03/19/2012 08:58 am ET Updated May 19, 2012

"We Are the 99 Percent" -- The Unlikely Journey of a Revolutionary Slogan

She responded back with only a single line: "We say we are the 99%." This was my 22-year-old niece's response when I asked what people her age thought of the Occupy Wall Street protests two weeks after demonstrators had liberated Zuccotti Park in Manhattan's financial district. I first visited Liberty Square in early October. By then, Occupy Wall Street had descended on Manhattan's financial district and converted Zucotti Park, a non-descript, languid patch of concrete, into a lively center of debate and transformational democratic practice. But while the people's kitchen, library, and command center were impressive, I was drawn to something more modest -- protesters carrying signs reading "We are the 99%." I couldn't believe my eyes. Could it be, I asked myself? Could these activists and my niece's generation be defining themselves in terms of rigorous quantitative analysis on inequality in top economics journals? Had economists' empirical work weaved its way into the public lexicon, and that for a popular protest against neoliberal economic policies? Indeed it had, but in a way we wouldn't necessarily expect and one that holds lessons for the relationship between social research, public discourse and economic policy.

Well before the 99% had become a household statistic I had run into the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and American Economic Review. As a student of political economy and inequality I had read my share of research on the widening gap between the rich and poor, not just in the United States, but across the world. But I was immediately impressed by the innovativeness in Piketty and Saez's work. Economic work on inequality has been hampered by the challenge of data quality and availability. Most work on inequality is conducted using household surveys, which are not only criticized for their unreliability, but were also not widely available prior to the early 1960s. Also, inequality has largely been calculated and explained in terms of Gini coefficients. Gini coefficients measure the relative wealth held by fractions of a population, but the measures are abstract and unappealing to the general public. While it's easy enough to understand that the higher the coefficient, the higher the income inequality, "0.47" just doesn't resonate like "the 99%" or "the 1%" does.

Piketty and Saez transcended the usual economics research on inequality by doing two simple, yet remarkable, things. They overcame the historical data limitation by foregoing household surveys and relying on an alternative data source -- income tax records. Income tax records in the United States go back to 1913, before the Great Depression. They stepped back from the Gini coefficient and reported the raw proportion of who held America's income. Piketty and Saez broke down the share of United States' income held over time by three distinct groups -- the top ten, 5 and most importantly, 1 percent of wealthiest Americans. Their findings were striking. Not since 80 years ago, in 1928, one year before the Great Stock Market crash of 1929 and ensuing depression, had the top wealthiest 1 percent of Americans held so much of the country's collective wealth. More importantly, the top 1 percent captured more of the country's overall economic growth between 1993 and 2008 than the remaining 99 percent of the country combined.

Economists are not known for their oratorical skills, but politicians are. While Piketty and Saez's work was impressive, leading to Saez winning the American Economics Association's most prestigious award, the John Bates Clark Medal , it was still very much contained to the world of economists. Bernard Sanders, the independent Senator from Vermont, changed all that. Furious at the Obama administration's decision to backpedal on a campaign promise to repeal the 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Bernard Sanders took to the Senate floor on December 10, 2010 to protest Obama's decision to cut a deal with Republican Senators and extend Bush's tax cuts for 2 more years. Sanders spoke for over 8 hours in what became known as "Filibernie," a play on the Senate term for delaying action on a bill. Sanders, however, was not intent on filibustering to obstruct the tax cut extension. His main objective was to communicate that the budget deficit was already too high and the wealthiest Americans did not need a tax cut. The 1% had already disproportionately benefited from a regressive American tax policy.

Filibernie was an immediate hit. The Twittersphere lit up; Sanders attracted 4,000 new followers. The livestream on his website was so overloaded that it became temporarily disabled . And why not? It's not everyday that a U.S. Senator expresses the collective national frustration over inequality with statistics, charts, and graphs. Excerpts from Sander's speech show him drawing a stark distinction between the 1 and 99% of the country:

We cannot give tax breaks to the rich when we already have the most unequal distribution of income of any major country on Earth...The percentage of income going to the top 1 percent nearly tripled since the 1970s...The top 1 percent now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. That is not the foundation of a democratic society...The fact is, 80 percent of all new income earned from 1980 to 2005 has gone to the top 1 percent. People should be mindful of this fact: The last time that type of income disparity took place was in 1928. I think we all know what happened in 1929.

