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Monday, October 03, 2011

Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests are getting some news coverage. Some observers have been mocking, while others have been more sympathetic. Almost all, it seems, have noted the lack of a coherent message or achievable demands. Which is a sensible thing to mention, since the protest doesn't really have either of those things.

However, I'm not sure that calls for dismissing the sentiment entirely. The Tea Party, after all, was pretty scattershot, and many of the participants couldn't articulate what they were protesting or specific things they wanted. But by giving it a name, it has turned into what is generally seen as an influential political force, even if politicians and the movement itself are still trying to figure out what the Tea Party is and what they want.

Along with a name, the other important thing that the Tea Party provided was a unifying opponent: government. This new protest has Wall Street filling that role. Both visions are big oversimplifications, of course, but they're probably necessary. People approach issues from a lot of different perspectives. If you're trying to get a lot of people mobilized, it's difficult to get everyone to agree on exactly what they want, and much easier to rally people against a symbolic opponent with some emotional resonance. Mass political movements don't coalesce around detailed policy plans. (The estimable Nick Kristof suggests, in the Times column I linked to above, specific demands for the protesters to make, including "moving ahead with Basel III capital requirements and adopting the Volcker Rule." Such a stirring rallying cry!)

The muddled message of the Occupy Wall Street folks is as much an indicator of the complicated issues in play as it is an indicator of the protesters' naïveté. They know something's wrong, and that it has to do with money and greed, but they can't quite put their finger on the exact source the problem. (Or rather, they've put their fingers in many different places.) It's worth noting that experts generally agree that there's something wrong with our financial system, but also can't agree amongst themselves on the exact nature of the problem or what the solutions are. If your town floods, it's easy to get people to agree that the issue at hand is the water inundating buildings, and it's fairly easy to get folks to help fill sandbags now and chip in later on for a new levee to keep it from happening again. When it comes to the complex, interrelated forces of the world financial system, not so easy.*

In any case, the Occupy Wall Street movement may fizzle, but it's disingenuous to dismiss it as a bunch of confused kids. Like the Tea Party, it's a crude representation of feelings that are amorphous but nonetheless deeply-felt among a wide swath of the public. In fact, you could argue that both groups are arguing similar points from different angles, as this Times column from a month ago argued, despite predating the Wall Street protests. Both are resentful of elites who appear to lack accountability, and angry about economic challenges in a system which seems to be stacked in favor of large institutions that don't share the interests of the country as a whole. The two groups have very different opinions about the types of solutions that are needed, however, so it will be interesting if these become competing narratives in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

*Incidentally, NPR's Planet Money excels at making this complicated stuff understandable, and just last week they had a podcast episode that boiled down the changes in finance over the last few decades with a critique that made a lot of sense to me.

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