This weekend, protesters from all over Indiana descended on various cities to highlight the egregious abuses of power and wealth in corporate America and by the two-party system politicians. Indianapolis had well over 1,000 protesters at Veterans Memorial Plaza on Saturday, many of whom became an occupying force at the State House. The occupation is intended to be indefinite, contingent on on-going consensus decisions.
But what do they want? What is the problem these citizens are highlighting? Many of their chants and signs claim they are the 99%, signifying the bottom 99% of the population whose life chances are far different from the top 1%. Many of these individuals are disenfranchised youth who followed the expected pattern of the American Dream—they worked hard, got good grades, stayed out of trouble, went to college, many of them for advanced degrees, but there is no work. Some of their heart-breaking stories can be found in snippets at We are the 99%, and those self-submitted stories have been multiplying rapidly since the site began last month.
The problem of wealth inequality in the U.S. is not representative of other industrialized countries. In fact, of all of the top OECD countries, the U.S. has the highest rates of poverty, as well as the worst GINI score (GINI is a measure of the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest), as can be seen in Table 1. Historically speaking, this is a relatively new problem, with a dramatic difference between the wealthy and poorest in the last 30 years when you look at real income (income that takes cost of living into account), as can be seen in Table 2. When you look at the Occupy Indianapolis’ message, they are focusing on the 99%/1% split. These differences are also stark, as can be seen in Table 3.
The cross-cultural data points to strong economies that do not have this wealth-gap, with these rates of poverty, so this is not simply a matter of normalcy for advanced economies, nor is it a matter of a large group of lazy people who “prefer handouts to work.” Many of these individuals worked very hard, but there simply are no jobs, whether in manufacturing, or professional sectors—here in Indiana, unemployment is near 10%, and according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, “full unemployment” is almost 17%. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, and professional jobs often come only with new business creation. However, creating a new business requires loans, which require good credit. As can be seen in the “We are the 99%” posts, a large chunk of these jobless or underemployed are well-educated, but have incredible debt from student loans, so do not qualify for business loans. The only form of debt that is currently increasing is student loan debt, which is, coincidentally, and fortunate for the financial industry, the only form of debt that cannot be voided through bankruptcy (see Table 4). Even if one of these individuals could get a business loan, in the current recession, there is no money for consumers to buy their products.
Why don’t they just vote in new representatives, one might ask? Because the representatives who get on the ballot do not represent the 99%, but rather, they represent the 1%. Given current campaign finance laws, money is buying candidates, and money is paying for winners. Political science tells us that federal representative elections can be predicted 90% of the time by who has the most money. Further, the candidates themselves do not come from the 99%, but from the wealthy 1% (see Table 5). Voting for the choice of Rich Elephant #1, or Rich Donkey #2 does not seem like much of an option. Given the “Hope and Change” that many of these youth voted for in the last presidential election, it is not surprising that they became disillusioned, when they ended up with a president who has received the most Wall Street donations as any candidate, and who, perhaps not coincidentally, gave those same contributors huge bailouts. What did he do for those youth who voted for him? He introduced a law to start charging graduate students interest on their student loans, and expanded the war in Afghanistan. For whom will these youth vote this time? Perhaps they will do what the disaffected and disenfranchised typically do—stay at home, recognizing that the two-party choice is not a choice at all, since there are no true Progressive candidates.
What then, are these protesters trying to accomplish? Justice, opportunity, and democracy.