Seeing Things from the Other Side

That Occupy Wall Street thing continues, seemingly gathering momentum – which is odd for a protest with no fixed demands. But they say that is the point. The One Percent owns the country, and rules the country, and the Ninety-Nine Percent is fed up with that. And as the web of their control is so complex, and their rule so convoluted and extensive, and well-hidden, there’s no magic bullet that will fix everything all at once. But you have to start somewhere. And this will do. You start by laying out the problem, in all its detail. And you go from there.

And in a way, that’s traditional. We started out protesting a specific tax policy regarding tea and then built a great country. But Michael Lind steps back and suggests we Americans get our history all wrong. The Tea Party movement and this occupation – both putative populist uprisings – shouldn’t use the Boston Tea Party as a model. Lind argues that this stuff is more like the Whiskey Rebellion – that’s where the folks in Western Pennsylvania finally figured out that the whole American Revolution thing had been cooked up by the moneyed elites in Boston, Philadelphia and Virginia, and now they were getting the short end of the stick. Freedom from King George was fine and all that, but they were being used and abused and had been dying for the big shots. And they wanted in on things – they wanted fair taxes and a chance to make something of themselves, as free men. In 1794 George Washington made his move and put an end to that.

There’s a lesson in that. Pittsburgh has been calm and passively submissive ever since, save for the football and hockey teams. America had its early brush with class warfare, and the moneyed elites won. They always do. They own and rule the country. And every four years you get to vote for which one of them gets to run things this time. Does that bother you? Get over it.

But that is precisely what the folks who are sort of occupying Wall Street, the sacred land of the One Percent, cannot get over. They have no use for Obama. He’s one of the One Percent, or has been co-opted by it, or knows he must work within the constraints the One Percent has imposed on the system – protecting the too-big-to-fail banks and corporations. So Obama is useless. But they know they are the Ninety-Nine Percent. Shouldn’t that count for something?

Well, George Washington himself led some of the troop marching on Pittsburgh, to say no, that doesn’t count for anything. That’s America. These folks should be like modern Pittsburghers, and sit quietly in a dark bar on a cold rainy afternoon and sip and nurse that last Iron City Beer, as it goes flat – and do that again the next afternoon, and the next. Give it up.

But the Occupy Wall Street crowd won’t give it up. They say this is an ongoing demonstration with no planned end at all. And that is raising interest. The New York Times’ financial columnist who specializes in Wall Street coverage, Andrew Ross Sorkin, has neither visited the protests nor written about them before, but the Times sent him there to investigate just what was going on. He wrote that superb book – Too Big to Fail – on the financial crisis of 2008 that was nearly the end of life as we know it. Yes, the book was pretty much How Hank Paulson Saved the World – the impossibly rich and absurdly influential former head of Goldman Sachs, the insider of all insiders, was the hero. But he did save the world after all. So the Times decided Sorkin was the guy the Times would send downtown (the Times’ fancy new building, designed by the trendy Renzo Piano, is up on 43rd across the street from the Port Authority). And Sorkin produced this – a column that Glenn Greenwald eviscerates here for its “now-familiar journalistic tone of a zoologist examining a bizarre new species of animal discovered in the wild.”

But that is the state of things. The One Percent will never understand the Ninety-Nine Percent – not that they would care to try. But Sorkin was sent to offer a risk assessment, and offers this:

As I wandered around the park, it was clear to me that most bankers probably don’t have to worry about being in imminent personal danger. This didn’t seem like a brutal group – at least not yet.

Something is up – that’s the message. There’s no worry yet, but you never know. Sorkin is also a regular on CNBC, the business channel. This was his foray as a scout:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the CEO asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

They sent him to Pittsburgh, so to speak. Washington may send the troops later, on the advice of Alexander Hamilton. But Greenwald says these banker guys may get lucky:

What will determine how long-lasting and significant is the impact of these protests is whether they allow themselves to be exploited into nothing more than vote-producing organs of the Democratic Party – the way the GOP so successfully converted the Tea Party into nothing more than a Party re-branding project. There is no question that such efforts are underway, as organizations that serve as Party loyalists try to glom onto the protests and distort them into partisan tools.

Well, that may happen, but you could try to see this from the other side, and consider what the bankers and heads of corporations want now. The last thing these banker guys want is these scary protesters turning into mainline Democrats. That would be disaster. They want Democrats defeated, and more than anything, they want Obama gone.

But forget lower Manhattan. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein is in Cleveland – for the Cleveland Clinic’s annual innovation summit. And Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric and chairman of Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, delivered the keynote address and then answered questions. So Klein took notes:

Business types really hate Barack Obama. Everybody sort of knows that, but it’s hard to get a sense of it if you’re not in the room listening to them laugh bitterly at questions like “Does Obama understand the damage regulations are doing to business?” …

These folks really, really feel persecuted and unappreciated. The common response to this, of course, is that corporate profits have hit record levels in recent years and the top one percent has never been richer. But if you need more evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness, you should sit with some CEOs for an hour.

Ah, that’s the other side of things. The One Percent feels persecuted and unappreciated, and Kevin Drum comments:

The fact that lots of blue-collar workers gave up on Democrats long ago, and now vote mostly on cultural issues, has been the subject of dozens of books and magazine articles. It’s even easy to understand: In FDR’s day, Democrats really did do a lot for these kinds of workers. Today, Democrats don’t really do that much at all for them. So why shouldn’t they just forget about economic issues and vote for the pro-gun guy?

