Occupy Wall Street and rose-tinted glasses
(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.
A MANIFESTO FOR OCCUPY WALL STREET
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.