Occupy Wall St.: This is Not a Head Scratcher

October 4th, 2011 at 8:38 am

Last night I heard a story on NPR about the Wall St. protest that is now spreading to other cities.  The gist of the story was: “what are these protests really about?  What do they want?”

I’m sorry, but that’s just not a head scratcher.  Do these news analysts think it’s a coincidence that they’re occupying Wall St. as opposed to Columbus Ave north of 79th?

As Andrew Sorkin put it today (after writing that the message was “at times…hard to discern”):

“…the demonstrators are seeking accountability for Wall Street and corporate America for the financial crisis and the growing economic inequality gap.”

I’m not saying everyone down there is ready to give a clear exposition of the facts of the case, but commentators can stop scratching their heads now.

I’ve been writing about these problems for decades.  Sometimes they’ve gotten a little better, but mostly they’ve gotten worse.  Before the downturn, the share of income held by the top 1% was 23.5%, the highest since 1928 and more than twice the 10% level of the late 1970s.

These are growth shares, as in they have to sum to 100%–when one group’s share goes up like that, everybody else’s has to shrink.

That doesn’t mean real income values can’t rise for other groups, of course (though it does imply slower relative growth, compared to the high end).  But in fact, the middle class and the poor haven’t seen that either…the decade of the 2000s saw middle-incomes decline in real terms for working-age households.  The recession just made those incomes fall faster.

Protest movements are often born of two interacting injustices: the lack of opportunity and the lack of accountability by the persons perceived to be blocking that opportunity.

Given the facts of the income distribution, the trends in real middle-class incomes and poverty, the failure of policy to do much to change these trends, the government bailouts of the only class that’s benefitted from the recovery so far, the absence of clear punishment/accountability for the financial and political institutions that helped inflate the debt bubble that continues to squeeze economies across the globe, and the dysfunctionality of the current political system (they’re arguing more about whether they can keep the lights on than whether they can help solve the economic problems), the more interesting question is what took so long for such protests to show up?

Update: a colleague sends me to this site which puts a face on much of the above (hat tip: HS).

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20 comments in reply to "Occupy Wall St.: This is Not a Head Scratcher"

  1. Comma1 says:

    “To the dismay of consumer groups and the discomfort of Democrats, President Barack Obama wants Congress to make it easier for private debt collectors to call the cellphones of consumers delinquent on student loans and other billions owed the federal government.”

    There seems to be a disconnect here. You’re thoughts?

  2. Bearpaw says:

    Yeah, I have to laugh whenever I see a reporter or a pundit or a blogger go, “But but but … what are they protesting?”

    What, they need to put together a PowerPoint presentation with little bullet points and moving graphics and shit?

    • Chigliakus says:

      The reporters and pundits known damned well what people are angry about and why they’re protesting. They also realize that they’re professional shills for the oligarchy which is why they were reluctant to cover things like Nurses demanding a Wall Street transaction tax and why they feign ignorance of the protestors motives. That transaction tax is a great idea by the way, it would put a stop to the computerized millisecond stock market transactions. High frequency trading is really just rent seeking by the same Wall Street players that caused the lesser depression, as far as I can tell it offers no benefit to society.

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      Yeah, I have to laugh whenever I see a reporter or a pundit or a blogger go, “But but but … what are they protesting?”

      I’m amazed, personally, that we don’t see more stories about all of these people being outraged about the crushing burden of regulation and taxes on the people who would be offering them jobs if the Government didn’t stand in the way.

    • perplexed says:

      Maybe they can start with this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSuF0NFfP0s&feature=related. This same story gets repeated over & over. Anyone who doesn’t understand that we’re flirting with disaster here needs to get their head out of the sand.

      All those boring history classes so few could be bothered with. Now all of this stuff gets to be “new” & “confusing;” again.

  3. BigSky says:

    Sorkin is a punch. My favorite part from the clueless hack>
    ““Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. ”
    What he was really thinking was “Do you want it to be?? Probably not, right? So, OK, what I’ll write for my column is that I’m a VIP who gets random calls from CEO’s (and everybody knows they’re like demi-gods right?)and I’ll flatly state that I, Andrew Ross Sorkin- ace NYT reporter, can’t figure out what the small, puny hippie thing is about.”