Although he doesn't mention them by name, Sanders is taking these figures directly from the work of Piketty and Saez, as well as of Edward Wolff, an economist who has done important work on wealth inequality. The New York Times and other publications have erroneously attributed the 99-1% distinction to Joseph Stiglitz because of a popular article "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" that he wrote for Vanity Fair. That article, however, was published in May 2011, half a year after Filibernie. Stiglitz's work, like Sander's speech, popularized the 99-1% split, but the distinction of having done this important work on inequality belongs to Piketty, Saez and Wolff.

Sanders' speech was a decisive moment in the discussion over inequality in the United States. Going where no Democrat or Republican would dare, the independent Sanders gave political legitimacy to an issue that was kryptonite to both Congressional chambers and the corporate owned mainstream media. Nonetheless, Sanders' speech did not compel the public to identify themselves with income categories. This was the work of two New York based organizers who were vital to the early stages of the OWS movement.

On August 23, 2011 Chris and Priscilla began publishing submissions from ordinary, hard-hit Americans on a Tumblr blog called We are the 99 Percent. Mother Jones interviewed the social media sensation's founders who said they started the blog as a way to promote the OWS protest on September 17. The idea was to "Get a bunch of people to submit their pictures with a hand-written sign explaining how these harsh financial times have been affecting them, have them identify themselves as the '99 percent,' and then write '' at the end." What started out as 5 entries burgeoned to more than 100 entries a day by early October. When asked why they felt it was connecting so strongly the organizers said, "Because we all have a story, and the conversation about social safety nets has been lessened to that of accounting and not the day-to-day realities" and "I think they want to let others know that they're out there, that they exist, that their problems exist. That they're not just some statistic compiled in a spreadsheet, that they're real human beings with real human challenges. That they won't be an abstraction. Specificity has great power."

As protesters chanted "We are the 99 percent" in marches across the country, "99 percent" and "1 percent" entered the popular lexicon. People began using the quantitative divide to refer to things that had nothing to do with income inequality. In the most peculiar adaptation, African leaders who supported Gadaffi said after his death "We are the 1 percent who are not celebrating." OWS had gone global.

The New York Times called the slogan a "national shorthand for disparity." Democrats began referring to public projects as "for the 99 percent." Those unabashedly proud of their disproportionately rising income, like the commodity traders at the Chicago Board of Trade, hung signs in their windows signaling that they were the "1 percent." This, in fact, is the power of the "99-1 percent" distinction: it changes the frame of the debate. Even those who are the target end up referring to themselves in terms defined by the movement.

The conservative establishment has framed the debate over public economics since Reagan declared that "government is the problem" in his 1981 inaugural address. It has been their centerpiece strategy for a "winner take all politics." By framing economic success in terms of personal responsibility and safety nets as enlightenments, they cast any strategy for public investment or middle-class relief as socialist and un-American.

As we saw most recently with President Obama's 2012 State of the Union speech, the terms of that debate are changing. Obama struck a populist tone and while his specific tax policy or politics kept him from mentioning "99 percent," he did nonetheless mention the "98 percent,"

If you make under $250,000 a year, like 98 percent of American families, your taxes shouldn't go up. You're the ones struggling with rising costs and stagnant wages. You're the ones who need relief.

No statistic was called for. In times past Obama mentioned the $250,000 income cut-off, but did not cast it in proportional terms. Even multi-millionaire Mitt Romney, a member of the 0.1 percent (the highest income category employed by Piketty and Saez), campaigned in Florida using language of the Occupy movement "I know what it takes to make America the most attractive place for jobs again. I want to do that, not because I'm worried about the 1 percent. The 1 percent is doing fine. I want to help the 99 percent." This is out of necessity, not compassion -- 3 out of 5 Americans voters support federal policies to reduce income inequality.

