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Entries tagged "Occupy Wall Street"

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Occupy vs. the Global Race to the Bottom

February 22, 2012 ·

Ever since the first tent was pitched in Zuccotti Park in September 2011, the Occupy protests have been giving life to a “99 percent movement.” Expect to hear a lot more from them: plans for a 99 percent spring—starting as early as April—are now in the making.

The 99 Percent Spring is coming. Photo by Glenn Halog.This still very young movement has focused attention on a well-reasoned explanation of the vast suffering in this country, an explanation that is resonating with the broader U.S. public. It is often posed this way: For thirty years, Wall Street firms have successfully lobbied the US government to give them freer reign, by removing regulations and lowering taxes. In the process, these firms became uprooted and detached from lending to Main Street businesses and instead became more like casinos making money for the one percent through risky instruments such as derivatives based in sub-prime mortgages. This casino Wall Street economy increased inequality, corrupted our politics and politicians, and provoked the economic crash in 2008—a crash that left tens of millions unemployed, homeless, mired in debt, and vulnerable.   

This narrative is not only compelling and tragic, it is also correct. But the Occupy analysis is thus far primarily a US-centric one; it often leaves out the reality that all of us in this country are part of a corporate-driven global economy.   

So here is a fuller picture:

In addition to Wall Street speculators, the other dominant forces of the U.S. economy over the past three decades have been global firms like General Electric, Exxon Mobil, and Apple. These firms spread their global assembly lines and resource extraction to countries like Mexico, China, and the Philippines where, in a quest for cheaper costs, they can more easily evade worker rights and environmental regulations. This global corporate economy pits U.S. workers and communities against poorly enforced Third World worker rights and environmental rules in a “race to the bottom” in terms of rights and standards. These global firms simply say to governments and workers: lower your wages and standards or we will move our operations elsewhere. They either get what they want or they move. 

And, just as Wall Street speculators rewarded elected officials in the United States who passed local and national laws to remove regulations, so too did the global manufacturing firms reward members of Congress who passed trade and investment rules that gave corporations protections. Case in point: the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement which granted corporations powerful rights and protections while offering only weak social and environmental “clauses.”

The 1990s era of globalization accelerated the proliferation of global assembly lines with sweatshop conditions. United Students Against Sweatshops and others have exposed the horrors of garment assembly lines for decades. Today the exposès continue, most recently of Apple’s global assembly lines. As a January 2012 New York Times investigation revealed, hundreds of thousands of workers assembling Apple iPhones in China are denied basic rights, exposed to dangerous toxic chemicals, and live in squalor. 

With this lens, one can better assess President Obama’s recent tour of industrial states where he proclaimed that manufacturing jobs are returning to the United States in part because wages and working conditions here are now “competitive.” “Competitive” masks the grim reality that real U.S. manufacturing wages have been stagnating or falling over this period and workers have accepted lower wages to prevent the real threat of corporations moving their jobs to China. This is hardly something we should applaud; we want good jobs – good for workers, good for the environment, good for community. 

Adding this global component also reveals more about what needs to be part of our agenda for change. Until now, most of the 99 percent agenda has focused on reducing inequality by reining in Wall Street and cutting its influence on our corrupted politics. Many groups have advocated for fairer taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street, and various measures to prevent the one percent from purchasing elections and elected officials. These are critical starting points.

But to these important proposals, let us also add new mechanisms to enforce internationally recognized worker rights and environmental standards everywhere, including workers’ rights to organize independent unions, an end to child labor, and the right for communities to know of potential environmental dangers. Another way to support this “race to the top” is by ending trade agreements that provide corporations with investor rights to sue governments but do not provide workers or communities or the environment with stronger protections.

Likewise, let us also push proposals to shift the incentives away from global trade and investment and back toward revitalizing “Main Street” by encouraging more production and investment locally. Much of what is traded across borders, from food to clothing to electronic gadgets, can be produced—with less stress on the environment—much closer to home. Worker-owned co-ops in Cleveland, for example, are now producing food and linen for local hospitals and universities that used to come from far away.        

This expansion of the Occupy story to address to challenges of corporate globalization is one logical next step in the Occupy trajectory. Indeed, many in the Occupy movements have already embraced Occupy protests and movements in other countries, from England to Nigeria to dozens of other countries around the world. Let us embrace the 99 percent everywhere with a global analysis and a global agenda.

Police Can't Raid Our Dreams

February 6, 2012 ·

McPherson Square after the raid. Photo by Rick Reinhard.This past weekend, I stood in the rain at Occupy DC as police in riot gear trampled through the camp at McPherson Square. I ran as they charged the crowd with police horses. I watched as they grabbed clothing, books, tents, shoes, and other personal property, and tossed it all into dumpsters.

Some are asking how the Occupy movement will accomplish anything now. I say, it already has. It has already changed our world.

