Dear Occupy Wall Street: We get it -- you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore. You wanted change, it hasn't come and now you're demanding it. But the thing is, you haven't been all that clear about what changes you'd like to see, and that makes it less likely you'll produce any. So we've decided to write your manifesto.
We realize that the Occupy movement is a diverse group united by anger rather than ideas, and many of you will disagree with anything written by a corporate-owned, capitalist newspaper, especially those in your more anarchistic wing. But here's a word of advice: The less attention you pay to those guys, the more successful you'll be. What follows is an attempt to pair the ideals and impulses that have powered your movement with some practical changes in public policy worth fighting for; they probably don't go as far as you'd like, but they're a start. Can we get a little silent finger-wagging?
Financial reform. Although Occupy Wall Street has sprung up as far afield as the University of California, it originally was an occupation of the actual Wall Street in New York, or at least of nearby Zuccotti Park. What motivated this (we think) was resentment of the financial industry, particularly the Wall Street financiers whose irresponsible behavior produced a worldwide economic downturn but who seem not to have paid much of a price. The banks that were bailed out at monstrous taxpayer expense are now returning to profitability, and busily repossessing homes that never should have been financed to begin with but that might yield fewer losses if their mortgages were modified instead of foreclosed upon. Meanwhile, little has been done to reduce the speculative trading that contributes to bubbles and busts.
Protesters and their backers could make a difference by pushing the banks to modify defaulting mortgages and allow more "underwater" borrowers to refinance their loans. That would mean writing off some debt and cutting into profits in the short term, but would yield better results in the long term than repossessing thousands of homes and reselling them in a depressed market. Consumers demonstrated their power over banks when, by closing or threatening to close their accounts, they persuaded Bank of America to drop its plans to impose a charge on debit-card users; a similar economic boycott of banks that are too eager to default could get a new message across. Meanwhile, protesters could pressure Congress to explore a financial transactions tax -- a fee on every Wall Street trade. Presuming that other big trading markets in Europe and Asia did the same (the European Union is considering such a move) and that the tax were small enough to avoid discouraging long-term investing, it could shave hundreds of billions off the national debt and slow speculative trading without hurting overall savings or investment rates.
Taxation. You know the rhetoric: It's the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. The gap between rich and poor has indeed grown precipitously in the last decade, thanks in part to tax changes that have disproportionately benefited the rich and, in turn, helped fuel Occupy Wall Street. For a model of how to fix taxes the right way, we look to the Reagan reforms of 1986, when loopholes and tax shelters were eliminated, top rates were reduced and capital gains (collected mostly by the wealthy) were taxed at the same rate as other kinds of income. Since then, Congress has reinserted the loopholes and reduced capital gains taxes. Republicans are far more unyielding on taxes than they were during the Reagan era and won't return to 1986 without a fight, but if the Occupy movement can rally reform-minded Democrats to turn out at the polls the way the Tea Party has rallied Republicans, it could achieve a great deal.
Corporate influence. The Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a prime example of the kind of judicial activism that conservatives hate, except when it benefits their cause. By granting corporations the same First Amendment rights as individuals when it comes to expenditures on independent political advertising, it overturned legal precedent and increased the power of special interests to influence elections. Congress could undo part of the damage by approving laws that would enssure that shareholders, or rank-and-file union members, approve of their organization's political spending. There's also a movement afoot among a handful of Democratic senators for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United, but that's a quixotic quest. Feel free to back it, Occupiers, but prepare to have your hearts broken when it goes nowhere.
Education. Occupy Wall Street might be about financial reform, but Occupy the University of California, which produced appalling scenes such as the pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis now trending on YouTube, seems to be largely about rising tuition. And students have good reason to be angry. Tuition in the UC system has more than doubled in the last decade, and without an infusion of state funds, the inflation will accelerate. Unfortunately, solving this problem isn't as easy as complaining about it. But the state budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown would have avoided some of the draconian higher-education increases now on the table by maintaining vehicle, sales and income taxes at their 2010 levels, a move that was thwarted by legislative Republicans, who blocked the proposal from going to the polls. If pepper-sprayed students can raise awareness of how devastating this is to students and families, and how harmful it will ultimately be for California's economic future, their mucus membranes might not have been burned for nothing.
Marijuana. Speaking of red eyes, the pungent smoke wafting across Occupy encampments in California, including the erstwhile Occupy L.A., indicates that many demonstrators would favor more sensible cannabis laws.
Actually, they appear to favor legalization of even recreational marijuana, but that's not going to happen any time soon. A good start, though, would be to lobby for the federal government to stop treating marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, an absurd designation that asserts it has no medicinal value and has as high a potential for abuse as heroin. A more reasonable classification would encourage much-needed medical research and hopefully lead to lesser criminal penalties for possession. As for untangling the legal web California has created by legitimizing medical marijuana in the face of a federal ban -- good luck on that one.