Saturday, October 22, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Margin Call

Writing about Occupy Wall Street is difficult because the protest is, in many ways, a Rorschach test. Michael Moore sees it as a response to the "kleptomaniacs" on Wall Street who have taken our democracy and turned it into a "kleptocracy." L. Gordon Krovitz at the Wall Street Journal derides the "crony capitalism" that has supposedly allowed the Occupy Wall Street protesters to stay at Zuccotti Park. Loren Heal at Red State calls OWS a "cargo cult" and "an Obama campaign stunt".

I'm not going to speculate on the specific policy claims of OWS because, as of now, the protesters haven't reached a consensus. They probably never will. For some, this is a negative. David Brooks dismissed the protesters as "Milquetoast Radicals" and "small thinkers"; the big thinkers are, in his formulation, people matching his own self-conception of "moderates in suits." I, however, see the lack of policy proposals as a positive.

OWS is a motley crew. Every truly grass-roots movement is, because our nation is motley. Some protesters are anti-corporate. Others are pacifist (and possibly aging hippies). Still others are proudly blue-collar. There are the young, the old, the middle-aged, the college-educated, the not college-educated, the male, the female, get the point. They're not all going to agree on specific policy proposals because this protest is not fundamentally about policy.

Occupy Wall Street is about process. It is about the feeling that our political system currently consists of the rich striking deals with the powerful to increase the prosperity and power of both, to the detriment of those who are neither rich nor powerful. That's why the motto "We are the 99%" fits. This isn't purely about economics. It is about representation. It is about process.

More about that in a minute. First, let's take a quick digression into current cinema (it will make sense later but I am too tired and hyper to create a seamless transition).

"Margin Call" is an incredible movie made even more salient by the exquisite timing of its release. If you haven't seen it, go and watch it right now...well, after you finish reading this post. But watch it. It is a scathing indictment of the global financial system made effective by its refusal to demonize the bankers themselves. They are generally good people caught in tides of their own making that grew out of control. All of the characters have fallen prey to the seductive power of money. However, none of them are personally responsible for the disaster looming outside the glass walls of their high tower because the storm is far larger than any single person or financial institution.

Many felt, including many of the OWS protesters, that bankers and others in the financial industry got off too easy (this protester has a particularly Swiftian sense of justice). "Margin Call" reminds us that few of them broke the law. All of the damage was done through legal means. We, as a society, had created a system that incentivized bad behavior, a system that could coerce good people into actions with horrific ramifications. The bankers aren't in jail because they didn't break any laws.

That means the system itself is broken. It created shining cities on sand (Ozymandias comes to mind), cities that, as they vanished, bequeathed only fallout. It is a system that can convince decent people to do indecent things because they see no other choice. And it is a system that still exists today.

That's why Occupy Wall Street is about process. In a working political system, the practices that created a catastrophe like the financial crisis would be fixed and the institutions involved would be held responsible, even if only for cleaning up the mess they made. The government would help the hardest hit and focus on preventing future disasters. Instead, today we see banks like Citigroup posting huge profits and compensation on Wall Street rising. Meanwhile, unemployment is stagnating at 9.1% and median income keeps falling.

The OWS protesters are not economists or politicians; it is not their responsibility to design and pass policies that will get our country back on its feet. They are doing what citizens are supposed to do when the system breaks; they point out the malfunction and focus attention on it until it is fixed.

Right now, our system works for a select few; for most everyone else, it sucks. That's not how it is supposed to be, not in America. After all, the American Revolution was about representation, about having a system responsive to the needs of the citizenry. Occupy Wall Street fits proudly in this tradition.


  1. Great piece! And SPOT ON! It is about the process! and thanks for letting me know about the film:-)

  2. Thanks :) I'll probably write more about OWS in the future. More movie stuff too!