Until actual income inequality changes, the "99 percent" slogan will continue to be mobilized. Redefining the terms of debate has been the most the important contribution of Piketty, Saez and Wolff's work and the OWS movement. After the early weeks of the OWS protest the "99 percent" signs burgeoned into buttons, stickers, t-shirts and whatever else you could fit a statistic onto. I began asking protesters at Liberty Square and Washington Square Park if they knew where "the 99 percent" came from. One man who was handing out "99%" buttons pulled out a sheet of paper with multiple graphs representing income inequality, corporate profits and executive bonuses on it. "Here!" he said. Others mentioned the "gross income inequality in our nation." Everyone knew the "99-1 percent" divide represented income inequality, but no one mentioned Saez, Piketty, or Wolff by name, yet their work was on everyone's lips.

There are multiple lessons to be learned from this story. Social researchers, especially economists, need to do social science that matters. For too long economists have been smitten with formal mathematical models that were and are divorced from reality. The predictions based on these models failed and the public lost faith in "expertise." Piketty, Saez, and Wolff shunned abstract and largely irrelevant models that dream away the world's complexity. Instead, they opted for empirically grounded research on topics salient to the public. Still, not all empirical economists are cut from the same cloth. For at least a good decade economists were using data to ask questions about whether inequality was good or bad for growth. Corporate executives and governors are interested in growth. The public is interested in inequality. Rightly or wrongly, most of us are more concerned with matters like our colleagues' raises and promotions rather than the quarterly growth rates of our states and countries (even if the latter matters to our standard of living). Making social science matter is about asking the right questions. While they didn't ask for the 99-1 percent divide to become a protest platform, Piketty, Saez and Wolff approached questions on inequality in a progressive way. They reversed previous studies' questions to show that the United States certainly experienced growth -- but it was a kind of growth that was terrible for equity.

Those same economists who favored abstract and irrelevant models helped create the notion of a distant and unconcerned "ivory tower." Whether intentionally or inadvertently, each complex model and illegible proof was like a brick in a wall constructed between the university and the needs and concerns of the general public. Piketty, Saez and Wolff helped build a bridge that connected the university and public. For example, Emmanuel Saez made tax data used in his research downloadable in Excel and published a non-technical "Summary for the broader public" on his website. Numerous journalists and bloggers have accessed this material to broadcast the findings.

We often are dissatisfied or grow impatient with social research. We find that most research goes unnoticed or unused. This is because we expect social research to mimic research in the natural sciences such as physics. But the two get used very differently. In the natural and physical sciences knowledge gets 'translated' from the scientific theory to the real world applications in a relatively straightforward way. For example, theories in quantum physics inform applied research in molecular reactions which then gets translated into CAT scanning technology. Social research, on the other hand, gets "diffused" throughout society, usually in an unsystematic way. Researchers produce the knowledge that then gets disseminated through journals and conferences. Interest groups, politicians, and organizers might then filter the research and use it for varying purposes, often in ways the researchers never intended. In many cases, social research never gets used. When it does, it is usually because the political environment is ripe for action. That, of course, is outside the research's control, which is why many findings seem to be like Frankenstein's monster brought back to life. If we see tax policy changes in 2013, which is looking increasingly likely regardless of which party wins the presidential election, it will have been almost a decade after the early studies on inequality identifying the 99-1 percent split were published.

Together, activists and researchers can be a powerful force for change. In fact, they need and rely on each other. What social researchers and scholars tried to do for years -- bring rising inequality in the United States to the media and public's attention -- a ragtag group of activists did in weeks. Piketty, Saez, and Wolff's research were limp statistics on a page until a pioneering politician and thousands of regular Americans gave them life. But the research results were there patiently waiting nonetheless.

While individual stories on a Tumblr blog are powerful, so are national trends that affect millions. Stories must be framed to gain popular and political support. This is how social research supports social movements -- by asking questions that matter and linking the intimate experience of one to the public trend of so many.