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Laurence Pevsner

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The Opportunity Cost of Occupy Wall Street

Posted: 10/21/11 09:23 AM ET

Last week I sat down in one of my classes at Amherst College, somewhat ironically entitled "Jurisprudence of Occupation," expecting an entirely normal day. Before class started, however, our two professors handed over the floor to one of my fellow students. She told the class that she was participating in our school's version of Occupy Wall Street, an initiative taking place throughout the "five college area" where students would at 12 p.m. walk out of class and attend an occupation at the student center. She gave a fairly rousing speech, citing specific key issues concerning student loans. Now let's be clear: this is a class of about 20 or so students that has proven to have a wide range of political thought. Everyone cheered as she walked out. Everyone.

I mean everyone. Miss Liberal sitting to my left cheered hard, and the young lady from France on my right cheered harder. The two professors clapped loudly, and even a student who had hinted at supporting Carl Schmitt's ideology when we'd read the thinker earlier that year clapped enthusiastically. Afterwards one of the professors joked, "So you're not all going to walk out too?" And yet I was slightly perturbed. Why wasn't I walking out?

Don't get me wrong. I am supportive of the basic OWS cause. For those unfamiliar with the cause, here's my take on it: in the United States, income is distributed somewhat unequally, with those in the top two quintiles earning more than the bottom 60% combined. To get specific, according to one of my professors the top 1% own 35% of the nation's wealth while the bottom 40% hold 0.2% of the nation's wealth. That is a dramatic figure. This means that a staggeringly small amount of people control a staggeringly large amount of the money in the U.S., and in addition their total percentage of wealth is rising, not falling. Thus, the effect is that the majority of Americans are making less and less money compared to those that own the large businesses and have the greatest influence (politically and otherwise). More people have trouble paying their most basic of bills, and more people have trouble affording health care. In the student realm, students work hard in college, but cannot pay off student loans and aren't finding an acceptable market for their skills when they graduate.

This is because these top 1% people, presumably the job creators, are not creating jobs during the economic downturn. Wages for workers have not really increased, not even to account for inflation, over the past three decades. Thus, people are starting to cry out that the rules that govern our economy, most particularly the tax policy, are constructed in such a way that the middle and lower classes are forced to put forward the most substantial amounts of their income towards basic costs (taxes, banks, healthcare) that in many countries don't put such a strain on the lower and middle classes.

This is the basic problem that everyone involved with Occupy Wall Street is fighting against. This is the sort of treatment that causes people to get upset. Some of them may not even understand exactly why they are upset - they can just tell they are not being treated fairly. Others are perfectly cogent on the matter. Some make outrageous demands and some meager ones. The point is not for one specific policy to pass. The point is to engage the country in a conversation, a discussion of this issue. At its very core, you are supposed to recognize that this is an issue people are concerned about. And they are occupying Wall Street because Wall Street, fairly or unfairly, is a symbol of this economic disparity. And, as Glenn Beck would say, follow the money.

And yet, I did not walk out with my classmates for one simple reason: the irony would just have been too much. Here are these people, complaining that they are being screwed over by the economy and by the top percent for making horrible economic decisions. Yet my economic decision to walk out would have been pretty bad in itself. I currently pay (rather, my parents assist me in paying) a tuition of about $54,000 a year. If I take eight classes per year (the norm at my college) that means each class is costing me $6,750 per semester. If I have two classes a week from September to December, and then subtract some for holidays, I'll probably have about 30 official classes. That means that each class costs $225! That's a lot of money to lose out on in a week, or even more. Granted, I haven't taken into account room and board costs, but the point of those very costs are to allow me to attend these classes. To walk out of my $225 class seems like a preposterous economic decision, especially when one takes into account the value I'm getting out of the class -- a better education, a better understanding of complex issues, and a better chance of graduating with a college degree and with good marks. As an economist would say, the opportunity cost is just too high.

And to do what? To tell a liberal college that they should support the OWS movement? Most of the campus already does. Like I said, the whole class clapped. Joining such a movement on a college campus doesn't help anyone. Should I spend my weekends going to New York or going to Boston to support the rallies? No. I should be studying. Most of the people out on the streets are jobless and (rightfully) complaining about it. I'm lucky I have an occupation -- I'm a student at a great school and with great opportunities. Instead of protesting, I can do my best work for the cause by continuing to pursue my career so that one day I can help create policy initiatives that will help those protesting. Until then, I'll continue to show my support, but not by via occupation -- what comes first is my real occupation, and that is to be a student.