TOPICS > Economy

Will Occupy Wall Street Movement Stand Apart From U.S. Party Politics?

October 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
As economic protests spread globally, world leaders took note of the movements' possible implications. Jeffrey Brown discusses the causes, strengths and weaknesses of the growing protests in the U.S. and abroad with Yes! Magazine's Sarah van Gelder, Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute and Yale University's Beverly Gage.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to a discussion of the causes, strengths and weaknesses of the growing public protests in the U.S. and abroad.

For that, we’re joined by Sarah van Gelder, executive editor of YES! Magazine, a publication focusing on social justice, economics and environmental issues. Josh Barro is a fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan institute. And historian Beverly Gage of Yale University, she is author of “The Day Wall Street Exploded,” a look at a bombing on Wall Street in 1920.

Sarah van Gelder, I will start with you.

What do you think is going on here? What are these protests tapping into?

SARAH VAN GELDER, YES! Magazine: Well, I think they have managed to name the essence of what’s going on for the 99 percent right now. For the last couple of decades, middle-class and poor people have seen wages stagnate. At first, we were able to make up for it by working multiple jobs, by both mom and pop in the family working, by working longer hours.

And then we were able to make up for the stagnating wages by going deeper into debt, borrowing against the value of our house. But with the 2008 collapse we couldn’t do that anymore. And we started really feeling the pain of losing jobs, losing our homes in many cases, losing access to health care.

And I think at first, a lot of Americans really hoped that the Washington establishment would come up with solutions. And that hasn’t happened, especially this summer. We saw how much gridlock there was in Washington. And I think people finally got fed up and decided they needed to take to the streets and speak for themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Josh Barro, the people fed up, a sense that the system isn’t working for them? What do you see, and why now?

JOSH BARRO, Manhattan Institute: Well, I think a lot of people are very upset, because we have been through three years of terrible economic performance.

I actually think it reflects a lot of the same discontent that drove the Tea Party starting in 2009. But the left’s reaction was delayed for a couple of years, because I think there was hope that the Obama administration would provide them the solutions they were looking for. And that hope has not panned out.

But while I think that the protests reflect a great deal of discontent and especially upset with the financial sector and with people at the top of the income distribution, what we’re not seeing out of these protests that we did see out of the Tea Party is an alternative policy agenda.

We’re seeing a lot of complaint and a lot of agitation. But what we’re not seeing are proposals about what the government should do to placate these people or to make people’s lives better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Beverly Gage, I will bring you in here. You have looked at past protests against Wall Street. Compare that. What do you see going on now and what Josh Barro just said about the amorphous nature of this?

BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University: I think that the big question of this financial crisis up to this point has actually been why we haven’t seen more of this kind of protest.

In past financial crises, looking back to the 1890s, for instance, or looking at the Great Depression, you actually had a great deal of social unrest that, up to this point, we really haven’t seen. So now that it’s beginning to start and beginning to build, I do think that what we’re beginning to see is fairly typical of a movement that is just emerging.

It’s a movement that’s really about culling questions right now. And as it moves into other stages, we may see other things develop. But right now, it’s about posing this kind of question. And I think that that’s really the role that a lot of social movements of this sort have played, from the populists of the late 19th century through the kind of social unrest that we saw during the Depression and now once again today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Sarah van Gelder, what do you make, what do you think of this question of the — whether it’s an amorphous movement without a specific set of — a list of issues that could be translated into political impact? Do you see it having that kind of impact?

SARAH VAN GELDER: Well, I think it will have tremendous impact. I mean, it would be extraordinary if people representing the 99 percent could actually come up with a succinct set of policy agendas within weeks of having this movement erupt.

I think what they have done, which has been very wise, has been to say we have a principle at work here. The principle at work here is that our economy needs to work for the 99 percent. Right now, the benefits of the so-called recovery, the benefits of all the increases in productivity, the benefits of our economy have all been going to the 1 percent. And that is taking our society and destroying it. It’s destroying the prospects for the middle class. It’s destroying hope for our kids who are graduating from college with tons of debt and no jobs that can pay enough to pay their debt and also pay their rent.

So I think it was extraordinarily wise of them not to rush into trying to come up with a 10-point plan and instead essentially saying to the politicians we need a society that works for the 99 percent. You tell us what policies are going to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Josh Barro, what about this question of the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent? Do you — address that.

