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OWS as projection of our desires

Today’s NYT has a story [1] 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 [2] 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.

More:

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 [3] 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 [4] (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.

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23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "OWS as projection of our desires"

#1 Comment By Dianne On October 15, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

Twinkle-fingered hippies like these guys?

[5]

#2 Comment By JonF On October 15, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

Hmm. One moment we are told these are the spoiled brats of the upper middle class, then we are told they are not at all middle class.

Now, I can’t say I am much impressed with the Occupiers here in Baltimore: they hang out on a busy street corner along the Harbor (not even protesting at a bank!) posing for the tourists with cardboard signs. Yet in one small way I glad that groups like these exist, that we are getting input from someone who is not a professional politician, pundit or other paid bloviator.

#3 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 15, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

If Freemasons join them someone might take them seriously. If Knights of Columbus join them everyone will fall over laughing. By the way, the latest phrase being used to describe the OWS I’ve heard is “sausage stuffing.”

#4 Comment By Chaconne On October 15, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

The complete text of Noonan’s article is on her website: [6]

You’ve been on a roll this week with these OWS posts, Rod. Keep up the good work.

#5 Comment By Greg Linscott On October 15, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

Full link to Noonan’s piece: [7]

#6 Comment By cecelia On October 15, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

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.”

LOL – if the Wall St types keep doing what they are doing – a lot more people will have time to do this.

I wonder if the Masters of the Universe crowd think they can keep on keeping on because there are no consequences for them – and if it does become clear that their behavior does incite widespread protest – enough to threaten the stability of our society – will they get scared straight?

#7 Comment By MH – Scientismist On October 15, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

Against confirmation bias even the gods contend in vain.

As an aside, I work for a fiance firm as a mid level worker bee. We have some occupy protests in the park and few blocks away. I went over at lunch midweek to see them for myself. There was a mix of people camping out. Some young left wing types playing drums, some aging activists, and some former middle class people who lost their jobs two years ago and don’t know what else to do. The police officers were pretty mellow when I was there.

I’ve spoken with co-workers about them and attitudes vary. I and some others are sympathetic because they wouldn’t be there if the economy were better. Many have the get a job attitude. A few thought I was nuts and risking or attack by an angry mob. We will agree that when the weather turns they will likely be dispersed by the cold.

#8 Comment By Naturalmom On October 15, 2011 @ 8:17 pm

What Chaconne said. Thanks for your attention to OWS. I’ve not been quite sure what to make of it myself, and I appreciate the discussion of it here.

#9 Comment By Surly On October 15, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful coverage of OWS. But more importantly, thank you for coming back to regular blogging. I’m sure it’s a challenge having to generate thoughtful, well written content. Your blog is now one of my go-to’s several times a day.

#10 Comment By thehova On October 15, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

Some facts. Yes, inequality has risen the past 30 years. But inequality almost nothing to with stagnating median incomes and high unemployment.

It’s fine if you feel like inequality is unjust and should be dealt with right now. But it won’t increase median wages and decrease unemployment.

Rod, I encourage you to read Tyler Cowen’s book on the subject, “The Great Stagnation”.

#11 Comment By steve On October 15, 2011 @ 9:01 pm

I have communicated with a number of friends who have gone to NYC or live there. They all seemed to think it was a pretty orderly, peaceful event. The firemen I talked with reported they have not had to go there, usually a good sign. What they told me that I had not realized via press reporting, is that there is a ver large libertarian contingent present. This makes the message very muddled.

Steve

#12 Comment By Anglican On October 15, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

Yep this is a first tremor, it is the first inarticulate stammerings of the sense that something is very wrong. Frankly if these young adults want to focus some of this anger, they should focus on the rent seeking scam that is higher education.

I think the protests are going to turn violent and become an excuse for governmental authorities to use violence and suppression against the public.There will be an attempt to use the vast law enforcement apparatus that has developed post 9-11 on the American public While not a conspiracy theorist, I do believe those in charge view the American public as filth deserving of nothing and will have no problem getting violent to protect their interest, and plenty of people will be more than willing to work for cash to make war against their fellow Americans. After all the Nazis and the Communist where never hurting for functionaries to kill and abuse people.

#13 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On October 15, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

“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.”

Distributed, if money is the property of citizens, who’s distributing it? I recognize that the government prints and distributes money, but millionaires don’t have distributed money. They inherit, earn, manipulate or just plain steal it. Please don’t surrender to the BS that “We” have a “Distribution” problem. Only people on welfare have money distributed to them, and that’s our money in the first place.

