18 september 2012

What the Occupy movement accomplished


(Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Occupy protesters rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on September 17, 2012.

It was one year ago that the Occupy movement began in New York and then spread to Canada and other countries. But what has the movement accomplished?
It has drawn attention to the gravity of income inequality, according to economics Professor Miles Corak at the University of Ottawa.  He spoke with RCI’s Lynn Desjardins.
“I think the most important thing it’s accomplished,” said Prof. Corak “is that it has put inequality on the agenda. People are talking about inequality much more often in public policy circles now.”

Prof. Corak says people talk about inequality in a different way. “Twenty or thirty years ago inequality was seen almost as a positive thing.   It gave incentives. It offered opportunities. Even if I wasn’t rich today, I could hope to be rich in the future or at least expect my children to be. There was the notion of trickle down as well; if the rich did well we all benefitted from it. But we don’t speak of inequality in those terms now. We appreciate that all of the gains from economic growth in Canada and other countries over the last 25 years have accrued to a small sliver of the population.”

Occupy did get its facts right according to Prof. Corak. It differentiated between the richest 1% of the population and the other 99%. Prof. Corak says that reflects the fact that in Canada in the late 1970s the top 1% of the population made 7% of all earnings in the economy. In the 1980s that rose every year until the rich earned 13 or 14% of all earnings. “To the extent that Occupy highlighted that, I thought that was also a very important contribution,” said Prof. Corak.

The challenge now, he thinks, is for the movement to start affecting policy. “I’m not sure occupying parks will leave a long-term legacy. There’s an opportunity now to move to parliament.”

Prof. Corak points to the province of Quebec which had major demonstrations last spring that were ostensibly about university tuition fee hikes, but morphed into a broader protest. That was followed by an election which was won by the more left-leaning Parti Quebecois and one of the student leaders was elected to government.

Inequality was also a hot topic in the central province of Ontario. Last spring the government tabled a budget and there was a heated discussion about tax rates for the rich which lead to changes.

Inequality is not so much an issue in western provinces in Canada such as Alberta and Saskatchewan, points out Prof. Corak. The economy is robust there and there is much less unemployment so there is likely to be less discussion about inequality.

Where the occupy movement goes from here will depend very much on how it uses democratic tools to translate its message into action, believes Prof. Corak.

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