What should be occupied next?

Nov 07, 2011

From Bill Clinton to Wal-Mart, chat with Alec MacGillis about what should be "occupied" next.

Read: Occupy this: Six culprits for economic injustice and inequality in America

Hello everyone, thanks for joining me today to talk about the question posed by my Outlook piece: what else besides Wall Street should be occupied in today's America if one is serious about addressing income inequality? My suggestions were: Bill Clinton (for his lowering of the capital gains rate); Wal-Mart (for its anti-unionism); Harvard and higher education (for a whole host of reasons); executive compensation consultants; federal contractors; and the Supreme Court (for Citizens United). What do you think?

I note you have Occupy Harvard listed. I am wondering if Occupy Wharton might be more direct and pointed.

Good point.  I struggled a bit with what target to put on this one.  The point generally was that higher education as a whole ought to be targeted for a range of offenses -- the rise in tuition, the high pay of college presidents, colleges' lobbying against progressive tax reform that might lower big charitable donations, and their encouraging of students to go into finance, with an eye toward higher alumni giving. Obviously, Harvard is not alone in any of this, and in fact it's been doing a bit more to address lack of access for non-rich kids than many other schools. But I chose it anyway just as the most obvious stand-in for elite higher education. Its prominence makes it a symbol unlike any other school.

What about Occupy Starbucks? Is there a better symbol for making an inexpensive item used by the masses that has been turned into an expensive icon with its own language ("venti", "barista") and cultural distinction (young professionals and college students welcome, bathrooms are closed to outsiders).

I'm all for it -- I'm definitely not a Starbucks guy. One other point that could be raised against the company is that it has been fightign hard against unionization, just like Whole Foods and a few other companies with progressive sheens. That said, while Starbucks has had the lamentable cultural/symbolic effects that you describe here, I'm not sure that its impact on inequality is at the scale of some other companies out there. As you may know, Jon Stewart's been having some fun with the Starbucks-as-potential-target riff.

Occupying AARP? One of the deficits faced by today's young adults is that of political power, because baby boomers can out-vote them for government benefits. If demographic numbers were reduced, wouldn't there be a lot fewer resources directed to pensions, and more toward growing our workforce?

Good point. No doubt, there is a case to be made that things have gotten out of balance in the way resources flow between the generations, and any serious attempt to reckon with deficits will need to address this.  In fact, some of the recent Census data shows that the one slice of the population that has seen its income go up in recent years was the over-65's. That said, while this is a problem for the country and for our budget, I'm not not sure that this is really a driver of income inequality per se. I'd think of it in class terms. If more money is flowing to middle and lower class elderly in benefits, then that might be a problem from a budget standpoint but it's not exacerbating income inequality. The problem is the money and benefits flowing to high-income elderly who don't really need it. So you'd want to look at doing more means-testing of Medicare and Social Security. And you'd want to think hard about raising the capital gains rate, since so much of the income of wealthy elderly is in the form of capital gains. But raising the capital gains rate would be a big step toward reducing income inequality across the generations. In general, the best way to reduce income inequality in generational terms would be to take steps to reduce it across the board, not just targeted at the elderly.

What role has illegal immigration played in the decline of the U.S. middle-class? I am not engaging in immigrant-bashing, and I am speaking specifically of illegal, not legal, immigration (a distinction the Post often fails to grasp), but it seems plain that having an unlimited supply of cheap unskilled labor reduces work opportunities for Americans without advanced skills, it reduces the need for businesses to mechanize or automate certain kinds of work, it reduces the incentives businesses might otherwise have to provide job-training to young workers, and it pushes down wage scales and working conditions across the board. Maybe Canada, Germany and other advanced nations are more egalitarian than the U.S. because they don't share a border with a failed Third World narco-state.

You're right, this is one of the main theories out there to explain for our growing income gap. My New Republic Tim Noah addressed it as part of his terrific 10-part series on income inequality for Slate magazine. And we may be seeing some testing of this theory now as employers in certain parts of the country are really starting to scramble for low-cost labor in response to immigration crackdowns -- in Alabama, for instance, and out West where big ag operations that rely on migrant workers are complaining about having trouble finding anyone to harvest their crops.  Some argue that this just proves that the farms need to raise their pay to the point where unemployed Americans are willing to do the work, even it means slightly higher food prices. But your argument touches on another point, which is that it's probably the case that our nation's ethnic diversity militates against income equality because it makes it less likely for us to see ourselves as all in the same boat, our brother's keeper, etc, and more likely to allow inequalities to emerge that, we like to imagine, hurt only the 'others' living amongst us.

