October 13, 2011

Restore American Equality: A Defense of ‘Occupy Wall Street’

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Seventy-five years after Franklin D. Roosevelt decried the effects of concentrated wealth on national politics, his words again ring true as a small fraction of Americans continue to receive an ever-growing share of the national income. Once again, our political equality has become increasingly meaningless in the face of growing economic inequality. In 1976, the top one percent of income earners received 8.9 percent of the total after-tax income — in 2007 they received 23.5 percent. Over the same time period, the poorest 20 percent of Americans actually lost ground. Their share of national wealth fell from 4.3 percent to 3.3 percent today. Such disparity in income has been unseen in the United States since the Gilded Age of robber barons and economic royalists. Perhaps it is time for those phrases to return.It is important to note that this inequality did not appear overnight. Indeed, the past thirty years of American economic policy is in many ways to blame. At a time when the United States has maintained the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the history of humanity, we have shredded our progressive tax system and reduced rates to historic lows. During a period of unmatched change in the structure of financial markets, we have deliberately crippled our regulatory and oversight bodies. As the nature of work and the structure of the economy have changed drastically, statutory protections for American workers have been eviscerated and their unions deliberately broken.Sitting on this campus on a hill, it is very easy to ask oneself, “I did it, why can’t you?” There are indeed many people here who have scaled the ladder of economic and educational achievement with relatively little outside aid. Yet why should we pull up that ladder once we have reached its top? To do so is to ignore a fundamental responsibility of the college graduate. While a professor at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson said, “Every man sent out from a university should be a man of his nation as well as a man of his time.” Our time is one where in which the costs of education and healthcare have risen dramatically while wages and income for the vast majority of Americans have stagnated; our nation is one where millions of middle and working class families struggle to provide these most basic goods even with diligent effort.The process of reversing this situation, of making sure that the opportunity for self-betterment is available to all Americans, will be the political battle of the coming years. The United States grew prosperous and successful under the protection of certain self-evident rights: freedom of speech, press and worship, and within those protections of life and liberty. The economic gains of that accomplishment, however, were only shared by the great mass of Americans once we embraced a second, equally important set of rights: the right to economic and social security, the right to a job for those who are willing to work, the right to do business in an atmosphere free from unfair and monopolistic competition and the right to protection from the perils of sickness and old age. Some of these rights were never fully realized, yet it was the struggle towards them which propelled the United States to its preeminent position in the world. Likewise, it is the loss of focus on these goals — and indeed in some cases the active destruction of progress made upon them — which is responsible for much of our current set of problems.The confluence of these actions exploded during the financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which have cascaded throughout the nation as the forgotten man leaves a shuttered factory only to be confronted by a booming Wall Street. These are the reasons why numerous Americans are protesting there now, and why we — as citizens, students and Cornellians — must actively discuss the problems facing the United States and what we can do to confront them.

Tony Montgomery is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the president of the Cornell Democrats. He may be reached at tem58@cornell.edu. Max McCullough is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the vice president of the Cornell Democrats. He may be reached at dm529@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Max McCullough