry also mentioned a Wall Street Journal article that indicated, “Nearly Half of U.S. lives in household receiving government benefit”. Now, much like the famed “Rich people pay half of all income taxes” this claim also deserves some scrutiny. First it serves to point out that all but 18% of Americans will pay payroll taxes. This is a federal tax on working people, fine, but at least give them credit for paying into the system.  The headline infers that slightly more than half of the U.S. do not receive a government benefit. This is one of the many ways the supply-side media tries to have it both ways. They would have you believe the government is funded by the wealthy and they receive no benefits such as tax breaks, loan guarantees, bailouts, loopholes or special access to government officials.

The graph below represents how many American households are receiving specific government benefits like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps. Notice while the trend nears 50% in 2010 the unemployment rate hovers around 9%. This means that less than 10% of the working age population is unemployed yet nearly half the households still need additional government assistance, a clear product of stagnant wages. Juxtaposed against the next graph you can see as CEO pay increased dramatically employee wages remained level.  Now consider the rise of inflation, cost of living and loss of benefits over the past two decades and we have a recipe for economic malaise.

The Increase in executive compensation correlates almost exactly with the number of households receiving “a government benefit” for the same time period. I would contend that the Wall Street occupiers are not interested in taking money from the rich but when they work hard to create wealth for a company or institution they expect to share in their own success. If people continue to believe that working harder will not increase their standard of living or take home pay we will lose the motivating factors for free market capitalism.

Occupy Austin “This movement is about Democracy”

I returned to #OccupyAustin about dusk. The occupiers had grown in number to over 1,000 and the atmosphere was festive. The crowd skewed young but was at least as diverse as the city itself. There were impromptu sing-a-longs, home made signs and lots of folks who were clearly there out of curiosity.

I walked into City Hall which happen to have a council meeting in session discussing the possibility of moving May city elections to November.  Having worked as an election administrator for both the 2006 and 2008 elections I can assure moving elections to November amounts to increasing turnout. The city is also relieved of funding an additional election in the spring. Although this is a separate matter it deals directly with democracy and participation, two things that were going on in mass just outside. After speaking to one of the on-duty officers about his long day we walked to The Gingerman right up the street. We discussed what good if any could come from this gathering and all agreed supporting local business was a good way to “recycle our wealth”.  We would start with bars and breweries and dub it #occupintAustin. After a Peacemaker and a Rahr Gravel I left and headed back to City Hall.

At that point it was 11pm. I walked up to Univision doing an interview with a lady holding a POW MIA flag. The crowd had thinned some but the remaining occupiers looked as fresh and enthusiastic as I left them. I heard conflicting reports on whether the protests actually had to conclude by a certain hour but according to the chatters on their live feed they plan to be there all night. I will make my best attempt to go to City Hall and watch the march on Bank of America. There they plan to ask customers to leave BoA and join a local credit union. Should be interesting but I don’t think BoA is in the business of novel ideas. I suspect by now they’re aware of the plan and will have security or APD on hand to remove any trespassers. Its worth noting that unlike most protests I have attended this one felt it necessary to appear “pro” law enforcement. It is in at least part a branding effort but I saw multiple conversations between occupiers and officers, many speakers thanked them for being there and one read, “APD are the 99%”.

If you are interested in how to participate the General Assembly has posted list of items they need and how they can be donated. If you would like to learn more about what the General Assembly does you can read their minutes from today. The operations are growing increasingly complex and demanding and it appears to all be done by volunteers. There is a lot that can be said about these people but lazy is not one of them.

Slideshow of today.

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Occupy Austin at City Hall

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Occupy Austin, a set on Flickr.

I arrived about 11am at Austin City Hall for the #OccupyAustin event. The occupiers numbered about 300. There were about 5 news trucks from local Austin media who were browsing the crowd for interesting looking characters to interview. The APD was also out in force. After exchanging several emails last night with “organizers” (my word) I was most curious to see how organized this group actually was.  I spoke to “Ronny” after watching him address the crowd about the 3pm General Assembly. He said they are still working on an actual structure but they have formed committees that cover increasingly specific issues conducted by moderators and all decisions are reached by consensus. He handed me a print out of what had come of the first General Assembly held just a few days ago. It described the procedures, the structure of “facilliation teams”, hand signals for communications and an introduction to their purpose. It begins:

As a group we have decided to take n the form of Occupy Wall Street movement to have all planning and activities (from the logistics of the operation of the occupation to the planning of activities) take place through committees. The General Assembly is a gathering for these committees to report back to the group as a whole on their progress and receive consensus approval to move forward with activities that affect the occupation as a whole.

I asked about the trouble of “representing” a group that claims no leader and he acknowledged the obvious problem. Just minutes before a young woman with an Occupy Austin media pass addressed the crowd over a document being circulated that was not “approved” by the general assembly. You could immediately since her frustration as she was met with grumbles and comments from people who wanted to make it clear no one spoke for them.

My main issue with any protest movement is a lack of, whats referred to in the organizing world as, “action items”. Ronny assured me that each assembly ends with action items drawn from consensus. Tomorrow Oct. 7th they will march to Bank of America and ask customers to switch to a local credit union instead of supporting corporate banks. Another speaker suggested shopping at farmers’ markets and keeping money within the community. I think as long as the group stays flexible and organic enough to absorb the general discontent of Wall Street it can maintain successful less they fall in the trap of alienation by affiliation.

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