Commentary: Time for Occupy Wall Street phase two

The Kansas City StarNovember 6, 2011 

It’s time to launch Occupy Wall Street, Phase II. The part where the movement articulates what it wants, wins over a large bloc of the public and fights to get its demands enacted. So, who’s got some ideas? Anybody?

Give the fledgling movement credit: It has changed Topic A of the chattering classes to the maldistribution of wealth and power in this country (Nice work!). But unless it gets pragmatic, it’s about to lose the patience of the “99 percent” it purports to represent.

The recent police crackdowns that began in Chicago, Oakland and Atlanta are just as likely to catch a tailwind and spread city to city as interest in the movement initially did. The next few weeks will be a crucial juncture for Occupy Wall Street if it isn’t to deflate into a short Wikipedia entry.

The main problem is that the initial spontaneity of the occupations is not sustainable. Early on, when asked how long they planned to occupy the nation’s sidewalks, parks and public squares, the reply was often an indecisive, “Until we no longer need to.”

It would be an incredible waste not to harness the energy of this movement to create actual change — especially as new evidence is being uncovered almost daily that supports the group’s critique.

For example, the Congressional Budget Office completed an analysis of U.S. Census and IRS data. The study chronicles how the top 1 percent of earners have scooped up a disproportionate share of income and wealth, while the middle and lower classes have stagnated or sunk during the last three decades.

A shocking 275 percent rise in after-tax income (adjusted for inflation) was racked up by households in the top 1 percent between 1979 and 2007. At the other end of the scale, the bottom 20 percent of households saw their after-tax income grow by 18 percent.

The typical rejoinder to findings such as these is that Occupy Wall Street and fellow-traveling leftists are motivated by class envy pure and simple. On the contrary, the movement (and no small part of the public’s sympathy so far) grows out of the grim realization that the financial elite have rigged the American political system in their own favor. Indeed, the CBO report attributed much of the growing income and wealth polarization to the role of government transfers and federal taxes, including shifts from progressive income taxes to less progressive payroll taxes.

Meanwhile, other recent studies have outlined how money influence continues to make inroads into every level of government. One reported that 40 percent of all campaign funding for judicial races came from just 10 organizations in 2009-10, and that “million-dollar judicial races are increasingly the norm across the country.”

If they want to have a lasting impact, the Occupy Wall Street people have to not only disseminate such facts but also propose specific changes.

It’s time for Occupy Wall Street to stop clinging to romanticized visions of civil disobedience and get practical. The movement has to use the political system we have — occupy it, as it were — which is far more difficult and less exhilarating than agit-prop. Take a leaf from the tea party playbook. It knows what it wants — and how to get it: by controlling the legislative process. It has taken over the Republican Party, and every candidate knows that if he crosses the tea party he’s out of a job.

Let’s see the occupy movement exert itself at the grass roots of the Democratic Party. Let’s see ultimatums given to candidates over actual demands most Americans can get behind and that can be legislated (No renewal of Bush tax cuts! Honest, effective restructuring of troubled mortgages! Financial reform to end “too big to fail” financial institutions!)

The American center-left got its fair share of euphoria in 2008 — and then it learned that the election changed nothing. Now it’s time to take hold of the political system by working within it.

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