2011 in review: The rise of the people

From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street protests, discussions over income inequality have taken center stage.

Jeremy Hobson: So economically speaking, let's say 2008 was the year of the crash. 2009 was the year we hit bottom. 2010 was the year we got angry.

And 2011 was the year we rose up. From the streets of Cairo to the streets of Athens to the streets of New York, people demanded accountability.

Marketplace's David Brancaccio has been covering all of it as part of his Economy 4.0 series, which explores how the new economy can better serve more people. He joins us from New York. Hi David.

David Brancaccio: Hello Jeremy.

Hobson: Well it's been a year of moments all across the world, from the street vendor in Tunisia who sparked the revolution there to the huge protests in Tahrir Square and Cairo, Egypt, to Zuccotti Park right where you are in New York City. Is there a moment for you that has stood out as you've covered this year of the rise of the people?

Brancaccio: The first one probably comes from -- of all people -- a big-time CEO: Sir Martin Sorrell was speaking at the World Economic Forum, that gathering of the great and the good in Davos, Switzerland. Sorrell's the head of WPP; it's the biggest advertising company on the planet. And he's speaking in late January, there's a lot of talk from the podium about protests in Tunisia and Egypt, but Sir Martin tells the VIPs in his audience: "Concentration of wealth, particularly in the United States, is a big issue." So relatively rich United States not immune to this, he's warning, even as the Egyptian revolution is beginning to flare.

Hobson: But the revolutions in the Arab world, including in Egypt, were about more than just income inequality, right? They were about corrupt regimes that were running the place and trying to change the power structure.

Brancaccio: Absolutely, but it's built on a foundation, I think, of deep anger about an economic system that was seen as favoring the in-crowd -- the cronies -- at the expense of everyone else. When I was in Cairo reporting on some of this for us, I was able to speak with Ahmad Mahir, who's a civil engineer and one of the young leaders of the protests in Tahrir Square. He says it loud and clear.

Ahmad Mahir: The inequality in distributing the wealth has been, in my opinion, the major reason that pushed this revolution to be right.

So does it sound familiar when the relatively few get much of the benefits of an economy, it can get people into the streets, to make their displeasure known? But the start of the year in our country, in the U.S. -- what do we have? The Tea Party movement, mainly with a focus on lower taxes, but not necessarily this income inequality idea.

Hobson: But of course, by the end of the year, we have had an entire conversation-changer with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement that's really changed the national discussion and brought a focus to income inequality.

Brancaccio: Now, the Occupy Wall Street folks get criticized for not wanting to set a specific agenda, but it was interesting -- the guy credited with coming up with the meme of the year, "We are the 99 percent," the rallying cry for Occupy, his name is David Graber, and he's an anthropologist.

David Graber: Throughout human history, debts have been renegotiated. In fact, most of the most successful civilizations in human history always had some way of readjusting debt so that you don't end up in a situation where the big people end up effectively enslaving the little people.

Graber went on to suggest this radical idea of what he called a 'debt jubilee': Forgive us all our debts as a way of restoring what he sees as 'justice to an economy marked by concentration of wealth at the top,' that theme again.

Hobson: But David, as we head into the new year, the Occupy Wall Streeters have sort of dropped off the radar to a large degree, as they've been kicked out of park after park across the country. Do you think the movement is on the decline?

Brancaccio: No, it's cold out there in many timezones in the U.S. They'll be back when it warms up. We have an election year, begins in a couple of days. I'm hearing reports that maybe Occupy might have like a political convention sometime next year, one of these agenda-setting things. So they'll be back, along with the Tea Party -- although those two groups probably not occupying the same park.

Hobson: Marketplace's David Brancaccio of our Economy 4.0 project. David, thanks so much and happy new year.

Brancaccio: Happy new year to you.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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