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All Day, All Week

October 7, 2011

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Last Saturday, I paid a visit to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Here is what I can report, and what I have to say about it.

Preface

I am always very skeptical of mass protest movements in the United States. Any sort of hyperbole and populism usually turns me off and it was with this fear that I approached Zuccotti Park last Saturday. I had heard a lot about Occupy Wall Street and wanted to see it for myself.

Mainstream media coverage had been limited, but with the demonstrations growing by the day, that had begun to change. Most liberal outlets had approached the movement with caution, with the conservative media almost completely silent (though the National Review Online wrongly declared they had found out what the official demands where. For your reference, a more accurate list can actually be found here, by accurate I mean more reflective of what I saw on my visit. And I should also note that the demonstrations have received support from some unlikely places).

My Visit- 10/1/11

I arrived at about 5:30 on Saturday afternoon. As the rain poured down on Liberty Street, there looked to be about 300 people crowded into Zuccotti Park. Even at my first glance, I was amazed at the diversity of the crowd: college students, recent graduates, veterans, transit workers, and even a few 9/11 first responders. This was far from a crowd of bearded hippies and spoiled liberal elitists that I had heard about. Thankfully, I did not see anyone from The International Action Center or the Lyndon LaRouche crowd. And, at least when I went, there were no 9/11 Truthers either. The local SEIU 1499 had shown up, along other union representatives. Some street performers were there, including drum-circle (it must be a pre-requisite at these sorts of things), and a few trumpets. Any observer could look on and see a peaceful group gathered that night- cheering, singing, dancing. If you didn’t know better, you would think it was just a street festival, until you read all the signs of course:

“Too Big to Fail is Too Big to Allow”

“Glass Steagall Now!”

“The 1% Buy our Government, the 99% should own it (too)”

One sign I was surprised to see was: “End the Fed”. Believe it or not, I actually saw a few Ron Paul posters. I should say that my friend Colin, a Libertarian and Ron Paul supporter, is a passionate supporter of the demonstrations. More about him later. On the more radical side, there were a few Socialist and Anarchist groups present, but their numbers were so few that one would have to go looking for them. I didn’t see too many crust-punks at the demonstration either (…though I did see a lot of them gathered at the local McDonalds down the street).

As I walked around, an NYU student was interviewing a protester, composed but visibly angry:

“Look, if the rich are willing to move forward and contribute to solving our problems, then we’ll go along with them. But if people like me are going to face cuts to social services, that we’ve already paid for, and the rich aren’t going to do their part, then you’re going to see more of us out here.”

You might recognize him as the man wearing the Union Army hat as shown in this segment on The Daily Show.

At the very front of the square a young man with a poster was chatting with people as they passed by. He seemed friendly, so I took out my notepad and asked him for a quick interview. I began by asking him: “What brought you here, and why is all of this important to you?” His name was Alex, and he had traveled to Manhattan from upstate New York. He began by saying “how we’re all angry with how things are going”, but then he got specific. Apparently he worked in environmental science and was very concerned about Natural Gas companies buying the land upstate and operating without the proper oversight of the EPA. He explained how cuts and de-regulation have eroded the ability of the EPA and other agencies to manage safety standards. He was especially alarmed at the number of facilities in use that were in “near catastrophic” condition. After some back and forth with me about the merits of natural gas- he admitted that such an abundant resource should absolutely be used, but in a way that won’t pollute the water supply. For him, what tied this to Occupy Wall Street was big business’ drive to maximize quarterly profits and disregard for adverse effects their operations may have on other people, along with the failure of public servants in Washington to keep tabs on them. He made an appeal to business’ self-interest too. His comparison was: “if you’re a logging company, it’s kind of hard to have a sustainable business when you’ve cut down all of the trees! If you’re in the fishing business, if you’ve depleted the fish stocks, you’re screwed! Businesses need to think more long-term.” The logging analogy doesn’t exactly work, as I’m sure most loggers have replanting strategies to avoid running out of trees- but I knew what he meant.

I bring up this conversation because, even if you disagree with him, Alex at least he offered a position one could argue against. He didn’t just stand there and pontificate about the evils of businessmen or visions of an ideal society. He was also just a really nice person and I told him how good it was to talk to him. He motioned me closer and whispered:

“You know something Drew, I fear I’m an anomaly here.”

He was afraid that many of his fellow protestors might not be as informed as he was, or that they didn’t have a specific reason to be there like he did. I knew what he meant there as well.

