A battle has been raging across America: the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. A smaller percentage of that 99 percent has organized itself into Occupy Wall Street, a movement that, according to its website, has been “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process … and aims to expose how the richest 1 percent of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.” Is there anything legitimate about their demands?
Though the sentiment of the movement is clear, its exact aims are nebulous. It seems that the protesters want government to work for the ordinary American, the member of the 99 percent, not the 1 percent on Wall Street and in government who have controlled the country in their favor.
Occupy Wall Street is right about one thing: There certainly is income inequality. A recent Congressional Budget Office study found that between 1979 and 2007, the 1 percent of Americans with the highest household income — the movement’s hated 1 percent — watched their average real after-tax household income increase by 275 percent. On the other hand, the average real after-tax household incomes of the middle class (the twenty-first through eightieth percentiles) increased by under 40 percent. Income inequality is actually getting worse.
I sympathize with the protesters’ demand to make government work for the 99 percent, but the remedy for this income inequality should not be a call to tax the living daylights out of the 1 percent. Heavy taxation is unfair to those who have earned their money legitimately. As Robert Nozick would argue, anyone who has justly acquired his or her holdings is rightfully entitled to keep them.
Additionally, the extra services for those in the 99 percent who need help would not be the most efficient way of providing aid. The government has no incentive to be as efficient as possible and provide the best services because it is not in competition with any other companies or organizations.
Take the budget woes of Medicare, Social Security and the United States Postal Service as prime examples of governmental inefficiency. A Bloomberg Businessweek article from May alerts us to the crushing reality that Medicare will run out of sufficient funding to pay full benefits in 2024, while Social Security will have to stop paying full benefits in 2036. The Postal Service is also in deep financial trouble — according to another Businessweek article from May, the Postal Service is about $15 billion in debt, but the organization is legally prohibited from closing its post offices for economic reasons. If government agencies cannot keep themselves functioning properly, throwing more tax revenue at the problem will be a merely temporary fix.
To fix these problems and help out those in the 99 percent who are struggling to get by, we must accept that increased government spending is not the answer and turn our attention to the real problem: politicians.
Political scientist James Q. Wilson has written about a time in politics when reason ruled in congressional debates: “[T]he debate over almost any new proposal was about whether it was legitimate for the government to do this at all.” Now, he added, the debate is about how the policy can be made cost-effective. Politicians no longer question the legitimacy of government programs.
A quote from Max Baucus, a Democratic senator from Montana and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, illustrates Wilson’s point: “Social Security needs a long-term answer, and we should develop a long-term solution, but the current situation does not necessitate rushed or severe action. We must continue to protect the Social Security benefits our seniors count on.” Baucus is pushing back the important decisions of funding to a time when he is not in office and does not have to worry about his reelection. He is solely concerned with obtaining the vote of the seniors who have helped keep him in office since 1978, rather than with the question of whether Social Security is a legitimate government function. But in the meantime, the 300 million of us who live in the United States have to bear the consequences of inefficient, bloated, soon-to-be-insolvent government programs.
Problems begin and end with our politicians, who are ultimately responsible for the mess the country is in. “Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them,” wrote Charley Reese, a former syndicated reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, in his final column. “One hundred senators, 435 in the House, one president, and nine Supreme Court justices equates to 545 human beings out of the 300 million are directly, legally, morally and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country.”
Instead of calling for increased funding for governmental programs, our job as citizens is to vote out the rotten eggs from Congress and call for politicians who answer to their voters, not to the lobbyists and corporations who fund their campaigns. Before anyone tries to reform Wall Street, we first have to restore virtue and reason to the world of politics, and our votes and voices can make our politicians hear our demands. Our time would be better spent occupying Capitol Hill to make sure politicians know that they have to think about how their policies will affect the ordinary American, the member of the 99 percent, the hard worker still struggling to get by — not their funding prospects for the next election. Until that happens, I urge you to fight a different battle: 300 million versus 545.