Oct. 7 (Bloomberg) -- From the looks of the youthful, costumed characters swaying to the music and flying colorful balloons, it was hard to tell if Occupy Wall Street was a street fair, a ‘60s-style love-in or a protest rally.
To get up to speed on the leaderless movement that started in New York City on Sept. 17 and has expanded to about 150 cities nationwide, I tuned in to what looks to be its website to watch the “Global Revolution” being streamed live. After hours of watching a lot of folks milling around, apparently waiting for something to happen (nothing did), I still couldn’t identify the target of their angst (the options seem to include capitalism, banks, greed, bailouts, foreclosures, taxes, foreign wars, income inequality, the police, the Federal Reserve and a fiat currency) or their goal.
One man with dreadlocks spent a few minutes trying to determine whether it was morning or afternoon. An off-screen voice directed the crowd where to go for “donation-based cigarettes,” with the caveat that “cigarettes kill you and help corporations.” (Judging from the laptops, cameras and other kinds of technology on display, corporations are getting all kinds of help from the protesters.)
A woman said the food was good -- “it’s catered” -- even for vegans like herself. A scary-looking dude said he was at Zuccotti Park to explain to people their rights should they be stopped by the police. He said he was glad “to see so many people working toward a solution.”
Solution? I was still trying to get a grasp on the problem. To get traction, protests need to have clear goals, be they narrow (ending the war in Vietnam) or broad (freedom, in the case of Cairo’s Tahrir Square). They need spokespeople who can articulate the issues. And, they need solutions, according to Saul Alinsky, whose “Rules for Radicals” is a guide for turning unfocused grass-roots discontent into effective anti-government and anti-corporate activism.
“The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative,” Alinsky wrote.
Oh, sure, some protesters have posted lists of pie-in-the-sky demands. (The occupywallst.org website insists there is no official list of demands.) One of these includes a $20 minimum wage regardless of employment, tariffs on all imports, trillions of dollars in new spending on alternative energy and infrastructure, and debt forgiveness -- all debt “on the entire planet.”
In other words, lots of benefits and no consideration of the cost. You’d think one of these kids -- and that’s how they come across -- would have taken an economics course along the way. Where do they think the government gets the money for its largesse? Imposing usurious taxes on the top 1 percent of earners won’t yield enough money to provide for the other 99 percent. (One of the protesters’ slogans is, “We are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.”)
It’s not as if young adults couldn’t find good targets for their anger. If these protesters are looking for something to get exercised about, they might want to wander into Chris McHugh’s Monetary Economics class at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and learn about “generational economics,” the idea that government is going to stick the younger generation with the bill for supporting the retiring baby boomers. McHugh asked his students to identify grass-roots youth groups that are agitating about this, but all they found were a couple of minor groups that tended to be Tea Party and Ron Paul spinoffs.
Drowning in Debt
Talk about haves and have-nots. The debt burden that the younger generation is staring at almost guarantees it will have a reduced standard of living. After all, if more dollars are directed at keeping Granny alive until age 102, that means fewer dollars for productivity-enhancing investments.
This idea clearly hasn’t resonated with today’s youth.
Maybe that’s because the numbers -- tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded Social Security liabilities, for example -- are hard to fathom. It’s much easier to vent their anger at bank bailouts and preferential treatment for corporate interests, much of which is justified. They seem to be ignoring Capitol Hill, where the rules are made by our bought-and-paid-for government.
Ask a Lobbyist
Congress’ Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, has been operating in relative secrecy over the last few weeks, much to the consternation of the news media.
If you want to find out what’s going on, according to Politico, you need to “ask a lobbyist.” Democratic and Republican lobbyists, the news website reported on Oct. 3, “continue to get corporate clients with interests before the committee face time with members and staff.”
One hundred of those lobbyists were formerly employed by members of the supercommittee, according to the Washington Post, making access all that much easier. The Occupy Wall Street protesters, like many of us ordinary Americans, have no lobbyists watching out for our interests. We don’t have the option of exchanging campaign contributions for tax favors.
Scrapping the tax code and moving to a flat tax -- the simplest way to kill the lobbying industry -- might seem unfair to a bunch of protesters with amorphous gripes. But with that as a goal, the new movement might get a bunch of us grown-ups off our chairs and into the street to join them.
(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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