Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#OccupyWhoville

It's nearing the end of the year and it's Christmastime, so I would certainly be remiss if I didn't put in a proper dose of grinch.

I have deliberately not written too much about the Occupy Wall Street movement. There is a reason for that, and that is that I kind of wanted to see how the entire thing played out. Despite the fact that I am a die-hard free marketeer and as a general rule quite unfriendly to liberally-minded protests such as this, I was (quite to my own surprise) initially sympathetic to the movement. While I certainly wasn't in sync with the goals of the protestors, I was kind of glad that 1) someone was calling out the big financiers on their actions (despite the popular perception, "Too Big To Fail" isn't a particularly conservative position--witness the original voting failure of TARP) and 2) the spirit of the protest was still alive (I know that the protest we permit today will be the protest for a different issue I may join tomorrow).


Still, as time dragged on and the OWS movement wasn't going away, I became more and more hostile and disillusioned towards it. There are a few reasons:

1. A few points about issues. I wasn't a fan of the bailouts or the big fat bonuses paid to executives of failed companies, but I understand the reality of the situation. Failure of too many of these companies would, indeed, have made the situation much worse, and if there was any hope of salvaging the remains there had to be some sort of incentive to keep the specialists (which, yes, includes president-level staff) on. Personally, I would have been fine letting them fail--see hazard, moral--but I understand the political reality of the situation.

2. It's tempting to place the blame for our economic downturn on George W. Bush or the Republicans or the mortgage industry. And you would be right. Except you also have to blame Bill Clinton, the Democrats, and, um, all of us. You see, roughly two decades ago, the seed was planted for our doom: Clinton effectively forced mortgage lenders to lend to a certain percentage of poor people to encourage equity building and home ownership, both seen to be (quite rightly) as the backbone of the middle class. Of course, by taking on the extra risk (a lot of those loans didn't get paid back) they had to think of creative ways to make up the difference. With an expanded pool of eligible homeowners demand rose dramatically, fueling the bubble we now see. Of course, for nearly twenty years no one said a PEEP--why would they? Politicians were putting people in homes. Bankers, buoyed by rising property values, were making coin on even the shakiest of mortgages. And you and I? We were getting awesome loans. Why would anyone stop? So, yes, blame the president, and blame the parties, but you also have to look in the mirror and blame yourself.

3. While this recession has been admittedly rough and genuinely the deepest since the Depression, let's not forget that it was due. Even a casual look at our history shows that we have a recession approximately every 7-10 years, and our last one was in 2000-2001. Recessions suck but are necessary, as they shake off a lot of the structural changes that happen every cycle. This one was made worse by the actions of politicians (and others, as above), but it's not like there was never going to be another recession. 

4. Much of OWS is railing against the "system," the catch-all term for all that is wrong with the nation. The problem is, of course, that people like the system--political and economic--even though we're having a tough time at both right now. Calls to socialize mortgages or disband the financial sector (or even more modest proposals, such as changing the tax code) just won't fly when people can't take out loans for cars or homes anymore.

5. Aside from the issues, of course, is the actions of the organization itself. And this is where the true disappointment comes in. Many comparisons to the Tea Party have been made--rightly so--and this is where things start to break down. While the Tea Party protested, they then turned around and recruited candidates and had voter drives. So far the OWS movement has done none (or very little) of that. It also seems like they are just having fun protesting so they can tell their kids where they were in 2011. I see a lot of hand-painted signs and sleeping in tents to show how dedicated they are, but very little by way of actual practical demands or translating this into electoral success.

6. The protests have moved into "mission creep"--that is, they've expanded the protests to more or less include anything they feel needs protested. This isn't how it works; you have people who originally were interested become disinterested when the protest includes issues they don't agree with; lack of focus means no one issue gets anyone's attention; and it reinforces the stereotype that the protestors are more interested in protesting then actually changing anything. And just coming up with a slogan--"We Are The 99%"--isn't enough.

7. Finally, the tactics of the protests have turned people off. Everyone supports free speech, but most of the protests happened on private property. The length and nature of the protests meant that very few local governments would allow permits, so any "official" protests on government property were short-lived. In order to make it a long-term protest, they camped out on private property (often the property of banks, who often permitted them to stay, which they were not obligated to do)--which many protestors then declared "their own" and started to violate their welcome. And then, when faced with the fact that they were violating the law, continued to do so, and then cried foul when the police retaliated. The protestors, no doubt, think they are violating laws created by an unjust system, but in reality most people simply see them as people who think the laws don't apply to them. I hate to the the use of force by police officers against anyone protesting and exercising their free speech, but when you repeatedly break the law--and not for civil rights or peace, but for a change in our mortgage system or tax code--no one should be surprised.

The Pledge: Occupy Wall Street turned itself from what could have easily been a Tea Party-style mass movement to effect legislative change, but turned out to be the stereotypical hypocritical protest-loving collection of hipsters, elitists, and brainwashed college kids they tried not to be.

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