Occupy Wall Street and rose-tinted glasses

October 7, 2011

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Two weeks into the Occupy Wall Street protests, one of America’s most respected polling firms released an astonishing survey on economic divisions showing that a majority of Americans don’t think their society is divided between haves and have-nots.

That is in sharp contrast with the ideas of Occupy Wall Street, a growing movement whose slogans include “We are the 99 percent.” As opposed to the top 1 percent, whose share of the national income has more than doubled in the past two decades and now is bigger than at any time since just before the start of the Great Depression in 1929. The survey indicates a dose of denial about economic inequality.

According to the poll, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (http://tinyurl.com/3u83bvy) and the Washington Post, 52 percent of respondents said it was inaccurate to think of the United States as a country divided between haves and have-nots. Forty-five percent saw a rich-poor gap.

Hard statistics, both at home and in international comparisons between the United States and other countries, leave no doubt that that gap has been widening. At home, the number of Americans living below the official poverty line grew to 46.2 million last year, according to the Census Bureau. That was the highest number since the bureau started releasing poverty figures more than 50 years ago. Other statistics show that the middle class is shrinking.

Internationally, the United States ranks near the bottom of the list in terms of equitable distribution of income and wealth. It’s closer to Argentina, Iran and Madagascar than to Canada or Germany, measured by the Gini coefficient, a complex statistical indicator named after Corrado Gini, the Italian economist who devised it in 1912.

With figures like this, Occupy Wall Street, should have no problem attracting activists. But while their ranks have swollen since the movement was launched on September 17, there is reason for skepticism that it can grow into something large, vibrant, focused and durable enough to frame the political debate and bring about change.

The obstacles are varied and daunting, from the rose-tinted glasses through which many Americans see themselves (as illustrated by the Pew poll) and the lack of leaders to the diffuse nature of the movement to the absence of clear demands. In a grab bag of gripes, anger against banks and Wall Street is the biggest.

Apart from “we are the 99 percent,” the protesters’ most frequent chants include “hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go,” and “they got bailed out, we got sold out,” a reference to Washington’s rescue package for banks whose irresponsible lending helped drag the country into a recession in the first place.

There has been no shortage of advice, some from unusual quarters, on how the Wall Street occupiers can channel their frustrations into concrete demands. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (http://tinyurl.com/6fsjz6b) suggested they should go for a financial transaction tax and rules to limit the ability of banks to engage in speculative investments.

Richard Beales and Edward Hadas, two columnists for Reuters Breakingviews, a website that provides daily financial commentary, offered A Manifesto for Occupy Wall Street (http://tinyurl.com/6kcc2u5), whose points included naming and shaming “fat cat salary-men.” Also in the manifesto: “Change the U.S. two-party system.”

Encouragement for the Occupy Wall Street crowd came from Joseph Stiglitz, the liberal Nobel Prize winning economist who visited the movement’s headquarters in a park two blocks from Wall Street and said its denizens had become rich by socializing losses and privatizing gains. “We bailed out the banks with an understanding that there would be a restoration of lending,” he said. “All there was was a restoration of bonuses.”

Stiglitz’s visit and that of other liberal celebrities (TV star Roseanne Barr, actress Susan Sarandon, film maker Michael Moore, Princeton professor Cornel West) provided publicity for a movement that initially attracted little attention. No longer.

A day before an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street began camping out at Washington’s Freedom Plaza, a few blocks from the White House, the widely-respected Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that the movement had created a new pole in politics. “Americans have always been wary of concentrated power. The Tea Party had great success in focusing anxieties on what it argues is an excessively powerful federal government. Now an active and angry band of citizens is insisting that the concentrated power Americans most need to fear exists on Wall Street and in the financial system.”

Speaking of fears: demonstrations by Occupy Wall Street and offshoots in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and several smaller cities have been peaceful, unlike the angry anarchist protests that have marred international financial gatherings in recent years. But the targets of the movement’s ire – bankers and business chiefs – seem worried nevertheless.

