Occupy Wall Street as the Conscience of America

The social movement known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is growing and too few of our government and corporate leaders are willing to examine closely what this movement is about. Instead, the political right resorts to mudslinging and labeling, claiming that those who participate in the rallies and marches are un-American (we have a long history in this country of placing this tag on legitimate dissent), or are moving towards "class warfare." Some critics, and so-called Sunday morning television pundits, claim that the group lacks clearly stated goals and policy objectives. In fact, this movement of dissent has exceedingly clear goals and objectives that our national leaders and corporate America ought to take seriously.

Here are a few of the goals and objectives of OWS, at least as seen by me and many of my colleagues at Columbia University, where more than 300 faculty members have just signed a statement in support of the group's goals. Much of the protest focuses on inequalities in social and economic outcomes and on the sharp differentials in power between the super-rich in our society (the fraction of one percent of the population in corporate America with the power and resources to shape policies that disproportionately favor themselves), and the rest who feel totally incapable of effecting meaningful social and economic change. In 2011, one percent of the nation's population controlled roughly 40 percent of our society's wealth. Not since the gilded age at the end of the 19th century, when the robber barons were making their fortunes, has wealth inequality in America been so great. As one might suspect, the corresponding percentage of the population who are living in poverty is growing -- it is now greater than it has been in about 20 years. Median incomes for Americans have actually declined since the recession of 2008. The incomes of middle-class America have been stagnant for over 20 years.

The aspirations of talented young people who are born by chance into families of the 99 percent and who lack the kind of wealth that we find on Wall Street and among the leaders of large hedge funds, private equity companies, and banks, will never be realized. Their educational opportunities are limited -- not by their ability, but by their inability to afford college educations that are commensurate with their talent. Meanwhile, the millionaires and billionaires, and large multinational corporations, receive tax breaks that result in them paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries. Their children compete on anything but a level playing field. We have one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the Western world; we have grossly unequal access to educational opportunities for minorities and the poor; we still have tens of millions of our citizens who lack any health care coverage. OWS wants to put back some modicum of equality of opportunity in America.

The OWS is asking for some form of accountability for those people responsible for the housing bubble and the economic tsunami that has hit this country. Few of the super-rich complain about the millions of families who have abandoned their homes because their value had been outstripped by their mortgage debt. All we hear from them are warnings of "moral hazards" if the banks and the nation were to buy down some percentage of each mortgage so that families could have a reason to hold onto their homes. The banks are not willing to refinance these loans at lower levels, but are willing to ask for bailout money from these same taxpayers.

The leaders of the banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, and private equity firms fail to realize that their wealth is not only a result of their individual talent and hard work. They are the beneficiaries of a system that has provided them disproportionate opportunities and great tax advantages from the time they began their careers. Are they really going to have us believe in Herbert Spenser's 19th century, worn out idea of the "survival of the fittest" -- with them cast, of course, as the fittest? While official unemployment exceeds 9 percent, and the actual proportion of the population without work (including discouraged workers) exceeds 15 percent. Meanwhile, Republican leaders in Congress, supported by the beneficiaries of the current system, refuse to create a meaningful jobs program that would put people back to work on jobs that have real social value -- work, for example, on a crumbling American infrastructure, and jobs in new industries that pay decent wages. We cannot even build a high-speed rail system of the sort one finds all around the world in countries that don't have half of our wealth. Instead, these leaders on the right call for even greater surgery on the 99 percent -- for cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, while they rant against any increase in the marginal tax rates on the super wealthy. Has there been no criminal or civil liability associated with the mortgage catastrophe that the banks and associated insurance companies led us into? There surely has been no serious accountability for the group of financiers who got us into this mess. OWS would like to see just a little bit of accountability for those who drove us into our current economic mess.

The OWS is also asking whether or not this nation has its economic and social priorities straight and whether our moral compass is broken. Should we be spending trillions of dollars on misguided wars that last over a decade to no clear result? OWS is asking whether we have not ignored our own best instincts and our treasured national values in using our resources in out-dated forms of warfare in places that pose little or no threat to our nation. The liberties granted to the people -- those that are set forth in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution -- are being eroded because of our national obsession with terrorism. Should we be spying on each other? Should we be able to search people's homes without probable cause or even search warrants? Should we be killing our own citizens without any trial? Should we be spending resources on things that have no productive social value when we could be building a better society at home? Are we going to crumble from within before we crumble from the action of external threats? OWS is suggesting, as did Walt Kelly's famous cartoon character, Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

OWS also asks: Are our leaders adhering to our constitution at all, or are they committed to secret tortures, renditions, violations of basic civil liberties, which are only disclosed after the fact and never publicly debated. All that we are allowed to see may well be epiphenomenal -- the real running of the country is done in secret and often in violation of fundamental constitutional principles, couched behind the banner of national security. OWS wants debate and more transparency and wants a government that acts for the people and adheres to our Constitution and its interpretation by the Supreme Court.

Finally, OWS is a peaceful, non-violent form of protest against government policies that produce still greater inequalities in our society. They are the conscience of America, not its enemy. For this we should be thankful and should join in their cause.

* Jonathan R. Cole is currently the John Mitchell Mason Professor and former Provost and Dean of Faculties of Columbia University (1989-2003)