Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street isn't about a list of demands

From CNN Money courtesy of Occupy Wall Street's facebook page:

It's easy to trivialize Occupy Wall Street -- even as it inspires similar protests around the country -- by saying the movement lacks an end game. The group is trying to crowdsource its list of goals, which all but guarantees that no major ones will be set.

A demand list of sorts has appeared on the official Occupy Wall Street page, serving as an ever-changing document on which people can comment with their own suggestions. It has also served as fodder for critics like Fox News, which posted a version of the list and suggested that readers "try not to laugh."

But no list has been endorsed by the "general assembly" at Occupy Wall Street, says press team member Mark Bray, who added that "making a list of three or four demands would have ended the conversation before it started."


"The guys in Washington are supposed to be helping me, but they don't get it with their mansions and their millions," says an unemployed nurse at the protest on Wednesday, who declined to give her name. "They don't understand my situation and they don't want to hear me. Well, now they'll have to hear all of us."

More here.

A couple of months back my old pal Matt registered frustration in Real Art comments (for this post) on how I write about economics. That was a bit puzzling to me because my sense is that I'm generally pretty clear with my writing, an ability that has served me well over my many years as a professional student. I didn't really press Matt on the issue, but I figured that it probably has to do with our respective assumptions about how the economy functions. Matt's a businessman, and, I think, probably shares many of the assumptions that American business has about economics, chiefly that understanding the economy is best done from a business point of view. Conversely, I look at economics from the point of view of labor, which is also the consumer point of view, or, if you prefer, the rank-and-file citizen's point of view. This comes, no doubt, from the masses of left-wing writings I've devoured over the last decade or so.

Needless to say, the two points of view are very much at odds with one another, in as much as what the priorities of economics, as a field of study, and a topic of national debate, ought to be. I mean, there's a great deal of overlap, too, in that if the economic needs of the people are to be met, business must function efficiently and profitably. But how profitable should business be relative to the concerns of the people? And when we talk about efficiency, we must ask, efficient for whom?

For many years now, indeed, since the Reagan era, the greatest emphasis in the public discussion about economics, that is, the discussion in Washington and in the mass media, has been on the concerns of business, and solely business: the underlying and often unstated assumption here has been that if business is thriving, so, too are the nation's citizens. Recent history, however, has proven this assumption to be utterly unfounded. That is, corporate America is seeing record profits, year after year, yet unemployment is at levels not seen since the Great Depression. The maxim "What's good for Wall Street is good for Main Street" is now unmasked as a false statement.

But the national conversation goes right on as if this was not the case. Washington and the media continue to view economics solely from the standpoint of business, seemingly not realizing that there is now a profound disconnect between those concerns and the concerns of the nation's people. In short, the establishment is stuck in a conversation, a way of understanding how the world works, that bears little resemblance to reality.

And that's why Occupy Wall Street's lack of specific demands is more of a strength than a weakness. That there has suddenly arisen such a mass movement, in and of itself, seriously challenges Washington's unchanging conversation about economics. That is, strength of numbers alone, coupled with the fact that this is a movement attacking the economic institutions of the nation, rather than its government specifically, is necessarily forcing the commentariat and our leaders to confront the faulty assumptions on which their economic diatribes are based.

That is, OWS is changing the conversation such that it is more reflective of what's really going on. Indeed, the article excerpted above isn't from a left-wing website: it's from Money magazine's online partnership site with CNN, which is just about as mainstream and establishment as you can get. Indeed, check out this article from Business Insider, a pro-business online source whose editor-in-chief was banned from Wall Street after a conviction for securities fraud.

The establishment is now talking about the issue of wealth disparity in ways not seen in my lifetime. And we have OWS to thank for that. In that sense, the movement is already successful.