Occupy Wall Street's Remarkable Success
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On October 2 a few of the participants of Occupy Wall Street invited me to speak to the protesters in Zuccotti Park, a little below Wall Street, right next to the building Merrill Lynch once inhabited. Some of my friends were concerned. Seven hundred people were arrested during the protest march the day before. Others wondered why I’d lend myself to this seemingly ragtag group. It took little—in fact, no—courage. Wall Street excess was the principal cause of the current economic strife. Essentially, the protestors are right. And what they are seeking is information, not more slogans.
There was no need at all to worry. Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, and I did a “teach-in” together at Zuccotti Park. It was two Sundays ago now. We were introduced to the echo chamber many are now familiar with. The police prohibit the use of microphones or electrical amplification, so those listening repeated each phrase of ours loudly so that all can hear. You speak in half sentences, but it forces you to encapsulate your thoughts. What struck me most was how eager and attentive the audience was, and how courteous. Somewhere between 75 and 125 people, I’d say, listening to Joe and me. I spoke later to what Occupy Wall Street calls its General Assembly. That group was much larger—several hundred people, at least— and phrases were repeated loudly and twice. In the dark, it was stirring.
Since the beginning of last week, the shift in the attitude of the press toward Occupy Wall Street—and the support across the country the movement is suddenly drawing—is remarkable. The occupation started on September 17 and grew from the beginning. But since two Sundays ago, unions have joined a large and boisterous march and few if any hesitate any longer to visit Zuccotti Park. Friends now bring their children. The press, almost uniformly derisive during the initial weeks, shows signs of understanding that the group touches a deep-seated anger and confusion in America. President Obama had to respond to a question about it last week, and said he understood the concerns. Occupy Wall Street is truly national—indeed international. Journalists in Australia and Switzerland have called me for interviews. I am sure others are receiving many such calls.
How could this have happened? Two reasons. The mostly young people who are driving the movement are very well-intentioned. They are almost all well-behaved. Many are highly-educated. They want to learn. And they perceive profound injustice in the land. The crisis they see is not just economic. It is about fairness and democracy. How could one blame those in their twenties for frustration when they can’t get a job with youth unemployment rates so high while Wall Street doles out enormous bonuses? How can one explain bank bailouts while politicians are talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare? Surely, it makes no sense that poverty is continuing to rise two years after economists and politicians tell us the recession is over—and just this week we find out that average incomes are still falling—dramatically. Is this fair?
Thirty years ago, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population earned less than ten percent of national income; today they control nearly 20 percent of national income, while at the same time paying far lower income and capital gains tax rates then they did then. That leaves the other 99 percent, as the protesters now call themselves. Has the rise of income for the top 1 percent made America a better place, as they often argue? Why should the other 99 percent be anything but angry when they hear such claims when wages sag and unemployment stays high?