Around 6:30, the crowd cheered as an enormous line of demonstrators marched into the square. With the chant “All Day, All Week, Occupy Wall Street”, they came as the square prepared for the meeting of the general assembly. At this point, the crowd must have been 800-1000 strong. When the assembly convenes, the speaker says a few words and the crowd repeats them so the whole audience can hear. As the NYPD won’t allow them to use megaphones, this is the only effective way for the crowd to communicate.

After watching the procession march in, I spoke to one of the editors of The Occupy Wall Street Journal. As the print-media arm of the movement, I figured this would be a reliable source of information. A man in his late 20’s walked up to the table and asked “So do you guys have any actual demands yet? You’re on my commute and I think I’ve asked you a few times this week and I still don’t know exactly what you want.” A Wall Street Worker! The organizer pointed out some of the major demands the committees were working on and as the conversation continued, the finance worker said that if the movement would explain their demands, most bankers would actually agree to them.

I had to seize on this. I joined the conversation and told the finance worker about the article I was writing. For obvious reasons, he said he couldn’t give his name or that of his company:

“10,000 layoffs have been announced in the past couple weeks in finance alone, so I have to be careful.”

So I asked him, “Out of the demands that you just heard, which do you agree with?” He looked me in the eye and counted on his fingers:

Put the major provisions of Glass Steagell back in place, hold people on Wall Street accountable, fund the SEC and other regulatory agencies so they can actually do their job, and implement campaign finance reform.

Indeed, these are a few of the major demands of the movement. Here is that list again, just to be clear. We were joined by a couple protesters, a man and a woman, both in their late 40’s. They were a little abrasive with their attitude, but they were far from hysterical and were more than willing to have a good debate. They couldn’t believe that any banker would be willing to listen to Occupy Wall Street at all. So the banker pointed out that many people in finance are angry about the financial crisis and how certain parts of the industry benefit when the rest of the economy tanks. On the question of regulation, he stressed that most bankers want to know that their colleagues are playing by the rules and are held responsible when they don’t. They don’t like seeing their fellow bankers tarnish the reputation of the entire industry.

When pushed on taxes, he met the challenge with excitement: “I’m actually a bit of a tax policy wonk, so yea I’d love to talk about this!” What followed was a discussion about Hedge Funds, carried interest, progressive taxation, the difference between earned income and capital gains, and several other issues. The guy knew his facts, and it was a real pleasure to be part of the discussion. One of the protesters lamented that “This discussion we’re having here, it’s not happening where it needs to. It’s not on cable news, not in Washington, nowhere.” Before leaving, he did his best to convince the protestors that “most bankers are good, honest, hard-working people” and don’t live to just cheat the system and screw people over. With friends and family who work in finance, I can definitely confirm this to be true. But I think it’s very telling that someone who works on Wall Street was so eager to engage and relate to the protesters. He also recommended a great blog run by his friend who’s a quantitative analyst (a “quant” as they’re known in business-speak). I recommend you check out her article on Occupy Wall Street.

After spending a few hours at the demonstration, I left Zuccotti Park and made my way to Brooklyn for some drinks with my friends. This finally gave me the chance to talk to Colin about the protests. For him, the movement represented a stand against an anti-democratic centralization of power on Wall Street. However, he had started to lose faith. He was disappointed about all the typical “tag-along” groups that had arrived: the “Free Mumia” crowd, the “End Aid to Israel” crowd, ect. Although I think this is a symptom of all protest-movements, I can see the point he was making. A movement about economics and political corruption should keep its focus there. When other groups attach their initiatives to the list of grievances, it muddies the larger message.

The Hard Data

It’s important to keep in mind the historical reasons why how our economy is structured the way it is. This September, the CIO Team at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management titled their monthly report Unraveling the Crisis of Confidence. The report addresses many of the underlying problems in the labor market and the imbalances that have emerged over the last few decades:

“…the last 30-40 years has seen fantastic gains in U.S. labor productivity, driving, at least in part, the record profitability delivered this cycle by our largest corporations. But against this backdrop, U.S. real average hourly earnings are essentially flat to down, with today’s inflation-adjusted wage equating to about the same level as that attained by workers in 1970”

In reference to large corporations and executive pay:

“So where have the benefits of technology-driven productivity cycle gone? Almost exclusively to corporations and their very top executives…as investors know all too well, equity shareholders (many of whom are employees in 401(k) plans) have not fared much better over the last decade than laborers in reaping the rewards of that progress.”

