One year of Occupy Wall Street

I’m told that it’s the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) activities. Smarter political minds than mine can tell you why OWS either mattered or not, or matters still or not. My quick take on them (a wholly unoriginal one) is that they introduced an element into the economic conversation that was not simply obsessing about the size of the budget deficit and how to reduce it.

Given that this deficit conversation was  inane and destructive, the OWS movement deserves great credit for breaking it up. Further, given that the element OWS introduced in the nation’s conversation—the growth of inequality in recent decades—is the most important economic trend in the past generation, they deserve even further credit; they didn’t just interrupt a dumb conversation, they tried to start a relevant one.

We tried to argue that many of the claims of the OWS movement were well-supported by economic-data—see our paper here. Since then, we have released our newest edition of The State of Working Americasee the website (and data) here—which further cements the case that inequality was  the primary barrier to decent growth in low– and middle-income households living standards, and which links the growth of this inequality to intentional policy decisions made explicitly to redistribute income upwards.

I will note that previous editions of State of Working America were ground-breaking in using the language of the 99 versus the 1 percent. Unfortunately for EPI, it was Barbara Ehrenreich, and not the authors of State of Working America, who deserved the credit for this one, as she blurbed on the cover:

“This book is our nation’s report card on how the economy is performing—not just for the class that owns private jets and more homes than they can recall—but for the other 99 percent of us as well.”

So, two cheers for OWS for getting more attention paid to the problem of growing inequality than EPI has managed to generate in years of tracking data and writing books.

Why not three cheers? Just a nagging reservation about the path not taken.

In the fall of 2011, the elite policy discussion was mostly about the supposed evils of large budget deficits. But the most-pressing economic problem facing the nation was 9 percent unemployment (and which had been at or above 8.9 percent for more than two years), and the primary tool that would have been effective for reducing this unemployment was larger budget deficits to finance job-sustaining spending like infrastructure investments and safety-net programs. Further, President Obama had just announced a policy proposal (the American Jobs Act) that exactly called for larger near-term deficits to finance these job-sustaining investments and spending to reduce unemployment.

Given all of this, if you had told me that a social movement was about to sweep the land and draw crowds into the street, I would have bet big money that it would have been one focused on reducing joblessness in the near term and which would have fallen into line behind the American Jobs Act. Yet it wasn’t—it was a social movement that had much less to say about unemployment than about inequality. This is a real puzzle to me.

Is it obviously a bad thing that OWS focused on inequality rather than unemployment?

I don’t know. By associating itself more with concrete policy proposals and a problem (unemployment) that was much more solvable in the near term through one-off policies, I think OWS could have borne more immediate fruit by getting behind that fight.

But, the fight over a fair sharing of economic rewards is one that has been with us for a generation and which shows little signs of having swung in a useful direction. By lobbing this issue into the nation’s attention, and by focusing on how elites have too often captured the tools of economic policymaking and used them to redistribute income their way, OWS clearly performed a hugely valuable service. With (lots of) luck, we will look back and say that their protests were the foot-in-the-door of this fight.