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Letter to my OWS Sweetheart

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Two years ago, when Occupy Wall Street first got underway, I was too busy analyzing the effects of income and inequality on children's life chances to hunker down at Zuccotti Park for what I thought would be an ephemeral media event. On the other hand, my social worker partner saw her social justice values embodied in the movement and immersed herself in OWS: marching at direct actions, joining the medic team and even getting arrested at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway.

While I was wrong about the sticking power of Occupy, I still claim to be right in my less than charitable judgment of the movement's strategies and tactics. So today, on the two year anniversary, I offer her this letter of advice from a sympathetic outsider who has studied inequality and public policy for his whole career. My basic take is this: Occupy did a great job raising consciousness about the issue of inequality, but it needs to move into a phase of targeted action for specific policies. This is, indeed, what OWS is now doing: The two-year anniversary of the Zuccotti Park occupation is being marked by a call for a Robin Hood Tax--their term for what amounts to a 0.05 percent Tobin Tax on all financial transactions.

While I applaud the policy-focused specificity in this action, there's an important political opportunity to agitate for something--like infrastructure investment or increased Pell grants--rather than just against something. Last I heard, Robin Hood was stealing from the rich (again, not the best political imagery) to give to the poor. So what exactly are you going to give and to whom? The interoccupy blog states that the money would be used for "health care, student debt, global health, AIDS prevention and more." Isn't this rather vague? And making the tax the centerpiece and the beneficiaries of the revenue an afterthought is backwards.

While soaking the rich may get the die-hards among OWS out of bed in the morning, it's not a very appealing message to the broader publics. And it's not even very empirically accurate. After all, inequality per se is not the problem. It is the constraints on our policy choices that extreme income distributions generate. Put another way, the evidence that inequality in and of itself creates problems for people's health, education, and general wellbeing is fairly weak. But massive wealth concentrated at the top does mean that we are starved for money at the bottom to do things that would benefit us all.

In other words, we need higher taxes on the wealthy not to punish them, but so that we can fund investments that help everyone. Further, a focus on these investments would constitute a positive, politically appealing message to a broader constituency. After all, New York Mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio didn't run on just raising taxes on the one percent, he ran on a platform of providing universal preschool--taxing New York City's rich was then the means to achieve that primary policy goal.

So what, besides, universal preschool, might we, the 99 percent, want? My personal list includes funding for after school programs. More research monies. Construction of affordable housing. Better roads. A smart electrical grid. The list isn't terribly new. But what could be novel would be the tying of each public good for the 99 percent to a new tax burden on the one percent.

Tobin financial transaction taxes, millionaire surcharges, the treatment of all income (earnings, inheritance, dividends and capital gains) at the same marginal rates. All these worthy tax reforms that would hit only the wealthy should each be tied to a specific policy for the 99 percent. A Tobin tax for public transportation. A millionaire surcharge for prenatal care. And so on.

In other words, treat the rich as a fiscal ATM for the rest of us. (In fact, this was a worry of early theorists of democracy--that the many would pursue confiscatory tax policies on the few.) Income inequality should provide a political blessing: When we can reap enormous tax revenues by imposing additional burdens on only one out of every 100 American households, we should be able to paint the town green. So, when you're out there today at the anniversary action, remember to ask for something we all want, rather than just punishment for the few. If you do, maybe you'll see the likes of me at the next march. And in the meantime I'll keep your dinner warm in case you get arrested.

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