ANALYSIS | Occupying Wall Street ain't no Tea Party

The Occupy Wall Street movement has caught the eye of legislators and the news media. But now it's time to be more specific about what it wants, Neil Macdonald writes.

Time for a little more rigour in the occupying agenda

The Occupy Wall Street movement, disdained just weeks ago as a bunch of angry hippies, now has what assignment editors and political strategists call "traction."

Traction is the most precious of political commodities. It's hard to achieve, but once you have it, you get a seat at the big table.

Lawmakers and captains of industry are suddenly paying attention to the protests. President Barack Obama himself expressed sympathy just the other week.

Media outlets are dispatching reporters, cameras and satellite uplinks for live coverage.

Pundits, trying to describe what they see as the movement's latent power, are drawing all sorts of comparisons between the left-wing Occupy Wall Streeters and the right-wing Tea Partiers.

It's an attractively simple parallel, but wrongheaded in one important respect: The Tea Partiers knew what they wanted right from the beginning (radically smaller government) and went about achieving it.


What is the best way to effect change? Take our survey

In the process, they have in fact reshaped Congress, and the nation's political discourse.

The Occupy Wall Streeters, on the other hand, are more reminiscent of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea, the angry clutch of anti-Roman activists in Monty Python's The Life of Brian.

Led by John Cleese in a toga, they'd denounce a Roman injustice, loudly debate it, pass a resolution and move on to the next injustice.

It's a good question. Sign in Zuccotti Park opposite Wall Street in New York City.

Less vague, please

At the time, the Pythons were mocking the Western left, and they had a point: leftists seemed to prefer endless talk, rather than collectively and single-mindedly pursuing a single goal, which is the only way to change anything in a democracy.

(I know, I know, some of the Occupy Wall Streeters argue that democracy is an illusion, but let's, for the sake of argument, posit that it does exist.)

In fact, activists on the left have a tendency to make sweeping, angry demands that to the casual observer can sound idiotic.

Anti-globalization protesters, when they take a break from overturning cars and smashing shop windows, seldom demand a re-imposition of trade and labour barriers, or limits on the movement or flight of capital (not that such measures would work in any event).

Instead, they rabbit on about bringing "an end to globalization," whatever that means.

'New corporate order'

Similarly, the people waving signs at Occupy Wall Street protests demand "a new corporate order," or "an end to corporate greed," or "paycheques, not credit card bills," or "stimulus, not corporate welfare."

Some of those slogans have a self-pitying streak. People who complain about their credit card bills did, after all, borrow the money.

Plus, many of those who demand that government help them keep their homes probably borrowed far more than they knew they could afford, gambling (and losing) that they could leverage their way to wealth through endlessly rising house prices.

But the Occupy Wall Street placards do make one excellent point: Ordinary people weren't bailed out.

Instead, it was America’s swashbuckling free-marketeers on Wall Street who were rescued with trillions of taxpayer dollars three years ago.

Who wouldn't be furious with them? After years of braying about how they "create wealth" and scorning any effort to regulate their greedy-bordering-on-nihilistic behaviour, they very nearly destroyed the global economy, then rushed, mewling, to the public teat.

"You can't just let a whole industry fail," one of these Masters of the Universe told me outside the New York Stock Exchange that bleak autumn. But what about survival of the fittest, I asked, and the market weeding out the weak, and "creative destruction," and all that other free market, um, theory?

"Well, you can't just let us fail."


To me, it's amazing the Occupy Wall Street movement took as long as it did to arise.

That said, its organizers might want to sharpen their message, and push for real, specific change instead of just venting.

Forget about replacing the financial order. It's not going to happen. They could, however, demand strict regulations for the existing order and insist the rules be enforced.

Three years after 2008, the weapons of financial destruction known as credit default swaps remain unregulated.

Remember AIG, one of the single biggest 2008 bailouts? That company imploded because it had underwritten hundreds of billions of dollars worth of swaps, which are essentially insurance policies on third party debt. Then it couldn’t pay up when the debts failed.

Well, after the 2008 nightmare, Wall Street went right on writing them.

Many experts believe that much of that shaky European debt that's making the world so nervous right now, more than a trillion dollars worth of it, is "swapped."

Guess what that means if there's another collapse?

The list goes on

The government here did make an effort at financial regulation post-2008. But American banks wouldn't have it.

They've spent a fortune attacking the new rules and they've been largely successful. The Occupy Wall Street people might want to consider trying to make that an election issue next year.

They could also direct their energy toward a serious reform of this country's tax system. When Warren Buffet, one of the richest men alive, repeatedly says he's paying less tax than his secretary, something's wrong.

I know this suggestion is a bit more opaque, but turning the heat up on politicians who aren't doing enough about China's currency might make a difference, too.

Many economists feel China deliberately keeps the yuan undervalued, which has led to a serious U.S. trade deficit that has cost America jobs.

Canada's nascent Occupy Wall Street movement might focus on corporate price-fixing, and insist on investigations of international companies that set prices 30 or 40 per cent higher for all the suckers north of the border.

Or perhaps the Canadian movement could demand that Canadian banks, which charge Canadian customers far higher fees than they charge the same account-holders in the U.S., be investigated.

The list of worthy goals goes on and on.

The point is, if the Occupy Wall Street bunch really wants to make a mark, it had better get real. Study the Tea Party's tactics. Otherwise, it's all just a show.