Monday, October 31, 2011

Why the 99 percent won't go away

CNN posed a good question today: How do you measure success for something like the burgeoning yet nebulous Occupy Wall Street movement? As you might expect, CNN obtained both some pretty good guesses and some profoundly stupid ones. To figure out which is which, it's worth looking at why hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets lately.

The main reason is almost too obvious to state: The economy sucks, and it's showing few signs of getting much better for the average American in the near future. The recession officially ended two years ago, but unemployment is still way too high, and underemployment is even higher still. For three decades, income growth has been gangbusters for the rich and minimal for everyone else. The recession only exacerbated that trend.

Uncertainty is real and steady, but it has nothing to do with businesses' alleged perennial fear of taxes and regulation that Paul Krugman has labeled "the confidence fairy." No, the uncertainty that matters here is the average Joe's concern that his house is worth much less than he paid for it, that he may not make it to the next paycheck, that he may not even get a next paycheck.

With only one available job for every 4.6 unemployed people, millions of Americans who are out of work simply have no room to get back in the game. And with the economy still on the edge, millions more live under the constant threat of joining the ranks of the unemployed. Consumer spending is still sluggish, and people aren't likely to spend much today when they're worried that everything could fall apart tomorrow.

Democrats' primary response to the recession was the Recovery Act, which worked to stabilize the economy but was too small to jolt us back into significant growth. Republicans' response, meanwhile, has been to rail continually against the alleged failure of the stimulus and to demand enormous spending cuts that would drain trillions of dollars of spending from the economy at precisely the wrong time. They've also doubled down on calls for more tax cuts for corporations and the rich, who already have lots of money they aren't spending right now because there isn't enough consumer demand for their products and services.

In short, millions of Americans are desperate and scared about the future, and they don't see much getting done to improve it. Some of them are on the streets right now under the auspices of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and most of the problems they're upset about don't have quick fixes. It's not just about the next election. It's certainly not a popular uprising in favor of more conservative politicians who would enact policies to entrench the status quo even further. It's about a deeply held sense that things are wrong, that the people who should be doing something about it aren't, that our government should do more to live up to the "of the people, by the people, for the people" ideal.

Dismissing the protesters as a bunch of lazy hippies is wildly inaccurate, and it won't do anything to fix the very real problems that prompted them to take to the streets. Whether the protests linger or abate, the spirit of the 99 percent movement will live on until the American people regain the sense that the government and the economy are working not just for the rich and powerful, but for everyone.


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