Occupying Wall Street or Preoccupied with Anger?

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I guess I ‘m not a big fan of protests in general. I know it is in vogue to criticize big business and Wall Street as being corrupt and hence the source of our economic woes. I’ll concede there is probably some truth to that, and I suppose protests have their uses.  The Arab Spring, the Hippy Movement, and The Orange Revolution all contributed to positive change. But let’s take a specific look at the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Numerous commentators have noted Occupy Wall Street seems to have vague and undefined interests. According to a recent BBC article, people gave reasons for being there as smattering of these below.

  • Being inspired by the Arab Spring and wanting to participate in a big movement
  • Feeling Americans are too apathetic
  • Unhappy with the execution of Troy Davis
  • Wanting to abolish the Federal Reserve
  • Upset the corporations stealing bailout money and getting rich

These reasons are more of a mishmash of issues people are angry about than a focused agenda. The reasons are mostly bitching about problems without real (or practical) solutions. It seems many of the people are simply hoping to be part of something grand, or they want people to change the world for them. According to CNN,

“We’re here for different reasons,” said Vincent, whose father is also unemployed and recently went through a home foreclosure. “But at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing, and that’s accountability. We want accountability for the connection between Wall Street and the politicians.”

Whenever I hear people talk about accountability of other people, it makes me uneasy.  As humans we have a tendency to assume that the failings of others are due to their character faults.  But in reality the economic system is highly complex and it is not easy to understand. The vast majority of people in the country are doing their best given their situation. It is very easy to overgeneralize and assume things like “those people are corrupt or not accountable to the people” without really understanding the realities how decisions are made, how markets operate, and what kinds of regulations do or do not exist. These over-generalizations get propagated by pundits who are trying to make sensational comments to draw ratings, not to solve the problem.

Certainly, as we have seen, there are corrupt people. But, as Judith Samuelson astutely described in the Huffington Post,

“[We] know from experience that real change is hard; that to influence business, and Wall Street, requires people skills as well as analytics, patience, and multiple approaches to gain the attention and commitment of the power brokers who set the rules and design the reward systems.”

Ms. Samuelson is exactly right. Most change takes informed action on multiple fronts. The current situation we are in has persisted mainly because there are no easy solutions. In fact, pursuing the easy solutions—or the ones that were demanded loud enough before—may be what got us here. Now, the real solutions require concessions on all sides that people are not willing to make and politicians are too timid to risk. What we need is honest and open deliberation to bring people together on the appropriate solutions.

Protests can be useful in raising attention to a problem, but I don’t think anyone is not aware that there are problems. What we really need is all of us working together to create solutions. Protests don’t start small businesses. They don’t get new people elected. They don’t create jobs, except for a handful of reporters.

If 700 young adults that are protesting could be organized to create value for other people, it would be a lot more productive than blocking traffic in New York.  To that end, I would find it interesting to know how many of the protesters voted in the last election, are informed on the issues, or have any real understanding of government or economics.

Without a clear understanding of how we got here and what works, we run the risk of running in circle. I’m reminded of the famous song by The Who called “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

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