Revolution on Wall Street?

October 3, 2011

by Chidem Kurdas

Protestors have “occupied” a square near Wall Street for weeks. Hundreds of them were arrested, some 700 while blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. The movement may be spreading to other American cities. At least one demonstrator says: “This is a revolution.”

They complain of joblessness and the inequities of global capitalism, though the sources of their distress vary widely, from having to pay back student loans to the depredations of the internal combustion engine. At this point their immediate, tangible adversary appears to be the New York Police Department. It is easy to make fun of disaffected middle-class kids with Apple computers camping out in Downtown Manhattan. They bask in media limelight while taunting working-class cops. Still, we should try to understand the matter.

According to OccupyWallSt.org, the website that contains the demonstrators’ messages and daily activities, this is a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions” who are united by a determination “to no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”   They say they are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactics to achieve their ends.

Commentators point to parallels with the Arab Spring, but in fact there is a sharp difference.  Egyptian protestors had a definite goal—-to get rid of Mubarak and install a new government. Other Arab rebels similarly want to change their government.

By contrast, the Wall Street occupiers are largely in agreement with President Obama.  He has repeatedly proposed increased taxes on those with higher incomes, most recently as a jobs initiative—-it is the protestors’ one clear-cut demand that the rich pay more taxes. Public labor unions pledged help for the occupiers. Unions are major backers and also beneficiaries of the Obama administration. Despite some anarchist and even libertarian rhetoric, these protestors are in effect supporting the current US government.

They don’t want to change the administration, except maybe to move it further to the left. To the extent one can read a program into mostly nebulous grievances, they want a Robin Hood scheme implemented by government, not that far off from mainstream left-liberal aspirations. Nothing new in that. Such policies have been instituted since the 1930s—one should add, with massive unintended consequences.

In particular, interventions to correct perceived injustices have led to a much larger government and an immense increase in special interest lobbying. As long as the government gives out substantial goodies to some and imposes significant damages on others, it creates big incentives for interest groups to shape policies to their own benefit—-as Hayek predicted.

The protestors declaim against the money influence in politics and show their radical chops by confronting NYPD on the streets. But they and their union allies stand for the same corrupting unlimited government that is in place.

Theirs is not a revolution so much as an early support rally, done on the sly, for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

22 Responses to “Revolution on Wall Street?”

  1. Becky Hargrove Says:

    You must have missed the End the Fed signs. Sorry but this post was not as helpful as it could have been.


  2. Hi Chidem,

    interesting post.

    To be honest I was surprised that only one side has rallied in the US so far. Perhaps this is because Obama is president.

    But banks were bailed out. Families lost. In Europe many people say markets failed. Most people are in favor of more regulation – if we can believe the polls.

    It will make US politics and the upcoming elections very tough if the green-left-liberal middle class lobbies more against capitalism.

    I wonder how the two parties will deal with this.


  3. @Becky Hargrove:
    All sorts of tendencies show up at events like these — as in the Arab Spring events that the demonstrators are purportedly imitating. I think Chidem Kurdas’s article is right on target vis-a-vis (1) the orientation of a majority of the demonstrators and (2) how the mainstream media are and will be playing the event.


  4. My question is who is paying for them? If they are occupying Wall Street, they are obviously neither working nor going to school. Fox News reported an unconfirmed story that unions are supporting the protests.

  5. N. Joseph Potts Says:

    If unions are supporting (financially) the protesters, then (consumers and) the taxpayers are supporting them.

    If only government unions are supporting the protesters, then only the taxpayers are supporting them.

    And that’s all of us – except for those of us collecting more from the government than we are paying into it.

  6. bill butos Says:

    The anti-Fed rhetoric is what one could expect from the statist/popularist sentiments of many of the protesters. Chidem is right that the basic message is anti-capitalist. Unfortuntely, from what I’ve seen on Fox Business, the NYPD seems to have gone into “crowd control”mode – which often gives protestors yet another cause celebre which can fuel the idealism of the young and unemployed. As the weather gets chillier in NY, I would expect many to move south or return to their parents’ homes in the burbs.


  7. There is a lot of hurt out there, and the left is trying to tap into it in the way the Tea Party has on the right. The problems are real, even if the Wall Street gorup lacks solutions.

    The anti-Fed sentiment united the libertarian right and the left. Ron Paul’s Audit the Fed bill passed Congress because the unions backed it. Barney Frank was steamrolled by his own caucus.

