Today’s NYT has a story about how Wall Streeters think the Occupy Wall Street crowd are nothing more than a bunch of lazy, pampered hippies who are going to go away soon. Excerpt:
“Most people view it as a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” said one top hedge fund manager.
“It’s not a middle-class uprising,” adds another veteran bank executive. “It’s fringe groups. It’s people who have the time to do this.”
As the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have grown and spread to other cities, an open question is: Do the bankers get it? Their different worldview speaks volumes about the wide chasms that have opened over who is to blame for the continuing economic malaise and what is best for the country.
Without a coherent message, the crowds will ultimately thin out, Wall Street types insist — especially when the weather turns colder. They see the protesters as an entertaining sideshow, little more than flash mobs of slackers, seeking to lock arms with Kanye West or get a whiff of the antiestablishment politics that defined their parents’ generation.
“There is a view that it will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing,” said one financial industry official.
Well, they would want that to be the case, wouldn’t they? That doesn’t mean it isn’t the case. In fact, if you forced me to put money on it, I would bet that Wall Street’s view is likely to prevail. I say that as someone who, as readers know, deeply wants there to be an effective mass movement to change the casino culture of Wall Street and to do real damage to the cozy relationship between Washington and the financial sector. But wanting it to be so is not the same thing as it being so, or having the potential to be so. I have not been out to see the protests, with which I am in general sympathy. But the more reporting I encounter on their character, the less I think they’re capable of amounting to much. I mean, seriously, this SWPLy ding-dong is the kind of activist that’s supposed to scare Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein? Really?
As I said in yesterday’s post about conservative Christianity and OWS (which if you haven’t read it, I hope you will), I credit the OWS protesters, however goofy they may be, for at least recognizing that there’s a big problem with the way money and power is distributed and exercised in this country, and caring enough to take to the streets. I get that many, perhaps most, of us think the protesters are loony leftists and trustafarian rabble. I share that impression. But the real question here is: Why are they the only ones doing this? When Wall Street starts to see middle-class suburban moms, and soccer dads, and Knights of Columbus sorts join these protests, that may change things. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Which is why I think the cynical bankers are probably right. As long as these protests are more Noam Chomsky than Cesar Chavez or Howard Jarvis — protest figures working and middle class people can relate to — I will continue to doubt that they’ll amount to anything.
I could be wrong, though. Confirmation bias is a powerful force in corrupting human judgment. Lots of liberals are projecting their own hopes onto the OWS crowd, just as conservatives like these banker types are projecting their own contrary hopes onto the same crowd. My prediction is that OWS is going to disperse and expire, but that what follows OWS — and something is bound to if we don’t reform this corrupt arrangement — is going to be far, far nastier than these peaceable, twinkle-fingered hippies.
UPDATE: Peggy Noonan writes in her column today (behind the Journal’s paywall; I bought a hard copy of the paper, and am typing this in):
OWS is not in itself important — it is obvious at this point that it’s less a political movement than a be-in. It’s unfocused, unserious in its aims. But it is an early expression, an early iteration, of something that is coming, and that is a rising up against current curcumstances and arrangements. OWS is an expression of American discontent, and otherw will follow. The protests will grow as the economy gets worse.
… Why is this happening now, and not two years ago? Because at some point in the past year or six months, people started to realize: The economy really isn’t going to get better for a long time. Everyone seems to know in their gut that unemployment is going to stay bad or get worse. Everyone knows the jobless rate is higher than the government says, because they look around and see that more than 9% of their friends and family are un- or underemployed. People put on the news and hear about Europe and bankruptcy, and worry that it’s going to spread here. Eighteen months ago smart people could talk on TV about how we’re on a growth path and recovery will begin by fall of 2010. Nobody talks like that now.
And people have a sense that nothing’s going to get better unless something big is done, some fundamental change is made in our financial structures. It won’t be small-time rejiggering — a 5% cut in this tax, a 3% reduction in that program — that will get us out of this.
I think this is right. OWS is just a tremor. The earthquake is coming.