In the battle for America's attention, the Occupy movement rocketed past the tea party this fall and remains in the lead, though not by much anymore. Here's a chart from Google Trends comparing the dueling movements' Google hits (top graph) and news mentions (bottom graph):
(The letters A-F are automatically generated by Google Trends)
Here's my best guess of what accounts for the peaks:
How do you get tea partiers and occupiers at the same table? Buy lots of beer. It certainly worked at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation's preeminent gathering of folks who love tri-cornered hats, fear Beelzebub, and hate Big Government—especially when it messes with their Medicare. A few occupy protesters and CPAC-goers took a break from yelling at each other one night to trade rounds at a nearby bar. Here's a condensed version of journalist Eddie Becker's account of what happened next:
Yesterday, a group affiliated with Occupy Wall Street submitted an astounding comment letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Point by point, it methodically challenges the arguments of finance industry lobbyists who want to water down last year's historic Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms. The lobbyists have been using the law's official public comment period to try to kneecap the reforms, and given how arcane financial regulation can be, they might get away with it. But Occupy the SEC is fighting fire with fire, and in so doing, defying stereotypes of the Occupy movement. Its letter explains:
Occupy the SEC is a group of concerned citizens, activists, and professionals with decades of collective experience working at many of the largest financial firms in the industry. Together we make up a vast array of specialists, including traders, quantitative analysts, compliance officers, and technology and risk analysts.
The letter, which has been in the works for months, passionately defends the Volcker Rule, a provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms meant to prohibit consumer banks from engaging in risky and speculative "proprietary" trading. That barrier had collapsed in the 1990s with the gradual watering down, and eventual repeal, of the Glass-Steagall Act. Occupy the SEC explains why this became a problem:
Proprietary trading by large-scale banks was a principal cause of the recent financial crisis, and, if left unchecked, it has the potential to cause even worse crises in the future. In the words of a banking insider, Michael Madden, a former Lehman Brothers executive: "Proprietary trading played a big role in manufacturing the CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and other instruments that were at the heart of the financial crisis. . . if firms weren't able to buy up the parts of these deals that wouldn't sell. . .the game would have stopped a lot sooner."
What makes Occupy the SEC so unique and inspiring is the way that it straddles the two worlds. On the one hand, it's authentically grassroots, forged in Zuccotti Park's crucible of discontent. As such, it is transparent, open to anyone, and accountable to everyone. On the other hand, it includes financial insiders with the education and regulatory vocabulary to challenge high-powered lobbyists at their own game. That's a powerful combination that the SEC can't easily ignore. From the letter:
The United States aspires to democracy, but no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. Accordingly, Occupy the SEC is delighted to participate in the public comment process. . .
Ever wonder what happens to that aluminum beer can, plastic yogurt cup, or cardboard pizza box after you toss it in the recycling bin?
Well, so did the good people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in 2009 embarked on an ambitious effort to tag 3,000 pieces of trash with GPS-type sensors and track them through the national waste stream. They announced the project shortly after the publication of a three-part series in Mother Jones in which I followed my garbage and recycling through San Francisco's legendary recycling and composting system.
I'd also wanted to attach GPS tags to my trash, but unlike the nerds at MIT, didn't have $300,000 to drop on sensors. The MIT team synthesized their results into this fascinating video, which has been out for a while, sure. But it's still totally worth watching.
In another sign that Democrats have embraced income inequality as a cause célèbre, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the subject today. The committee's ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, managed to look concerned during two hours of testimony about the kneecapping of the Middle Class—not that it should have been all that difficult. Here are some of the hearing's most striking charts:
The 1 percent hasn't controlled such a large share of the economy since the eve of the Great Depression:
But as the rich have earned a larger share, they've paid a smaller and smaller share in taxes:
A major source of inequality in the tax code comes from how it treats investment income. Just ask Mitt Romney, who paid 13.9 percent of his income in taxes in 2010. Most of his earnings came from capital gains, which only get taxed at 15 percent. Proponents of the loophole argue that it helps spur investment, but it also disproportionately helps the rich:
Though America's wealthy are supposed to pay a higher tax rate than the poor (what's known as a "progressive tax code"), they now benefit from so many loopholes that the tax code has, in practice, become increasingly regressive (the Gini Index is a common measure of income inequality):