Occupy Wall Street’s Legacy

by Mark Wilson

Sometimes, Americans get a false sense of being cosmopolitan by traveling to other countries. We are an insular people, isolated from the goings-on in Europe and Asia by two oceans, and isolated from the goings-on in the rest of our continent by choice. During college, or shortly afterward, we spend a month in Europe and then come back. It’s a variation on the old English tradition of wealthy graduates of Oxford and Cambridge going on the Grand Tour of the Continent, traveling to exotic places like Italy, then returning.

The Occupy movement feels a little like that.

Early this morning, after two months, San Francisco police dismantled Occupy SF. By then, according to the San Francisco Chronicle (which is quite anti-Occupy and strangely conservative given its location), most of the original Occupiers had moved out.

Occupy Oakland, Occupy SF, Occupy LA, and the flagship, Occupy Wall Street. All gone, at least geographically. But the Occupy movement was tremendous. For the first time in a long time, the United States traveled to Europe and got a little rowdy. Politically, Americans are not a restive bunch: we have two major parties, which have existed for well over one hundred years. When there is political unrest, it usually comes in the form of heated debates, not protests.

Even over the last eight years, Americans were pretty milquetoast. There were protests against the Iraq War, but they were scattered, and easily dismissed as the work of college students without enough homework to do. I suppose reasonable people could disagree about whether we should be in Iraq, whether Medicare should be restructured, and whether water-boarding is merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.” 

But with Occupy, something happened. Reasonable people could no longer disagree that a sinister sense of inequity had been pervading the country in the recent past. When did the inequity start? Who’s to say. But it was there. Even The Middle Class — normally stalwartly ignorant of national problems — jumped on board. They felt this sense of unfairness, too. Bobby’s college was more expensive, even though he was paying (allegedly) in-state tuition at Big U. Sally graduated from college with a “useful” degree (none of that art history stuff), but had trouble finding a job. It was so bad, she was thinking of going to law school to wait the recession out. With the kids moving out of the house, Mom and Dad had been trying to sell the old family home and head for Florida, but the house languished on the market, even after they lowered the price three times. Eventually they gave up and decided to stay.

Narratives are nice, but graphs are better. The sense of unease that prompted Occupy to get as big as it did was like the feeling you get after eating too much at the buffet. Am I going to be sick? I’d better sit down and let this pass. While you’re sitting down, pop open The Economist and observe how real after-tax income for the 99% has increased modestly, while real after-tax income for the 1% shot through the roof. Very wealthy people weren’t just becoming wealthier, they were becoming wealthier at an increasing rate. Indeed, from 1979 to 2007, the 1%’s income increased almost 300%, compared even to 50% for the top 20% (minus the top 1%).

But even this isn’t the end of the story. Growing up, we all know that wealthy people make more money than the rest of us do. The Occupy movement brought to light not only inequity, but the source of this inequity. The very wealthy, along with corporations and lobbying groups like the odious U.S. Chamber of Commerce, used their wealth to purchase laws favorable to them, ensuring that their taxes would go down while everyone else’s went up.

While Occupy Wall Street is no Tahrir Square, Occupy substantively changed the debate in this country. And it was about time. Instead of bromides about whether it’s fair to tax “job creators,” Occupy exposed how the political and financial systems had become a tool of very wealthy Americans, frequently exercised at the expense of everyone else. The “99%” metaphor was particularly thoughtful, as Americans from every tax bracket united under common concerns. It’s true that there’s class warfare out there, but the class warfare has been coming from the 1%. For thousands of years, people in power have learned that there’s no better way to quash an uprising than to create artificial barriers to organizing among the rabble. Class divisions are a particularly great way to cause infighting among people who all have the same goals. The 99% metaphor tells the Fox News-watching parents back home in the Midwest that they really do have more in common with the unemployed post-doc than with Grover Norquist. This metaphor also has the added advantage of being true. (I say the “99%” is a metaphor, because it’s more of a mentality than a tax status. People like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or George Soros are thoroughly ensconced in the 1% — indeed, in the top 0.01% — but they’re using their money to improve the world. The Koch brothers? Not so much.)

Even as Occupy encampments are shuttered around the country, the core message remains: there’s something rotten going on. Commentators have hemmed and hawed that Occupy had real no purpose, but they were as wrong as they were unobservant. Awareness was the purpose. Mom and Dad, Bobby and Sally, you’re not imagining things. Something deeply wrong has happened to this country, and it’s not your fault that Bobby’s education is expensive or that Sally can’t find a job. Nor is it just circumstance; people whom you don’t know, spending more money than you have ever earned in your life, restructured the rules of the game without your knowledge, and now you’re suffering the consequences while they reap the benefits. Sounds pretty rotten to me.