    That about right Andrew? You showed up, observed and have no idea except that CEO’s seek your opinion ’cause you have your finger on the pulse…

  4. PhillyCooke says:

    I’d just add one more obvious point that I haven’t seen covered enough. These people are out of work. Most of them have no hope of finding any work. What exactly do we expect them to do instead of protesting?

    • D. C. Sessions says:

      What exactly do we expect them to do instead of protesting?

      To quote Bruce Hornsby, “get a job.”

  5. Taryn H. says:

    It’s coming to DC on 10/6/11 – in BIG numbers. You should consider offering teach-in (like Joe Stiglitz and Jeff Madrick had done for Occupy Wall Street):


    • Taryn H. says:

      Their problem is with the global economic system, which is kinda complicated (they’ve been criticized for not knowing how to fix global capitalism – because everyone else knows how, right?). Anyway, they have lots of questions and could use economic expertise. Mike Konczal offered his suggestions, here:


      • perplexed says:

        They’re not likely to find strictly economic solutions to political problems. Hopefully, focusing on wall street will lead them to the politicians that have been purchased by wall street that keep them above the law. Konczal’s suggestions are good but amount to cutting off the tops of the leaves of the weed while leaving the roots intact.

        For a thorough review of what’s at stake here, read Hacker & Pierson’s book “Winner-Take-All Politics.” We need a “Chinese Wall” to separate our politicians from the moneyed interests that now control them. We’ve allowed a system to evolve that insures that a politician acting in our interest will be committing political suicide. We have to break them free from from choosing between us and the continuation of their political careers. Only then will they be able to act in our interest and bring this under control; and only then will not serving the people they were sent there to serve spell an end to their political careers.

        We need a government that manages our capitalist system in the interest of all; not a government managed by our wealthy interests and the corporations they also control. Public financing of campaigns with the voters sending the money with the candidates and no outside intervention is probably the only way out of this quagmire. It should be the first thing on the list. A truly representative democracy will likely resolve the rest.

        The problem we should be wrestling with at this point, in this crisis, is what to do about the overcrowding in the federal prison system. Hacker & Pierson’s book helps to make clear why that’s really not been an issue.

  6. Clocking Out: Broken Rules Edition « Main Street says:

    […] Economist Jared Bernstein says the Wall Street protests are about something real, and important. […]

  7. Carol says:

    I understand what they’re protesting, but I don’t understand what they hope to accomplish. The occupation will not change the political climate. Obama is not going to decide to prosecute the fraudsters and the republicans are not going to decide that regulation is a good thing. I just think it’s a waste of time and energy.

    Why not pound the pavement for Elizabeth Warren if they want to make a difference. And then go home and find some more EWs and Alan Graysons who will stand up and be counted. That’s the way to change things.

    • Taryn H. says:

      You think? We’ve been waiting 30 years for someone to reverse this trend in inequality – no one has done it. Not Ds, not Rs – no one. Political scientist Larry Bartels studied the Senate voting patterns in the 1990s and he concluded that neither Rs nor Ds were impacted by middle-class issue, at all. Not even a little. So okay, Elizabeth Warren gets into the Senate – what happens to reverse inequality? History says not a lot. And I’m sorry, but that is just the history – it’s impossible to refute. They’ve taken to the streets – in greater and greater numbers – because our political system no longer works for the middle class. Dr. Bernstein has experience it – he has a post a month or two back where he talks about even ideas are bought.

      How effective they can be depends on how big they can get, but right now it seems they’ve got quite a bit of momentum. But to think electing one Senator (even a very good one) is more effective than a movement is not born out by history. Even recent history (look at the Tea Party and how much impact they were able to have). But look at the Gay Rights movement, the Civil Rights movement – the middle class needs such a movement and, if it gets big enough, it will translate. But right now, what’s important is mobilizing.

      • Taryn H. says:

        For example, what was more effective for African-Americans? The political process or the Civil Rights Movement? Clearly, the electoral process failed and the protest movements had the greater impact.

      • Carol says:

        I repeat. What are they hoping to accomplish?

      • Carol says:

        And you think the Senate, or the House will change its voting pattern because of these marches? The senators and the representatives don’t give a flying fig about this march unless it disrupts their own little fiefdoms. You have to start locally just like the tea party did if you want to change things.

  8. charles says:

    the more interesting question is what took so long for such protests to show up? ///// truly. I have been calling for a march on Wall Street for about eight years.