Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pitchforks

I first started following Occupy Wall Street for the same reason I paid attention to the DSK debacle - it was local news. Granted, Wall Street's a famous street to put it mildly, and next to a famous site where there was a certain terrorist attack, but it's also smack dab in the middle of a really boring residential neighborhood, one I lived in until quite recently. Nothing happens in-and-around Battery Park City, but when anything does (hurricanes, presidential visits, not to mention tragic attacks that change the course of international relations) it's huge. OWS now looks like it qualifies.

And... I'm not sure what to make of it. It's generally not my thing - as longtime readers would have guessed - to fully sign on to any list of views intended to encompass the entire right or left, even if I generally lean more towards the latter. Or to think it's inherently wonderful to skip school to go protest something - maybe first be clear what you're protesting? But in the case of OWS, most of the demands make sense, and some are quite urgent.

This Daily Mail story, meanwhile, and yes, I understand it's the Daily Mail, takes away whatever urge I might have had to suspect that the entire thing is a bunch of rich kids without office jobs (b/c too young or too hip-and-rich) playing at being hippies, because it so overshoots the mark. I mean, "designer" jeans might be used and have cost $10, private-college students are often enough not paying the full ticket price, and I don't know what their problem is with that girl's "trendy knitwear," aka she's young and wearing a nondescript sweater. And wow, students who own laptops! Someone really needs to sit down the British paper and explain about loans, credit cards, and the fact that even if some of these kids are genuinely so trust-funded and one-percentish that they're not even going to be impacted by a bleak job market after graduation, they might still protest in solidarity.

And David Brooks's column on OWS... reminded me why Adbusters was ringing a bell, but didn't really resolve what one should do if one is simultaneously Jewish and put off by the massive income disparity in America. Populism is dangerous and not something we at WWPD generally go for, but so too is anti-populism so strong that its message is, the people should put up with absolutely anything.

And there's going to be a hint of anti-Semitism tangentially related to everything on the left or the right, so as much as Brooks ought to have my anti-anti-Semitic backing on this one, not entirely. Going by Facebook, my Jewish (as in, active in Jewish stuff) friends are if anything disproportionately involved in/excited about what's happening downtown (well, up north, as I type from the woods). It doesn't seem, thus far, that the "1%," the "nefarious elite" Brooks thinks is being unfairly maligned, is being conflated with "Jews" by anyone other than this one nutcase who's been mentioned, of course, all over these Internets.

So if I still lived there, would I be joining the crowd? I wouldn't rule it out. There's something about living amidst the bankers while not being one that can make, if not the entire city, then much of it, feel inaccessible, or at least not intended for you. But the dudes in the pale-blue button-downs enjoying happy-hour next to the Financial Center aren't all of it. There are also the rents propped up by the number of young and not-so-young adults whose parents will pay $3,000 a month and up to make sure their kids never, not even for that post-college year, have to live on a street in Prospect Heights where cops get shot (a phenomenon that has its way of trickling down to it costing $3,000 a month to live on a street in Prospect Heights where just a few years back, cops got shot). These tend not to be young people who work in finance. They may wear old-looking clothes and don't outright announce that this is their set-up, but if you're renting and this is not your set-up, you confront it anyhow, when as an adult with a salary the broker asks if he can call up your mother. Because if you're young, white, and do something other than i-banking, your parents surely pay your rent.

The city, in other words, struck me sometimes as being divided between the openly arrogant finance-types, on the one hand, and on the other, the what, me privileged? crowd of discreetly trust-funded sorts with cool-sounding jobs and endless funds for doing things in the evenings that do not involve the rehydration of dry pasta and maybe a sub-$10 bottle of wine, for special occasions. (The term we're looking for here: hipsters.) And this was my impression as someone privileged enough not to need college loans, lucky enough to have been employed (if we're calling funded grad school employment) during stretches when many were not, wise enough - maybe? - not to have gone to a grad school that would have meant taking out loans. So whatever rage I might feel on behalf of myself is slight compared with what I do on behalf of others.

I don't know how much this extends to other cities, in particular those now also under "occupation," but when simple things like living in a studio apartment, getting dinner or drinks out somewhere that looks casual, going to the movies, etc. start to seem out-of-reach for anyone without a finance job or family money, the city starts to lose its appeal. Of course, ask me again when I'm on the supermarket shuttle this afternoon, living that carless life in the 'burbs.

