Research in recent years has shown how important and ingrained notions of fairness are. Spain’s protesters, and those in other countries, are right to be indignant: here is a system in which the bankers got bailed out, while those whom they preyed upon have been left to fend for themselves. Worse, the bankers are now back at their desks, earning bonuses that amount to more than most workers hope to earn in a lifetime, while young people who studied hard and played by the rules see no prospects for fulfilling employment.
The rise in inequality is the product of a vicious spiral: the rich rent-seekers use their wealth to shape legislation in order to protect and increase their wealth – and their influence. The US Supreme Court, in its notorious Citizens United decision, has given corporations free rein to use their money to influence the direction of politics. But, while the wealthy can use their money to amplify their views, back on the street, police wouldn’t allow me to address the OWS protesters through a megaphone.
The contrast between overregulated democracy and unregulated bankers did not go unnoticed. But the protesters are ingenious: they echoed what I said through the crowd, so that all could hear. And, to avoid interrupting the “dialogue” by clapping, they used forceful hand signals to express their agreement.
They are right that something is wrong about our “system.” Around the world, we have underutilized resources – people who want to work, machines that lie idle, buildings that are empty – and huge unmet needs: fighting poverty, promoting development, and retrofitting the economy for global warming, to name just a few. In America, after more than seven million home foreclosures in recent years, we have empty homes and homeless people.
The protesters have been criticized for not having an agenda. But this misses the point of protest movements. They are an expression of frustration with the electoral process. They are an alarm.