In Washington, D.C., as in dozens of other U.S. cities, the 99 percent movement is inescapable, even in the politest of venues, as demonstrated today at a forum titled “Jobs, Inequality, and the Role of Government,” sponsored at the Georgetown Law School. The movement’s chant, “We are the 99 percent,” is meant to draw the distinction between the average American and the top 1 percent who possess 42 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Sponsored by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the forum brought together economists and academics with representatives of labor, the financial community and the Obama administration. The 99 percent movement, as represented by young people working with Occupy D.C. and the October 2011 protests, made its presence felt in the question-and-answer session that followed opening remarks by CWA President Larry Cohen, Goldman Sachs Senior Investment Strategist Abby Joseph, Cohen and Jason Furman, White House adviser and deputy director of the National Economic Council.
Cohen presented a series of slides that told a grim tale of the economic fate of the average American who, according to a analysis by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has suffered virtually stagnant wages
while generating a nearly 200-percent growth in productivity. Cohen’s final chart suggested a major reason for the productivity/compensation disparity: compared with other major democracies, the U.S. lags far behind in collective bargaining coverage. Indeed, in a chart showing 10 major democracies – Germany, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the U.K. — the U.S. ranked dead last.
As the representative of Goldman Sachs, which has become the poster child for corporate greed on both
the left and the right, Abby Joseph Cohen faced a polite, if skeptical, room. Nonetheless, she made a
strong case for government investment in education, as well as research and development, and suggested that politicians design some new scheme for enticing corporations to bring back to the U.S. the $1.2 trillion in profits they’re holding overseas. She did concede, however, that the last time this was tried, via a tax holiday, “it didn’t work out very well.”
The Goldman Sachs strategist expressed special concern for the drop in enrollment in science majors by U.S. college students, and suggested that the government had a role in preparing students to enter those fields, which field the creation of jobs in manufacturing as well as the service sectors.
As Jason Furman, one of the president’s economic advisers spoke, the Senate, he said, was scheduled to take up a vote on the jobs bill proposed by President Barack Obama. The administration, he said, was “hopeful” that the bill would pass, even as the consensus among political pulse-takers was that the bill would likely not make it out of the Senate.
If you want to do something about inequality, the first thing you want to something about is jobs.
Inequality is a pernicious ill, Furman implied, as it becomes a drag on economic growth and depresses participatory democracy. Even Alan Greenspan, he said, concedes that democratic capitalism is imperiled by
Furman suggested that although there are aspects of inequality that cannot be addressed immediately, there are others that can. Among those things that government should address, he said, were the decline in unionization, allowing the expiration of tax cuts for the wealthy,and implementing the “Buffett rule” — that no one make $1 million or more should pay a lower tax rate than middle-class Americans.
Then came the audience’s turn. Sam Marrero, a young man who identified himself only as the winner of a Boren Fellowship, expressed surprise that no one on the panel had mentioned the Occupy Wall Street
movement, which is part of the 99 percent movement and is present in its Occupy K Street (or Occupy D.C.) at an encampment in McPherson Square Park, just blocks from the White House.
Marrero asked for the comments of Goldman Sachs’ Abby Joseph Cohen, who said all she knew of
the movement was what she read in the newspapers, and suggested he speak with movement organizers.
Sam was followed at the mic by Allison Johnson, who counts herself as part of the Occupy D.C. movement and works directly with the anti-war October2011 protest, who asked how change could take place with the
Senate hopelessly deadlocked via rules that allow a minority to stop legislation in its tracks.
Cohen didn’t hesitate to take up the challenges issued by the 99-percenters. “It almost takes a new democracy movement” to rectify inequality, he said, adding that his union is working with members of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
After the session, Larry Cohen explained why he thought a mass ”new democracy” political movement, as represented by the 99-percenters, was critical to solving the inequality puzzle.
There’s almost no other direction for people to move in. I think we’re blocked [from enacting] any kind of federal legislation, with campaign finance, Senate rules and voter suppression. There’s almost no other direction for people to move in, you know?
He showed me a chart that was distributed at the most recent CWA board meeting that called for a mass movement of 50 million Americans — enough to represent a majority of the electorate.
That’s what it’sgoing to take.
Both Marrero, whose Boren Fellowship took him to Egypt to study the labor movement there, and Allison
Johnson, who described herself as a Harvard-trained international political economist, are unemployed. Said Johnson:
There are unemployed Ivy League graduates all over this country, as well as unemployed working people. If you don’t have a job, it doesn’t matter that you went to Harvard University or Yale University or you didn’t finish high school…We’re all in the same boat.
This blog post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on October 11, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Adele Stan is a journalist and lifelong member of the labor movement, reports on a timely forum on inequality and jobs at Georgetown University today.