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The Occupiers' Responsive Chord

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A combination of police crackdowns and bad weather are testing the young Occupy movement. But rumors of its demise are premature, to say the least. Although numbers are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests the movement is growing.

As importantly, the movement has already changed the public debate in America.

Consider, for example, last week's Congressional Budget Office report on widening disparities of income in America. It was hardly news -- it's already well known that the top 1 percent now gets 20 percent of the nation's income, up from 9 percent in the late 1970s.

But it's the first time such news made the front page of the nation's major newspapers.

Why? Because for the first time in more than half a century, a broad cross-section of the American public is talking about the concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the top.

Score a big one for the Occupiers.

Even more startling is the change in public opinion. Not since the 1930s has a majority of Americans called for redistribution of income or wealth. But according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, an astounding 66 percent of Americans said the nation's wealth should be more evenly distributed.

A similar majority believes the rich should pay more in taxes. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, even a majority of people who describe themselves as Republicans believe taxes should be increased on the rich.

I remember the days when even raising the subject of inequality made you a "class warrior." Now, it seems, most Americans have become class warriors.

And they blame Republicans for stacking the deck in favor of the rich. On that New York Times/CBS News poll, 69 percent of respondents said Republican policies favor the rich (28 percent said the same of Obama's policies).

The old view was anyone could make it in America with enough guts and gumption. We believed in the self-made man (or, more recently, woman) who rose from rags to riches -- inventors and entrepreneurs born into poverty, like Benjamin Franklin; generations of young men from humble beginnings who grew up to became president, like Abe Lincoln. We loved the novellas of Horatio Alger, and their more modern equivalents -- stories that proved the American dream was open to anyone who worked hard.

In that old view, being rich was proof of hard work, and lack of money proof of indolence or worse. As Herman Cain still says "if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

But Cain's line isn't hitting a responsive chord. In fact, he's backtracked from it (along with much of the rest of what he's said).

A profound change has come over America. Guts, gumption, and hard work don't seem to pay off as they once did -- or at least as they did in our national morality play. Instead, the game seems rigged in favor of people who are already rich and powerful -- as well as their children.

Instead of lionizing the rich, we're beginning to suspect they gained their wealth by ripping us off.

Mitt Romney is defensive about his vast wealth (reputed to total a quarter of a billion). He's reverted to scolding his audiences on the campaign trail for "attacking people based on their success."

The old view was also that great wealth trickled downward -- that the rich made investments in jobs and growth that benefitted all of us. So even if we doubted we'd be wealthy, we still gained from the fortunes made by a few.

But that view, too, has lost its sheen. Nothing has trickled down. The rich have become far richer over the last three decades but the rest of us haven't. In fact, median incomes are dropping.

Wall Street moguls are doing better than ever -- after having been bailed out by the rest of us. But the rest of us are doing worse. CEOs are hauling in more than 300 times the pay of average workers (up from 40 times the pay only three decades ago), as average workers lose jobs, wages, and benefits.

Instead of investing in jobs and growth, the super rich are putting their money into gold or Treasury bills, or investing it in Brazil or South Asia or anywhere else it can reap the highest return.

Meanwhile, it's dawning on Americans that in the real economy (as opposed to the financial one) our spending is vital. And without enough jobs or wages, that spending is drying up.

The economy is in trouble because so much income and wealth have been going to the top that the rest us no longer have the purchasing power to buy the goods and services we would produce at or near full employment.

The jobs depression shows no sign of ending. Personal disposable income, adjusted for inflation, was down 1.7 percent in the third quarter of this year -- the biggest drop since the third quarter of 2009. Housing prices have stalled, home sales are down.

The only reason consumer spending rose in September is because we drew from our meager savings -- mostly in order to pay medical bills, health insurance, and utilities. That's the third month of savings declines, according to the Commerce Department's report last Friday.

This can't and won't continue. Savings are now down to 3.6 percent of personal disposable income, their lowest level since the recession began.

Americans know a rigged game when they see one. They understand how much money is flowing into politics from the super rich, big corporations, and Wall Street --- in order to keep their taxes low and entrench their privileged position.

The Occupy movement is gaining ground because it's hitting a responsive chord. What happens from here on depends on whether other Americans begin to march to the music -- and organize.

Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.

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