NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's been sad to watch Occupy Wall Street since it was ruthlessly evicted from Zuccotti Park. It has seemed aimless, unfocused and only gets attention when its members are arrested. Its gift to the political discourse -- that the "1%" has an unfair advantage over the rest of us -- has been lost amid the static, and I fear that it's slowly fading.So I was delighted to hear that the Occupy movement is is coming to Davos, where the World Economic Forum has become an annual celebrity thumb-sucking ritual. OWS protesters are setting up "igloos" in the snows of the Swiss town for the Jan. 25-29 event, outside the famously exclusivist forums and panels, where attendance provides more status than getting a white badge at Cannes. That's good news. OWS introduced a breath of fresh air into the otherwise stale, repetitious and frustratingly trivia-focused U.S. political scene last year. Sure, it's been ignored, brushed aside and cynically exploited by extremists and charlatans. But its central message was accepted by the majority of Americans: The privileges of the 1% need to be curtailed. It was a desperately needed message, three years after a financial crisis that has never been adequately addressed by Washington. But America's inequities reflected a global phenomenon, of income disparities growing wildly out of whack, and that's why I'm so glad to see OWS focus on Davos. The globalization so eagerly promoted by so many at Davos has had an underside, one that is evident everywhere in the Third World -- in Brazil, China, India and the rest of the developing world -- where capitalism has largely replaced outmoded socialist economic models. A rising middle class has left behind a desperately poor underclass, and the gap between rich and poor is only growing wider. OWS can serve as a wake-up call to policymakers that fawning over the 1% is not an exclusively American phenomenon -- and that government has a role, working alongside the free markets, in improving conditions of the underclass. India, I think, provides one of the best examples of how capitalism alone is insufficient to improve the lives of the majority of people. Sure, the growing economy has elevated and expanded a thriving middle class. The totems of economic growth can be seen everywhere in the major cities, in walled-off "colonies" where the rich and upper middle class live in luxury alongside festering slums. It is true that the Indian miracle is an inspiring phenomenon. There are probably more Horatio Algers per square mile in the urban centers of India than there are anywhere else on the planet, certainly including the U.S.
But if India is a living example of capitalism adding wealth and fueling growth, it is also an example of how government is a crucial element, and how its failure can't simply be shrugged off and bypassed. The country's infrastructure is a mess. I've seen immense luxury housing projects spring up on what had been farmland on the outskirts of New Delhi, without anything that we take for granted in the West. Sewage is just dumped in the river, untreated, and roads are grossly inadequate. Electrical outages are common. Public transportation? Forget about it. The New York Times has been running a terrific series of articles, " India's Way," on how Indians have had to work around the failure of government to provide basic services, from clean water to adequate education for all of its citizens. These articles are about the triumph of the free markets and capitalism to cope with an incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy, which has long been one of the curses of India. (When someone I know required a birth certificate to complete her naturalization in the U.S., an official demanded the equivalent of a $500 bribe.) It's little wonder, in reading these articles, that Ayn Rand, the High Priestess of Capitalism, is so popular in India. The government has made a mess out of the businesses that it has run. The state-run Air India, notoriously inefficient and arrogant toward customers, is a good example of how the government there has mucked up pretty much everything it touches. People who can afford it are able to work around the inefficiencies of India, by buying their children proper education and buying clean water that their government is unable to provide. Air India's failings have spurred a host of competitors. But the flip side of this equation is that there are millions of Indians -- perhaps hundreds of millions, perhaps the majority of the population; no one knows -- who are at the mercy of this rotten system. They don't have the money to buy clean water or backup generators. But government in India suffers from lack of revenues. The flip side of the Indian entrepreneurial spirit, and resistance to a corrupt bureaucracy, is a widespread contempt for government that is played out in widespread tax evasion and a thriving underground economy.
It's also seen in a ravaged environment. In India, everyone -- rich and poor alike -- suffer from air that is not fit to breath. You can stock your refrigerators with more-or-less safe, plastic-tasting bottled water, but you can't walk around in a scuba-diving suit (though I suppose anything's possible). The result is that respiratory problems have soared not just in India but in China and other Third World countries, because government fails to protect citizens from industries that pollute. Even though free-market types and Ron Paul aficionados would like to see government go away, with private enterprise taking its place, that's not happening -- not if the environment is to be protected, and not if hundreds of millions of dirt-poor people, in India and elsewhere, are not to be trampled into the mud. Sure, you can try, but I wouldn't recommend it. You can bet your sweet life that if they aren't properly cared for, they won't stand for it. That brings us back to Davos, where the reality of the misery caused by unbridled free markets sometimes seems like a distant rumor. That is why OWS can serve a useful role. What is it all about, anyway, if not to be a counterforce to capitalism -- to draw attention to the divide between the haves, the "1%," and the have-nots? The 99% throughout the world is a disaster compared to this country. Free markets are just part of the solution. The other part is to address the failings of government -- and that means a fair and equitable system of taxation in which the rich pay their fare share. It also means zero tolerance for corruption. In India, the growing anti-corruption movement, led by Anna Hazare, is probably the best news to come out of India in years. Anti-globalization protests can sometimes fly off half-cocked, but I'm pleased by the tone of the little I've read coming out of the OWS protesters in Davos. One organizer put it this way to Reuters: "It is the decisions of the few which have led us into the crisis of recent years and now the same people are posing as the solution to these problems." I think that puts the issue fairly. After all, who are the highest-profile attendees at Davos? Fresh thinkers like Nouriel Roubini are very much the exception. For the most part it is an echo chamber for power brokers, politicians and business leaders -- the 1/100th of 1%.
Time for the rest of us to have a voice at Davos. Gary Weiss's forthcoming book, AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, will be published by St. Martin's Press on February 28, 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @gary_weiss.