23 November 2011


The City of New York finally evicted the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors from their encampment, never mind that most of the institutions they were protesting are no longer located on Wall Street but in midtown or elsewhere. While they expressed little in the way of a coherent platform, one recurring theme is that banks and corporations have too much power. This will come as a surprise to virtually every CEO in the country since they do not see themselves as all that powerful, but instead feel they are constantly under siege by shareholders, competitors, consumers, and the government. Their decision-making space is constrained by all these factors.

Then there is the 1% that presumably controls everything. But the people in the 1% are no different from the 99%, and in fact are in a place where most of the latter would like to be. Nor are the 1% a fixed elite with anything in common, and have themselves mostly emerged from the 99%. The make-up of the 1% is very fluid. I used to be part of the 1% but now I’m not. Those who currently compose it have worked at climbing the ladder of success, but on the other hand this doesn’t mean they are a pure meritocracy, since luck, focused ambition, and networking ability have at least as much to do with it as talent. Furthermore, rather than being any kind of reactionary force, most would like to think of themselves as “progressive.” Thus a majority of the 1% voted for Obama, who raised the most money in history from Wall Street and even now he has raised more money from bankers than all the Republican Presidential candidates combined. On this basis alone they deserve to get shaken up a bit and continuing Republican resistance to any increase in taxes on them makes no sense. 
Another alleged evil is “greed.” Many people do in fact have good reasons to be angry at “Wall Street,” but greed is not one of them. It is more a case of people being told over the years to make “secure” investments like GM and Citicorp only to see them fizzle- in other words poor performance handling 401(k)s that have gone nowhere for years. But this is more a matter of incompetence than chicanery. The truth is that a lot of the people in charge of things at this time are not very good at what they do. We live in an age of mediocrity not meritocracy. This is true of celebrities as well as CEOs. Is much of this “talent” overcompensated vis a vis everyone else? No doubt, but this does not justify class warfare. Taking something from one person does not make another richer. 
Nostalgic 60s leftists in the media have been sympathetic to the protests, for which the term “occupation” has been attached. But to refer to this phenomenon as “the occupation” is a very sick parody of the real thing, which occurred during World War II. My parents were stuck in Greece for the duration of the war owing to the Nazi occupation and saw a third of the population of Athens starve to death. That’s was the real occupation, not this gathering of clueless miscreants. 
I can’t get too excited in opposition to these demonstrations. From a policy standpoint they are vacuous, and participants clearly have no understanding of economics. They reject hierarchy and order, and favor a vague mix of anarchy and socialism. But they do not represent a serious challenge to authority and their actions are relatively mild. After all anarchists in the past assassinated President William McKinley and in the 1920s set off a bomb on Wall Street. Today we see nothing of that magnitude. 
Although these protestors have little in common with the Tea Party, one thing that stands out across the board is a general disillusionment with elites. This attitude is well founded, given the extent to which the people in charge have mismanaged things. It is increasingly difficult to believe that this is the best we can do, but any changes requires improved mass perception of quality.  In truth we can and must do better, and for elites to justify themselves they must rise above the pervasive mediocrity of our age.

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