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Occupy the future

Why America is on the brink of a new progressive era.

Written by New York Times |
November 15, 2011 3:29:47 am

Jeffrey Sachs

Occupy Wall Street and its allied movements around the country are more than a walk in the park. They are most likely the start of a new era in America. Historians have noted that American politics moves in long swings. We are at the end of the 30-year Reagan era,a period that has culminated in soaring income for the top 1 per cent and crushing unemployment or income stagnation for much of the rest. The overarching challenge of the coming years is to restore prosperity and power for the 99 per cent.

Thirty years ago,a newly elected Ronald Reagan made a fateful judgment: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Taxes for the rich were slashed,as were outlays on public services and investments as a share of national income. Decades on,America pays the price of that misdiagnosis,with a nation singularly unprepared to face the global economic,energy and environmental challenges of our time.

Washington still channels Reaganomics. Both parties have joined in crippling the government in response to the demands of their wealthy campaign contributors,who above all else insist on keeping low tax rates on capital gains,top incomes,estates and corporate profits. Twice before in American history,powerful corporate interests dominated Washington and brought America to a state of unacceptable inequality,instability and corruption. Both times a social and political movement arose to restore democracy and shared prosperity.

The first age of inequality was the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century,an era quite like today,when both political parties served the interests of the corporate robber barons. The progressive movement arose after the financial crisis of 1893. In the following decades Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came to power,and the movement pushed through a remarkable era of reform: trust busting,federal income taxation,fair labour standards,the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage.

The second gilded age was the Roaring Twenties. The pro-business administrations of Harding,Coolidge and Hoover once again opened up the floodgates of corruption and financial excess,this time culminating in the Great Depression. And once again the pendulum swung. FDR’s New Deal marked the start of several decades of reduced income inequality,strong trade unions,steep top tax rates and strict financial regulation.

A third progressive era should aim for three things. The first is a revival of crucial public services,especially education,training,public investment and environmental protection. The second is the end of a climate of impunity that encouraged nearly every Wall Street firm to commit financial fraud. The third is to re-establish the supremacy of people votes over dollar votes in DC.

None of this will be easy. Vested interests are deeply entrenched. The young people in Zuccotti Park and more than 1,000 cities have started America on a path to renewal. The movement will have to expand in several strategic ways. Activists are needed among shareholders,consumers and students to hold corporations and politicians to account. The new movement also needs to build a public policy platform. The American people have it absolutely right on the three main points of a new agenda. To put it simply: tax the rich,end the wars and restore honest and effective government for all.

Finally,the new progressive era will need a fresh and gutsy generation of candidates to seek election victories not through wealthy campaign financiers but through free social media. A new generation of politicians will prove that they can win on YouTube,Twitter,Facebook and blog sites,rather than with corporate-financed TV ads. By lowering the cost of political campaigning,the free social media can liberate Washington from the endemic corruption.

Those who think that the cold weather will end the protests should think again. A new generation of leaders is just getting started. The new progressive age has begun.

The writer is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University

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