Well, that explains blue-collar workers, but Drum says Corporate CEOs are a different story:

For decades, Republicans were the pro-business party and it made sense for business executives to vote for them. But what about now? Republicans are formally dedicated to blocking anything that might even remotely have a chance of improving the economy and thereby improve business prospects as well. And yet, CEOs show no sign of wavering loyalties. Just the opposite: they’ve largely bought the austerity/regulation/deficit fable hook, line, and sinker even though it makes not the slightest sense.

There’s nothing really new about that, I guess, but it’s still sort of freshly gob-smacking every time I see it in action. These are, supposedly, some of the smartest folks in the country. But they don’t have a clue. You can’t even say they’re slaves of some particular defunct economist, as Keynes suggested. They’re just slaves of folk economics at its folksiest and most vacuous – and most damaging. And they have every intention of taking the rest of us down with them.

That is a problem. And Steve Benen points out in this item that President Obama thinks the economy needs a jobs bill – that would boost demand and get the economy moving again. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor thinks demand is irrelevant and the economy needs deregulation because… because “well, he just does.”

And that’s about it. Benen notes there have been many recent items that help demonstrate just how wrong Republicans are about regulations holding the economy back, and he recommends this paper from the Economic Policy Institute’s Lawrence Mishel and particularly this new piece from Bruce Bartlett, as Bartlett is an economist and a veteran of the Reagan and the first Bush administrations. Republicans have been told to argue that freeing the private sector of consumer safeguards and worker protections will reduce “uncertainty” but Bartlett doesn’t see it that way:

Evidence supporting Mr. Cantor’s contention that deregulation would decrease unemployment is very weak. For some years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has had a program that tracks mass layoffs. In 2007, the program was expanded, and businesses were asked their reasons for laying-off workers. Among the reasons offered was “government regulations/intervention.” There is only partial data for 2007, but we have data since then through the second quarter of this year. …

As one can see, the number of layoffs nationwide caused by government regulation is minuscule and shows no evidence of getting worse during the Obama administration. Lack of demand for business products and services is vastly more important.

These results are supported by surveys. During June and July, Small Business Majority asked 1,257 small-business owners to name the two biggest problems they face. Only 13 percent listed government regulation as one of them. Almost half said their biggest problem was uncertainty about the future course of the economy – another way of saying a lack of customers and sales.

Bartlett is just reviewing data, and Benen adds this:

Surveys from major news outlets, including conservative institutions like the Wall Street Journal, and the National Federation of Independent Business found the same thing: the private sector is concerned about customers and demand, not regulations.

Bartlett’s conclusion:

In my opinion, regulatory uncertainty is a canard invented by Republicans that allows them to use current economic problems to pursue an agenda supported by the business community year in and year out. In other words, it is a simple case of political opportunism, not a serious effort to deal with high unemployment.

Benen:

Republicans would ordinarily be demanding tax cuts, but with President Obama already having cut taxes more than Bush/Cheney did, and the deal last December keeping Bush-era rates in place for everyone, they’re left with one talking point. We’re apparently not supposed to notice that this is simply part of the traditional GOP wish list, regardless of economic circumstances. We’re also supposed to overlook the fact that these “burdensome” regulations Republicans are so eager to eliminate include some pretty basic measures to keep workers safe from preventable injuries on the job.

As policy arguments go, GOP rhetoric has been reduced to a pathetic level. We’re in the midst of a jobs crisis and facing a threat of a severe downturn, and this is the best congressional Republicans can come up with? Consider this Exhibit A in the case for the right’s intellectual bankruptcy.

But perhaps Benen misses the point. It’s not regulations per se – the One Percent feels persecuted and unappreciated. It’s just an example or emblematic or symbolic. If you’d like they’d use another example. It’s more the general principle of the thing – kind of like with the Ninety-Nine percent folks in lower Manhattan. The principle matters, not the specifics.

And that lead Matthew Yglesias to offer The Economy as Culture-War:

My view is that if you want to understand the extent to which business executives loathe President Obama, you need to understand that the economic policy debate in the United States is in part just another culture war issue.

Private sector labor unions are so weak in the United States that you can’t really organize politics around a management versus labor axis. A lot of what you have is, instead, a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. And they fight with each other in part because of genuine economic clashes of interest.

So that leads to this:

The businessmen tend to be targeted for tax hikes, while the people they went to college with tend to actually capture some of the public sector expenditure streams. And even though us BA holders are only about twenty percent of the population, this culture war helps structure much broader economic trends. Urban areas are generally built around hospitals, colleges, and state governments as the economic pillars that drive the local service sector, and artists and media professionals who generally wouldn’t think of themselves as businesspeople are drawn to these areas. Urban areas are also havens for the poor, the end-users of social services whose interests bind them together in a coalition with the service providers.

And that lead to trouble:

But while there’s an element of objective economics to this, the business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers, and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards. If it were merely a clash of objective interests, it really wouldn’t be much of a clash. A healthy business environment needs schools and hospitals and public infrastructure to backstop it, and nobody is made happy by a business-cycle downturn. There’s tension at the margin, but it’s not a zero-sum world. Layered on top is, I think, a raw level of gut-level dislike – both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.

Yeah, but only one side owns and runs the government – for now. It could be that the Whiskey Rebellion never really ended. You never know. They were the original Ninety-Nine Percenters. And yes, now the One Percent feels persecuted and unappreciated. But you remember the line from the movie – “I guess the foot’s on the other hand now, isn’t it, Kramer?”

Well, maybe you don’t remember. But these things happen.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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