Did 'Occupy Wall Street' happen just in time? Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Oct 11, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses why he thinks 'Occupy Wall Street is a movement to be praised, and why it's a timely call for justice.

Hi, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat -- after a month-long hiatus. I missed all of you desperately. Today, as always, there's plenty to chew on. The column seems to have touched a nerve, for some reason. I wrote about the Occupy Wall Street protests, which I applaud for their Whitmanesque passion (they qualify as a "barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world") and for the fact that they tackle the issue of economic justice. Judging from the 2600-plus comments the piece has drawn, those who disagree REALLY disagree. Why is this such a sensitive subject, I wonder? Meanwhile, there's a GOP candidates' debate tonight. When isn't there a GOP candidates' debate? Anyway, it's all about whether Cain will continue to surge, whether Perry can come back, and whether anyone will notice that Romney keeps rolling along at the head of the pack. Enough preliminaries; let's get started.

I find it interesting but not surprising that conservatives are poo-pooing Occupy Wall Street. Even the usually even-handed David Brooks was rather dismissive of it in his column this morning. And one could argue that anything that has its roots in the progressive culture is bound to be confounding. Heck, look at the Democrats over the last few years. But that said, I think the conservatives, especially Mr. Brooks, are missing the point. OWS is not about just taxing the rich nor is it being anti-capitalism. It's about how corporate greed and influence has corrupted our governing process and made life for those not well connected or wealthy worse. It remains to be seen whether this message continues or just peters out. I for one hope it gets stronger and sends a message to government.

That's precisely right. It's not some sort of crypto-commie attack on capitalism. It's an attack on the way capitalism has been corrupted -- on the way the system has been rigged. What fascinates me is the way conservatives are overreacting, as if Karl Marx had risen from the grave.

So you "love every little thing about these gloriously amateurish sit-ins," do you? Does that include the shoulder-high piles of trash in NYC? The gentleman defecating on a police car? You know there's a reason people who can't bother to pick up after themselves and defecate on police cars don't have jobs, Mr. Robinson.

The idiot who did that disgusting stunt with the police car was pointed out to the cops by other protesters. The act was inexcusable, of course. But what's so remarkable or objectionable about the fact that a protest encampment produces trash? Are you objecting to the fact that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are staging a sit-in? Should that not be allowed? Or do you really just object to their views?

Herman "I don't have facts to back this up" Cain should be asked to specify how much total revenue his 999 Plan would produce, and what spending cuts he'd support if 999 replaced the current Federal tax code. Credible economists estimate Cain's 999 Plan would cause the largest Federal deficits since WWII while increasing Federal taxes for most Americans. Cain claims 999 will be revenue-neutral, in that it would raise as much revenue as the current tax code. Using 2007 data (before the 2008 recession), American Progress Director of Tax and Budget Policy Michael Linden says 999 would have produced about $665 billion in individual income tax revenues, $112 billion in corporate revenues and about $500 billion in sales tax revenues for a total of a bit less than $1.3 trillion in total federal tax revenue or 9.2% of GNP. However, actual 2007 federal taxes amounted to 18.5% of GNP, so 999 would cut Federal tax revenues by one-half.

Wow. Since tonight's debate is supposed to be all about the economy, I assume Cain will be pressed on those pesky details and consequences. 9-9-9 can't work.

If it means different things to different people, then I would readily argue that it is, indeed, an empty phrase. But the question remains: what is the "economic fairness" you and many others purport to seek? Equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? I'll be the first to admit that we are seeing neither, but can we attempt to aim for the former (economic liberty) without attempting to mandate the latter (effectively Marxism or its cousins)?

What's with all the Marxism stuff? No one wants Marxism or any of its cousins. Yes, I want to see equality of opportunity -- which, as you recognize, we don't have at present.

Mr. Robinson, I strongly support the Occupy Wall Street protests. You and other commentators have not mentioned the most obvious parallel between this and the Tea Party: both fault their respective party's leader, Presidents Obama and Bush, for betraying their causes. Could you please comment on this? My view is that the movement is not going to help President Obama's re-election unless he fires Tim Geithner, Mary Schiparo and the rest of the Keystone Kops crew, and institutes a real policy to close the revolving door between Wall Street and its captive regulatory agencies. I for one would at least consider voting for Rick Perry if it comes to that. After all, even Bush managed to convict his good buddy Ken Lay, but Obama hasn't raised a finger to bring to justice his friends in the investment banking community, since that might cost a few Wall Street contributions. (Of course, as you point out, this movement has no spokespeople, so I'm only speaking for myself...)

I think the movement's potential importance, and I emphasize the word potential, goes beyond the next election. What interests me about Occupy Wall Street is the idea that maybe it presages a change in the atmosphere -- a shift in the way we think about the nexus of power between Washington and Wall Street. This is the kind of shift that takes time. Firing Geithner wouldn't do it. Voting for Perry would make things worse, in my view. I'm talking about something bigger than  politics.

Dear Gene, couldn't agree more with your column on OWS. My analogy is that it's like someone who's been pushed around for years by a neighbor, coworker, or family member, suddenly saying "Hey, stop that!" Just doing that is the first step. In this case, the pushy bully is the large corporate interests that have been grabbing bigger and bigger slices of the pie through their lobbying, without any thought about its effect on ordinary Americans from them or the legislators who serve them. The idea that other pundits have voiced, that the bullied group (us) has to have a specific plan of action before they can even call out the bullies, is incorrect. Thanks again.

