It’s always been about the money. Occupy Wall Street chose to set up its 24-hour outpost of political dissent on the doorstep of the finance industry primarily to underscore the simple fact that money has corrupted our political process so completely that the seat of power in the U.S. isn’t even in Washington, D.C. any more. That said, the Capitol continues collecting its cut, as evidenced in this week’s double-barreled dispatches, in the Washington Post and the New York Times, on the exploding wealth gap between our ever-more affluent representatives in Congress and the financially flat-lined citizens they represent.
From its inception, OWS has focused on the concept of legalized bribery, as the continually rising cost of a political campaign—an average of $1.4 million for a successful House run, up fourfold in real dollars since 1976, and nearly $10 million for a Senate seat—has been largely subsidized by wealthy donors, corporations and special interests, in return for legislation that favors their interests. It’s a form of regulatory capture that most first-world democracies outlaw as corruption, but that Americans know as “the way things are,” along with “ask your doctor” pharmaceutical ads and campaigns pitching products directly to young children. The result is an almost total lack of confidence in our elected officials, as reflected by Congress’ almost impossibly low 9 percent approval rating.
Even insider-trading laws don’t apply to our lawmakers, despite their regular access to valuable market information Joe Citizen will never hear, not to mention their power to tilt markets and pick winners and losers by removing a sentence from this piece of legislation, or adding a clause to that one.
The gap between the Beltway and the economic realities of most Americans can be found in the common Washington framing of households with an annual income of $250,000—a figure achieved by just the top 1.5 percent—as “middle class.” It’s understandable, since that’s not much more than the $174,000 base pay pulled in by rank-and-file members of both houses of Congress. That’s how rich our representatives have become.
While that salary actually has dipped slightly in inflation-adjusted dollars over recent decades, our representatives have kept getting richer. That’s both a reflection of the high cost of campaigns that effectively dissuade would-be candidates without ready money of their own or access to it from running, and the private profits many of our elected officials can and do claim once in office.
The freshman class of 106 members elected last year, including many new Tea Party-backed Republicans, had a median net worth of $864,000—an inflation-adjusted increase of 26 percent from the 2004 freshmen. In the wake of a crushing recession, America’s politicians actually were richer, in part so they could foot their share of the bill, along with their donors, for the political ads that are expected to be one of the fastest-growing sources of television advertising revenue in 2012, breaking the spending record set in 2008.
A survey this year by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research found that nearly one in four Americans couldn’t come up with even $2,000 in cash within 30 days if he or she had to, while another one in five would have to pawn or sell possessions or take out a payday loan. Compare that with our representatives in Washington’ median net worth of $725,000, excluding home equity—up more than 150 percent since 1984 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars. Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
Taxation as a remedy to perpetual wealth is as much a part of the American legacy as a representative government, but the last 30 years have seen both taxes and representation recede. We now have a society with limited social mobility, where the advantages of wealth translate into preferred access to healthcare, education, business, and yes, even the political process.
The fact that Congress is moving away from the rest of the public is exactly why Occupy Wall Street has found such a giant hole in the political conversation to step into, and why our national representatives have kept their distance even when polls showed the public responding powerfully to our complaints and slogans. In a true market of political ideas, we’d have been prime targets for coopting. Instead, President Obama works “99 percent” into his speeches, and business as usual continues.
Despite such indifference, Occupy Wall Street resonated where previous protests petered out by creating and holding a physical space where it was impossible to avert one’s gaze. Members of the general public came to Occupy encampments all over the country to take in the scene and to participate, despite the disinterest shown by politicians and the glib tone of much of the mainstream press coverage. The occupation became an amplifier for those voices—not unlike the people’s mic itself—as the encampment in Zuccotti Park meant that a like-minded group in another city was now part of a national story that didn’t schedule its own ending like a traditional protest, and couldn’t easily be ignored. The 99 percent rediscovered the collective power of our voice, and started using it to make a whole lot of noise.
In 2012, expect to hear more of that noise from Occupy the Caucuses and Occupy Congress. Money talks, but we do too.