Great piece by Nicholas Kristoff in today’s New York Times
YOU have to wonder: Could Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police chiefs around the country be secretly backing the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Damon Winter/The New York Times
The Occupy protests might have died in infancy if a senior police official had not pepper-sprayed young women on video. Harsh police measures in other cities, including a clash in Oakland that put a veteran in intensive careand the pepper-spraying of an 84-year-old woman in Seattle, built popular support.
Just in the last few days, Bloomberg — who in other respects has been an excellent mayor — rescued the movement from one of its biggest conundrums. It was stuck in a squalid encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park: antagonizing local residents, scaring off would-be supporters, and facing months of debilitating snow and rain. Then the mayor helped save the demonstrators by clearing them out, thus solving their real estate problem and re-establishing their narrative of billionaires bullying the disenfranchised. Thanks to the mayor, the protests grew bigger than ever.
I watched in downtown Manhattan last week as the police moved in to drag off protesters — and several credentialed journalists — and the action seemed wildly over the top. Sure, the mayor had legitimate concerns about sanitation and safety, but have you looked around New York City? Many locations aren’t so clean and safe, but there usually aren’t hundreds of officers in riot gear showing up in the middle of the night to address the problem.
Yet in a larger sense, the furor over the eviction of protesters in New York, Oakland, Portland and other cities is a sideshow. Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park.
The high ground that the protesters seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it.
A reporter for Politico found that use of the words “income inequality” quintupled in a news database after the Occupy protests began. That’s a significant achievement, for this is an issue that goes to our country’s values and our opportunities for growth — and yet we in the news business have rarely given it the attention it deserves.
The statistic that takes my breath away is this: The top 1 percent of Americans possess a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.
A new study by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke University polled Americans about what wealth distribution would be optimal. People across the board thought that the richest 20 percent of Americans should control about one-third of the nation’s wealth, and the poorest 20 percent about one-tenth.
In fact, the richest 20 percent of Americans own more than 80 percent of the country’s wealth. And the poorest 20 percent own one-tenth of 1 percent.
It would be easier to accept this gulf between the haves and the have-nots if it could be spanned by intelligence and hard work. Sometimes it can. But over all, such upward mobility in the United States seems more constrained than in the supposed class societies of Europe.
Research by the Economic Mobility Project, which explores accessibility to the American dream, suggests that the United States provides less intergenerational mobility than most other industrialized nations do. That’s not only because of tax policy, which is what liberals focus on. Perhaps even more important are educational investments, like early childhood education, to try to even the playing field. We can’t solve inequality unless we give poor and working-class kids better educational opportunities.
The Occupy movement is also right that one of the drivers of inequality (among many) is the money game in politics. Michael Spence, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who shares a concern about rising inequality, told me that we’ve seen “an evolution from one propertied man, one vote; to one man, one vote; to one person, one vote; trending to one dollar, one vote.”
James M. Stone, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said in a recent speech that many members of Congress knew that banks needed to be more tightly regulated, perhaps broken into smaller pieces.
“So why was this not done?” he asked. “One obvious piece of the answer is that both political parties rely heavily on campaign contributions from the financial sector.”
The solution to these inequities and injustices is not so much setting up tents at bits of real estate here or there, but a relentless focus on the costs of inequality. So as we move into an election year, I’m hoping that the movement will continue to morph into: Occupy the Agenda