  8. Greg Hill Says:

    “Still, we should try to understand the matter,” Mr. Kurdas says. Yet the explanation forthcoming never gets beyond the notion that the protestors are just “disaffected middle-class kids with Apple computers camping out in Downtown Manhattan. They bask in media limelight while taunting working-class cops.”

    Wow, privileged middle-class kids taunting (oppressed?) working-class cops. This could have been written by a vulgar Marxist or by one of Nixon’s speech writters. What’s next, Austrian references to “the silent majority”?

    And then there’s Jerry Driscoll’s take: “My question is who is paying for them? If they are occupying Wall Street, they are obviously neither working nor going to school. Fox News reported an unconfirmed story that unions are supporting the protests.”

    Really, “an unconfirmed story [from Fox News!!] that unions are supporting the protests.” Must young people protesting on Wall St. “obviously” be “neither working nor going to school”? No possibility that they’re protesting between classes or between working hours or living off savings or gifts from their parents?

    And then there’s the brilliant deduction by Mr. Potts from the *possibility* that Fox News’ “unconfirmed report” is actually true: “If unions are supporting (financially) the protesters, then (consumers and) the taxpayers are supporting them.” Well, there’s just no end to such “subsidies.” What if hedge fund managers are supporting the protestors in hopes of showing that anti-capitalist protestors are just rich kids with ipods taunting working-class cops? Would taxpayers be subsidizing them because hedge fund managers have been successful in getting “carried interest” classified as capital gains rather than ordinary income?

    Finally, Bill Butos complains, “Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen on Fox Business [!!], the NYPD seems to have gone into ‘crowd control’ mode – which often gives protestors yet another cause celebre which can fuel the idealism of the young and unemployed. As the weather gets chillier in NY, I would expect many to move south or return to their parents’ homes in the burbs.”

    Why do many writers on this blog get their news from Fox, whose mean viewer has wildly inaccurate views about the proportion of their income they pay in taxes, the amount of foreign aid included in the Federal budget, etc? And then, again, we’re presented with the trite contention that the protestors are just spoiled brats who’ll go home to “the burbs” when it gets cold (just like the “kids” who protested the Viet Nam war or participated in the civil rights movement?).

    If you get your information from Fox News, you won’t know that, leaving aside the top 1% of income recipients in both the U.S. and France, average income per capita has grown faster in France than in the U.S. over the last twenty years or more. Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to discuss whether this statistic is important, and, if it is, what explains this remarkable trend?

  9. John Ahn Says:

    Good article. This is not a revolution – revolution is possible only in a repressive society. In America, in New York, in the center of the free world, it is not a revolution. it is only a mere expression of belief that some body has gotta feed me, hire me, pay for my descent lifestyle. When you try to exchange society’s freedom for bread, it is called a highway to a totalitarian society.

  10. Gordon Boronow Says:

    The protesters are granted a cetain level of sympathy, because the public shares the vague feeling that bailouts of banks were not “right”. Dodd-Frank did not address the root probllem. We need to restore the capitalist tool of failure to deal with reckless business behavior. There can be no protest against well deserved business failure.

  11. chidemkurdas Says:

    Jerry O’Driscoll–
    Re “My question is who is paying for them?”
    It’s a key question. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but it is clear the public unions support the movement in general and have bolstered its ranks.

  12. chidemkurdas Says:

    Andreas Hoffman–
    True, it has been tough for many people. Including the many laid off from Wall Street.

    Market economies have, of course, long been cyclical. What needs to be better understood is the role played by various arms of the government in making this cycle worse than it otherwise would have been.

  13. Greg Hill Says:

    Mr. Kurdas, et al,

    I don’t understand your focus on nefarious connections and motives. I doubt that Hayek ever engaged in this kind of mean-spirited questioning of motives and class-based criticism of bourgeois students taunting proletarian police.

    Why not focus on the substance of complaint, which is that too much wealth and income is concentrated in too few hands. The protestors object to the fact that the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the poorest 150,000,000.

    You may argue that income-distribution outcomes are irrelevant. If goods and services are voluntarily exchanged in free markets, then this process of free exchange confers legitimacy on whatever distribution of income and wealth ensues. This Nozickian argument is open to criticism, but it’s an honorable argument, quite different from complaining about union support for the protesters.

    Or, you could argue that inequality is the price we pay for rising incomes. This “trickle down” theory is open to objections: 1) real median wages have actually fallen over the last two decades; 2) income growth in the bottom four quintiles was much higher when income inequality was much lower (the 1960s and 70s); 3) the top 1% of income recipients have received roughly 70% of the income gains over the last couple of decades; etc.

