Reassessing Occupy Wall Street And The 99%’ers
Some on the right are giving Occupy Wall Street and The 99%'ers a second look.
An interesting phenomenon that developed at the end of last week in the form of several voices on the right seeming to move away from the dismissive attitude toward the “Occupy” movement and the sentiments represented by websites such as “We Are The 99%.” On some level it appears to be rooted in some of the same recognitions I noted yesterday about the seeming similarities between the message the groups seem to be coalescing around, and the initial anti-bailout mentality that motivated the Tea Party.
First off, the Wall Street Journal’s editors make a point that I’ve been making for two weeks or so now, that they protesters are directing their anger at the wrong group of people:
In the matter of Occupy Wall Street, the allegedly anticapitalist movement that’s been camped out in lower Manhattan for the past few weeks and has inspired copycat protests from Boston to Los Angeles, we have some sympathy. Really? Well, yeah.
OK, not for the half-naked demonstrators, the ranting anti-Semites, Kanye West or anyone else who has helped make Occupy Wall Street a target for easy ridicule. But to the extent that the mainly young demonstrators have a valid complaint, it’s that they are trying to bust their way into an economy where there is one job for every five job-seekers, and where youth unemployment runs north of 18%. That is a cause for frustration, if not outrage.
The question is, outrage at whom? On Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street marched on J.P. Morgan Chase’s headquarters, after having protested outside CEO Jamie Dimon’s home the previous day. That’s odd, seeing that J.P. Morgan didn’t take on excessive mortgage risk and didn’t need (although it was forced to take) TARP money. The demonstrators also picketed the home of hedge fund mogul John Paulson, who made much of his recent fortune betting against the housing bubble, not helping to inflate it.
As for Wall Street itself, on Tuesday New York state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report predicting that the financial industry will likely lose 10,000 jobs by the end of next year. That’s on top of the 4,100 jobs lost since April, and the 22,000 since the beginning of 2008. Overall New York-area employment in finance and insurance has declined by 8.9% since late 2006. Even Goldman Sachs is planning layoffs.
Still, if anyone in the Occupy Wall Street movement wants an intellectually honest explanation for why they can’t find a job, they might start by considering what happens to an economy when the White House decides to make pinatas out of the financial-services industry (roughly 6%, or $828 billion, of U.S. GDP), the energy industry (about 7.5% of GDP, or $1 trillion), and millionaires and billionaires (who paid 20.4% of all federal income taxes in 2009). And don’t forget the Administration’s rhetorical volleys against individual companies like Anthem Blue Cross, AIG and Bank of America, or against Chrysler’s bondholders, or various other alleged malefactors of wealth.
This probably won’t do much to persuade the Occupiers of Wall Street that their cause would be better served in Washington, D.C., where a sister sit-in this week seems to have fizzled. Then again, most of America’s jobless also won’t recognize their values or interests in the warmed-over anticapitalism being served up in lower Manhattan. Three years into the current Administration, most Americans are getting wise to the source of their economic woes. It’s a couple hundred miles south of Wall Street.
Rich Lowry makes a similar argument over at National Review:
Far from the street theater and lefty ravings of the Occupy Wall Street protest, ordinary people are posting dispatches about their economic struggles at the “We Are the 99 Percent” Web page.
If you put aside the political rants and the obnoxious construct of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent — which has the whiff of the guillotine about it — the stories are a stark pointillist portrayal of the grinding misery of the Great Recession.
And Bank of America has very little to do with it. The recession has added a layer of joblessness on top of punishingly dysfunctional and expensive health-care and higher-education systems. Despite themselves, the people posting at the 99 percent page aren’t really making an implicit case for burning down the financial system, but for blowing up how we handle health care and higher education.
College students and recent graduates are overrepresented. Their complaint comes down to too much debt, and too few job opportunities to get out from under it. There’s the guy with the master’s from Harvard who owes $60,000 and lives off temp jobs. There’s the woman who is paying her own $50,000 in debt plus $20,000 in debt for her 22-year-old daughter. There’s the graduate with a master’s from “a major U.S university” who is unemployed and $92,000 in hock. And on and on.
