The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- two serious protest movements with urgent messages about the condition of the economy and the purpose of government -- do not currently communicate or collaborate with each other. What a wasted opportunity! Even worse, Tea Partiers and Occupiers often look at each other as opponents -- a ridiculous idea, since we are all protesting the same injustices and mistakes, and we all seek the same basic goals: an honest economy, a smaller government, greater freedom and greater opportunity.
It's time for the Tea Party and Occupy movements to begin working together. Throughout history, protest movements with common goals have benefited from collaboration even when they've disagreed on specific issues. The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a few major differences on principles, but we should not let this obscure the fact that our goals converge more often than they diverge. So why are we at each other's throats? Why isn't there a combined Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party gathering going on in every city in the United States of America right now?
I like to develop and improve my political ideas by talking to as many different people as I can, and I've already tested today's argument on a wide range of friends, co-workers and relatives. I discovered a surprising and encouraging thing: people who do not have much interest in either the Tea Party or Occupy movements are the ones most likely to dismiss the idea that they can work together, to declare that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are opposites.
Last weekend we searched for common ground on economic ideology between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street by examining the separate narratives each movement has developed to explain the banking system crash of 2007/2008, and the emotional contexts each narrative brings. Let's spend this weekend looking at the intellectual roots of each protest movement's economic ideology.
The most explosively influential economist of the modern era was Karl Marx, though his dramatic prescriptions for a better society had at least one gigantic problem: they were too stark to result in peaceful change, and instead fed into an atmosphere of global war, counter-reaction and suspicion that has plagued the planet for the last 150 years. Though Marxism turned monstrous in the 20th century, the practical question Karl Marx asked remains vital, and it has been the primary work of 20th century and 21st century economists to formulate better answers to the same question: how should a government manage its economy? Two famous economists, Ludwig von Mises and John Maynard Keynes, have led schools of thought that roughly define the positions of economic protest movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, though not always in simple ways.
The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises has been cited by Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck and others as a powerful influence on current libertarian thought, and is widely celebrated among the intellectual branches of the Tea Party movement. Born in 1881 in the center of a turbulent continent, Mises soaked up the fervent political debates swirling around the University of Vienna as a student and then as a professor, and produced a unique defense of free market capitalism that would please any analytic philosopher. A socially progressive (broadly, socialist) government must fail, he argued, because only free market capitalism can provide the basic language with which we can discuss the value of goods and services. The free market does not only serve producers and consumers, but also provides a self-improving mechanism that a centrally-managed economy can never replicate. The success or failure of any commercial venture provides information about what individuals want to buy, and this information will always be accurate and relevant. No matter how well-intentioned a socialist government might be towards its citizens, it will be struck dumb once its citizens lose their freedom to evaluate goods and services in an open market; under socialism, economic progress "would involve operations the value of which could neither be predicted beforehand nor ascertained after they had taken place. Everything would be a leap in the dark."
A hilarious video of a self-proclaimed Tea Party Congressman from Illinois yelling at his constituents during a campaign appearance made the rounds this week. Representative Joe Walsh (no relation to the talented rocker, whose best song is right here) makes himself ridiculous, though to his credit he seems to realize by the end of this two-minute video how badly he's lost his cool (the woman he's yelling at easily wins the fight with the simple power of a patient smile). Here's what he's saying:
CONGRESSMAN: I don't want government meddling in the marketplace. Yeah, they move from Goldman Sachs to the White House. I understand all that. But you've got to be consistent.
And it's not the private marketplace that's created this mess. What created this mess is your government, which has demanded for years that everybody be in a home, and we have made it as easy as possible for people to be in homes. All the marketplace does is respond to what the government does. The government sets the rules. Don't blame banks and don't blame the marketplace for the mess we're in right now. I am tired of hearing that crap.
WOMAN: Don't you think --
CONGRESSMAN: I am tired of hearing that crap.
WOMAN: -- exploiting the situation? Taking and doing out money to people they know couldn't afford --
CONGRESSMAN: They're are already mechanisms in place --
WOMAN: You don't have to scream at me, I can hear you.
CONGRESSMAN: This pisses me off. Too many people don't listen. There are already mechanisms in place to do that. Are they doing their job? No. But what do you want to do? You want to bombard them with more regulations, more government?
WOMAN: No, I want smart reform.
CONGRESSMAN: Government screwed this problem up. You know what you got? You got Dodd-Frank. You got Dodd-Frank now, that's tying everybody's hands. You want more reform, more regulation? That's what you got. Do you want more regulation? Is that what you want? Do you want Dodd-Frank?
1. Isn't this a great book cover? Woolgathering is not a new Patti Smith book, and it shouldn't be mistaken for a sequel to her great Just Kids. In fact, I first bought this when it was a great little Hanuman book that looked like this:
The Hanuman book looked cool, but I think the newly republished New Directions version's cover art may be even better. Shepherd, tend thy flock.
2. Occupy St. Petersburg? Bill Ectric draws some connections between Nikolai Gogol's financial satire Dead Souls and more recent high finance scams.
3. Steve Silberman asks: What kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, really?
It's a strange and delightful fact that the Occupy movement which began last month on Wall Street was not born on Twitter or Facebook or a blog. Rather, the idea emerged from a dusty print-based medium that almost nobody cares about anymore (or so we thought), a format that dates back to the days of Husker Du and Pagan Kennedy. Occupy Wall Street was born in a zine.
