Insofar as reducing inequality or curtailing the power of Wall Street is a good idea, what are some ways you would support tackling it?

Nini: To me, there are four places to look. One is regulation. For instance, the standard economist’s approach is to get more equity capital into institutions. That can be done in a few ways. One easy one that I like to promote is removing the tax advantage that debt currently gets … Others, which I think are less often pointed to, include thinking about the role of shareholders. I wonder if more attention can be paid to how shareholders can influence compensation, the structure of boards, and all the governance mechanisms inside banks. So I think shareholder activism is an area. The third is consumers. Occupy Wall Street could think about trying to mobilize consumers. We saw recently a backlash related to debit fees, and Bank of America changed their policy. So consumer activism I think can matter. The last is the legal system. So some states have been very active, in conjunction with the SEC, using the legal system to discipline Wall Street.

Do you see any historical precedents for the Occupy phenomenon?

Walter Licht:
First I would say, if someone back in July had told me that there would be hundreds of people camped out on Wall Street and other places, I would have said, “Impossible.” So this has happened pretty unpredictably, to me. There is a little portion of it that I know grows out of other insurgencies of recent times, particularly those protesting at the large world trade meetings, protesting neoliberalism or the impact of globalization on working people in Third World countries. And there’s a kind of anarchist crowd attached to that, which has been involved in some of the demonstrations. And I know they are part of this. But I think this movement is beyond them at this point.

Hahn: Cox’s Army, around the time of the Depression, was basically a long march of the unemployed. And when they got to Washington DC they camped on the Mall, and they got kind of run out by authorities. Martin Luther King, just before he died, was planning a Poor People’s campaign. And what they were planning to do—and eventually under Jesse Jackson and others did in part, but not to the extent that he wanted—was they wanted to occupy the Mall, indefinitely, in sort of a tent city, to deal with the issue about poverty in the United States. In the 1930s, in the great sit-down strikes in mass-production industries like the auto industry, people were sitting in and sleeping in at these factories, until of course they sent in police. The idea of sit-ins have a long history.

What do you make of the slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent”?

Michael Delli Carpini:
Are they standing on strong footing when they talk about economic inequality and that it’s growing and that it is larger in the United States than in most advanced industrial nations, and that the amount of wealth and money that’s controlled by the 1 percent is remarkably high as a percentage by past comparisons or comparisons to other advanced democracies? They are absolutely on strong ground. So at that level they are representing a fact. Do they speak for the 99 percent? No, I don’t think anybody speaks for the 99 percent, because that’s a pretty wide swath of people with lots of opinions.

Hahn: I think they did a very good job with the 99 percent and 1 percent [rhetoric], because again, as the Congressional Budget Office’s recent data showed—and it’s something that a lot of people knew—over the last four decades the distribution of wealth has become incredibly concentrated. It makes the Gilded Age look like a joke. It’s like the 1920s—but the difference is that [then] there was still this notion that there was something wrong about a so-called democratic society in which a very small number of people controlled so much in the way of wealth and other resources. And in the Gilded Age, and in the early 20th century, there was a language of criticism. In the Gilded Age, the language was “robber barons.” It was about the illegitimacy that was accorded to all these people who had accumulated all the wealth, as if they were not only gaining it at other people’s expense, but as though they were creating in effect a sort of faux aristocracy. And now we live in a world where the robber barons are regarded as public-sector employees and teachers! They’re the ones who are portrayed as ripping everybody off because they have relatively secure jobs, or they’re being paid as a result of taxes and so forth. And I think what OWS and its many spinoffs are beginning to do is make us think a lot harder about these issues.

What happened to political protests from the left since the 1960s?

You’ve seen racial minorities move away from political protest. That’s a bad strategy. It’s one of the few ways in which minorities can have their voices heard. The more minorities move away from non-electoral politics, the more likely politicians are to pay less attention to very important concerns.

Licht: The left, if there is such a thing, has been, since the 1960s, incredibly fractured. And it’s fractured along lines that people glibly call “identity politics.” But its main emphasis has been about rights, and particularly the rights of marginalized groups, and discriminated groups, and the elimination of discrimination … And those movements have not really attended to issues of income, income inequalities, and class. [OWS] to me is unusual and in some ways is a throwback to earlier eras that were either attached to the anti-monopoly, anti-corporatism, let’s say, of the populace of 110 years ago, or some of the trade union organizing of the 1930s. So what I find very fascinating is the reintroduction of class into the left’s discourse.

When and why did the left stop focusing overtly on class?

Somewhat ironically, I think it begins to go away in the 1930s. There’s a moment in the New Deal where FDR and others rail against the magnates and the plutocrats, and there’s this little antitrust crusade. But it’s quixotic and dies immediately. You begin to get a state that begins to provide certain securities and supports for people in hard times, whether it’s unemployment insurance or insurance for the old aged, or for those who have no means of support. And you get a shift over to what the state can provide and the kind of welfare state that we can build here. Labor, at the same time, begins to build its strength and leverage and is able to negotiate with the corporations for packages that provide them good real incomes, and growth in real incomes, through the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. This will stop in the ’70s. As you began to get that sort of accommodation to large-scale welfare programs, as well as accommodations with the corporate sector in terms of labor contracts, you lost the anti-corporatism. The corporations were here to stay. In fact, you could negotiate with them.


It’s interesting that after a period in which mass public protests seem to have ebbed, in the last couple years we’ve seen both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. How would you compare them, and is there anything significant about these two movements happening in such close proximity?

I’m struck by fact that although there are clearly differences between the Tea Party and Occupy movements, they share deep senses of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. Sarah Palin recently used the phrase crony capitalism and complained about how government aided particular banks and businesses. Her sense of the solutions would be very different than those that would be attractive to Occupy Wall Street, but I think it’s important in American politics now that we are getting active expressions of discontent across the spectrum.

Gillion: The difference is simple. One group believes that government should be more involved in redistributing wealth. And the other side feels that the government should not be involved as much as it is—that government has too much of an overreaching hand. If 2012 emerges and we have both sides competing strongly on these issues, I don’t think the status quo is going to move much. It’s a tug-of-war. In 2010, there was more tug—because it was only the Tea Party. In 2012, there’s going to be more war, because you have this countermovement.

Hahn: The left has had many, many social movements. But it has not been good at getting power. Mostly we write the story of moments of possibility and then collapse. But the capitalists, financiers, and to a lesser extent industrialists felt that they were on the defensive in the 1970s. They thought that their profits were being whittled away; they felt that the balance of power had shifted against them; and they decided to go after working people and unions and the state and liberal ideology, and little by little [they changed the political conversation] … I wondered, when the [recent] economic collapse took place, when the anger would come. I was surprised for a while that it didn’t come. And then given what was going on in terms of public policy, it’s not that surprising in the end that the anger was basically organized by the right. And for the moment, they’ve done a lot with it. It’s a generational thing; they have no youth movement, so I think [the Tea Party’s] legs are pretty limited, but nonetheless, that’s the political environment we were in until Occupy Wall Street.


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The Participants:

Steven Hahn, Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History
Walter Licht, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History
Michael Katz, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History
Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Daniel Gillion, assistant professor of political science
Janice Bellace, Samuel A. Blank Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics; professor of management; chairperson of the Legal Studies and Business Ethics Department at Wharton
Gregory Nini, assistant professor of finance
Jeremy Greenwood, professor of economics
Michael X. Delli Carpini C’75 G’75, professor of communication; Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School

At Occupy Oakland, which briefly shut down Oakland’s port in early November, police later clashed with protesters, severely wounding an Iraq War veteran.




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  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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