When the troubling news broke Thursday that the New York Police Department was planning to evict the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, conservative pundits celebrated, just as they surely would if it were, say, a Tea Party protest being stopped on unclear legal grounds. Naturally, they tossed around assertions in total ignorance of the relevant facts. Take, for instance, Allahpundit of the widely read blog Hot Air. He writes, “Part of their problem is that they are, in fact, squatting on private property, and not even the mainstream left wants to set a new rule in which it’s okay for people to do that. (If they do, it’ll be used against them later, rest assured.) They’d be on firmer ground legally if they decamped to a public park.”
Actually, this is literally the opposite of the truth. As I explained for Good magazine yesterday, it is precisely because they were on a privately owned public space that Occupy Wall Street has been able to stay as long as they have. New York has an established body of law governing protest in public parks which requires permits and prevents long-term encampments. Violate the rules or fail to obtain the permits, and you could get arrested. I know conservatives idolize private property rights, so this might be hard for them to understand, but Zuccotti Park is not private property. It is privately owned public property, thanks to the 1968 agreement between US Steel, which got zoning variances in constructing its headquarters, now known as 1 Liberty Plaza and owned by Brookfield Office Properties. It is only because Zuccotti Park falls into a nebulous area that the NYPD maintained until Thursday that it did not have the authority to eject the protesters. On Friday morning Mayor Bloomberg granted Occupy Wall Street a reprieve, saying the decision to let them be came from Brookfield under political pressure.
It should come as no surprise that conservatives are misrepresenting Occupy Wall Street’s position on their right to be there, considering that conservatives have spent the last two weeks misrepresenting the substance of their views. National Review was quick on the draw, tossing up innumerable items on the subject last week. In more than one way they misrepresented the core contention of the protesters, as did other conservative writers. Instead of contending with the argument that financial deregulation, the influence of corporate money in politics and the flattening of our tax code have increased inequality, they change the subject. They point out, correctly but irrelevantly, that not all 99 percent of Americans whom the protesters reference share the protesters’ sartorial tastes. And they divert attention to the fact that the federal income tax code is somewhat progressive, while ignoring all the other taxes we do, and don’t, pay.
“They flatter themselves that, in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent, they represent ‘the 99 percent.’ ” wrote Rich Lowry. “It might be true if the entire country consisted of stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert.” Jonah Goldberg concurred, “Their claims of representing the 99 percent are so preposterous, it’s sad and funny at the same time.”
This is deliberate obtuseness. Of course it’s true that the dreadlocked campers at Zuccotti Park do not represent the cultural values of 99 percent of Americans. But they do not clam to. They say they represent the economic interests of the 99 percent of Americans who have been left behind by growing inequality and plutocratic policies.
Erick Erickson of the Red State blog has launched a tumblr for the competing “53 percent” of Americans who pay federal income taxes. Erickson considers them to be the 53 percent who support the 47 percent who are freeloaders. “I am the 53 percent subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain,” declared Erickson in the opening post. Matt Labash, in The Weekly Standard’s derisory cover story, uses this same fact even more disingenuously. “You’re either part of ‘us,’ the ‘99 percent’ (as all the surrounding signage identifies us), or you’re part of ‘them’—the rapacious 1 percent, who are purportedly strangling our nation by holding roughly one-third of its wealth, even if they also pay 38 percent of all federal income taxes while the bottom 47 percent of the population pay nothing (a Revolution is no place for facts and figures).”
This particular fact has become a strange fixation on the right. I thought they hated taxes, but apparently they only hate taxes for rich people. In any case, their selectively chosen datum ignores a far more revealing fact, which is that that lower-income Americans still pay payroll taxes, state and local income, property and sales taxes. Many of those, such as sales and payroll taxes, are regressive. Capital gains, which are disproportionately reaped by the wealthy, are taxed at a lower rate than income. The various deductions that riddle our tax code and rob our Treasury, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, also benefit the wealthy more than the poor. As Jonathan Chait points out, if you look at total taxation you find that the richest 1 percent of the country pulls down 20 percent of the country’s income and pays 21 percent of its taxes. And as Brian Beutler notes in TPM the percentage of non-payers of income taxes was inflated in 2009 by the recession and is usually more like 37 percent.
The other main tack conservatives have taken is to mock and dismiss the protesters as ignoramuses and extremists. Glenn Beck’s program sent a comedic videographer named Ami Horowitz down to bait them into saying silly things or exposing their ignorance of how the stock market or federal tax code works. Horowitz claims that several of his interview subjects are incorrect when they claim that Wall Streeters pay less in taxes than everyone else because the income tax rate goes up as you earn more. Horowitz ignores the fact that financiers, in particular grossly overpaid hedge fund managers, are paid in the form of interest that is taxed at the lower capital gains rate.
Josh Barro writes in National Review that the protest leader who appeared on Canadian television lacked a concrete policy agenda. And he wasn’t very knowledgeable, referring as he did to the “Glass-Steingold tax, whatever that is.” He means, presumably Glass-Steagall, which is a regulatory measure, not a tax.
Barro is right to be unimpressed, but most of these conservatives are cherry-picking. When I went down to Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, the first person who caught my eye was a neatly dressed young man standing at the perimeter holding a sign calling for reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. Dan Miller, a neatly dressed college student from New Jersey, told me he has come to Zuccotti Park several times. He supports reinstating Glass-Steagall because, he said, “we need more careful regulation of the financial markets. We took away needed regulations.” I asked him what exactly Glass-Steagall would achieve in that vein. “It separated investment banks from savings banks and was supposed to prevent wild speculation and conflicts of interest,” he cogently explained. If conservatives want to offer a real counter-argument to that, they should come up with one. But asserting that the protesters are squatters, dirty hippies or ignoramuses is lazy and inaccurate.