By Christine Todd Whitman
Bloomberg Business Week
November 1, 2011

Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) — “You reap what you sow” used to be a widely understood principle. Today, we seem to have lost that understanding as we watch the occupation of Wall Street and cities across the country.

For three years, we have been hearing how big business is bad and how the rich are avoiding their fair share of taxes. President Barack Obama has been leading that charge, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that we are now seeing the spread of the class warfare he has helped to kindle.

Let me say from the outset that I support the right of people to peacefully assemble to make their voices heard. That right has made America great, and as we mark more than a month of occupying Wall Street, it continues to feed the public discourse today. I can also understand the frustration and anger that many have felt, and why it has lead to the demonstrations. That said, the notions that wealth is our nation’s plague or that Wall Street single-handedly caused the financial crisis are overly simplistic and counterproductive in the long run.

The juxtaposition of early October is certainly ironic: While millions mourned the death of Apple Inc. co-founder and billionaire Steve Jobs, thousands took to the streets in an expression of protest against similar wealth.

A quick review of the richest 25 Americans, according to Forbes magazine, reveals a reality that many protesters may be forgetting: Only four of those 25 are investors — Warren Buffett, George Soros, John Paulson and Carl Icahn. The rest, such as Jobs and most of the super-wealthy, created a product or service that the world wanted so much that we all bought it. Among the products represented by the top 25 richest Americans? The personal computer (Microsoft Corp. and Dell Inc.); Internet searching, social media and online shopping (Google Inc., Facebook Inc., and Amazon.Com Inc.); and candy (Mars Inc.).

Shielding Earnings

Are there ways of shielding earnings and are those practices used by those with the most income to shield? Of course. But the wealthiest 1 percent still pays 37 percent of the federal income taxes in this country, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a fact that needs to be recognized by the protesters.

We should be careful about taxing those people out of the country, since they will take their businesses — and jobs — with them. Massive redistribution of wealth in the form of taxes tends to discourages people from working — the exact opposite of what we should be trying to achieve. If we want to discourage people from spending on themselves, or encourage them to be charitable, let’s work toward tax policies that create those incentives. But penalizing work isn’t the answer.

As for Wall Street’s hand in the financial crisis, there’s no doubt that the banking industry was overleveraged, and that contributed heavily to the most recent recession. But as I have said before, prior to the decline, individuals and families bought homes (as they were encouraged to do, partly by the government via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) and goods on credit they couldn’t afford to repay. And governments, both local and national, were deficit-spending with impunity. If the 1 percent were overleveraged, the 99 percent were spending money they didn’t have. We share the guilt across the economic spectrum.

Although the ideas espoused by the protesters are simplistic, those who have taken to the streets have the possibility of making lasting change. One gift the demonstrators have is a tool denied to many across the Arab world, where we have seen citizen uprisings this year: the ability to freely elect their representatives. I wonder how many of those camping out used that incredible power in the last election cycle.

Today’s demonstrators are understandably angry, scared and frustrated, but they are focusing on the wrong place. Instead of marching on the homes of the wealthy, they would effect real change by going to the polls every time they can.

(Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group. The opinions expressed are her own.)