Adbusters was founded in Vancouver, Canada in 1989 by Kalle Lasn, an Estonian-born filmmaker outraged by the insidious and deceptively "warm" television commercials the timber industry was running in the Pacific Northwest to cover its destruction of vast areas of forest. Adbusters began using humor and parody to highlight and combat corporate and consumerist groupthink, and over the past two decades has staged many events and campaigns: TV commercials that mock other commercials, "open source" sneakers resembling existing sneaker brands, a "Buy Nothing Day" to combat holiday shopping mania, fake tickets to place on the windshields of SUVs. The zine became a staple of bookstore magazine shelves in the 1990s, sharing space with other worthy indie publications like Bitch, Giant Robot, Bust, Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, Craphound and Factsheet Five.
Like many other media jammers such as Julian Assange, Kalle Lasn is stronger on vision than on charisma, and likes to keep a low public profile. He occasionally appears on TV, and wrote a book, Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America, in 1999. Unlike other media organizations with less political conviction, Adbusters appears to be truly opposed to mainstream success, and has resisted the temptaion to dilute its message in search of greater popularity. But the organization's intrinsic hostility to media respectability has sometimes left curious newcomers confused about its program, and has given its opponents an easy opportunity to dismiss the (clearly honest) organization as extremist, Marxist, sympathetic to foreign influences.
People complain that the Occupy Wall Street movement has no goals, even though the General Assembly has posted a clear statement of principles. I consider myself a part of this movement, and I'd like to state what I think this important protest needs to achieve.
I know a little bit about finance. No, actually, I know a whole lot about finance. I worked two years directly on Wall Street, and another two years before that for a banking research boutique, Loan Pricing Corporation (now known as Thompson Reuters LPC). In 1999 I made a personal profit of over $100,000 on a dot-com IPO (as I wrote about in my memoir of the Silicon Alley boom). I have gained and lost money on other stock market investments as well, and I've read many books about high finance, from The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow to Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin.
I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:
- a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
- a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
- cops that were mostly friendly
- cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work ("join us!" "yeah, whatever")
- well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
- a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
- a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
- various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
- an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
- a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance
The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening's general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.
Soon somebody right next to me yelled "Mic check!", and a group of people milling around us yelled back "Mic check!". At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park's paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.
I did not find myself on Wall Street by accident; I had graduated from a state university with a computer science degree six years earlier, and had taken a series of jobs that each brought me closer to the top of my field. I wasn't particularly interested in high finance, but I was ambitious for an exciting career, and the financial industry was considered the most prestigious place for a techie to work in New York City at this time. I did not find what I hoped for there. My two year adventure at JP Morgan left me deeply disappointed on many levels, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to leave the financial software marketplace for better work elsewhere (I never looked back, except sometimes in anger).
It's strange to watch the news coverage of the unemployment crisis in the United States right now. The word "jobs" has become a simplistic mantra. We need to create jobs! Where are the jobs? Yet, as everyone who has a job knows, there's nothing simple about modern employment.
A good job is a wondrous thing, and can form the foundation of a meaningful and satisfied life. But many jobs turn out to be irrational at their core, and even the best jobs are riven with conflict. There's no doubt that our current 9.1% unemployment rate is a serious economic crisis. But for some people, the first day of a new job is the beginning of a different kind of crisis, and you won't find coverage of this crisis on any blog or cable news show.
As a software developer with marketable skills, I'm fortunate to have plenty of job options. I know that some people who struggle for employment think I have it easy. But I also struggle hard to balance my personal life with the requirements of my work. A typical software job means a commitment of five long days a week, with constant demands for overtime work, and only two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks of free time a year!
Amazingly, most software developers blindly acquiesce to this unreasonable level of commitment, often for little satisfaction or appreciation in return. They take out their anger and resentment by goofing off on the job, developing negative attitudes ("this job sucks"), doing shoddy work ... and yet they'll still set their alarm clocks and trudge off to their cubicles every day. Some of them even feel guilty if they ever arrive ten minutes late, or if they only work straight hours and don't put in the overtime that's invariably expected.
Here's a tough challenge for anybody: talk about politics, about everything our muddled, dysfunctional democratic government is doing wrong, without resorting to the following cliches:
- Declaring that the other side is evil.
- Declaring that the other side is stupid or uneducated.
- Declaring that the other side is so hopelessly corrupt that negotiation or compromise is pointless.
These easy excuses have become very popular in the United States of America, and of course the sentiments are the same on the right and the left. Many of those who find hope in the Tea Party movement believe that our government has been infiltrated by socialists or Marxists ("evil"), that decades of soft-headed liberal education has left Americans unable to understand and appreciate the hard edges of the U. S. Constitution ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D.C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.
On the other extreme are the frustrated liberals who may have once held some hope for Barack Obama's leadership, but are disgusted with the results so far. They believe our nation is in the grip of racist, hate-filled voters ("evil"), that the Fox News-watching, Rush Limbaugh-listening, Sarah Palin-fan club populace knows nothing about history or economics ("stupid", "uneducated"), that Washington D. C. is a nest of thieves that must be wiped clean ("hopelessly corrupt") before our society's true inner goodness can be revealed.