I marched through New York in September of last year on the first day of Occupy Wall Street. I laid down my sleeping bag in the open air in Zuccotti Park on the first intense nights of the occupation. Then, I brought my sleeping bag back to Washington DC, where I live. With some hopeful companions, I began occupying McPherson Square on K Street, home to some of the most corrupt lobbyists in the world. We held meetings in the cool October air, not yet the biting chill of winter. And we went to work building a library, a clinic, a kitchen, a media center — a small village. A second camp quickly emerged in another part of town, within sight of Congress.

I occupied because the rich are too rich, because Wall Street and the corporations control too much, and because all of our governments won’t even begin to seriously address some of the biggest challenges of our time, like climate change. I occupied because, like so many in the 99 percent, I am fed up with the status quo. I occupied because people are suffering all over the country and all over the world, while the power to build a better future is in our hands.

Now, most of Occupy DC has been emptied. Many occupiers were made homeless. Miraculously, the cops spared my humble little tent, with a newly broken pole, but sleeping in the park would now likely get me arrested. (I hadn’t slept at the park recently anyway. Another occupier was staying in my tent.)

Was it all worth it? Yes, and I’ll do it again.

This week, the Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing about inequality and social mobility, hearing from experts like Sarah Anderson at the Institute for Policy Studies, who has published studies on the CEO-worker pay gap for 18 years. Would the Senate be doing this before Occupy? Probably not.

Mitt Romney is struggling to shed the stigma of being a “one percent candidate,” because his Richie Rich image continues to harm his campaign. Even Newt “Huge Tiffany’s Tab” Gingrich is making jabs at Romney’s wealth. Would this have happened before Occupy? Probably not.

One of President Barack Obama’s favorite stump speeches these days is on making the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations pay their fair share, which would reduce inequality in this country. Would this have become a favorite presidential refrain before Occupy? Probably not.

A thousand plans are afoot to “re-occupy” this spring. But even if the camps were to end now, the Occupy movement has made millions of Americans think harder about our economic, environmental, and political realities, and that has the potential to change everything. It has created spaces for us to bring a bold new world to life. It has sparked conversations and ideas that no police barricade can hold back. And it has opened dreams that we are all still dreaming — whether we campers are allowed to sleep or not.

Lacy MacAuley wears two hats, which isn’t always easy. She is the media relations manager at the Institute for Policy Studies and a participant in the Occupy movement. www.ips-dc.org

The State of the 99 Percent

January 25, 2012 ·

While we’re still waiting for actions to match his rhetoric, President Barack Obama made three critical points in his big speech about the problem of inequality—a problem that the Occupy movement has pushed into the public consciousness.

President Obama reviews the State of the Union address with his speech writer. Photo by the White House.1. The Rules are Rigged in Favor of the Rich

Early in his address, the president said that “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Despite the popular myth that the rich are rich solely because of their hard work and talent, in reality, much of the explosion of wealth at the top is a result of the rich rigging the rules.

Case in point: rich people, who make most of their income on the stock market, pay a far lower tax rate than ordinary Americans. Warren Buffett pointed this out several years ago when he offered a million dollars to any CEO who could prove he paid a higher tax rate than his secretary. Not one came forward.

In a brilliant stroke of political theater, Obama invited Buffett’s secretary to sit with the First Lady during the speech. This came just hours after Mitt Romney revealed he had paid only a 13.9 percent rate on his 2011 income taxes—thanks to the deep discount rate of 15 percent for financial earnings, compared to the top rate of 35 percent for income from actual work. Obama proposed a minimum tax rate of 30 percent for people who make more than one million dollars a year.

2. We Have Tackled Extreme Inequality Before

A century ago, the rich were enjoying the so-called “Gilded Age” with extreme levels of inequality. Starting in the mid-1930s, in the depths of the Great Depression, our government, pressed hard by a militant labor movement, raised taxes on the rich, protected worker rights, and began a four decade march toward much greater equality. By speaking of “restoring an economy where everyone gets a fair shot,” Obama reminded Americans that our current levels of inequality, which rival those of the Gilded Age, are hurting tens of millions and degrading our democracy, and that we know how to reduce extreme inequality in this country.

3. The Occupy Movement is Not About Envy

The president also effectively rebutted the common conservative argument that all this Occupy ruckus is about nothing more than petty jealousies. “When Americans talk about folks like me paying my fair share of taxes, it’s not because they envy the rich. It’s because they understand that when I get tax breaks I don’t need and the country can’t afford, it either adds to the deficit, or somebody else has to make up the difference – like a senior on a fixed income; or a student trying to get through school; or a family trying to make ends meet.”

