Occupy Wall Street Perspective: Protestors spark necessary dialogue

Why are conservatives so afraid of Occupy Wall Street? Their reaction certainly indicates they are afraid: they are breaking out the well-worn ideological hyperboles they’ve used as crutches since our parents’ parents were our age. Republican flavor-of-the-month Herman Cain wrote that the protesters should “get a job” while Wall Street cash king Mitt Romney said Occupy “is dangerous” and “class warfare.” The chorus of conservative commentators called the occupiers angry mobs scheming to end capitalism and bring down America. Its as if they are trying to de-legitimize the movement in the eyes of the broader American public. In fact, it’s exactly what they are doing.

Conservatives know, even if the protesters might not, that a direct action protest alone isn’t going to bring about sweeping change. They realize that Occupy can be the game changing force it aspires to be only if it gains the support of the electorate. But, to the dismay of conservative leaders, the public is — for now — supportive of the movement. Despite the best efforts of the Right to marginalize the protesters, the protesters have clearly tapped into a deep vein of public discontent.

How did a seemingly rag-tag group of activists accomplish this? Their calls to send big bank CEOs to federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison for 20 years is part of the story, sure. But perhaps a bigger part is they lived and evoked the common Middle American experience of the 99%.

Millions of hard working Americans, including a great number of the young activists in Zuccotti Park, bought into the common American path to prosperity. They got a good education, often times going into deep debt in order to obtain it. Once educated, they were promised access to good jobs, if they were willing to work hard and play by the rules. Their reward for this, if fortune does indeed smile upon them, is a stable, comfortable income and possibly a place to call their own.

The vast working and middle classes played the game as they were told. But all they got in response for following the prescribed path to prosperity were foreclosures, layoffs and the wrong side of a widening gap between themselves and the elite 1%. Middle- and working-class America played by the rules, only to discover upon the onset of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression that the game was rigged against them.

The financial crisis and subsequent Lesser Depression have lain bare the underlying extreme inequalities between the prosperous few and the struggling masses. Since 1979, the top 1% saw their real after-tax incomes triple while the rest of America experienced sluggish income growth. Because of this, the 1% doubled their share of the national income, and now control roughly one-third of Americans’ net worth.

I suppose inequality would be more justifiable if the top earners’ really were the best of the best — the meritocratic cream of the crop. If their productivity gains were much greater then the average earners and thus much more deserving then the rest of Americans of massive bumps in income, maybe I could tolerate a little more inequality.

In order for our nation to truly be the meritocracy that would justify portions of the massive income gap, we need to be a dynamic, socially mobile nation. This should be the case, as a kid I was told the founding fathers build this nation to get away from the stifling class immobility of Europe. The only problem is we aren’t all that socially mobile, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But at least productivity has been concentrated among the top earners, right? Wrong. According to the Economic Policy Institute, average worker productivity has greatly increased, but wages have lagged far behind productivity gains. So Americans are working harder, but the gains from their hard work are not trickling down to them as was promised. Neither of the conditions that would even remotely justify the massive increases in economic inequality are met.

Inequality didn’t have to be this way, but policy and cultural shifts of the past 30 years have led us down this unfortunate path. Middle and working class institutions, like labor unions, have been weakened. Government regulations that kept the omnipresent force of corporate greed in check have been watered down. The tax code has been shifted away from taxing the wealthy by cutting capital gains, estate and income taxes to taxing the working class through the payroll tax (which conservatives conveniently forget when they bemoan the fact that 47% of Americans don’t pay income tax). Money has grown ever more powerful in our political system, giving the wealthy yet another arena to dominate. All of these things added up to the new normal of extreme inequality.

This brings me back to the Occupy protesters across the country. Some have called for the movement to unify around a certain set of demands. I used to be one of them. But the more I think about it, the more I like that they haven’t demanded anything specific. What they’ve done instead is initiated a national conversation about inequities in society.

This conversation is what conservatives fear more then anything, because time and time again Americans have shown themselves to be repulsed by extreme inequality, and conservative policies have clearly increased inequality. However conservatives can’t smother this conversation in the crib like they’ve been able to time and time again with their intellectually hollow calls of “class warfare.” For the first time in the longest time, a discussion on growing inequality is on the national agenda in a serious way. If Occupy accomplishes nothing else, at least it has sparked the conversation. That is something all of the protesters can be proud of.

Peter is a junior. You can reach him at pgross1@swarthmore.edu.

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