Column

Show Us the Numbers: Occupational Results

The tents are gone. The communal food kitchen, the library, the media center, the mic checks, too. Occupy Wall Street has been swept away, from Zucotti Park, off Wall Street, to the Vancouver Art Gallery. The incipient movement is now a matter of sporadic occupations, port blockades, and a media campaign. It may just be me, but the mainstream media attention that has followed in the aftermath seems to reflect a sense of wanting to hold on to this moment.

Certainly, I felt myself wanting to believe that here was a social movement that was showing some promise of doing some good. It began with how firmly and clearly the numbers had taken hold of people’s imagination. The way that the magic figure of 99% worked, spoke to an interest over concerns that could unite nearly everyone. Sure, the 1% were being called on the carpet to justify why they warranted millions when others had so little, but there was none of the Tea-Party anger and mistrust that seemed equally directed at both government and the disadvantaged.

The 99% figure also did an excellent job of bringing to the fore in people’s minds one very disconcerting aspect at the root of the current economic crisis affecting housing and jobs, as well as education and other social issues: Growing income inequality. This, in turn, has a way of making no less clear a straightforward way to improve things, by ensuring that those who are profiting and prospering from this downturn do more to help those who are bearing the brunt of it.

Occupy Wall Street has demonstrated the value of focusing on the gap. The movement has set out the difference, in bold, between the 99% and 1% (with greater effect than, say, the Main Street and Wall Street comparison from earlier days in this Recession). The growing disparities in wealth make it that much harder to ignore the consequences of the inequality in people’s lives. I would think that we need to build on this lesson and look for ways of adding to the numbers, as a way of setting up demand for new, more equitable numbers.

This is happening, for example, on my campus, to the credit of faculty, staff and students who organized an Occupy the Future teach-in in December 2011. The sessions were on the state of inequality, from education to the environment, with accompanying articles running in the Boston Review. These pieces furnish the numbers substantiating the consequences of this gap. My colleague Sean Reardon, for example, focused on the educational impact, demonstrating that “the difference in average academic skills between high and low-income students is now 30–40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago” (while providing links to his research paper). Family income does matter and increasingly so with the education of children and thus the future of this country, according to Sean’s study.

A key factor in this income disparity is unemployment. And jobs are playing an important part on both sides of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The 1% have found a comeback phrase in claiming that they represent the “job creators.” If only, we might respond. For example, Paul Krugman, New York Times columnist, look at Mitt Romney’s record, only to find that 4 out of the 10 companies that his leveraged buyout firms invested in went bankrupt, after his company had profited from them: “My Romney made his fortune in a business that is, on balance, about job destruction rather than job creation.” Let those in the 1% who would hide under the “job creator” title show us the numbers.

The critics of Occupy Wall Street initially charged that the movement lacked a set of demands. The demand seems clear now. Show us the numbers. Work to change the numbers.

But can the numbers change? Well, Obama and the Democrats have dropped their push for a surtax on millionaires, even as Warren Buffet calls for greater taxes on investment income. Yet at the same time, Germany and France are leading a global initiative for a minuscule 0.03% financial transaction tax. In a recent poll 60% of the Californians, famous for their tax revolt, indicated their support of the proposed tax increases that Governor Jerry Brown is placing on a referendum next fall. They have seen $180 million cut from school and university budgets in the state. They are ready to change the numbers. Buffet is. Others are, as well.

Changing the numbers is the measure of this new social movement. We want to see the numbers and we want to see the numbers change. For that, I want to thank those who took to the tents and first held up those signs for all to see the numbers.

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