Lessons from Occupy Wall Street for today’s tax fight
Ten years ago, young people set up camp in New York City’s Zuccotti Park to protest rampant economic inequality and outsized corporate influence on our democracy. The Occupy Wall Street movement quickly spread to other U.S. cities but lost steam before it made a meaningful mark on policy.
Still, its enduring legacy — the slogan “We Are the 99 percent,” — heightened awareness of gross inequities in our political and economic systems.
The country emerged from the 2007-2009 recession to a long, slow recovery. At the time of the Occupy movement in 2011, unemployment was still rising, the poverty rate hovered at 15 percent and people were losing their homes. The typical family lost 40 percent of its wealth, with much deeper pain for poorer households and communities of color. All while Wall Street came roaring back.
Right now, Congress is debating President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, a plan that would make a meaningful dent in the key questions the Occupy movement raised. Who is the economy for? How can it work for all of us, not just the 1 percent?
Occupy protesters look prescient now. During the early days of the pandemic and recession, unemployment spiked faster than in any year since 1939. Yet billionaires added $1.8 trillion to their wealth from March 2020 to August 2021.
This systemic unfairness was at the heart of the Occupy protests in the fall of 2011. The financial industry helped wreck the economy, and our government worked to make them whole with no real strings attached. They didn’t have to pay their workers better. They didn’t have to curb executive compensation. We, collectively, didn’t demand better corporate citizenship.
In 2017, elected officials made the same mistake. The Republican Congress gave enormous corporate tax cuts and promised — it turned out falsely — that companies would use their tax breaks to invest in America. Instead, these companies largely rewarded their shareholders and executives. Stock buybacks reached record levels in 2018 and 2019, and corporate tax payments shrunk. My colleagues released a report this year that found 39 profitable Fortune 500 corporations paid zero in taxes on average from 2018 to 2020 despite earning $122 billion over that period. Fifty-five profitable corporations avoided federal income tax in 2020.
In 2021, many people better understand the crucial role of government and what it means when it works and when it doesn’t. Government action made poverty go down in 2020 (when measured after benefits) in the face of an unemployment spike at Depression levels. Government funding delivered a vaccine at “warp speed” and government action ensured that millions of adults who wanted the vaccine could get it within months after it became available.
The Occupy movement wasn’t perfect. It acknowledged class, but not race-based inequities, and it focused more on problems and less on solutions. But the movement galvanized public outrage and begged for a fundamental shift from a system that was rigged in favor of corporations and the wealthy. The lesson from the last year and a half is that this kind of shift can happen. Federal lawmakers deployed new policy tools that helped regular people in the face of an unprecedented crisis. Congress also enacted a bold rescue plan earlier this year, and policymakers are now poised to do more.
We need an economy that works for all of us. And we need a government that can tackle our problems. This starts with tax policy that raises resources from the millionaires and billionaires who continue to thrive in an increasingly unequal America.
Progressive taxation enables a public sector that can deliver us from the economic, health and climate emergencies that scream from the headlines every day in 2021. President Biden has put forth a tax plan that begins to do that. Congress must deliver.
Amy Hanauer is the executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (itep.org). Twitter: @amyhanauer
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