Obama’s sharp rhetoric is an important contribution to the public discourse about inequality. Yet deeds are stronger than words. And right now, Obama is not expected to include the millionaires tax increase in the budget he delivers to Congress next month. For the millions of young people who joined the Occupy sites last fall because they can’t find jobs nor pay off their student loans, Obama weakly admonished colleges not to raise tuitions. No word of what many of those students demand, namely that they not be required to repay those loans until they have incomes.

No real relief from Obama for the millions of Americans who can’t pay their mortgages. He said he was proposing a small fee on the big banks to help pay for a program to allow homeowners to save on their mortgages by refinancing. This is small compared to what is needed: a reduction in the principle on those mortgages down to what the market says they are worth.

So, the challenge to the American people remains huge. Yes, we now have a President who is talking about the obscene inequality that is ripping this country apart. Yet, it will only be through massive pressure from below that bold measures to tax Wall Street, tax corporations, tax the wealthy, and tax pollution get enacted.

And, while Obama talks of wind farms and other green jobs, he still is not articulating a bold vision to transform this nation’s economy from a war economy still addicted to fossil fuels to a green Main Street economy that creates jobs while advancing ecological balance. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has released an Act for the 99% that included some of this vision, particularly for millions of new jobs paid by a fairer tax system.

We all know that thirty years of deregulating Wall Street and lowering tax rates on the rich won’t be undone quickly. For years, Wall Street has crashed the economy and corrupted our politics. Only bold, transformative vision and action can restore our democracy and improve the lives of our people.

Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

The Other 99 Percent: How the U.S. Compares

December 5, 2011 ·

One reason why the Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed the world’s attention was its protest against the injustices of 21st century capitalism. The Occupiers focused on the fact that "the other 99 percent" — the non-wealthy majority of the population — are increasingly excluded from the world’s economies.

The other 99 percent didn’t benefit from the economic booms of the 2000s. The other 99 percent didn’t cause the global financial crisis. The other 99 percent paid for the bank bailouts of 2008. And yet, the other 99 percent are now being asked to suffer cuts in pay, benefits, and government services. Increasingly, the other 99 percent are saying "no."

Occupy movements have now sprung up in at least 20 countries, and probably more. They all speak, in one way or another, for the other 99 percent. But the other 99 percent means different things in different places.

In some countries, the other 99 percent are truly oppressed.  In others, they manage reasonably well.

The accompanying figure shows the percentage of total income going to the other 99 percent in eight different countries. The data are taken from the World Top Incomes Database produced by economists Emmanuel Saez, Facundo Alvaredo, Tony Atkinson, and Thomas Piketty.  This database uses tax records to analyze the distribution of income across countries.

What immediately stands out in this figure is that the other 99 percent do far worse in the United States than in any other developed country.  The other 99 percent take home just 82.6 percent of America’s personal income. In the United States the share of the other 99 percent has been falling for decades.

(The data in this figure are from 2005 because that’s the latest year for which comparisons are available for most of our peer countries.)

The other 99 percent share of total income reached a high of 92.3 percent in 1973. Back then, U.S. income distribution looked the same as it does in continental Europe today. It fell slightly in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the mid-1980s it was still over 90 percent. Then the slide began.

The share of the other 99 percent's income fell from 90.9  percent to 83.5  percent between 1986 and 2000. It reached its lowest point at the height of the 2000s boom, just before the global financial crisis. By 2007, the income share of the other 99 percent had declined to just 81.7 percent.

In other words, between the 1970s and the 2000s the United States went from looking like a European country to looking like an African country. Data are available for very few poor countries, but even in South Africa the income share of the other 99 percent is higher than it is in the United States.

The only developed country that comes close to the United States in the decimation of its other 99 percent is the United Kingdom. In the UK, the other 99 percent take in 85.8  percent of total income, down from 90.2  percent in 1990, the earliest year with data are available. Surely it’s no coincidence that some of the biggest Occupy encampments have been in New York and London.

Back in the 1970s, the United States and United Kingdom looked, statistically, more or less like the rest of the developed world. We may have had our own distinctive institutions and policies, but the outcome for the other 99 percent was similar in the US, UK, Europe, Japan, and Australia. It’s simply not true that American — or British — capitalism has always been more unequal than in the rest of the world.

With the Reagan-era tax cuts and union busting in the 1980s the United States moved decisively from being a country for the other 99 percent to being a country for the top 1  percent. The same happened in the United Kingdom after the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, though her policies were more strongly resisted and took longer to have an impact. Today, the United States and the UK represent pathological economic models, out of step with the rest of the developed world.

The decline of the other 99 percent in the United States has been underway for 30 years or more. It will take a major, sustained effort to restore normalcy. If we want to restore a healthy income distribution, somehow we have to claw our way up from the low 80s to the mid-90s.

In other words, it’s not enough to stem the decline of the other 99 percent. At some point in the near future ordinary workers have to start getting raises that are actually higher than those of their bosses and CEOs, and they have to keep getting those higher raises for 30 or 40 years. That may sound like a fantasy scenario, but it happened from the 1930s through the 1970s. It can happen again.