The representatives of these debt-burdened graduates shouldn’t be at Zuccotti Park, but at the American Association of University Professors or some other arm of the academic complex that gouges students. College tuition has been increasing at a rapid clip. Does anyone believe that higher ed is getting constantly better? It’s an inflationary spiral, partly driven by a federal student-loan program that feeds the maw of the beast regardless of quality or outcomes.
Even Erick Erickson, who is the co-creator of “We Are The 53%,” the purported response to the “Occupy” message, says that the right needs to take the concerns of the 99% seriously:
We on the right should not be as dismissive of what is happening in this movement the way the left, to their determine, wholly dismissed the tea party movement. There is, in fact, some shared ground even beyond the superficial ground I’ve already covered.
What’s the message?
First of all, the message is not punishment and retribution for success.
Most of us actually think the deck is stacked these days against entrepreneurs and that it was done so by bipartisan coalitions. Most of us do think the deck is stacked against the little guy. It is not, however, that the top 1% stacked the deck against the rest of us. It is that the government, in its expansion of the nanny-state, drove up costs to everyone and only the rich had the capital to overcome it. Only the wealthy and powerful can hire the lobbyists to write exemptions in big new taxes and regulations and the army of lawyers and accountants to comply with them. Only the big guys can get a seat at the table where Washington hands out loans and grants and bailouts to its friends in Big Business and Big Labor.
The rich have kept getting richer and it is harder to break into the top ranks of salary. But that has very little to do with the rich blocking people from getting there. It has pretty much everything with the government. And that is the fundamental difference between the occupiers and the tea party movement.
Both are opposed to TARP. Both are opposed to bailouts. But the rabid occupiers want more government and the tea party wants less government. The occupiers think only the government can solve the problem and the tae party thinks a free market can solve the problem.
The occupiers think the government should pick the winners and losers and the tea party thinks the free market can.
“But wait,” they say, “the market is not free.” And they are right. But the solution should be to free up the market, not shackle it or nationalize it.
I’d like to think that this was some kind of recognition among pundits on the right that rejecting the message of the 99%’ers outright may not be the smartest move politically. At the very least, one has to recognize that we are in the middle of a long-term economic downturn that is causing real problems for countless numbers of people. Taking the position of a Herman Cain or Eric Cantor that tells these people that their lack of success is entirely their fault is absurd. There are plenty of well-meaning, capable people who are in economic distress through no fault of their own, telling them that it’s their fault strikes me as both incorrect and politically stupid.
It’s still unclear if the “Occupy” movement will ever develop into a coherent political movement. After reading this description of their efforts to come up with some kind of a platform of demands, my impression is that it probably won’t. However, that doesn’t mean that the social problem of long-term unemployment and slow economic growth shouldn’t be taken seriously. In reality, most of the “Occupy Wall Street” crowd is going to reject anything that a conservative or libertarian proposes because it’s become rather clear that most of the protest participants are drawn from left-wing and anarchist groups for whom arguments about less government are a complete non-starter. The fact that most of the problems they seems to be complaining about, such as the incestuous relationship between business and government, are due as much to the pervasive involvement of the Federal Government in more and more aspects of the economic and business life of the country doesn’t seem to occur to them. Despite this, though, it seems fairly clear that there’s a message of the 99%’ers and the motivates of the Occupiers, and that there’s a voting bloc out there looking for someone to address their concerns and not hearing it from either political party at the moment.
There’s a potential for agreement here, too, between true anti-government forces on the right and anti-big business forces on the left. I doubt that either side will ever see that, though, or that anything would come of it if they did. The Occupy movement is young, but one can already see the manner in which it’s being hijacked and exploited by the very political party responsible for some of the things they are protesting about right now. Once that happens, they will be co-opted as easily and as quickly as the Tea Party was, except perhaps for those New Left/anarchist fringes who will always find something to protest about. Meanwhile, the people in the middle will continue to be left out while one set of elites is replaced by another and things continues as they have been for far too long.