Thank you. The idea that OWS must produce some kind of ten-point platform is a trap, in my view. "Economic justice" can be a counterweight to "smaller government." A list of demands for specific legislation would immediately shrink OWS to just another interest group.

Hope you're OK.

I'm fine. Just overscheduled.

If by economic justice you mean redistribution of income, please say so. If you mean forgiving justly incurred debt, please say so. If you mean you doase say so.

I don't mean either of those things. Unless you're talking about progressive taxation and bankruptcy laws, which I do believe in. What about you?

Hi Gene- I was so disappointed when you cheered the murder of an unarmed cowering man (OBL). So now its the murder of an American citizen, any chance you have rethought this deal and would like to return to due process, trials, the constitution, treaties and the checks and balances that once made us a great country or are you still off the ranch (and cheering)?

I still don't have a problem with the killing of bin Laden. The targeted killing of a U.S. citizen  troubles me.

Do you think the Democrats will embrace Occupy Wall Street much like Republicans embraced the Tea Party? If so, it might be wise to do so with caution, simply because it hasn't gone so well with the Republicans and the Tea Party. I'm thinking of the debt default brinksmanship.

If I were involved with Occupy Wall Street, I'd look at the Tea Party's experience and decline to be embraced, period. My goal would be to change the way people think about economic fairness, with the knowledge that a shift in attitudes and understanding would inevitably play itself out in our politics.

Those of us who REALLY disagree see the ultimate goals of OWS and their ilk as not just the destruction of capitalism (a lousy system, yes, but beats the alternatives when it comes to liberty and actual results), but the confiscation and redistribution of wealth. Fine, until it's your wealth, which it will be when they're done. And you know what? We may be sympathetic to someone screwed out of a lifetime career with no pension and vanished savings, but we're not to those who foolishly got themselves mired in that much debt without doing the math. My wife looked at the numbers and said "no way" to art school. She's looking sharper by the day.

What can I say? You're wrong. Nobody's coming to confiscate your wealth. Take a deep breath. Now, from your life experience, examine your implicit assumption that bad things only happen to bad people.

At this time, Foxnews and other media outlets are reporting that OWS is heavily financed and organized by the labor unions. Doesn't the gap between that reporting and your column make it seem you are trying to sell us a narrative, rather than inform us about a story?

Fox News is wrong.

Cantor's pronouncements on the OWS protesters are more than hypocrisy ... is this really representative of the Tea/GOP? And how do you believe this strategy will play out?

Cantor's reaction was not only hypocritical, it was way over the top. Remember, these are small protests. I remember the Vietnam War days, when hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Washington and other cities. yet there's something about the OWS protests that freaks conservatives out, big time. Could it be the message?


Stay awake. There are eleventy-seven debates still to come.

All you want is a bigger-and-bigger federal government. You are against the ideals of the Founders for limited federal government as stated succinctly in Federalist 45 by Madison: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite." You'll answer with some moaning about do we really want dirty water or no air-traffic controllers, but you need to address the fundamental charge that you are out of step with the Founders, if you dare.

One of George Washington's first important decisions was to have the federal government assume the war debt of the states -- over the objections of his fellow Virginians. This action, engineered by Hamilton, was designed to establish the new government as strong and sovereign. I'm in step.

Would Rev. Jeffress be unwilling to support, say, Rep. Eric Cantor as the VP nominee of the Republican Party, given the importance he places on loving Christ as a qualification for the Presidency? After, the Veep is just a heart-beat away from being the leader of the free world...

I don't think the reverend leaves himself a lot of wiggle room on this.

We've got a side-bet on which GOP Candidate will do what they are so anxious to do and call the protestors "Hippies". You know they would love to bring back the 60's. My money's on Newt, but my buddy says it'll be Rick Santorum. Who do you think will be first?

Close call! I might put a few bucks on Herman Cain, though. Maybe we'll see tonight.

I think that description from the earlier poster is as good a description as any of the value that I see in the protests. But the protestors can be their own worst enemies. A kid with a liberal arts degree from an expensive private school being interviewed on TV and bemoaning his lack of a job is not going to win the sympathy of most people. This kid had opportunities that most Americans can only dream of, and he needs to take responsibility for his own situation. If people see him as typical of the protestors, fairly or unfairly, it is doing to diminish sympathy for their cause.

You could have said the same thing about the antiwar protesters on college campuses during Vietnam -- a bunch of rich kids, scared of losing their draft deferments. But they changed the way this country thinks about war.

HI Gene - I have been watching this protest evolve over the last few weeks defending its ambiguity and shapelessness with family and friends as precisely the point of the protest. We have had enough of structured protest (Koch brother funding of tea Party events?) or soundbites from self interested politicians - the people had had enough! And for a variety of reasons. So, thank you for your editorial! It captures my sentiment perfectly. But here is my question - is any of the protest beginning to resonate in Washington? Have an politicians had an "uh oh" moment that suggests someone needs to step forward and do what is in the best interest of America, not the party? I, as a dyed in the wool democrat, would love to see someone, maybe Boenher, step out of the House cabal and make a bold deal that may not be perfect but breaks the logjam? Pipe dream?

This may take a while. The hysterical reaction from the right tells me that the OWS protests are onto something. Stay tuned.


Actually, I mean tune in again next week. My time is up, folks. Thanks for a lively and provocative hour of discussion, and I'll see you again on Tuesday.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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