14 comments:

Dan O. said...

Phoebe,

My demo is, mostly, yours. And trustifarians are despised as much (even more) than finance people. At least the finance people don't work for free. Trustifarians on prestigious sounding internships have deleted the entry level job in NYC, making it all but impossible to shift careers. I have friends caught in the contraction of both the publishing industry and non-profit sector. They have to endure indentured servitude to shift to working in areas like design, marketing, advertising, or PR - areas where they already have the requisite skills. And why? Because some kid's parents are subsidizing the bottom line a would-be employer.

For all that, the possibility that there really aren't all that many trustifarians out there really scares me. Could it really be happening that families are pooling their money to pay for their kid's internships? An entry level tax? I fear that.

A last note: there was a really cool breakdown of the top 1% by Mother Jones reprinted in the Atlantic Wire:

http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/TheAtlantic/~3/gwAoA6hZQ_Y/

What's amazing is that 16% of that 1% are people who work in health care, which outnumber people who work in finance (14%). Nuts.

Phoebe said...

Dan,

What you say re: entry-level, yup. That and rent, same idea.

"the possibility that there really aren't all that many trustifarians out there really scares me."

But there are! They're just very discreet about it. Except when they're not.

Of course, it's also that there are kids who aren't trustifarians, but whose parents think it's child abuse not to pay for one's 23-year-old to live in Murray Hill, and who dip into their retirement funds to make that happen. This, too, drives up rents. Same deal re: parents thinking it's wrong not to scrimp and save to put a 23-year-old into an unpaid internship and the impact of that phenomenon on entry-level work or the lack thereof. It's hard to blame the individual families for making the decisions they do, but the overall impact of those decisions, taken en masse, is kind of awful.

Re: health care, cosmetic surgeons? That's not most doctors, I suspect, certainly not most nurses.

Dan O. said...

"Re: health care, cosmetic surgeons?"

I really doubt it. I bet it's the higher-ups in the Memorial-Sloan Kettering type complexes who bill medicare $1,700 a day for 5-minute daily radiation therapies, and keep on building more centers because they're so damn profitable. I bet it's the types that are lobbying so hard to continue blood testing for prostate cancer that create treatment opportunities, but which don't improve health outcomes.

Flavia said...

I agree with much of this, especially the last part.

I expected to miss NYC much, much more than I did when I left. But in fact it's been a revelation, living in a small, cheap, reasonably artsy city where it doesn't take hours of my life to get anywhere by subway, where cocktails are $5, movie tickets $8, and money goes a very long way at the grocery store. In retrospect, I spent most of my six years in the city aggrieved that I couldn't quite live as I wanted to, even with seemingly modest wants and careful budgeting.

The only people I know who still live in NYC have one or more of the following: lucrative corporate job(s), family money, subsidized faculty housing. Even the couple I know who work modest civil-servant jobs and are still living in a Brooklyn Heights junior one bedroom while expecting their second child have parental underwriting.

Obviously, this isn't true of everyone who lives a moderately comfortable life in New York. But it's largely true, and it's one reason I enjoy the city more as a visitor than I did as a resident.

Daniel Goldberg said...

By far the best single post on OWS comes from Frank Pasquale, lawprof at Seton Hall who does a lot of work on inequities:

http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2011/10/the-moral-authority-of-occupy-wall-street.html

PG said...

Ugh, very long comment got eaten. Short version follows.

Pasquale's commentary is interesting, such as this:
The protesters’ deliberation about what demands to make (or goals to set) is laudable. It also reflects successful aspects of the pro-life movement. As Mike Konczal notes, “Beliefs about abortion are often underdeveloped, incoherent, and inconsistent until individuals become actively engaged with the movement. The process of conviction is the result of mobilization, not a necessary prerequisite for it.”

Except I don't want the left to be led on economic issues by people who are as ignorant of and hostile to math and economics, as the right is led on reproductive rights issues by people who are ignorant of and hostile to science and medicine.

And that demand list is pretty nonsensical as a matter of economics. A $20/hr minimum wage will just immediately inflate prices because as $20 is currently valued, the work done in an average hour by a teenager at McD's probably doesn't produce $20 worth of additional value. Which is fine, because most teenagers don't need a "living wage" as they're not trying to live on it, much less support a family. This is why we have benefits like food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid; to ensure that the working poor have their basic needs met. But the fact of making minimum wage doesn't intrinsically put you in that class.

