In the fall of 2011, something unprecedented happened in downtown Manhattan. No – it was not the Naked Cowboy (this time). It was the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
What was so unusual about the Movement? It brought regular people out in droves – all in the name of what they believed to be the insatiable greed and undemocratic influence of those who run financial institutions. Some of the largest single day protests arose out of the Movement. It spread from country to country; it grew traction, and ultimately gained international attention.
In defense of their large paydays, executives have been known to say that buybacks are financial investments that signal confidence in the future of their company as measured by its stock price performance.
But Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank explains that disastrous effects of allowing this sort of competition to run rampant. He explains that high spending by top earners shifts the reference point for those earning just a bit less, affecting those in the ladder of prosperity, and so on and so forth. This chain results in all classes spending more than they can afford, leading to a higher likelihood of bankruptcy, divorce and longer commutes from work.
Hence, the Occupy Movement; a mass protest of the greed that pervades the top of the top earners, leading to the deterioration of all classes below.
But neither party came to the table. Aside from some disruption, was anything really accomplished in the end? Did the executives’ paychecks become more reasonable? Did the middle class stop overspending?
Alas, I see that this is the trajectory of some divorces. One spouse “occupies” their divorce in response to the other’s seemingly greedy behavior. Perhaps the “greedy” spouse unwarrantedly requests an unequal distribution of assets, maybe he or she requests an exorbitant amount of alimony, or even child support disguised as alimony. Yes, I have seen it all.
In response, the occupier takes a stand against the perceived greedy behavior – the divorce does not budge. The occupier spouse proverbially camps out in Liberty Park while the executive spouse sits high in their Wall Street tower, neither party coming to the table.
Not coming to the table, however, deprives both spouses several important opportunities. Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and Aaline Gruneisen, also a behavioral economist, have theorized that people are more likely to be selfish when they can explain their choices or when they fail to consider the people who could suffer from them. When people think about the people we may hurt, they behave more considerately.
Finally, coming to the table may help combat rationalizations of self-interest that the seemingly “greedy” spouse may harbor.
The lessons of the Occupy Movement, and of human behavior generally tell us that even if one spouse believes that he or she is in the right, it is important to begin a dialogue, to sit at the table. You never know what you can accomplish.
Sloth is next…
Eliana T. Baer is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or firstname.lastname@example.org.