What should Occupy Wall Street’s agenda be?

October 21, 2011

DAN SCHNUR

Director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

The difference between a movement and a large group of unhappy people is the ability to articulate specific policy goals. Those who held the earliest Tea Party rallies in 2009 had not yet developed legislative priorities to substantiate their slogans, but, over the course of several months, the congressional debate over deficit reduction and then the nation’s debt limit provided them the opportunity to directly influence policy in Washington. In an earlier era, the protesters who rallied public opinion against the Vietnam War underwent a similar evolution.

By contrast, those who’ve raged outside of meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in recent years have had much less success because their demands have been too vague, too varied or too far outside the mainstream to be addressed by the nation’s elected representatives. At this early stage, the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their compatriots across the country are still struggling to codify their unhappiness into an agenda. The test for the Occupiers will be whether their emotional aspirations can be narrowed into proposals that can attract broad public support.

Absent these more detailed objectives, polls show that the Occupiers have been able to develop a respectable level of support from the American public. More difficult will be maintaining those good feelings when their agenda does become more quantifiable. When Occupy Wall Street finalizes its proposals on economic policy and job creation, it will then graduate to movement status. But it will also be forced to put those proposals to a test of public opinion, which will determine its ability to influence the construction and passage of a legislative agenda and to become a force in American politics.

SIMON JOHNSON

Professor of economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management; co-author of “13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown.”

The Occupy Wall Street grievances are legitimate and well-articulated — no one has been held accountable for the financial disaster that led to the loss of so many jobs and so much other damage to millions of people. The list of sensible requests is long. Here are just two.

First, the top six U.S. banks have become even larger and more powerful since the crisis of 2008. All of them insist that taxpayers should continue to subsidize their poorly run businesses — including a great deal of gambling in the form of undercapitalized derivatives trading. Forcing the big banks to break up is a simple idea that would resonate across the political spectrum.

Second, there needs to be a comprehensive, large-scale settlement that deals with the accusations of malfeasance and illegal actions around banks’ handling of mortgages before and after the crisis. So far, the Obama administration has preferred a smaller deal, covering only robo-signing and potentially exempting banks from other legal liability. But Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, is pushing for a real investigation of the banks’ conduct and a bigger settlement for homeowners. Occupy Wall Street should support this responsible effort.

CATHERINE A. “KIKI” McLEAN

Democratic strategist; founding leader of the No Labels movement; partner at the public relations firm Porter Novelli.

Occupy Wall Street has articulated a frustration shared by people in communities all over the country, even if their tactics aren’t always appreciated. Americans from all walks of life are hungry for opportunity.

Two examples of what the protest movement could include in an opportunity agenda would be the small-business tax cut for hiring in the Obama jobs plan, and support for policies that allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to bring more people into the refinance/mortgage relief program so that homeowners in the most dire straits have access to the lowest rates possible. Rather than putting Fannie Mae in the cross hairs, they could support policies that make Fannie Mae work.

JARED BERNSTEIN

Senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; economic adviser to Vice President Biden from 2009 to 2011.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is driven, I believe, by the failure of two key societal functions: opportunity and accountability. Stagnant middle-class incomes, weak job and wage growth, health and retirement insecurity, and the average person’s reduced ability to bargain for a fair share of growth are problems that developed way before the Great Recession, and they’re blocking the opportunities of a large share of households.

We should address these imbalances through, among other things, a stronger voice for workers to boost their bargaining power and, in turn, produce a fairer distribution of productivity gains; a higher minimum wage; strong wage subsidies so adults in low-productivity jobs can earn a living wage; direct job-creation measures to put people to work (to help address infrastructure deficit); and a Federal Reserve that gives full weight to the employment side of its mandate.

We need, as well, an amply funded federal government — financed with more revenue raised through progressive taxation and policies that put a price on carbon to provide the right incentives for conservation and clean energy development — that truly regulates financial markets; steps to break down barriers keeping too many children from educational opportunities; a more reliable safety net; and more universal health care.

ANTHONY SPADAFINO

An American teaching English in Rome who participated in that city’s Global Change protests.

The Occupy movement has been criticized for its lack of a clear message. But from what I have witnessed, it shouldn’t have one. On Oct. 15, I participated in a “Global Change” rally in Rome with about 100,000 Italians. Rome’s protests quickly deteriorated into violence. Having a protest of many organized factions pressing specific policies destroyed the implicit message of the 99 percent together as one against corruption.

Maybe the pundits are right: Maybe the Occupy movement is disorganized, and there isn’t a clear message. That’s exactly the way it should be.

Soon, Democrats and Republicans will battle to say that they represent the Occupy movement by inserting their policies into the chants of the Wall Street protesters. I hope none of them stick. If this turns into another partisan policy debate, Americans will have allowed themselves to be divided yet again.

DOUGLAS SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

The proposal that Occupy Wall Street’s demands group published is unrealistic and not achievable. They are calling for a $1.5 trillion spending program to create 25 million public-sector jobs and provide free public education, free university education and free universal health care for all. Our government doesn’t have the money for such programs, tax increases on the rich will not cover them, and no one, including Democrats, has the inclination to pay for such programs.

Occupy Wall Street should embrace policies that can pass and will appeal across the political spectrum, underscoring and amplifying the conversations taking place in American living rooms concerning the lack of jobs, the high cost of living, fears of health-care and retirement security, and opportunities for children to realize the American dream.

Moderate to progressive Democrats can pursue an extension of payroll tax cuts, tax incentives to create jobs and a very modest infrastructure program to put people to work. Reforming the tax system, lowering rates, and eliminating deductions to promote growth and investment are also possible, as is protecting the social safety net through a prudent deficit- and debt-reduction plan.

It’s not likely that Occupy Wall Street will change its tune. But unless the protesters do, the Democratic Party — and, therefore, the progressive cause — could well suffer as a result.

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