Occupying Our Hearts and Minds

10/10/2011 11:20 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

Time will tell if the rebels actually Occupy Wall Street, but the leaderless protest movement has reshaped the debate about America’s economic problems, even for the staunchest pro-business leaders, writes MoneyShow.com senior editor Igor Greenwald.

For a protest movement without specific demands, Occupy Wall Street has already accomplished quite a bit.

It brought discussion about the mounting economic inequities and the persistent lack of opportunity to America’s streets, social networks, and dinner tables.

“I will grant you we’ve got a terrible wealth disparity in this country we’ve got to address.” That’s not George Soros, Elizabeth Warren, or Barack Obama talking. That’s House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) speaking on CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning.

Yes, the same Eric Cantor who recently referred to the protesters as “growing mobs,” the same one nicknamed “overdog” earlier in his career for tireless advocacy on behalf of big business.

Cantor’s solutions to this “terrible wealth disparity” remain perks for capital and cuts for the poor. But admitting and naming the problem is an important concession to reality, and I have no doubt that without the “mobs” Cantor would have granted nothing of the sort.

The protesters’ campaign of sharing the financial problems of the “99%” with the world is resonating with the 90% unhappy about the state of the economy. And their inclination to seek redress from the top 1% is hardly limited to the left end of the political spectrum. A majority of Republicans supported a tax hike on millionaires in one recent poll, and higher corporate taxes in another.

In the too-big-to-fail trading houses and banks, Occupy Wall Street has found a much fatter target for populist disdain than the public workers still entitled to the anachronism of benefits.

It also provided essential context for Bank of America’s (BAC) disclosure late Friday that it will pay $12 million in severance to two executives ushered out the door in the latest purge. As the influential and hardly revolutionary Reformed Broker blog observed, “This Is Why They Hate You and Want You to Die.”

The vast majority of Americans have zero problems with the billions earned by Steve Jobs, who built a business of great value. But the superstar attributes of the scores of outlandishly rewarded paper shufflers at the top of the financial pyramid are invisible to any fair observer of that pyramid’s performance.

A chart making the rounds online as a direct result of Occupy Wall Street highlights disparities in executive compensation between the United States and other developed economies.

When Jim Cramer, formerly dismissive of the protests, starts fulminating on-air about Latin American-style inequality, it becomes clearer that the debate has moved on from socialism vs. capitalism.

The street protests may die down as the weather grows colder, or not. But the circumstances that led to them are not going away. The broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment in the September jobs report rose to 16.5%, from 16.2% in August and 15.8% in May, even as a separate survey counted 103,000 extra payroll jobs.

So the precedents set this fall, the facts gleaned, and the activism stirred could well become a permanent feature of the landscape. That will keep the risks the financial industry takes and the compensation it earns under the microscope for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, the half-hearted financial reform adopted to this point doesn’t seem like the worst of all possible fates.

The protests will also fuel debate about the skewed distribution of economic rewards and its contribution to the struggles of the past decade.

Not a bad month’s work for a bunch of drum-banging hippies and millions of less colorful but no less concerned fellow citizens. And all without a retention bonus for motivation.

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