Worried enough for a business intelligence company, Listenlogic, to offer its clients a Threat Advisory derived from monitoring social media conversations about Occupy Wall Street across the country.

The company’s web site features an Occupy Movement Corporate Threat Advisory (http://tinyurl.com/3tjagoz) in the four colors the U.S. government used for its now defunct terror threat warnings. Occupy Wall Street gets a yellow bar – elevated risk of threat. It’s one up from low-risk green.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It’s no shock to me that many Americans are viewing themselves through rose-colored glasses. That’s exactly why we’re in the position we’re in today. We’ve sat idle by as our elected officials have watered down our rights, increased the economic divide, and embarrassed our nation on the global stage.

The Occupy America movement has moved well beyond NYC, beyond Boston, Chicago, DC & LA… it’s moved to small towns, universities, even local government buildings. The 99% will no longer remain silent.

https://www.facebook.com/The.Ninety.Nine .Percent

Posted by The99Percent | Report as abusive

The Top 1% account for more of the total income in the US compared to other countries. In 1950, wealth concentration in the US was comparable to other countries.

http://www.verisi.com/resources/us-incom e-inequality.htm

Besides the growing financialization, focusing on Wall Street’s excess (e.g., bonus payouts) is appropriate: the last two years saw the largest NYC bonus totals, outside of the record breaking 3-year stretch from 2005-2007. See charts below for details:

http://www.verisi.com/resources/wall-st- bonuses.htm

Posted by datascientist | Report as abusive

Hooray. We finally have our own Jasmine.

Posted by hiddengun | Report as abusive

I’m a trucker driver and been with my company for 20 years.I stand to make the same salary this year as I did 20 years ago,while corporate profits have soared, ceo pay is off the charts,the cost of living has gone up dramatically.I’m tired of hearing politicans saying it my fault I’m not rich.I just want to pay my bills.AS long as cheap labor keep come across our boarders and China keeps manipulating their currency nothing will change.I support both the Tea Party and the Wall Street protesters.

Posted by heavyhauler | Report as abusive

life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has no mention of comparative income equality. If too many americans still think they are part of the haves, it has to be because they’re too happy with their plasma screen tvs, dishwashers, washerdryers, that they’d rather call themselves haves. No one has to focus on self definition in this country, just hte american dream, and so the poll is flawed, even though the 1% continue to gather all the income, and spend it on yachts, upper east side penthouses, and other goods bible belters don’t concern themselves with. The best sign I saw at occupy the cbot was “wake me when the american dream.”

Posted by theinfamoush6 | Report as abusive

The Occupy movements need to focus on one or two clear objectives, and direct the groundswell of support toward them. Without a clear vision, it will sputter and dissolve.

I agree about regulations, like reinstating the Glass Stegall act. However, protesting corporate greed while continuing to buy what the malefactors are selling is doomed to failure.

Most of us may feel there is no gap between rich and poor because envision that it is more of a spectrum. The vanishing middle class is not apparent to enough people, yet. I think we need to focus on market power, and how to give consumers the voice they should have in a competitive market. Otherwise, we’ll just be protesting ourselves out of our own jobs.
http://finance-therapy.com/Finance_Thera py/Blog/Entries/2011/10/10_Occupy_WalMar t_%28Part_2%29.html

Posted by FinanceTherapy | Report as abusive

According to your article ‘ the official poverty line grew to 46.2 million last year’ in the USA last year.

Lets put that into context:

That is the equivalent of two thirds of the population of the United Kingdom living below the poverty line

Or put more simply still – every two Brits out of 3 living in poverty!

Now that is something any civilised society must get grip on and seek to reduce before it leads to serious social problems!

Posted by RHVC42 | Report as abusive

theoretically, people view themselves as being somewhat equal to those around them. for the 99% people are all relatively close in equality in comparison to the 1%, but there are visible differences from middle class and the impoverished. Most people would probably define the haves as simply not being in poverty and getting by decently. I do not think this poll accurately displays how people view themselves. People do not honestly believe there is no difference between the ultrarich and themselves, but they see that most people are not unlike them.

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