Signs of Dissent: Help Us Read Occupy Wall Street

A new Atlantic project to find the economic story behind the placards and complaints of the populist movement enveloping the country

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REUTERSAs the Occupy Wall Street movement sweeps the country, it has inspired large measures of consternation and sympathy. Some consider their placards unsophisticated or inchoate.  Others consider them part of a wise and necessary middle class revolution. We're not here to say who's right. We're here to draw out what the signs mean and what economic realities they reflect.

So, welcome to The Atlantic Signs of Dissent Project. Here's how this will work. As long as the protests last, we're going to regularly pick out some of the most interesting signs from pictures of the national movement and provide some economic context, based on charts, statistics, and stories. If a sign is protesting student loans, we'll give you the 101 on student loans. If it's protesting health care costs, we'll dig into the drivers of health care costs. This is a political movement, of course, but it's also a popular movement that holds a mirror to the economic challenges that are the day-to-day beat of the The Atlantic. That's why we're doing this.*

And we want it to be a conversation! I'm going to try to be especially active in this comment threads, responding to what I'm sure is going to be an intense debate about whether these protesters are whining or else have legitimate claims. If you have something especially brilliant to say, we'll pull it out for special reader-reaction articles.

Here's the kind of work we want to do, using this sign about student loan debt as an example:


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Amazingly, $25,000 in student debt isn't so amazing. The members of the Class of 2011 live with an average burden of $22,900. Their median debt load is $18,000. That's 8% more than 2010 and 47% more than a decade ago, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

Graduates are being squeezed from the bottom with debt, and squeezed from the top with tough job prospects:

From the bottom: Tuitions at private universities are growing faster than wages, faster than inflation, and even faster than health care costs. As a result, student loans have grown by 511% since 1999 on the back of ever-rising college costs. Total student loan debt now stands near $1 trillion, greater than total U.S. credit card debt and mounting.

From the top: Overall joblessness is between two and three times higher for 20-somethings than older workers, and the greatest percentage increase in unemployment between December 2007 and September 2010 happens to be 20-24-year olds with a college education.

The bottom line is that education might the surest ladder to success in the U.S., but the rungs are getting more expensive to climb every year and the Great Recession left indebted students with nowhere to climb off.

It would be one thing if this debt were somehow forgiveable. (Maybe it should be. As Megan McArdle wrote here: "There is really very little excuse for completely exempting student loan debt from bankruptcy.") Student loan debt isn't like other debt. If you default on your house, for example, the bank can seize and resell the home. You can't so easily sell a college degree. That's why student loans aren't "dischargeable." Even if you file for bankruptcy, the payments continue. In a column for this site, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus wrote that the only obvious recourse to the student loan crisis was for parents to look harder for cheaper, high-value colleges.

What happens to a generation living with this kind of hangover? We're only now beginning to find out. Multi-generational homes are up, marriages are down, and dissatisfaction is on the rise. In a textual analysis of the OWS Tumblr "We Are the 99 Percent," Mike Konzal found that student loan debt was the movement's greatest concern. You can understand why.


*If you're thinking Why didn't you do this for the Tea Party protests? the answer is, we should have. And if there are Tea Party protests in response to the Occupy Wall Street protests, we're going to ask you to help us "read" those, too.