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A German Take On Why The Wall Street Protesters Make Sense, Despite Themselves

Op-Ed: The demonstrations are chaotic and their messages tangled, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters are anything but crazy. In drawing attention to the gaping chasm between America's haves and have-nots, they have correctly identified a situa

A German Take On Why The Wall Street Protesters Make Sense, Despite Themselves

They don't have any leaders or specific goals – only the feeling of belonging to the same majority. "We are the 99%," read the placards (and Internet blog) of predominantly young Americans who for two weeks, under the slogan "Occupy Wall Street," have been out on the streets of New York City. Their protest may not be well organized. Nor is it exactly clear what they hope to acheive. But it would be wrong to write them off. They are calling our attention to the split between rich and poor in the United States, and for that alone they deserve respect.

Here are some of the things "We are the 99%" protesters denounce: no longer being able to pay their mortgages; the fear of losing their jobs; student debts. These are problems the other 1% doesn't have to deal with. The super-rich control 90% of the country's wealth. The disparity between them and the rest of the population is comparable to the days of the railroad tycoons in the 19th century.

Such imbalance is gradually becoming a very heavy load for the American democracy to bear. Wall Street is the feeding ground for the upper class. It's the place where even mediocre bankers get million-dollar bonuses, where failed CEOs get golden handshakes, where some hedge fund managers can earn more than a corporation – and where the tax payer pays the bill when speculative transactions go down the tubes.

Well before the financial crisis, Citigroup analysts Ajay Kapur, Niall Macleod and Narendra Singh described the U.S. economy as a "plutonomy": the profits of economic growth were consumed by society's top dogs, so much so that there wasn't much left over for the rest of the population.

These opposite poles have only become more sharply antagonized during the crisis. Despite recent turbulence, capital markets have recovered – but the situation of most Americans is a lot worse. Real estate prices are all over the place, and jobless quotas are stuck at recession level. The middle classes are losing ground, ever faster and ever more severely.

This process of erosion began back in the 1980s, when factories in the Midwest started closing their doors. But never has the American Dream, that of sweating one's way to success, rung so hollow as right now. The only people who stand a chance of advancement are graduates of the top universities, where only the super-bright are admitted in the first place -- or people who are already rich. Thus is the cement that held the United States together disintegrating.

Protests on the left and right

In this story, Wall Street is the clear winner. Growing social disparities mean more demand for loans. How else is one supposed to pay for the house, the car and the kids' education? Deep uneasiness and discontent are spreading. More and more Americans are starting to feel that their country isn't being governed for the greater good, but in the interests of a small elite.

And that's stoking the protests – not just on the left side of the political spectrum, but on the far right too. The arch-conservative Tea Party movement is also a reaction to the loss of economic security. Only Tea Party followers deliver the wrong answers to the questions. The Tea Party, just like the Big Business interests that support them, espouses deregulation – the very recipe that will accelerate the decline of the middle class.

The Wall Street demonstrators are against all this. They stand for a fairer America, even if they don't exactly know how it's supposed to come about. Some want higher taxes for the rich; others want the financial institutions brought into line. Both would help. But what the United States needs the most is education reform. Even if wealth is unevenly distributed, the possibility of moving upward should at least remain an option for everyone.

Read the original story in German

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