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Occupy Wall St.: Not a head scratcher

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Frank Franklin II/AP

(Read caption) Protesters from Occupy Wall Street walk past the New York Stock Exchange dressed as corporate zombies. The protests have gathered momentum and gained participants in recent days as news of mass arrests and a coordinated media campaign by the protesters have given rise to similar demonstrations around the country.

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Last night I heard a story on NPR about the Wall St. protest that is now spreading to other cities. The gist of the story was: “what are these protests really about? What do they want?”

I’m sorry, but that’s just not a head scratcher. Do these news analysts think it’s a coincidence that they’re occupying Wall St. as opposed to Columbus Ave north of 79th?

As Andrew Sorkin put it today (after writing that the message was “at times…hard to discern”):

“…the demonstrators are seeking accountability for Wall Street and corporate America for the financial crisis and the growing economic inequality gap.”

I’m not saying everyone down there is ready to give a clear exposition of the facts of the case, but commentators can stop scratching their heads now.

I’ve been writing about these problems for decades. Sometimes they’ve gotten a little better, but mostly they’ve gotten worse. Before the downturn, the share of income held by the top 1% was 23.5%, the highest since 1928 and more than twice the 10% level of the late 1970s.

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These are growth shares, as in they have to sum to 100%–when one group’s share goes up like that, everybody else’s has to shrink.

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That doesn’t mean real income values can’t rise for other groups, of course (though it does imply slower relative growth, compared to the high end). But in fact, the middle class and the poor haven’t seen that either…the decade of the 2000s saw middle-incomes decline in real terms for working-age households. The recession just made those incomes fall faster.

Protest movements are often born of two interacting injustices: the lack of opportunity and the lack of accountability by the persons perceived to be blocking that opportunity.

Given the facts of the income distribution, the trends in real middle-class incomes and poverty, the failure of policy to do much to change these trends, the government bailouts of the only class that’s benefited from the recovery so far, the absence of clear punishment/accountability for the financial and political institutions that helped inflate the debt bubble that continues to squeeze economies across the globe, and the dysfunctionality of the current political system (they’re arguing more about whether they can keep the lights on than whether they can help solve the economic problems), the more interesting question is what took so long for such protests to show up?

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