What Future for Occupy Wall Street?

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Occupy Wall Street protesters entering a vacant lot on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue owned by Trinity Church, New York City, December 17, 2011

Less than a week after the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, Occupy Wall Street protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park across the street from the site that had become known by the military phrase “Ground Zero.” Construction was in full swing: the replacement towers were already visible on the skyline and the 9/11 Memorial had just opened to the public. Among the potent effects of the protest was the almost immediate sense that it marked the end of a depleting decade whose misfortunes seemed to have begun on that very street—a decade that included two failed wars, ruinous displays of corporate malfeasance, the worst economic recession in seventy-eight years, and unsustainable budget deficits partly as a result of tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens that seemed to embarrass even some who benefited most from them.

During the next couple of weeks a number of reports were published substantiating the protesters’ message of rampant economic injustice. A USA Today/Gallup Poll of October 15–16 found that 44 percent of Americans feel the economic system is personally unfair to them. In a telephone interview the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, somewhat stunned by the figure, told me that “when that number reaches 25 percent most governments begin to worry.” Just as startling was a study from the Economic Policy Institute showing that the top 1 percent of Americans possess a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent—if 90 percent of anything can be considered the “bottom.” Less surprising is the fact that the OECD ranks the United States roughly on a level with Mexico, Chile, and Turkey in overall poverty, child poverty, and health care. The system’s inability to deliver had, it was clear, extended to large portions of the middle class.

In light of these facts, Occupy Wall Street’s expansion to many other cities seems to have been preordained, but at the time it caught even its most committed supporters off guard. It was as if something fundamental had been unmasked, and the grievances that an increasing number of people had been uttering in private for years were suddenly made public.

By mid-October, according to a Brookings Institution survey, 54 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the protest. Suddenly, or so it seemed, there was less talk of budget cuts that would limit, if not dismantle, social insurance programs such as Medicare while extending Bush’s tax cuts, and more talk about how to deal with economic inequality.

Several events pointed to an altered political climate. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo partially reversed his opposition to extending the so-called millionaire’s tax, pushing through legislation for a higher tax rate for the wealthiest…

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