As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.
At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.
The jobless rate for college graduates under age 25 has averaged 9.6 percent over the past year; for young high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. Those figures do not reflect graduates who are working but in low-paying jobs that do not even require diplomas. Such poor prospects in the early years of a career portend a lifetime of diminished prospects and lower earnings — the very definition of downward mobility.
The protests, though, are more than a youth uprising. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. As the bad times have endured, Americans have also lost their belief in redress and recovery.
The initial outrage has been compounded by bailouts and by elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer.
Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.
When the protesters say they represent 99 percent of Americans, they are referring to the concentration of income in today’s deeply unequal society. Before the recession, the share of income held by those in the top 1 percent of households was 23.5 percent, the highest since 1928 and more than double the 10 percent level of the late 1970s.
That share declined slightly as financial markets tanked in 2008, and updated data is not yet available, but inequality has almost certainly resurged. In the last few years, for instance, corporate profits (which flow largely to the wealthy) have reached their highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while worker pay as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since the mid-1950s.
Income gains at the top would not be as worrisome as they are if the middle class and the poor were also gaining. But working-age households saw their real income decline in the first decade of this century. The recession and its aftermath have only accelerated the decline.
Research shows that such extreme inequality correlates to a host of ills, including lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and less public investment. It also skews political power, because policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans versus those of lower-income Americans.
No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. There are plenty of policy goals to address the grievances of the protesters — including lasting foreclosure relief, a financial transactions tax, greater legal protection for workers’ rights, and more progressive taxation. The country needs a shift in the emphasis of public policy from protecting the banks to fostering full employment, including public spending for job creation and development of a strong, long-term strategy to increase domestic manufacturing.
It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.