Occupy Wall Street's Inevitable Growing Pains

I can't help but feel enormous sympathy for the movement, but there's no reason to expect that it will have an easy time transitioning from placards to platform. 
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I never liked the name "Occupy Wall Street." Initially, it felt too aggressive. Now it feels too small.

On October 15, the unmistakable props of the protest movement -- such as the Guy Fawkes masks and the 99% signs -- made their way across the world. Throngs gathered in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and marched outside the the stock exchange in Hong Kong. But after occupying plazas and squares over the weekend, the movement faces a new challenge. It needs to graduate from the street. Eventually, there will be pressure from inside and outside the movement for its leaders to get specific. You've struck a chord. So, what next?

There is no reason to expect what comes after to be an easy transition. For the last month, the greatest strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the adaptability of its message, including a slogan so simple, it can be expressed in numbers: 99%. The nice thing about numbers is that translate universally. This one certainly did. It was striking to see world photos of signs with the "99%" figure next to slogans scribbled in Japanese, Hungarian, Italian, and Spanish. I cannot speak for the thousands of people around the world who marched under two nines on a piece of paper, but to me, they stand for simple ideas. We are the common ones. We speak for many. Our needs are average. They have not been met.

Nowhere was this message more touching than on the now-famous Tumblr blog with anonymous members of the 99 Percent holding signs in front of their faces with short stories. A mother without health insurance. A 20-something $30,00 in debt. This wasn't like other protest movements. This was a national, crowdsourced inventory of perceived injustices, rather than political requests. Focusing on the protesters' problems rather than their ideas was the right way to build support. Every idea has a critic; however, there is no good rejoinder to a mother who can't afford health insurance because she can't find a job.


The OWS has demonstrated remarkable entrepreneurial gusto, but the most important step for any successful start-up is the ramp up. It's easy to see where they could find trouble. If they get too ambitious and ask for dramatically larger government support, they risk alienating moderate supporters who feel the same pinches of debt and skim job prospects. Just as bad, they risk being labeled as having old ideas. If the leaders settle behind an agenda that isn't ambitious enough, they risk alienating their most liberal supporters.

A movement that embraces every middle class problem is going to wind up with a lot of problems in its arms. A dependable liberal solution would involve more support, especially in the short term, for the lower and middle class. This would require more money, and the first place to go for more money would be the rich. As James Kwak wrote in this space yesterday, this would argue for the full repeal of the Bush tax cuts as a necessary first step.

But these issues won't all be solved by soaking the top one percent. Wall Street isn't making colleges raise their tuitions. The banks didn't kill the manufacturing industry. Productivity-obsessed corporate boards aren't behind rising health care costs. In fact, if anything, it is a lack of productivity in health care (not to mention higher education) that is driving up costs. Indeed, in this sped-up, squeezed-dry economy, health care is the only industry reliably adding jobs partly because it is one of the only industries where more people are accomplishing less measurable work, as Sarah Kliff explains.

The upshot here is that Occupy Wall Street's popular appeal is redoubtable, and elements of the movement are exciting and unprecedented. But if they pivot toward a platform, they'll discover one or all of the following three things: (1) What ails the middle class is much more complicated than the spoils of the top percent; (2) The catchiest solutions will also be the least politically viable; (3) The most politically viable solutions to middle class anguish are also the smallest and look rather pathetic on a placard.

It has been a spectacular month for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The next stretch will get more complicated. Then again, OWS has been underestimated before.