The Occupy Wall Street protest hasn't yet coalesced into a cohesive national awakening or movement yet. But as more Americans begin to understand its mission and logic, it may yet achieve status as a sort of counter-movement to the anti-government, anti-tax-equity tea party.
And well it should. Occupy Wall Street's grievances against the nation's financial power structure, and the political influence it exploits to keep a wildly disproportional share of America's economic wealth in the hands of a relatively tiny financial elite, merits a major overhaul. Because without a fairer financial system and a more equitable tax structure, the nation's vast middle class -- which is say all American wage-and-salaried earners up to the top 1 percent of the income spectrum -- will continue getting shafted. And the economy and job market, absent the driving force of consumer spending, will continue to weaken apace.
To better understand the nation's wealth-and-income gaps that spark the protesters' concerns, consider just three groups. The bottom 90 percent of American earners have an average income of just over $32,000 and control just 26.9 percent of the nation's wealth. The top 10-to-1 percent of earners have an average income of nearly $165,000 and control 38.5 percent of the nation's wealth. The top 1 percent alone have an average income of over $1.1 million, and control 34.6 percent of the nation's wealth.
Averages, of course, are somewhat distorting. If you earn around $67,000 a year, you're in the top 25 percent of earners. You get in the top 10 percent with an income of more than $113,000.
But the super wealth is found in the top 0.01 percent, where average annual incomes are over $27 million. It's this group of mega-millionaires and billionaires that includes the top 400 families which have more income than fully half of this nation's earners.
A bit more broadly, it's the huge wealth and income of the top 1 percent that accumulates exponentially on investment income pegged at the low 15 percent rate on dividends. This low rate, well below the 25-to-30 percent income tax rates paid by most taxpayers, just keeps widening the nation's income and wealth gaps. These gaps in the United States are now the worse among all industrial nations. Small wonder the richest 1 percent has captured more than half of the nation's income growth since 1993.
Occupy Wall Street protesters -- and their growing league of cohorts in Seattle, Boston, San Francisco and other cities -- are reasonably protesting the TARP bailout and tax privileges accorded the banking and investment industries, and the surreal government policies that foster and perpetuate America's alarmingly destructive income-and-wealth inequalities.
The evidence lies all around us. Teachers, firemen, policeman and job holders in all fields have been laid off in large numbers around the country, and left to struggle with home foreclosures, joblessness, lack of health care insurance and gross insecurity. Meanwhile, investment and banking barons have made out like bandits before and since the financial implosion of 2008-09. The incomes of the top 1 percent have soared, while income for the rest of Americans in inflation-adjusted dollars has declined.
Ironically, Republican political leaders and their Republican cable faux news station, which promoted the tea party and its tough-talking, gun-carrying sidekicks at its early rallies, have lambasted the mild-mannered Occupy Wall Street protesters for their so-called "class warfare."
Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republicans' House Majority Leader, said he was "increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and other cities across the country." Never mind, of course, the sign-carrying protesters weren't "mobs," and they were quickly confined by New York City's police to an off-Wall Street site.
There is class conflict here, but it's not the protesters imposing the war and doing the damage. It's the politicians on both sides, but predominantly Republicans, who have become the indentured puppets of their super-rich campaign donors, and who are inflicting the economic damage on Americans.
They do their corporate bidding, as well, allowing corporations, which now hold record profits and are not investing in jobs in America, to stash both their cash and their jobs off-shore. That is further hollowing out the American middle class and the prospects for our children.
The protesters' next step should be Occupy Congress. Things won't change until their voices are heard there.