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A Cynicism That Veils Hope: Why More Americans Should Support Occupy Wall Street

Posted: 12/21/11 11:56 AM ET

We are two recent college graduates who have encountered large amounts of opposition, disdain and skepticism toward the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests -- from our peers, colleagues, parents, political leaders and media of all colors. The grievances against the movement are varied and sometimes valid. People dislike the shocking slogans, confrontational logistics, cultural baggage, fringe participants, and the whiffs of anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism. But to us, most of the rejection of OWS seems beside the point. The core complaints fueling the protests are roundly accepted by many of those who otherwise find little to appreciate about the Occupiers.

Forecasters anticipate another recession in the U.S. for 2012. Households are saddled with debt and being foreclosed upon en masse. Unemployment is high and relatively unchanged since the financial crisis. Things have been bad, and the sense is that they will get worse. In the wake of WWI the poet Yeats wrote, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Or as one Occupy sign proclaims, "Shit is f*cked up and bullshit."

Polls reveal a general dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Recent polls found that 86 percent of Americans think Wall Street exerts too much influence in Washington; 66 percent believe wealth is too unevenly distributed; 71 percent believe at least some financial executives should be prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis. Yet, a November 16th poll from Public Policy Polling found that only 33 percent support Occupy Wall St, with opposition at 45 percent, up 9 points from a month ago. A Gallup Poll conducted on November 20th found that 53 percent of those polled neither support nor oppose Occupy Wall St.

The polls reflect a contradictory situation. The Occupy movement expresses grievances and fears shared by most Americans. But those who most loudly express our national dissatisfaction are booed or ignored.

According to critics, OWS is entitled, ineffective, insincere, anti-capitalist, out of touch, ignorant, and lacking demands. Early on, the New York Times' Ginia Bellafante criticized "the group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably." GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich argued "all the Occupy movements starts with the premise that we all owe them everything." This animosity seems to miss the essential meaning and intent of the protests. What does it mean for the so-called 99% to picket banks' headquarters in New York City? Why aren't protesters focusing more on Washington? Why aren't they focusing more at all?

As the protesters have concentrated on bashing Wall St, observers wonder whether and when OWS will translate its momentum into political action of the good old kind. They wonder if its impact will be felt in Washington come next year's elections.

But confronting a broken system head-on causes it to respond in broken ways. The need is deeper than that of finding good candidates to run in D.C. The problem of overweight corporate influence and of governance tilted toward the benefit of the few is hard to catch and harder to fix. U.S. Representative Barney Frank called D.C. "the place where one never writes if one can call, never calls if one can speak, never speaks if one can nod, and never nods if one can wink."

OWS is protesting the banks, but banks do no winking, no speaking, no nodding. They outsource this work to their lobbyists. By first focusing on New York's financial sector, OWS forced a conversation about where this influence lives. Big banks haven't been the most visible target of OWS protests simply because they possess vast resources and wealth, but because of their sway over the country's decision-makers. Extreme inequality is problematic because it doesn't arise from the fact that some people work hard and others don't, but often because the deck of cards has been stacked from the very start.

It's not just about income inequality. The 99% ultimately cares less that Lebron James is in the 1% than they care about the carried interest tax that allows hedge fund managers to enjoy a less onerous rate of taxation than many middle-class earners. They care about the fact that the 1% has access to bigger and cheaper loans, and that nearly all of the benefits of federal earmarks and subsidies accrue to the 1%. They care about the revolving door between lobbying firms and lawmakers, between bank boards and presidential cabinets -- because the ethics of professional sports contracts aside, it's not just about the money. It is also about the influence that money wields on the lives of everyone else.

Lobbyists design earmarks, for companies and sectors, which are passed into law. Everyone involved -- lobbyists, special interests, congresspeople -- benefits. In Republic Lost, Lawrence Lessig cites a 2009 study that shows every one dollar spent by a lobbying firm for targeted tax benefits returning between six and twenty dollars. This economy of influence works both ways. Sometimes, a lobbyist makes a campaign donation first, expecting an earmark for his or her client in exchange. Sometimes, a congressperson passes an earmark into law, expecting a gift from the benefiting party, in return.

The prospect of lobbying work after public service further entangles these relations. A career in politics is increasingly viewed as a ladder to riches. Lessig reports that in the 1970s, only 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists after ending their careers as public servants. Yet, between 1998 and 2004, more than 50 percent of Senators, and 43 percent of members of the House, became lobbyists after leaving Congress.

By speaking up, OWS has imposed a new public language, however limited, on questions of power, influence and governance. According to Politico, mentions of the phrase "income inequality" in print publications, web stories, and broadcast transcripts jumped by 450 percent from early September to late October. OWS may not have objectives as narrow or pragmatic as critics would like, but, as Tony Judt, the British historian, notes, "to convince others that something is right or wrong we need a language of ends, not means. We don't have to believe that our objectives are poised to succeed. But we do need to be able to believe in them." The language of OWS tells us that money isn't earned or exchanged in a moral vacuum. It is necessary to talk about inequality not just as an economic measure but as a social and moral standard.

In New York Magazine, former Bush speechwriter David Frum ridiculed the mad worldview of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who said, "America is the only place in the world where it doesn't matter who your parents were or where you came from." Frum notes the U.S. is actually one of the most rigid and economically segregated class societies in the world. Still, Rubio's naive idealism has always been more alluring than the broader experience. So, too, the "story of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well-off or well-known, but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to."

Living with the reality-denying GOP and the unfulfilled promise of Obama's "change we can believe in," why shouldn't Americans be cynical about these latest calls for change? Because the Occupy movement wants us to acknowledge the reality of the American experience while still holding its ideals in sight. It expresses hope that we can do better than a system where the richest 1% earn as much income as the top 1% did in the gilded year of 1928, and now captures 53 cents of every new dollar in income created. It offers a vision of a less grotesquely unequal society, which causes us, as Tony Judt writes, "to lose all sense of fraternity, and fraternity, for all its fatuity, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself."

Bill O'Reilly is proclaiming that OWS has become "irrelevant as a political movement," while protesters are planning the next stages. OWS is organizing coordinated national eviction defenses to stop and reverse foreclosures. While this may make for tricky legal and logistical consequences, it nevertheless brings attention to the sordid fact that foreclosed homes are more numerous than the number of homeless people in the country and that most predatory lenders are still not prosecuted for their behavior. OWS has organized massive transfers of private funds out of large banks and into credit unions.

David Schlussel graduated from Yale University in May and is currently a legal research intern for the New York State Appellate Division Second Judicial Department, focusing on criminal appeals.

Jacob Albert graduated from Yale University in May, where he studied literature, and is a macroeconomic research intern at Roubini Global Economics, focusing on Latin America.