THE BLOG
09/22/2014 06:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will Occupy End Up Having a Bigger Impact Than the Tea Party on Real People's Lives?

To casual consumers of the mainstream media, that question might well seem absurd. On the other hand, theater of the absurd is not a bad description of much of the coverage provided those consumers by the mainstream media. Sure, the tea party are big-time stars, what with their (not so) well attended rallies ("there were tens of them here," noted Sen. Harry Reid after a 2011 gathering). The (billionaire backers of the) tea party have focused on influencing electoral politics, and that they have done, perhaps costing Republicans the Senate in 2010 and 2012, and thus, among other things, allowing President Obama to push the federal judiciary in a far more liberal direction. Thanks for that, tea party! But what about Occupy? What exactly have they been up to over the past three years?

Plenty. Let's start with the concrete. Debt Strike, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, created Rolling Jubilee, which describes itself as "A Bailout of the People by the People" that:

Buys debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, abolishes it. Together we can liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal. Debt resistance is just the beginning. Join us as we imagine and create a new world based on the common good, not Wall Street profits.

Almost exactly three years to the day after protesters first occupied Zuccotti Park, Debt Strike announced that it had bought just under $4 million in debts owed by students who had attended Everest College, which Debt Strike rightly characterized as "a predatory for-profit institution." (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a full-time faculty member at a state university which is, by definition, not-for-profit.) Everest is part of the Corinthian Colleges group -- which last week got slapped with a $500 million lawsuit filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (thank you, President Obama and Sen. Warren) over its "predatory lending scheme." Some 2,700 students are no longer the prey of these predators, because of the Occupy movement. The story has gotten major coverage, both in the U.S. and abroad.

The beauty part -- which, by the way, also demonstrates what a scam these for-profit college loans are -- is that Debt Strike bought the loans for about three pennies on the dollar. It cost $106,709.48 to buy $3,856,866.11 in debts. Yet those students would have had to pay back the full amount in order to get free from these thieves. And don't forget that Corinthian Colleges have been sucking at the federal financial aid teat to the tune of $1.4 billion (with a 'B') every year. John Oliver went after the for-profit higher education system hard two weeks ago. Even if you don't pay for HBO, you can watch the full clips on his website.

Not too shabby.

The image above shows another of their projects (full details are at the link). For two pennies on the dollar, this time the good folks at Debt Strike bought $12,291,378.56 worth of medical debt, relieving 1,919 people from costs that, in all likelihood, they would not have incurred if we had a single-payer health insurance system. On a related note, a study of medical debt and bankruptcy published in the American Journal of Medicine found:

62.1% of all bankruptcies in 2007 were medical; 92% of these medical debtors had medical debts over $5000, or 10% of pretax family income. The rest met criteria for medical bankruptcy because they had lost significant income due to illness or mortgaged a home to pay medical bills. Most medical debtors were well educated, owned homes, and had middle-class occupations. Three quarters had health insurance. Using identical definitions in 2001 and 2007, the share of bankruptcies attributable to medical problems rose by 49.6%....As recently as 1981, only 8% of families filing for bankruptcy did so in the aftermath of a serious medical problem.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken the energy it unleashed in 2011 and channeled it in ways that are having a real impact on people's lives, helping them get out from under debts that people don't have if they are citizens of countries with a more robust understanding of the common good. That matters. Just ask the people who've been helped. Overall, the Rolling Jubilee campaign has bought out debts totaling over $18.5 million (having raised "only" about $700,000 to do it all).

But the question I asked the outset was a comparison. Who had done more: Occupy or the tea party? I do believe that Occupy has had an impact not only through these very important projects, but also in the political arena. Occupy did inject the matter of income inequality into the national political conversation, a conversation that had largely ignored that matter for years, and which in September 2011 remained where it had been for some time -- focused on the debt fetish. Veterans of the Occupy movement have also participated in other broad-based protests, from Florida and Trayvon Martin to San Francisco, where banks discriminated on the basis of race when foreclosing on people's homes.

The tea party? Well, in addition to botching the aforementioned Senate races over the past two cycles (remember Christine O'Donnell the most famous witch this side of Hermione Granger?), have they helped people? Actually, yes. Jenny Beth Martin is one of the truly inspiring people that the tea party has helped.

In 2008, Ms. Martin went bankrupt. In order to help pay the bills, she cleaned people's homes. But now she is on track to make a bit under half a million bucks per year, all thanks to the tea party movement. How was such a transformation possible? She's the president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots Super PAC. She brings in the money and, apparently, keeps a good chunk of it herself. (The people running Rolling Jubilee, by contrast, are volunteers.)

More broadly, the tea party movement appears to have created a lot of Jenny Beth Martins, as an analysis by the Washington Post found that the six major tea party groups had spent (and thus raised) $37.5 million in the midterm election cycle as of the end of April. How much had they spent on actually, you know, electing candidates? $7 million. Less than 20 percent. Where'd the rest go?

Roughly half of the money -- nearly $18 million -- has gone to pay for fundraising and direct mail, largely provided by Washington-area firms. Meanwhile, tea party leaders and their family members have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, while their groups have doled out large sums for airfare, a retirement plan and even interior decorating.

The lavish spending underscores how the protest movement has gone professional, with national groups transforming themselves into multimillion-dollar organizations run by activists collecting six-figure salaries.

But hey, at least the tea party movement is helping people, right? Without them Harry Reid wouldn't be Senate majority leader. Heck, he might not even be senator. I guess Sen. Mitch McConnell doesn't feel helped by that, but you can't please everyone.

I don't know about you, but I'd have to say that rescuing people who've been taken advantage of by hustlers posing as an institution of higher education, and people who've been crushed by bills they've had to pay to get the health care all of us deserve, is a far more morally sound thing to do. And it's having a much bigger impact.