Columns / Discourse / October 12, 2011

Voice of Reason: Talking about the problems but not the solutions

What is Occupy Wall Street? Though America’s newest populist protest movement is all the rage these days, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of coherent answer to that question yet. Though the protesters certainly have a general dislike of corporate America, any grouping that nominally stretches from Guy Fawkes mask-wearing college students and punk band Anti-Flag to the AFL-CIO and economist Joseph Stiglitz is going to be hard to classify. How then, does one comment on a movement that refuses to offer a unified set of demands? Well, with some difficulty, but I’m not about to let that stop me.

What can be attacked with some certainty are the slogans. This inane “we are the 99 percent” rhetoric is catchy, but it doesn’t really make any sense. It usually seems to refer to everyone below the 99th percentile in terms of income, but even that doesn’t always seem to apply.

Witness the rapid switch of Facebook statuses last Wednesday from pro-movement slogans to Steve Jobs remembrances, to honor a man who was, by every possible metric, in the top one percent. The ex-CEOs of Ben and Jerry’s, as well as billionaire George Soros, have also pledged support. Are they not the one percent? But if they’re not the enemy, who makes up the one percent? Rich people who don’t share the political views of the protestors, as far as I can guess.

The real reason for that slogan is to overstate Occupy Wall Street’s appeal. The American left has always been good at vastly overestimating the amount of support they have from the American public at large and Occupy Wall Street doesn’t seem to be any different as of yet. Protestors in the ‘60s firmly believed that America was ripe for revolution. It turned out that America was actually ripe to elect Richard Nixon. A Rassmussen Reports poll pegs support for the movement nationwide at about 33 percent of the American populace, suggesting that most of the 99 percent are in actuality either opposed or thoroughly indifferent to the movement.

It is also probably fair to say most protestors oppose the government backed bailouts of the banking sector a few years ago. The most obvious response to the protesters here is to point out that the total cost to avoid a lending freeze that would have sent the nation spiraling into a new Great Depression was some $25 billion (after most banks repaid the government, some even with interest), which seems like a fair tradeoff. But like in the case of their rightist doppelgangers in the Tea Party, facts seem to be of little concern for the movement when they collide with a good slogan. It seems that the street protestors have a dangerously zero-sum view of economics where anything that benefits Wall Street bankers must necessarily come at the expense of anyone else.

In the case of bailouts the political inconsistencies of the movement come to light. Though Occupy Wall Street supporters clearly have no objection to massive expansion of government into sectors such as health and government, the line is apparently arbitrarily drawn at short-term capital injections, though only in the case of banks (since one cannot imagine them telling their union allies the government should not have saved thousands of union jobs by bailing out GM and Chrysler).

What’s really sad is that the movement is correct in many of its criticisms of American society. Inequality has grown at a startling rate in the last few decades. Student loans are exorbitant. Banks are sitting on piles of cash instead of making loans and creating jobs. The protestors set before themselves far too easy a task, however, in merely pointing out that there are serious problems. The average 10-year old is capable of noticing there are serious problems with the American economy. The real challenge lies in changing things, and given Occupy Wall Street’s proud refusal to put forth a coherent list of goals, there is no reason to believe they are a positive step in that direction.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.


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