    Shouldn’t these kinds of arguments be the focus of discussion rather than petty claims about “middle-class kids with Apple computers camping out in Downtown Manhattan”?

    p.s. If you’ll switch channels from Fox News (and, yes, I do force myself to watch it periodically) to PBS, you’ll see some interesting footage showing how the protestors have organized themselves to provide food, security, and even a mini-library: a case study in effective cooperation one could even say.


  14. Chidem,

    I agree with you. People fail to see the problems government caused.

    The protests get quite a bit of media here. Obama implicitly agrees with their main claims. This is smart of him – with the coming elections in mind.

    Interesting times.

  15. Greg Hill Says:

    Blog administrator,

    Do you have a policy regarding which comments are subject to “moderation” and how long they are held for “moderation” before being published or not?


  16. This is less relevant to me than Amanda Knox being released. On my PC, I have CNN for my homepage. On my Mac, the homepage is Reuters. I see headlines about music stars and television personalities, but I don’t read them. It is enough to know that Jack Sprat is having a baby or that Bo-Peep is getting divorced… and that protesters are on Wall Street….

    Here at home. we have been devouring “Big Bang Theory” on DVD. There was the episode with Will Wheaton, where he taps Sheldon on the forehead and says, “You just gave me free rental right here.”

    I wonder if World War II would even have happened if people had laughed at Hitler and walked away.

    Protesters on Wall Street… Penguins in the Antarctic… film at 11.

  17. chidemkurdas Says:

    Greg Hill–
    Re “Why not focus on the substance of complaint, which is that too much wealth and income is concentrated in too few hands. ”
    I can’t imagine how chanting slogans on the street is a useful way to discuss Nozick or trickle-down theory, whatever one thinks of those arguments. There are many places and ways to talk about income distribution; one does not need to do so on Brooklyn Bridge.

  18. chidemkurdas Says:

    The union involvement is all over the news, not just Fox. Here is a story from CNN, one of many such stories across the media:
    “Wall Street protests swelled Wednesday to their largest numbers yet, after local unions pledged support to a third week of demonstrations …”

    http://articles.cnn.com/2011-10-05/politics/politics_occupy-wall-street_1_protests-in-other-cities-protestors-demonstrations?_s=PM:POLITICS

  19. Greg Hill Says:

    Dear Chidem,

    “I can’t imagine how chanting slogans on the street is a useful way to discuss Nozick or trickle-down theory, whatever one thinks of those arguments. There are many places and ways to talk about income distribution; one does not need to do so on Brooklyn Bridge.”

    What a peculiar complaint. Do you think the extension of the suffrage, “careers open to talent,” etc., came about without any demonstrations (also known as freedom of association)?

    Granted, it’s hard to have a discussion about Rawls, Nozick, etc., on the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s easy to have such a discussion on a blog, which is precisely what I was suggesting.

    I never denied that unions could be supporting the demonstrators, even participating with them. But then again, I don’t regard their exercise of freedom of association as conferring guilt by association upon the protestors.

  20. chidemkurdas Says:

    Greg–
    I believe in the freedom to associate, even when people abuse that freedom and impose costs on others. Obviously we have different views of these protests.

  21. Johnny Ringo 22 Says:

    Do me a favor and ask Robert Paul Wolff and Brian Leiter this question: why are they spared the wrath of the 99%? Tenured professors, raised in privilege, products of Princeton and Michigan law school, living lives of luxury and leisure in comparison to the steel worker, the coal miner, the day laborer.

    How does the the spoiled privileged Leiter respond to the following: Fairness is considered over the course of a lifetime. This does not exempt the privileged lives of professors, the beneficiaries of capitalism living lives of relative luxury and greed in comparison to steel workers and coal miners. We do not take current distributions as the baseline and simply move on from here. As a matter of fact, this is exactly the objection made against most utilitarian property theorists. Therefore, the unjust distributions that you have benefited from, the skills you have developed because of your privileged position within the capitalist regime, all these resources you have enjoyed will not be forgotten by We the 99%. And here we are. It is time to pay the piper, and this includes the professors as well as the bankers, CEOs and corporate attorneys. It is time for Brian Leiter, Robert Paul Wolff, Paul G. Allen, Warren Buffett, and the rest of the privileged few to make good on their debts. They must now give up their comfortable positions at Univ. of Chicago, etc. and pick up a shovel. It is our time to bask in the sun.

  22. chidemkurdas Says:

    Johnny Ringo 22–

    Re “They must now give up their comfortable positions at Univ. of Chicago, etc. and pick up a shovel. ”

    OK, but what do you want them to do with those shovels?


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