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About Those Protests

I've been kind of busy lately finishing up a book about income inequality. So I haven't actually had time to travel to Zuccotti Park, or even McPherson Square, to check out the Occupy Wall Street movement first-hand. In truth, even if I did have time I doubt I'd know what to do with myself once I got there. I have never been entirely clear about what you're supposed to do at a protest march. The only one I ever participated in was an anti-apartheid march during the 1970s. A few years after that, I co-authored a story for the Wall Street Journal about how the new African National Congress regime in South Africa was tearing its hair out because small towns all over the U.S. were continuing to boycott their country, blissfully unaware that Nelson Mandela was now in charge. Protest movements are kind of sloppy that way. 

But the anti-apartheid protesters won. It's easy to forget that chaotic and often harebrained-seeming public demonstrations can lead to important changes in the world. Whether Occupy Wall Street will end up being one such demonstration remains to be seen. But so long as it remains nonviolent, I see no reason, at this early stage, to join the editors of the New Republic in rushing to condemn the protests. Instead I join my TNR colleagues John Judis and Jon Cohn in embracing them, albeit cautiously and with all the requisite caveats about the foolishness of anarchism, the idiocy of not letting Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) speak, etc. Lewis, who of course is a great hero of the noblest American protest movement of the 20th century, is being characteristically gracious about the incident. If he's not condemning the protesters, why should I?

Apparently the demonstrators have had some unkind words to say about capitalism. I have my doubts as to whether very many of them are serious about wanting to abolish it. Put me down as opposing any effort to overthrow capitalism in America. But American capitalism is overdue for reform more drastic than anything under current consideration within the polite mainstream. As I've been trying to point out lately, many of the more forceful criticisms are coming from the capitalists themselves. We need to resist tax simplification if it means reducing rather than increasing the number of tax brackets, because as the income share of the top 1 percent increases new tax brackets are needed for the highest incomes just to keep up. We need to revive the private-sector labor movement in this country, a goal most mainstream liberals are unwilling to take seriously. We need to break up the biggest banks, so that we won't be in danger of having to bail them out again in the future. We need to impose some form of federal price controls on college tuition increases, because, like health care, higher education has unmoored itself from the laws of supply and demand. I promise you the liberal establishment at college campuses across the country isn't going to take that one sitting down.

A year ago I wrote, from my former perch at Slate: "Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income, yet the prospect of class warfare is utterly remote. Indeed, the political question foremost in Washington's mind is how thoroughly the political party more closely associated with the working class (that would be the Democrats) will get clobbered in the next election. Why aren't the bottom 99 percent marching in the streets?" Well, now they are marching in the streets, waving signs that say "We Are The Bottom 99 Percent." Do I wish they were paying more attention to the Federal Register so they could properly support the writing of forceful regulations under the undeniably valuable Dodd-Frank financial reforms? Of course. Do I wish they'd stop occasionally trying to perform the latter-day equivalent of trying to levitate the Pentagon? What do you think? But until they give me a concrete reason to feel otherwise, I'll be glad that protesters are finally taking notice of America's 30-year income-inequality binge. It's long overdue.