To the Wall Street Protesters: Channel Your Enthusiasm

10/20/2011 10:02 am ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

I have often been bemused by the tendency of many Americans not to vote their interest. They keep sending to the Congress the guardians of the rich as they sideline themselves into peripheral issues such as gay rights and abortion, and they exhibit reflexively their distrust of government, inherited from the beginning of the Republic by the unhappy experience with arbitrary Elizabethan rule.

But things may be changing, at least at the margins. The disparity in income between the rich and the non-rich which became exacerbated starting in the 1970's has begun to penetrate the public consciousness. According to a recent study by the Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks third from the bottom in terms of the size of the gap between the rich and the poor, among a group of 30 nations studied. In the period since 1979, this gap has quadrupled in the U.S.. The average annual income of the top .01 percent of households in the U.S. is $27 million, whereas for the bottom 90 percent it is $31,200.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, now a month old, is in some respects a response to this glaring and undemocratic disparity. But what does it accomplish, concretely or operationally? Why not focus on one issue that seems to be obvious in these grim times: the Obama administration's proposal, in part inspired by Warren Buffet, to tax the very rich more. The proposal, part of the president's Jobs Bill, was rejected out of hand by the Senate, under the largely spurious notion that "small business" -- that Republican mantra -- will suffer with the end of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. In fact, there are very few small businessmen who can be counted as millionaires. In the face of this refusal by the Senate, the administration has responded with a plan to put pieces of the bill, in turn, before the Congress.

Why not get the demonstrators near Wall Street to surround Capitol Hill in Washington and put pressure on the House and the Senate to pass a bill taxing the wealthy at the same percentage that the average American has to pay?