Policies to support the other 99 percent include a shift in taxation from payroll taxes to capital gains taxes, an expansion in government employment and government salaries, support for unions, and much higher minimum wages. The experience of other countries shows that such policies are possible in the United States. It all comes down to politics: If the other 99 percent demand these policies, they certainly have the numbers to get them.

How Occupy is Transforming Our National Conversation

November 23, 2011 ·

Shift your gaze for a moment from the lurid headlines of police shutting down Occupy sites in Oakland, New York and other cities to the scene on a sunny day in early November here in Washington, D.C. In front of the grandiose U.S. Treasury Department building, thousands of nurses dressed in red shirts gathered holding high large signs proclaiming: “Heal America: Tax Wall Street” and “Tax Timmy’s Friends” (as in U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner). They and their allies next marched to the Bank of America, then to the Occupy D.C. site, and onward to the corridors of Congress. Their rallying cry: a tax on the speculative trades that dominate Wall Street.

These nurses are one of many reminders of how far we have come since Occupy Wall Street pitched its first tents in Zucotti Park on September 17 and of how much the national conversation has shifted. They remind us how significant have been the successes of the Occupy movement, whatever happens to those tents.

Nurses are among the Occupy protesters changing the national converstion. Photo by Glyn Lowe.Occupy has already succeeded in challenging the old, faulty dominant story spread by the 1 percent and replacing it with another one that resonates with what most Americans know to be true.

For the thirty years until September 17, the dominant national narrative was framed by the overarching philosophy of free-marketers like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman. Starting around 1980, they successfully sold a story-line that government should step aside, eliminate regulations, and let the “free market” and its large corporations create prosperity for all of us. As for the resulting rise in inequality? Not to worry, their storyline argued, this was not a problem because everyone had a chance to get rich and anyone who did not – well, that was their own fault.

Across the world, for years, millions of people challenged this elite-driven and elite-benefiting “Washington Consensus.” In Brazil, for example, landless workers occupied farmland and ultimately helped elect a government of the 99 percent. Similar movements helped elect governments that challenged the 1 percent in Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, El Salvador, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

But, in the United States, the dominant story persisted for decades, drowning out the voices of victims and critics — leaving us with a callous national narrative that tolerated obscene wealth among the few, mounting poverty among the many, and an escalating gap between the two.

Tolerated, that is, until Occupy Wall Street.

The signs and chants of “we are the 99%” have broken the spell, liberating the public imagination to unearth the true narrative of what has happened in this country and across the world during the past three decades.

Pay no heed to what the self-serving mainstream pundits of the 1 percent say about the Occupy movement. The reality is this: Occupy has already succeeded. It has succeeded in shaking us as a society out of our hypnosis. Occupy has already succeeded in its role as a social movement in challenging the old, faulty dominant story spread by the 1 percent and replacing it with another one that resonates with what most Americans know to be true.

The truth: The policies and practices of giant corporations and the U.S. government over the past three decades have rigged the system to benefit the 1 percent. The truth: The resulting inequality has grown to grotesque levels not seen since the first “Gilded Age” 100 years ago. Inequality is crushing millions, while destroying our democracy.

Ignore also what the pundits of the 1 percent are telling you about who is at Occupy. The Occupy sites are not filled with partying spoiled rich college kids. There are ordinary people, some who have lost jobs, some who have lost homes, some who cannot find jobs, most who had lost hope. People who are tired of being blamed, tired of feeling alone, and tired of not being heard.

Now, they are being heard and they are not feeling alone.

In choosing Wall Street as its main initial site, Occupy brilliantly changed the narrative to focus on the real villain: a Wall Street that gambled the hard-earned savings of ordinary Americans and precipitated the crash of 2008. A Wall Street that was then bailed out by the 1 percent in the U.S. Congress.

Pay no heed to those pundits who say that Occupy will fail unless it puts forward a specific list of specific demands. This is not the role of a social movement such as Occupy. Rather, if Occupy can keep the spotlight on this new narrative, this gives space, power, and voice to other groups to put forward specific demands on behalf of the 99 percent. Case in point: those nurses who marched with other Occupy supporters on that sunny day in early November to demand the tax on financial transactions of the 1 percent.

Indeed, as the nurses rallied in Washington, three of their leaders joined in a demonstration thousands of miles away in France, pressing leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies including President Obama to embrace this tax. Obama had previously been opposed. But, as IPS fellow Sarah Anderson reported from France: “After the protests, Obama stood up in France at a news conference with the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. And, to our surprise, Obama announced that he was now open to the financial speculation tax.”

In sum: Occupy is successfully shifting the national conversation and, in doing so, it is opening the door to a new realm of possibilities.

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