by Charlotte Hough ’14
In his Nov. 14 lecture here at Hamilton on “Winner-Take-All Politics,” Yale professor Jacob Hacker commented that a criticism of his book (co-authored with Paul Pierson) upon its release in 2010 was “Who is going to care?” The issue he raised – rising income inequality in America – was a relatively new one, with little presence in the media at the time.
I have to admit that last semester as I read Hacker’s book as a part of my American Political Process class, a related question went through my mind: “Where’s all the chatter? This seems like kind of a big deal.” The American public lacked a stance on the issue. Now, with the Occupy Wall Street movement in full swing, the opposite could be said.
With these new circumstances in mind, Hacker reframed arguments from Winner-Take-All Politics in the context of Occupy. He began by showing a photo of a protester holding a sign displaying a CBO graph that illustrated the rise of incomes within certain classes. Joked, When has an American protester ever used a CBO visual aid to start a riot? He makes a valid point.
Hacker discussed the dramatic rise in the income gap since 1979. From then until 2007, the top one percent of income-earning households experienced a 281 percent rise in income as opposed to the 25 percent change in the middle fifth of the income bracket. This unequal change, he said, has occurred due to politics.
Specifically, Hacker noted policies aiding the top one percent. They include decreases in tax rates for the top-earning 400 down to 16.5 percent in 2007, a rate lower than that of many middle-class taxpayers; decreased regulation of executive pay and compensation in the financial industry; and out of date stock options regulations. Hacker emphasized that a lack of policy changes, or policy drift, on some of these key issues should be considered concrete policy changes. In this way, policy drove inequality.
Refusing to become partisan in his analysis, Hacker acknowledged that this policy drift occurred under both Democratic and Republican presidents. The driving force behind it: the mass organization of business interests beginning in 1979 as retaliation to recent gains made by environmental lobbyists. Simultaneously, labor unions lost stamina, leaving the middle class with no economic issue group to voice its concerns. Instead, Wall Street became the jockey driving the whip into the backs of politicians.
Hacker ended optimistically; bad policy decisions were made in the past, but we can right them. Is OWS the first step to doing so? Indeed it’s brought about the public awareness absent at Hacker’s book’s initial publishing. Said Hacker, OWS will only succeed if it leads to a movement that fosters more public confidence in the government, which with it, might be able to change. Is that possible? Where does the blame lie?
Hacker clearly places it on Washington, yet as Hamilton student noted during Q&A, OWS has rooted itself not there, but in New York at the jockey’s racetrack. Now that protesters have been kicked out of Zuccotti Park, where will they go? A march to the nation’s capital might be appropriate.
A diverse movement united around the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” OWS screams loudly but without demands. What should they be asking for? Says Hacker, a government that represents the middle class, not just the top one percent. Elections that take into account the vote more than the dollar out of the millionaire’s pocket. More progressive tax codes at the top, and stricter financial regulations.
So what happens next? I suggest a few things for the disgruntled OWS protesters:
1. Go to Washington.
2. Bring Hacker’s list.
3. Demand change.
After all, it’s about time someone be held accountable. Let it be our political system.