Waves were white-capping on the Ashley River early Wednesday evening under the force of a 40 mph wind, ushering in the first blast of autumn chill. In Brittlebank Park on the banks of the Ashley, several dozen stubborn optimists wrestled to put up tents and organize their camp in the gale.
These were the members of the local off-shoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and they had chosen to occupy the park for 99 hours, symbolizing the 99 percent of Americans who are getting screwed by our economic system. They were optimistic in their determination to erect their tents and make their camp in the rising wind and falling temperatures, and they were optimistic in their determination to save this country from the forces of greed and corruption that are trying to strangle it to death.
Watching them set up a voter registration tent, a food tent, an assembly tent, and other functional venues, I felt a pump of optimism in my own chest. These were young people, for the most part, a demographic I had not seen politically active in a long time.
What was it that finally shook Americans awake? Perhaps it was this summer's crisis over raising the debt limit that made people realize how crazy and corrupt congressional Republicans truly are. But there was plenty of evidence of pathology before that debacle.
The gap between rich and poor in this country is wider than it has been in 80 years, and there are more Americans living in poverty — 46.2 million — than at any time since the Census Bureau began keeping that statistic 52 years ago. Another recent statistic suggests that the richest 400 families in this country control more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the entire U.S. population. Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 24 percent of the entire nation's income.
Those living off the stock market pay taxes at 15 percent, which is the same rate as those with a taxable wage income between $8,500 and $34,500. As billionaire Warren Buffet has famously observed, his secretary is taxed at a higher rate than he is.
Many of the super rich are corporate CEOs who have seen their incomes rise to the hundreds of millions of dollars in the last 30 years, while the average American worker's wages (adjusted for inflation) have remained almost flat.
And corporations are taxed like millionaires and billionaires, which is to say very lightly. American corporations pay less tax than any other member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Last year, 25 of America's largest corporations paid their CEOs more than they paid in taxes.
Right now, American corporations make record profits as they sit on more than $2 trillion in cash reserves, money that could be used to create jobs. New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote recently, "The protesters' indictment of Wall Street as a destructive force, economically and politically, is completely correct."
He gave a litany of charges against the Wall Street overlords: "In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild ... inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers' sins. And, in the third act, the bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantled the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis."
Illustrating Krugman's point, lobbyists, including many on Wall Street, bought $3.51 billion worth of influence in Congress through campaign donations, meals, and more last year. And it seems they got their money's worth. Even now Senate Republicans have declared their intention to block President Barack Obama's nominee to head the new consumer financial regulatory commission. Even after all that has happened in the last three years, the GOPers will not let their banker buddies be regulated. Those same GOPers — along with their colleagues in the House — have denounced any effort to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, even as they killed the president's jobs bill.
Krugman writes, "Given this history, how can you not applaud the protesters for finally taking a stand?"
It remains to be seen if the protests in Manhattan, Brittlebank Park, and dozens of other American cities will have any staying power, if they will influence a corrupt and paralyzed government, or if they will be the counterbalance to the deranged Tea Party movement. It's not easy sparking a protest against wealth and privilege in the city that started a great war to preserve its wealth and privilege. But you gotta love these young folks for trying.