By Wade Maki
I’ve started writing this from a hotel room in Kearney, Nebraska where I’ve just finished five presentations at a two-day symposium on the Morality of Capitalism at UNK. Several times during the conference, the “occupy” protests came up (especially the occupy Kearney protests here in a small college town). Most of the faculty presenting said nice things about the protesters for getting involved and standing up for something (most faculty get the impression students won’t stand up for anything other than their own grade). These faculty encouraged students to join in a movement – whatever side they choose – as that is the only way to change things. Other faculty, a smaller bunch, spoke of the occupy protesters as a muddled and confused group making more of a spectacle than any positive change.
The idea of students getting involved in something (other than the quest for test scores and grades) is something I approve of. Of course I’m not much of a protest type and find serious faults with the occupy tactics such as:
- The name occupy implies a hostile trespass of someone else’s space.
- Camping in parks and hanging out attracts the wrong kind of attention.
- Chants, drum circles, and odd dress do not help market the message.
This is intended as a friendly criticism. Think back to how Dr. King managed his movement for positive change. People dressed up, gathered at a particular time, marched where they would be visible (but not overly intrusive on others daily lives), held a rally with well thought out speeches and then everyone went home. This created a positive impression with the middle-American majority whose support is needed to effect real change. To convince people, it helps to have a coherent message, presented by people who look like the intended audience, and ensure that your side avoids exposing itself to bad PR (every crazy dressed, incoherent speaking protester gets interviewed by the news, which does not advance the cause). It is my sincere hope that these well meaning folks get it together.
Having offered a critic of the occupiers (best thought of as outsiders), I’ve saved a few words for the insiders. After the last symposium session when I returned to the hotel where there was an additional conference (some sort of business professionals’ event) I overheard the following perspective expressed in the hallway:
“You see the occupy people protesting?”
“Yeah there were 8 of them.”
“They’re all unemployed with nothing else to do aren’t they?”
“Yes, oh, and they got run off too.”
While I didn’t hear every word in that hallway conversation, the disdain they held for the (presumably) unemployed people exercising their rights to assemble and express opinions were a stark contrast to the generally positive messages of support expressed by conference faculty. I’m often surprised how the same event is seen so differently by different groups of people. Why some are encouraging protests and others are ridiculing protesters without a focus on resolving the very real problems that cause people to protest (even if they can’t quite articulate exactly what they are)? Further, who among us that is employed doesn’t see how it very well could be us that were laid off in the recent crisis? Why is there no compassion from the insider (who knows they are lucky) for the outsider who is unemployed because of a combination of bad government policies combined with short term incentives of financial traders and mortgage sellers? While insiders and outsiders may differ on what should be done, that something needs to be done to prevent the next crisis should be the real focus. Neither the “greedy capitalist” nor “neo-hippie-protester” depiction of others accomplishes the real goal.
Some say the occupiers are “anti-capitalist” but I suspect they (like all of us) really want a job that pays us for the value we provide rather than a revolution. Capitalism done right makes us better off not worse. Don’t agree? Imagine trying to live a week without engaging with capitalism. What will you wear or eat without trading or buying from a store? We may favor different versions of capitalism (as we do TV shows), but we don’t really oppose all capitalism as that is like opposing all TV.
The real conversation is one of setting the right incentives for workers, managers, regulators, and customers. The core problem of the financial crisis was individuals having short term incentives for taking large risks without any individual consequence for the downside of those risks. For a good explanation of this read The Big Short by Michael Lewis. I expect capitalists and protesters would find a lot to agree upon and start focusing on real solutions rather than stereotyping each other.