This month, about a year since the Occupy Wall Street protests began in New York’s Zucotti Park, a judge ordered the University of California to pay a $1 million settlement to protesters who were pepper-sprayed in November of last year. While I don’t believe the settlement is necessarily symbolic of a turning point in the history of the movement, this is a good time to reflect upon the message and efficacy of OWS.
“We are the 99 percent” is the movement’s rallying cry, uniting the world’s people against a select few who enjoy a vastly disproportionate amount of the world’s material benefits. The statistics behind this trend are unambiguous: economic inequality in the United States is on the rise. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007 the after-tax income for the wealthiest 1 percent grew by 275 percent. Income for the next 19 percent grew by 65 percent, and it grew by just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent of households (http://www.cbo.gov/publication/42729).
“The 99 percent” will forever remain a loaded phrase in our national discourse. It’s astounding, actually, just how quickly their message was picked up and spread by the national media. Those protesters in Zucotti Park and all those who joined from cities around the word vaulted inequality into the national spotlight.
Now the question is: where do we go from here? The most salient criticism of Occupy is that they don’t provide any sort of road-map for remedying this inequality. The coolest thing about the movement is its grassroots, ecumenical structure, but this is also its weakest point. Occupy effectively raised public awareness about income inequality but left us to hash out the details.
I’d like to take the rest of my time to explore the views of two noted authors who have recently written books on how the United States should address income inequality: Robert Reich, a professor of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley, and Brink Lindsey, a senior scholar at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation and former VP of Research at the Cato Institute.
Lindsey’s “Human Capitalism” (2012) argues that income inequality is an outgrowth of increasingly unequal educational outcomes and distribution of human capital. Consider the following hypothetical: a janitor makes, say, $24,000 a year, a university professor makes $100,000 and a hedge fund manager makes $10 million. Obviously, the monetary difference between the professor and hedge fund manager is orders of magnitude greater than the difference between the professor and janitor. But, Lindsey argues, the human capital divide is much greater between the professor and the janitor.
In this case, the gross inequality is not necessarily monetary. After a certain point income gains show diminishing returns in terms of happiness. The hedge fund guy might not be all that much happier or smarter than the professor. But the janitor in a low-wage, non-cognitively demanding job has far fewer outlets to develop his skills and move up the economic ladder. Lindsey’s policy objectives — which expanded early education programs, K-12 reform, encouraged entrepreneurship and others — are aimed at expanding human capital at lower levels of income. They are aimed at helping close the gap between the low-skill, low-wage janitor and high-skill professor.
Robert Reich proffers a similar argument, but places a much stronger emphasis on monetary inequality. In “Supercapitalism” (2007), Reich advocates for a much more progressive income tax system, higher capital gains taxes and generally shifting more of the tax burden to those who are best able to handle paying more (i.e. the 1 percent who have seen the country’s greatest income gains in the past thirty years). In his view, the concentrated wealth gains foster greater concentration of political power. Thus, campaign finance reform becomes a central part of his efforts to reduce inequality.
Without Occupy, we would not be having this conversation at the national level. We need comprehensive reform that addresses both the divergences in income and in human capital. And we need to lessen the influence of the wealthy on the political process. For its part in consciousness-raising, in prompting all of us to action, I believe Occupy will go down as one of the most important social and political movements in United States history.