What started as the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstration has turned into an "Occupy fill-in-the-blank" movement – with the blank being anything we blame for our own economic troubles.
The main target seems to be the vaguely defined "1 percent" – that tiny minority of the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations, the only ones those with economic and political power seem to serve. So the Occupy movement targets the big banks – the culprits that got us into the financial crisis. Or the millionaires, because income inequality is at an all-time high. Or Congress, the lobbyists, and others in power who have failed to do good. All of them – it's their fault.
It's not that the outrage isn't justified. Policymakers catering to the oil and gas industry, to Wall Street, and to the rich and powerful deserve part of the blame. So do banks, ratings agencies, regulators, and others who set the stage for the financial crisis that triggered the recent ballooning of America's debt. And as the wealthy have gotten wealthier, policymakers have chosen to only reduce their tax burdens.
Meanwhile, policymakers seem to care much less about the poor. The share of Americans living in poverty has steadily increased over the past decade to more than 15 percent – the highest percentage since 1993 and approaching where it was when LBJ launched the nation's "war on poverty." How is that fair?
But we also have to recognize that our economic problems began long before the financial crisis and that the boundary between the wealthy 1 percent and the 99 percent that the protesters claim to represent isn't so crisp. Those big subsidies to the oil and banking industries also benefit the rest of Americans through lower gasoline prices and cheaper credit. And the majority of American voters went along with politicians who proposed very expensive deficit-financed tax cuts and deficit-financed prescription drug coverage, even though our young people – the very core of the Occupy movement – are the ones who will be stuck with the bill.
We all had a role in this, not just that 1 percent.
If there is a "change we believe in," we can't just complain about the status quo. We have to spell out the better life we want and the trade-offs we're willing to make to get there.
These are difficult trade-offs we each need to contemplate. Doing better for the other 99 percent of us requires real money, and that money has to come from somewhere. Are we willing to steer more federal funds to the most effective forms of spending in terms of both short-term stimulus and longer-term economic growth – policies that would also benefit Americans more broadly – and away from the less effective, less beneficial forms?
Would we be willing to receive less generous benefits from Social Security or Medicare or have our tax deductions reduced? Would we be willing to let go of our portion of the Bush tax cuts rather than insist that only millionaires and billionaires need to sacrifice theirs? And most important, if we want our "occupying" to catalyze real change, would we be willing to speak up loud and clear about our willingness to make these specific trade-offs to our policymakers?
In the end, it's easy to occupy Wall Street and protest what's wrong. Far harder is to occupy ourselves with the tough choices that could move America away from its crisis path and toward surer footing as the world's leading economy.
That's the protest message we need to hear.
– Diane Lim Rogers is chief economist of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group advocating fiscal responsibility.