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Columns

The Lesser Evil

The Occupy movement should get more political

By Dylan R. Matthews

Perhaps predictably, Occupy Wall Street has provoked a sibling’s squabble between leftists who embrace the uprising without hesitation and skeptical liberals. Liberals worry that the lack of ideological cohesion in the movement will render it politically inconsequential. “Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn’t really have any,” Nick Kristof lameneted as it started to take off earlier this month.

Leftists respond that this focus on near-term policy is foolishly short sighted. Dismissing critics like Kristof, the academic celebrity Judith Butler declared in a speech at Liberty Plaza: “Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused, or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands.”

I think the movement’s critics get the better of this one. It’s hard to think of a successful political movement that left its goals politically ambiguous. The Tea Party, envy of which, as Mark Schmitt has argued, seems to be driving many to embrace the Occupy effort, did not become a political force through inchoate rallies. It became important when participants started going to Congressional town hall meetings and making it clear there’d be hell to pay if Congressmen and Senators voted for health care reform. It was a clear demand, and lost the effort a number of votes, forcing House and Senate leaders to water it down for final passage.

Occupy Wall Street could have become similarly relevant through backing Obama’s jobs bill. There’s a lot for Occupiers to like in the bill: It’s put people back to work. According to independent economic forecasters, the package, if implemented, would raise employment by about 1.3 million by the end of next year. And it would pay for it by taxing the hell out of rich people. The Senate version of the bill is financed through a five percent surtax on millionaires. That isn’t my preferred policy (if I were king, I’d replace the income tax with a steeply progressive tax on consumption, perhaps implemented as a payroll tax) but it certainly jibes well with the demands of Occupiers for the rich to start paying their fair share.

So what happened? While demonstrators flooded New York and elsewhere, the jobs bill floundered. First, it was brought for a Senate vote—and failed. Then Obama broke off the sections of the bill focused on preventing layoffs of teachers and other public employees, and put that up for a vote. And it failed. This past Monday, Obama effectively conceded defeat by unveiling a set of executive actions he’s taking to boost jobs, declaring that “we can’t wait” for Congress to act.

This is not to say that the bill would have passed if the Occupiers spent more time lobbying their representatives and less time in tents. The Senate has a de facto 60-vote supermajority requirement due to the filibuster—with Democrats holding 53 seats, and some of those held by moderates who oppose the bill—the chances of it passing were always slim to none. And even if something passed the Senate, the GOP-run House would kill it almost instantly.

But the Occupiers at least should have tried. Their ranks should be clogging Congressmens’ district offices, not converging on big cities whose representatives are already on board. Obama and Democrats in Congress aren’t perfect by any measure, but they are genuinely trying to boost employment and achieve a more progressive tax code. Republicans, by contrast, credit high unemployment to people just being lazy, and are proposing massively regressive tax plans like Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” proposal . That there was no enthusiasm within the Occupy movement for the jobs bill signals an unfortunate tendency to treat these two camps as equivalent.

Equally unfortunate is Occupiers’ turn against the Federal Reserve. Occupy rallies have taken to echoing the “end the Fed” rhetoric of libertarians like Ron Paul, which gives aid to backers of growth-strangling tight money policies. Ironically, it was Goldman Sachs, understandably Enemy Number One of the Occupiers, that proposed last week that the Fed start targeting nominal GDP (NGDP) growth rather than interest rates, a policy that offers perhaps our best shot of shrinking unemployment anytime soon.

Look: Goldman Sachs is straight-up evil. I bow to no one in my hatred of them and their gambling-based business model. But they’re pushing a policy that would do wonders for the 99 percent, as are Obama and his Wall Street-financed Democratic allies in Congress. Sometimes, when the stakes are dire enough, you have to collaborate with people you don’t like against an even greater evil. For leftist Occupiers, this is one of those times.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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