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The Daily Need

Occupy Wall Street, the 2012 election and the problem of income inequality in America

Photo: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Who’s to blame for inequality?

Assigning blame isn’t something we do so easily, especially in a political context. We point fingers, but real accountability can be elusive.

However, the question of who’s to blame for the unprecedented levels of income inequality we’re currently seeing in America is an important one for Occupy Wall Street. For one thing, the simmering anger toward greedy banks and the do-nothing political class is what animates the Occupy movement. That’s what allows Americans across demographic lines to connect with the protesters camping out — and getting arrested — in lower Manhattan.

But assigning blame also makes it possible for Occupy Wall Street to do something it arguably needs to do in order to thrive and stage a successful comeback now that the winter is over: Advance an agenda. Now that election season is in full-throttle, Occupy has, perhaps, an opportunity to redefine itself, as a movement demanding accountability, a movement that challenges politicians and holds their feet to the fire on the systemic flaws in our economy revealed by the housing and financial crises.

After all, as Occupy protesters point out, things aren’t getting much better for most Americans, even if the economy is supposedly recovering. Even in good times, in fact, the vast majority of Americans have seen their incomes stagnate, while the highest earners reap ever heftier profits. Since 2002, for example, the bottom 99 percent has experienced a “lost decade” of wage stagnation. The income gains of the mid-2000s boom have been erased, and then some, by the Great Recession. Incomes may be bouncing back now that there are glimmers of hope for the economy, but most of those gains have, once again, gone straight to the one percent.

This, arguably, presents a real opportunity for the Occupy movement to be relevant again. Conservatives and Republican politicians have dismissed the Occupy protesters as “jealous,” covetous of others’ successes, whiners and — most powerfully — radicals demanding the government forcibly “spread the wealth around,” in the immortal words of Barack Obama. Polls show that Americans favor tax fairness, but they don’t want government to take money from rich people and, Robin Hood-like, dole it out to the poor.

Of course, that isn’t what most Occupy protesters want, either. And this is why assigning blame is crucial to the success of the movement going forward. There is ample evidence to suggest that Americans are willing to stomach enormous levels of inequality, as long as the rules are fair. What Americans are very strongly against, however, is an unfair system hijacked by entrenched interests who, by virtue of their money and access to power, rewrite the rules to gorge themselves on piles of cash. An un-level playing field is anathema to what most Americans stand for.

David Grusky of the Boston Review has suggested that Occupy challenge the structural flaws in our economic system and the institutions that benefit from those flaws, rather than reduce their demands to a mere fight over taxes. “If we’re serious about reducing inequality, a higher tax rate for the rich will not suffice,” Grusky wrote. “We need other inequality-reducing interventions. It would be a shame if Occupy Wall Street — whose concerns extend well beyond tax policy — were reduced to a push for increasing the marginal tax rates for people earning more than a million dollars a year.”

The Occupy protesters, for their part, seem to be listening. “We’re experiencing a level of structural unemployment that’s not going to go away. The economy, for many people — most of America — is not getting better,” Michael Premo, an Occupy organizer, said Tuesday. “There is no real middle class anymore. The base of the middle class has been eroded, it’s a sort of political ruse that’s used to galvanize voters. This problem is not going away.”

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