JOSH BARRO: Well, first of all, the — 99 percent of Americans live in households with incomes of $593,000 a year or less.

So a lot of the bankers working on Wall Street are part of that 99 percent bloc as well. And so I think the conception of the movement is a little misplaced. It’s not as though people near the top of the income distribution, but not in the top 1 percent, are doing poorly. They’re certainly winners in the economy of the last couple of decades too.

And while the — that may sound like a nitpick, the thing is that when we actually get to the policy stage, which has to happen at some point, we’re going to talk about things like do we need higher taxes just on the small sliver of very wealthy people or do we need to look at higher taxes on a broader base of people?

And if you try to focus on just that 1 percent, you won’t be able to fix a lot of the country’s fiscal problems, for example. I also think that there’s a little bit of presumptuousness about the “We are the 99 percent” slogan. Obviously, this movement doesn’t have the support of 99 percent of Americans, especially once you start getting down to policy specifics.

I think, you know, you can get a lot of agreement from the left and the right that people are upset about the way the financial sector has been treated over the last several years, that banks have not seen the reforms that they needed to see to prevent the kind of — the need for the kind of bailouts that we had to do in 2008.

But when you start getting into the specifics of what sort of banking sector we should have, what sort of tax code we should have, the 99 percent is going to splinter, because people have different preferences about policy and they want different things out of the government.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Beverly Gage, what does the past tell us about what it takes to build up a movement that is, if not 99 percent, a majority of the country, or to have real political clout?

BEVERLY GAGE: I think the questions that we’re seeing start to emerge with Occupy Wall Street are questions that are sort of classic questions of social movements, particularly movements that have targeted economic power, economic inequality, questions of what the relationship with the Democratic Party is going to be.

Are they going to be somehow folded in, sort of a Tea Party style on the left? Are they going to stand apart from party politics? What’s the relationship with specific legislation going to be? Is there actually going to be a legislative program? All of these are not problems. They’re just issues that you find in any sort of social movement and that we have seen in the past.

I do think that one thing that’s going to start to emerge — and we have seen little glimmers of it already — is that we have seen a lot of excitement, a lot of interest in this early stage of Occupy Wall Street. And one of the things that is going to become more and more of an issue is what happens as these become a more permanent feature of the landscape.

What is the relationship with the police going to be like over the long term? How long are cities going to tolerate protests? We have seen some very dramatic and in many cases tragic outcomes in the past, things like the Bonus Army of 1932, which was unemployed veterans kind of brutally driven out of Washington out of an encampment they had made then.

So I think that those questions are going to start to come more to the fore. And I also think these questions about the role that the movement is going to have in relation to formal politics, to electoral politics, are they going to be part of it, are they going to stand outside of it raising questions, all of those are what we’re going the see in the next month or so.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sarah van Gelder, now, of course, we have this growing phenomenon of these protests moving internationally. How important is that, do you think, and do you see a common thread here?

SARAH VAN GELDER: Well, I do see a common thread.

Let me just address the question of the agenda, because one of the things that hasn’t happened in the U.S. is, we have become so partisan, we have become so divided that we haven’t really had a conversation across class, across party lines, across left and right.

And one of the extraordinary things about what’s happening in these occupation sites is that you see those kinds of conversations, because whoever shows up gets to be part of it. So that could be a really interesting political shift in the U.S. political landscape.

Internationally, I think there is a lot that this has in common with what’s going on internationally, because many of the problems are still the — are the same. We have the same situation in which large corporations are — and a small group of people associated with them and large financial institutions are getting extraordinarily wealthy while most people around the world are either seeing their standard of living stagnate or decline.

So this notion resonates enormously across the globe. And then we have social media to communicate those ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Josh Barro, a brief last word about the importance of the movement internationally?

JOSH BARRO: Well, I think that we’re seeing similar economic conditions around the world, so it’s not surprising to see similar movements.

I would note that I think the underlying economic conditions are actually significantly different in Europe. I think the root cause of many of the problems in Europe are the unsustainability of the Eurozone. And so, effectively, I think it actually makes even less sense to focus on the financial sector in Europe.

The big errors in Europe are pure government policy errors that need to be fixed by policy-makers there, whereas, in the U.S., there’s more of a split between problems in the private sector and problems in the public sector.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Josh Barro, Sarah van Gelder, Beverly Gage, thank you, all three, very much.

SARAH VAN GELDER: Thank you, Jeff.

JOSH BARRO: Thank you.