For Occupy Wall Street to have lasting impact, we must use democratic processes to break link between big money and law-making

As a former student protestor against the Viet Nam War and for civil rights, I sympathize with and applaud the Occupy Wall Street protestors in lower Manhattan and elsewhere across the country.  As an ardent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and his disciple Martin Luther King, I believe that widespread peaceful disobedience can help change the direction of a country.

Having said that, after reviewing the news stories about the protests and read the Occupy Wall Street website, I’m shocked that the protestors and organizers really don’t have a plan and have not articulated specific actions that we as a society should take to rebalance the distribution of wealth and income, which over the past 30 years has gotten severely out of whack.  Law and policy have redistributed wealth over the past 30 years, leaving the richest Americans with a much larger percentage of both wealth and income going to the top 1% and 5% of the country, and much less going to everyone else.  And it is law and policy that will have to redistribute wealth again so that we achieve the more equitable society that we enjoyed throughout the 50’s, 60’s and most of the 70’s of the last century.

In OpEdge, I have written many times about specific actions that we should take to create a more equitable distribution of wealth and income, but here’s a quick list of some of the major actions we could take:

  • Raise the minimum wage
  • Raise income taxes on the highest incomes and institute a wealth tax, such as they have in France.
  • Rebalance our labor laws in favor of unions, which historically have raised working people into the middle class.
  • End the capital gains tax discount or limit it to true investment in creating new jobs and wealth, instead of allowing people to get a tax break when they profit from a sale of stocks or bonds in which the money goes to someone other than the company creating the new jobs.
  • Invest in national and state-wide programs to repair our broken public infrastructure of mass transit, public education, roads, bridges and sewer systems, which will create jobs and strengthen our public institutions.
  • Only import goods from nations that pay the same wages that we do and have high worker safety standards.

There are other policy and law changes I could recommend, but I don’t want to dwell on these points, each of which can be argued and refined.  Instead I want to focus on the actions that we must take to make our elected officials implement the changes necessary to save our country.  I write “save our country,” because one of the lessons of world history is that countries in which the distribution of wealth becomes less equitable over time virtually always decline and those in which the distribution of wealth becomes more equitable virtually always flourish.

Our elected officials will for the most part ignore or downplay the significance of the protests and the protestors, just as they have ignored and continue to ignore the will of the American people on such issues as exiting Iraq, punishing Wall Street manipulators and raising taxes on the wealthy.  They ignore us and listen to the big banks and large corporations for one reason only: Money.  Politicians embrace the positions of big money and the mainstream news media directs its coverage primarily on the big money candidates.

But money is not votes.  While the media and politicians count money, election officials can only count votes. If we want to change the direction of the country, we need elected officials who will pass new laws and pursue new policies.

Here then are the steps I propose that we take to reclaim America:

  1. Formulate a one-page set of specific actions that we will demand of any candidate that wants our support. I would think that this “Contract with the Real America” will include many of the actions I propose above, stated with more precision, e.g. “Impose an annual 2% tax on all net assets more than $1.0 million a year per taxable entity, and a 5% tax on all net assets of more than $10.0 million.” While my example uses one of my more radical proposals, I understand that the “Contract with the Real America” will have to be watered down a bit from my personal vision to resonate with the majority of Americans.
  2. Identify local and national candidates (most likely Democrats or independents) who will back some, many or most of the actions proposed in the list.
  3. Go to caucuses and support those candidates.
  4. Volunteer for voter registration drives focused on those most likely to vote for progressives and left-leaning Democrats, e.g., students, the poor and minorities.
  5. Engage in local “take people to the polls” campaigns on every election day (not just the presidential elections).
  6. Vote in every election.

The other side has the money, but the rest of us have a very powerful tool in social media, a tool with which we can speak directly to people.  The organizers of Occupy Wall Street have used social media with some effectiveness to organize the protest. But with no plan of action, all the protests do is allow people to let off some steam.  Venting is fun, but at the end of the day it accomplishes nothing except to give people the illusion that they have acted.

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