#14 Comment By sdb On October 15, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

[8]

I found this synopsis interesting given the source…

#15 Comment By bob c On October 15, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

Noonan – who I often feel joins Cokie Roberts as a mouthpiece of what we used to call the ruling class – onto something here:

Enough. Wall Street is selfish and dishonest, and Washington is selfish and dishonest. Together their selfishness and dishonesty, their operating as if they are not part of a whole, not part of a nation of relationships and responsibilities, tanked a great nation’s economy. We will reform

John Robb, another fascinating thinker, frames this as the possible first shifts in a capitalist reformation:

[9]

Reforms are rejected by the existing bureaucracy.
New, competitive systems are launched.
An exodus begins. People leave the old system to join the new.
The old system fights back. It reforms itself.
A fight ensues between the old and the new.
Eventually a peace is achieved and a new era begins.

As a Christian, my hope in this coming quake or reformation is with finding ways to make capitalism more humane, compassionate, collaborative and sustainable.

#16 Comment By RedRabbit On October 16, 2011 @ 2:56 am

RE: LOL – if the Wall St types keep doing what they are doing – a lot more people will have time to do this.

I wonder if the Masters of the Universe crowd think they can keep on keeping on because there are no consequences for them – and if it does become clear that their behavior does incite widespread protest – enough to threaten the stability of our society – will they get scared straight?

I was going to post something similar to this. The only thing these comments demonstrate is that the Wall Street types are utterly out of touch with reality. They are so encased in their bubble of ‘moral capitalism’, where their success is itself a sign of virtue, that they cannot fathom for even a moment that the demonstrators might have legitimate grievances against them.

I think Noonan is also a bit off in her analysis. This isn’t so much a realization that the economy will not get better. This is about trends that predate the downturn by years, even decades, finally catching up with us.

#17 Comment By RedRabbit On October 16, 2011 @ 2:59 am

RE:Enough. Wall Street is selfish and dishonest, and Washington is selfish and dishonest. Together their selfishness and dishonesty, their operating as if they are not part of a whole, not part of a nation of relationships and responsibilities, tanked a great nation’s economy. We will reform

Yes, both can be selfish and dishonest. But I think this is where one main area of contention arises between those on the right and the OWS crowd. OWS sees Washington as almost inconsequential at this point, nothing more than a puppet. This is why they are demonstrating where they are. This flies in the face of the past three decades of conservative thought where ‘government is the problem’.

#18 Comment By Stef On October 16, 2011 @ 11:11 am

It’s not surprising that there’s a libertarian contingent at OWS. Some of the biggest impediments to economic success are local, state, and federal regulations which suppress economic activity. Many of these regulations came into being because big corporations lobbied for them – because corporations didn’t want the competition from individuals, small businesses, and “freeholders.”

Media and pundits are confused about OWS because they want “the message” chopped up and packaged into neat little shrink-wrapped sound-bites. When this starts to happen, you can rest assured that OWS has been bought off and co-opted by someone (doesn’t matter who; they’re all sides of the same rotten and base-metal coin.)

I sincerely hope it doesn’t matter one bit to the OWS people what the business types think of them. It’s a good sign that they *don’t* like OWS; that they don’t understand what OWS is about. Some of the discomfort may come from their own unconscious awareness of the precariousness of their own situation. Even though the financial services industry in NYC has shrunk since 2007 and is still shrinking, there are still a lot of $150K-$250K/per annum employees who are socially striving and spending a lot of money to keep up with their very wealthy “betters.”

The “you are one layoff or illness or accident away from us” message can’t sit too comfortably on the lower-crust “worker bees” of the finance industry, I would imagine.

#19 Comment By Lord Karth On October 16, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

As long as the benefit checks can be cashed, the drugs are cheap (and television, after all, is just about free), and some members of the opposite sex are willing, there won’t BE any “earthquake”. I’ll put cash money on that, any reasonable amount you may care to name.

Once any of those conditions STOP, however, all bets are off.

I give it 10 years, and counting.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#20 Comment By Ignominious On October 16, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

My guess is that If Niel Postman were still here, he would have some enjoyable fun explaining why the OWS is the biggest quixotic non-event ever to get over-televised and how really it amounts to nothing.

By the time the weather goes cold, everyone will be fixated on the next great big non-event event.

#21 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 16, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

The basic question Rod touched on at the beginning, is a very fundamental one.

For protests like this to exist, someone has to have, take, or make time to be out there. Generally, those who have the time are those who are currently unemployed. They may or may not be habitually dependent upon public assistance. Probably some are, and some are used to having gainful employement, but have been without for some months, or even a couple of years. Either way, those are the ones who have time to be out there.

As for the rest of us, we take time, we make time, we find another way to build the movement Rod calls for, or we accept that those who have the time will set the tone of the movement. I must admit, although I do not have a regular full time job, the part-time work I do have, the fact that I’m just keeping up with expenses of basic living, and the prospect of a few weeks of seasonal full time work, has a firmer grip on me than the call to be out in the streets this winter.

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