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The Occupy Wall Street Debate: What does our country really need

10/27/11 7:00pm

I am the 40.9 percent. All throughout America, protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement heckle and carry signs proclaiming the disenfranchisement of the 99 percent those not in the so-called economic elite, but they focus on the wrong number. Those currently picketing in Zucotti Park, N.Y., claim that the system only works for the top one percent of the population and that most Americans are not represented in Washington. However, I find this claim hard to take seriously when most Americans didn't even make the short trip to the ballot box in the last midterm elections. I am the 40.9 percent, the portion of voting eligible citizens who went to the polls in 2010.

The idea of broken American institutions permeates political discussion these days. From the right, the Tea Party complains of the country losing some mystical ideal set forth by the Founders that somehow involves aspects of 21st century economic policy. Now, from the left, we have Occupy Wall Street claiming that the corporate money infiltrating our political system has destroyed it for the middle class. These complaints reflect themselves in the rock bottom approval for government, including an 82 percent disapproval for Congress. It seems funny to me that this number is more then double the voter turnout. We as Americans must look at ourselves in the mirror. Is it our political institutions that need fixing, or us?

The Occupy Wall Street protesters have every right to express their views in New York, but why are they there? If they disagree with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate spending in elections, why are they not in front of the Supreme Court Building? If they want to raise taxes, why not protest at the U.S. Capitol? At the most basic level, they are disconnected from any means to bring about change, and at worst they seem ignorant. This does not merely describe the left. The Tea Party's supporters who dress up like Benjamin Franklin, shooting their guns in the air, don't really make them any more credible on complex matters of fiscal policy.

These groups espousing talk of institutional dysfunction are dangerous distractions. American democracy has worked for 200 years because of compromise. The majority of Americans see and understand this. They agree that our government spends too much, and we have too large of a debt, that solutions cannot come simply through slashing social programs, that we need a simplified tax code, and that one party does not have all the answers. Yet, these nuanced views never make the evening news or Washington. Why? Because when voter turnout is low, the only people who make it to the polls are the extremists. Just like it is wrong to blame bankers for responding to the regulatory and economic climate around them, we can't hold politicians responsible for listening to those who vote them into power. That's why moderate, reasonable Americans must make their voices heard.

I would love for Thresher readers to get involved with politics, to write opinion articles like this, to join causes they care about. Yet at this point, all I ask for is an annual trip to the ballot box. Look at the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. Look at the Tea Party. Is this who we want running our country?

Anthony Lauriello is a Wiess College junior and Thresher Backpage editor.


The Occupy Movement, which began in New York and has now spread to cities around the U.S. and world, consists of an amalgam of individuals protesting against a variety of perceived injustices. Though its concerns are numerous, I believe the Occupy Movement is, at its core, protesting the inequality of opportunity in the U.S. This lack of social mobility is manifest in the growing economic inequality, the widening achievement gap, the rising cost of higher education, and the ever-worsening unemployment crisis.

Wealth inequality in the United States has been growing since the 1970's. In 1976, the richest 1 percent controlled 9 percent of the nation's wealth; today, that same top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the country's wealth, while the bottom 20 percent holds less than 1 percent. During that same period, the real, inflation-adjusted minimum wage has fallen, and median incomes have stagnated. Additionally, since the mid-1970's the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay has risen from 30:1 to almost 300:1. And perhaps most insidiously, in 1974, 24 million Americans lived in poverty while today over 44 million of our fellow Americans languish in poverty.

This income inequality has been accentuated by a widening achievement gap among students of different income levels and different ethnicities. High-income students, for example, are 25 percent more proficient in math and reading than low-income students as a whole. Moreover, the graduation rate for low-income seniors is 61 percent, for high-income seniors it is 91 percent. Similar gaps exist between ethnicities: the graduate rate for White students is 75 percent, whereas it is 57 percent, 55 percent, 53 percent, for Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans.

Despite the ever-present achievement gap, college had always been an opportunity for low-income Americans to climb the ladder to prosperity. Since 1982, tuition costs have increased by over 400 percent, yet Pell Grants and other federal scholarships have virtually remained flat. In fact, the price of a college education has risen faster than inflation, housing prices, and health care costs. These spiraling costs have rendered college too expensive for many Americans and burdened those who do attend with over $27,000 in debt.

Finally, on top of all this, the recent economic crisis has led to high unemployment and increased poverty. Yet the government, rather than work tirelessly to support the millions of Americans who are unemployed, decided to bail out big banks, big auto companies and big insurance firms. This represented the final straw, as ordinary Americans realized that the deck was stacked against them and their government too often responded to monetary interests rather than the will of the people.

Ultimately, the Occupy Movement is protesting America's declining equality of opportunity. More broadly, the Occupy Movement is responding to the erosion of the American Dream, the belief that by working hard and playing by the rules, one could achieve a middle class life. America was a nation where anything was possible, where rags-to-riches stories were commonplace, and where one's lot in life was determined by his or her perseverance. Today, however, for many, this hope and this belief in the positive force of government has been replaced with a dismal reality of increasing income inequality, rising costs of higher education, and a growing economic crisis. In the final analysis, America was always a nation where social mobility and equality of opportunity were norms, yet today it is nation where success is determined by whether one wins or loses the genetic lottery.

Neeraj Salhotra is a Sid Richardson College junior.

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