In the post-war era, the demand for industrial labor decreased as technology either supplanted the need for a larger workforce, or as companies decided to move their operations overseas. This made for an ever-shrinking pool of good jobs for unskilled workers, or those with only a high-school education. While the displacement of what would be the industrial working class has been well documented, this phenomenon has begun to move into other demographics as well. This is not an indictment of technology of course. The advances made over the past century have been so brilliant that no serious person would actually suggest rolling them back. Such a goal would not only be ludicrously stupid, but also impossible to achieve. However, it is an indictment of knowledgeable business leaders and those in government who have failed to fill those economic gaps with jobs that can forge the basis of a strong and vibrant economy. It’s difficult to imagine robust economic growth when the best people can hope for is bagging groceries at Wal-Mart or some miserable job making cold-calls (…don’t ask).

Speaking of gaps, the CIO report goes on to say:

“For the last two decades and especially in the current period, hours worked and actual jobs available plummeted while productivity soared. Some analysts have estimated that productivity gains achieved over the last decade are the equivalent of the permanent elimination of 37 million jobs!”

While the whole report is filled with bad news for average Americans, I think this sentence says it all:

 “The implication is that the base in which economic recovery and prosperity can take root has thus shrunk meaningfully.”

You can read the report in its entirety here. Thank you to Timothy Noah of The New Republic for giving it more exposure.

Conclusion

Many of the people at Occupy Wall Street are young, college-educated men and women who want to work and enjoy the self-reliance that a good job can provide. But what they see is a situation where huge swaths of the economy are barely able to survive, while one sector manages to reap huge profits, sometimes as the result of wider economic downturn. The purpose of Wall Street and of much of the financial services industry is spur growth through risk, investment, and a variety of other functions. But for many people, it now operates according to its own interests and for its own sake. To make matters worse, it has basically bought the politicians it needs to keep it that way.

If you think they are mistaken, then come out and explain to them what the real problem is. Go to Zuccotti Park and tell it to their faces. In fact, I think it would be worthwhile to get some Tea Party leaders down there for a debate. Why not? But don’t go telling me that the protestors are anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-freedom. Even if people who fit those titles show up to get attention- that is no justification for condemning the entire movement. Checking the influence of money in politics is not anti-American. Re-instating a law that was on the books from 1933-1999 to set the boundaries between investment banks and deposit banks is not anti-capitalist. And overhauling regulatory bodies so that they can perform the functions they were created for is not anti-freedom.

To any supporter of the movement, my word of caution would be this: If you are angered by the centralization of economic power on Wall Street, be cautious when suggesting measures that would re-centralize that power into the hands of the state. And while I’ve taken pains to point out the demands of the movement as I see them, an official list needs to come if you want to be taken seriously. Finally, as the organizers have stressed, keep it civil, keep it peaceful.

Ezra Klein, a columnist for The Washington Post, is it right when he says:

“The organizers of Occupy Wall Street are fighting to upend the system. But what gives their movement the potential for power and potency is the masses who just want the system to work the way they were promised it would work. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans are really struggling. It’s not that 99 percent of Americans want a revolution. It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy — work hard, play by the rules, get ahead — has been broken, and they want to see it restored.”

Putting it more bluntly: Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short, when asked about the demonstrations on Morning Joe said:

“I think actually they’ve got a point; they just need to figure out what it is.”

Back in 2007, my grandfather was driving me home from New York City where I had spent the summer on an internship. Having fallen in love with the city, I was eager to chat with him about all the great things it had to offer. A Brooklyn native himself, he was perfectly happy to have this conversation. But in talking about the city, he (a conservative, mind you) had a very ominous warning: “I think New York may be headed for a real disaster”. What did he mean? His point was: So much of the city’s economy relied on the financial services industry, and it would only take one spark to make the entire structure explode. And what would the rest of the city do then? In the context of our current situation, I think his point is very applicable to the country as a whole. Why should so much of our economy, our government, and our reputation abroad be subject to the whims of one industry, or one section of that industry? In the last few years, we have seen the collusion between those interests and the power of the state, and where that can bring us. So why don’t we do something about it? With all of its faults, its lack of direction, and whatever negative elements it inadvertently attracts, Occupy Wall Street has forced us to ask this question. If it fizzles, then we can look back on it for the isolated incident it was. If it turns ugly, then we can discredit it and look elsewhere. But consider this- perhaps it can help move things forward, perhaps it can force us to ask those important questions. Oh, and a few answers would be nice too.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jess permalink
    October 8, 2011 1:31 am

    Hey dude, great job on the blog!! Awesome insight and just as I imagined it would be, unlike how it’s being portrayed in the media. Question though… I know this is focusing on the economy, but is there any mention about the food industry in the protest? Monsanto, GMOs, etc. Sounds silly, but I heard… if you want to control the people, control the food. Food for thought.

  2. October 8, 2011 2:11 am

    Hey Jess, thanks for reading! I didn’t actually see anything about the food industry when I visited the demonstration, but I imagine some of the protestors have something to say about it.

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