The bizarre demands that would effectively end the existence of debt and thus credit for entire nations and socioeconomic classes are the ones that, if I were paranoid about anti-Semitism, would cause me to detect a whiff of it in OWS. It's one thing to be angry about large multinational banking institutions that repackage debt into "instruments"; it's another to want to wipe out all debt and a significant part of the ability to gauge credit-worthiness (through credit rating), because that also takes out community banks that hold home mortgages and commercial loans to local businesses. It just feels kind of reminiscent of the hostility toward Jews who were the only lenders in Christian and Muslim countries where most people's religion forbade lending at interest, but people still wanted to get credit.

Phoebe said...

PG,

I think it's significant that, in a movement that very well might have lent itself to anti-Semitism, that doesn't appear to be happening (that one dude excepted). I mean, "Wall Street" is itself sometimes code for "Jews," "populism" for "let's get together and blame a diverse set of unrelated problems on The Jews." But if many participants are themselves Jews, and the movement itself is steering clear of that angle? This would be like, with the Tea Party, if one might read into it thinly-veiled anti-black racism, and then you saw a ton of black participants at Tea Party events. I think it's reasonable for anti-Semitism to pop into our minds as a potential for OWS, but if it's not there, then it's not there.

Re: the demands, I think you have to read them as a direction they want to push things in, not as where they literally imagine things will end up. So maybe not $20/hr, but more. Maybe not free higher ed, but reform in that area.

Andrew Stevens said...

That list of demands was just one dude's forum posting.

But in the case of OWS, most of the demands make sense, and some are quite urgent.

I think you're the first person to say this about them.

Phoebe said...

Flavia,

I feel this every time I go back to the city, which is about once a week still for university-stuff. Do I really miss tiny blobs of cheese for $14? No, not so much. And the rent! Nope.

Andrew,

I know - they have no official platform. But does this strike you as somehow not indicative of what the protestors say they want?

Andrew Stevens said...

I hope they're mostly brighter than that platform. Tariffs plus open immigration? Plus a "living wage regardless of employment"? A $20 minimum wage? Cancellation of all debts? Ignorance and hostility to economics doesn't begin to cover it.

Phoebe said...

Andrew,

See what I replied to PG above re: the demands. It addresses your point as well.

Andrew Stevens said...

So you believe that the protesters more or less want those demands, except less stupid and insane? I suppose I could buy that.

Dan O. said...

I think young people aren't yet having an easy time articulating exactly what they're angry about (I say this at an wizened 35). But who is very articulate right when they first get angry? The anger and lack of coherence doesn't trouble me, for now.

Fundamentally, I hope that OWS is a generational awakening - an awakening to the fact we weren't so much intentionally screwed by our parent's generation. Instead, our future prospects were simply farmed out to shortsighted markets. Capitalism, writ large, is not to blame. Rather, to blame is the sentiment that markets should set policy. While bankers are hardly the only party to blame for this sentiment, they are a fitting symbol. They were the highest profile pushers. And when it blew up in their faces, they avoided many of the consequences.

There's a fundamental disagreement between Greenspan capitalism and Buffett capitalism. The latter asserts that markets ought to move policy. The former asserts that policy ought to set the conditions for markets. I utterly fail to see how one needs to be an economist to understand this.

There will be people, communists among them (I went to Oberlin, so I know that communists are easily the most annoying people in the world), who want to sell a simple narrative. But this just isn't about whether you're for or against capitalism. It's about how capitalism is malfunctioning - it is failing to meet the goal of producing a socially mobile meritocratic society.

Of course there's charges of antisemitism. Of course those charges are complicated by the Jewishness of those charged. These protests are as Jewish as NYC left-wing political activism has been since the early 20th century. For just as long, accusations of antisemitism and self-hatred have been launched at said activists.

There's nothing essentially Jewish about the protests, just as there's nothing essentially Jewish about the protest's focus. There are a lot of Jews on each side - of course there are. It's New York friggin' City.

Apart from that, antisemitism cuts in no particular direction. Some wackos on the left will use antisemitism to contemplate a shadow Jewish financial aristocracy. Some wackos on the right will use antisemitism to credit the protests to a Jewish leftist media elite.

Dan O. said...

Oops. I screwed up 'former' and 'latter' on Greenspan vs. Buffett capitalism. According to GreenspanCap markets precede policy. According to Buffettcap, policy precedes markets.