'Occupy Wall Street': What Should a Populist Movement Ask of Washington?

The middle class has a thousand reasons to be mad as hell, and a thousand people to blame. In a weird way, that makes it all the harder to pinpoint a culprit.

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The "Occupy Wall Street" protest might seem inchoate, disorganized, even chaotic and confused. That's to be expected. This is movement about a middle class crisis that has no easy culprit.

If you look across the placards at the protest, there is no one cause. Some signs call for student loan reform. Some call for tax reform. Some call for legal reform. Some are contradictory, such as the calls for anarchy and better government. Some don't make all that much sense. But so what? This is a populist movement, not a campaign platform. Not yet, anyway.


The most moving part of the protests might be a Tumblr account called We Are The 99 Percent, a collection of testimonials. A homeowner who had to abandon his house. A student with $75,000 in debt. A daughter whose mother took her life after she lost her job and couldn't afford health care. What makes these stories effective is that most of them are not about pinpointing culprits. They're about explaining the crisis from the ground level. Here is the first testimony on the site today:

At 21 years old, I am...

-One semester from graduating college with a degree no one seems to hire

-In massive debt because of that once "dream degree" 

-About to become a mother to a baby whose illness has gotten us booted off government health insurance...at 9 months pregnant...

-Scared for our future

-I am the 99%-

This is the Millennial crisis folded into a single story. The student debt crisis, compounded by a weak job market (unemployment is highest for the youngest generation), exacerbated by the growing cost of rent and health care.

We're living in an era of broken promises between institutions and people.

When you mine these testimonies for a theme, one comes into clear focus. We're living in an era of broken promises between institutions and people. A college degree is supposed to lead to a quality job. Instead, for this young mother, it leads to debt. A $800 billion stimulus is supposed to lead to a recovery. Instead, for the U.S., it leads to debt. An economy, built by business leaders and supported by Wall Street, is supposed create wealth that the middle class can touch. Instead, once again, it has produced a culture of debt. There is a pervasive sense that this is not how the social contract was supposed to work. Promises were broken. Somebody should pay.

It's natural to look for somebody to blame. But this isn't war. There are few easy enemies. Take, for example, the issue of college. One the one hand, the income bonus from attending college (known technically as the "college bonus") has never been higher. And yet the greatest percentage increase in unemployment between December 2007 and September 2010 is among 20-somethings with a college education. This is an easy tragedy to describe. It's harder to ascribe to a single figure or institution.

Who or what should that expecting mother blame? Expensive health insurance isn't the Republican Congress' fault. You can't blame "the rich" for rising tuitions any more than you can blame Goldman Sachs for lingering unemployment in Nevada and Arizona. The source of these problems are old trends given new strength in the recession. Entry-level jobs have declined for the middle class for the last 30 years. Health insurance and tuition costs have increased faster than inflation in every decade since the 1970s. These are complex industries dealing with global trends. So maybe that's the wrong question.

Maybe the right question is: What should this expecting mother, and people like her -- this Wall Street protest, this 99 Percent movement -- expect from Washington? What should they ask for? Higher taxes for the rich. More income redistribution. Stiffer regulations for Wall Street. These are worthy progressive causes, but I don't know that they'll make health care any cheaper or entry-level jobs more plentiful. The protesters are asking questions whose answers won't fit on their signs.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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