Great article! I'd add to the list: let's occupy the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, two extremely influential "conservative" think tanks. Their role is simple: they're founded by the wealthy and funded by the wealthy in order to persuade Congress to pass legislation that benefits the wealthy. And--surprise!--it's worked really well. Both have luxuriously-appointed headquarters in D.C.; the Heritage Foundation even has a satellite office on Capitol Hill, right down the street from the Capitol. Let's occupy it.

Thanks! I've been in that Heritage office near Capitol Hill and you're right: it's pretty swank. I thought about adding the think tanks to my list but decided to stay away from the whole think tank/lobbying/influence industry because it fell somewhat it into the whole nexus of our obviously deeply flawed core government institutions, and I wanted to come up with some suggestions beyond these. But you're absolutely right, the role of these organizations in perpetuating the gap is considerable. For more on this I highly recommend "Winner Take All Politics," a terrific 2010 book on income inequality by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. It's all about how inequality in this country is not the result of abstract global trends but of specific decisions and forces at work in Washington the past 35 years, including these think tanks.

What should the "average citizen" do to begin addressing these issues? It seems neither political party has the interest and/or the nerve to take any steps to solve these problems.

This is the biggest question of all, right? It can all seem sort of overwhelming, because the trend is being driven in so many different ways and places. But here's what I'd say: the number one thing that one can do is, quite simply, to notice it's happening and to start thinking about it.  I'm pretty sure that one reason it got so out of hand these past three decades is that a lot of people didn't focus on it as much as they could have.  But if people start thinking about it -- and it seems they are starting to, thanks in large part to Occupy -- then that's a big step forward.  It can mean making certain decisions in where you take your business (I heard last night from a businessman who says he uses UPS rather than FedEx because UPS is unionized.) It can mean talking about the problem with friends and colleagues. And, yes, it means voting with this in mind. No doubt, neither party is talking about this problem enough, and both are culpable, as my article points out with Bill Clinton and the capital gains tax. But it's also true that right now one party is talking a lot more about the problem than the other, which is either denying that there is income inequality in the U.S. or downplaying its importance.

Hi, I teach at a state university. The only costs that are increasing for us are due to increases for medical insurance and for financial aid. At the same time our state has been cutting funding for education since at least 2004 (when we had a 85% drop per student in state funding). I guess I don't see any bloat in administration (these are the people we have been laying off), or salaries (we haven't had raises in four years, and my salary is about 1/3 of what it would be in industry. At the same time we are getting more students coming to college (which costs us more than we make off of tuition). So, I'd ask how ubiquitous you think the trend is of increasing tuition costs due to increasing administration bloat at public schools? I just can't see that at my school, but perhaps my viewpoint is too narrow.

Thanks for your input. You're right, state budget cuts have been a big problem at public universities, and a big driver of tuition increases. But there have been several reports in recent years showing just how bad the administrative bloat has gotten in higher ed -- both in public and private colleges. Yours may be an exception to the norm, which is great -- there are some that I've read about this past year that have really tried to focus the cuts at the administrative level.  There's a new book out about the administrative bloat problem by Benjamin Ginsberg. And here's a NYT piece from a couple years back that talks about the problem with Patrick Callan, whose organization put out  a big report on the issue.

No matter what you decide to occupy next, can you make sure not to harrass people using the ATM or buying a cookie sheet? Oh, and try not to crap in doorways too. That's just rude, and it loses the sympathy I have with the Occupy movement.

Well said.  I'd add to this list of actions to avoid the shutting down of a major port, as happened in Oakland. There are arguments to be made about the impact of global trade on US inequality, but I'm not sure how keeping truck drivers and longshoremen from doing their job is helping matters. That said, I hope it's clear that my article's occupation suggestions were slightly tongue in cheek -- no one's going to be allowed to hang out long on the Supreme Court steps, as Cornel West found out last week. Then again, I am curious what would happen if there were an encampment chez Clinton in Chappaqua...Well, with that final thought, I'm going to sign off for today. Thanks for joining me, and do keep thinking hard about all this issue. It sure isn't going away.

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Alec MacGillis
Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at the New Republic, where he is the magazine's chief correspondent for the 2012 campaign. He previously worked as a national reporter at the Washington Post, covering national politics and domestic policy.
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