Today was my one afternoon of being a tourist in New York. After the return trip to the Natural History Museum I went downtown to see the "Occupy Wall Street" protest in Liberty Square. I had no clue about their agenda and the general description was that they did not stand for anything. If they stood for something like bringing back Glass Steagell maybe we would understand it and maybe they would achieve something - but it seemed far more unfocused than that.
My goal was to work out what they wanted and for that I was going to use a simple research tool. I was going to ask them.
On the periphery I found gold-bugs and anti-fed activists - not really part of the main group. They were a lonely looking lot. This photo of one, standing alone, describes them accurately:
Somewhere between the lone-ranger gold-bugs and the protest were the police. They were numerous and one of their horses startled and scared me. One protester was walking by with a placard protesting the extent of police presence and the seeming cost of that.
I thought he had a point. To an Australian the police seemed far more scary than the protesters though when I asked a protester about them he thought the police were "well behaved".
The first detailed conversation I had was with a middle-aged guy who was there "largely to exercise his first amendment rights" and the "rights embedded in the constitution". He did not really know what he was saying except that he had the right to say it and that it somehow involved good government. He did not like the libertarians (who he thought were rather silly) but he kind of liked the anarchy of the whole scene. And he gave me the quote of the day. The protesters were "anarchists for good government".
Anarchists for good government sounded silly but it was accurate. Whilst there were people carrying placards that said "fight for socialism" that was not why any of the people I asked said they were there. They were there because the system was broken. They thought that income distribution was screwy in America and whilst they thought the Wall Street bailouts might have been necessary they found big bonuses in bailed out banks deeply offensive. And I can't say I blame them.
They almost universally thought that government was owned by "corporations" and uber-rich individuals who have purchased the politicians. A middle aged woman was carrying a placard wanting "no more congressional whores". Almost universally they thought the system did not work for them but it did work for some shadowy elite.
But if you asked them what to do about it they did not know. Some had specific ideas (one argued that the Citizens United Judgement should be overturned). Most however had no specific agenda at all - just a general feeling of malaise about the economy.
A pretty young black woman I spoke to was about the most lucid person I found. She thought the American dream had been narrowed to a very small elite and that class distinction was rampant. She was at the protest because she thought that Wall Street was the most obvious bastion of elitism in America.
I asked her what she wanted to do in life and she said she wanted to work in the fashion industry in New York. I looked at her puzzled and she sheepishly admitted that was another bastion of elitism. Then she told me she wanted to start her own company. I wished her luck. She was charming in her hypocrisy.
This placard best summarized the crowd:
Our economy could be "more fair" is a reasonable statement of desire or even fact - but it contains no prescription at all. The United States has had times of high income inequality (the Guilded Age, now) and times of lower income inequality. And I do not want to say it was the New Deal or anything else that caused changing income distribution. Income distribution in Australia was flattest at the end of a very extended period (23 years) of Conservative government. The economy could be more fair. Then again it could be less fair.
Somehow we have developed a winner-takes-a-great-deal economy. I regret not asking these people if they begrudged Steve Jobs dying with 7 billion dollars personal wealth. I somehow doubt it. iPhones were ubiquitous and they clearly believe that Jobs created something that they wanted.
But they would have universally thought it unreasonable that Wall Street CEOs were so rich when their banks were bailed out.
In other words they had a view that the economy could be more fair and that their definition of fairness actually accords with a lot of other Americans. Plenty of people would agree with them.
The Tea Party protesters in America are also animated by a feeling that the system could be more fair - as are the people who protested the Federal Reserve bank. For that matter the (very small) minority at this protest wanting "socialism" probably feel that way too. The feeling is unifying. The prescriptions as to what to do about it are not.
And the puzzling part of this protest was that there was no consistent prescription and nobody arguing for one - so they were unified by their common feeling and not divided by their hostility to each other's prescriptions.
In other words like most Americans they do not have a practical clue on how to get the sort of economy they want and the sort of politics they want. And so they had no agenda at all.
But most Americans don't go to protests. These people go to this strangely unfocused protest. This man - clearly middle-class and better dressed said it quite well. He was at this protest and he just wanted to tell you that. He had no agenda.
I found the lack of an agenda puzzling as did one life-time protester I talked to (someone who thought that growth-led capitalism would eventually fail because of environmental problems). He thought it was the most anarchic protest he had ever been to (no leader, no agenda). But then he thought the food was better than at any protest he had been to. I repeated the anarchists for good government line to him and he agreed. Then he said, pointing at dinner just being wheeled out, that the food was great. It was also he said anarchists with good government.
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