Occupy Wall Street

HIR Issue: 
A New Empire

During the early months when Occupy Wall Street maintained tent cities in lower Manhattan and other metropolitan areas around the country, the occupations attracted an array of young counter-culturalists and itinerant radicals. To many people seeing the images of the encampments on the news, it looked like a motley assembly, not something out of the American mainstream.

But while some of the images of Zuccotti Park that defined Occupy Wall Street in its infancy may have appeared to depict a fringe, the movement as a whole is far bigger than any of its encampments. In truth, the Occupy movement is a protest against a broken economic compact that reaches into the very middle of America and that is resonating in other parts of the world as well.

With the movement’s permanent occupations now largely disbanded, the protesters are looking for ways to escalate and keep the spotlight on their issues. But regardless of what strategies they adopt moving forward, they have already left behind a transformed framework for public debate in America. Occupy Wall Street has struck a chord with a wide swath of the country by highlighting issues that had been all but hidden in mainstream news coverage prior to the street protests. According to a poll conducted by The Hill in October 2011, 74 percent of likely voters say that inequality is a problem in the country, with the great bulk of that group indicating that it is a big one. Moreover, a Gallup poll from February 2011 reveals that in large majorities, Americans believe that corporations should have less influence on our politics.

The same thing that gives Occupy Wall Street strong appeal in the United States also gives the movement international resonance. In an integrated international economy, profound inequality is a global phenomenon. Virtually anywhere protests have emerged—whether in Europe, Asia, or the Americas—participants can point to examples of how the most affluent members of their societies have benefitted at the expense of the majority. They can tell stories that bring to life the reality of how economic downturn has affected their families and their communities.

Back in the United States, even leaders in the financial community credit Occupy Wall Street protesters with pinpointing concerns that are central to our democracy. In mid-November of last year, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said that the occupations “identified issues that are really central to what’s going to happen to our economy and our society.” President Obama, after being confronted by protesters during a speech, stated, “There is a profound sense of frustration about the fact that the essence of the American Dream—which is if you work hard, if you stick to it, that you can make it—feels like that’s slipping away. And it’s not the way things are supposed to be.”

How Things Should Be: Linking Productivity and Wages

Both Rubin and Obama’s reaction to the Occupy movement point to something important and often overlooked. The central slogan of the Occupy movement, the call of “We Are the 99 Percent,” has led many people to focus on inequality as the central issue. Indeed, this is an important concern, as economists such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz have persuasively argued. In a May 2011 article in Vanity Fair, Stiglitz wrote, “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent…Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.” The division between the top one percent and the rest of the population is particularly apparent among political officeholders. As Stiglitz further explained, many senators and representatives in the House “are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.”