The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement has motivation but lacks real demands.
Updated: October 3, 2011 - 9:03 PM
After flying around the world this year to cover street protests from Cairo to Morocco, reporting on the latest "uprising" was easier: I took the subway.
The "Occupy Wall Street" movement has taken over a park in Manhattan's financial district and turned it into a revolutionary camp. Hundreds of young people chant slogans against "banksters" or corporate tycoons. Occasionally, a few even pull off their clothes, which always draws news cameras.
"Occupy Wall Street" was initially treated as a joke, but after a couple of weeks it's gaining traction.
The crowds are still tiny by protest standards -- mostly in the hundreds, swelling during periodic marches -- but similar occupations are bubbling up in Chicago, San Francisco and other cities, including Minneapolis. David Paterson, the former New York governor, dropped by, and labor unions are lending increasing support.
I tweeted that the protest reminded me a bit of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and that raised eyebrows.
True, no bullets are whizzing around, and the movement won't unseat any dictators. But there is the same cohort of alienated young people, and the same savvy use of Twitter and other social media to recruit more participants.
Most of all, there's a similar tide of youthful frustration with a political and economic system that protesters regard as broken, corrupt, unresponsive and unaccountable.
"This was absolutely inspired by Tahrir Square, by the Arab Spring movement," said Tyler Combelic, 27, a Web designer from Brooklyn who is a spokesman for the occupiers. "Enough is enough!"
The protesters are dazzling in their Internet skills, and impressive in their organization. The square is divided into a reception area, a media zone, a medical clinic, a library and a cafeteria.
The protesters' website includes links allowing supporters anywhere in the world to go online and order pizzas (vegan preferred) from a local pizzeria that delivers them to the square.
In a tribute to the ingenuity of capitalism, the pizzeria quickly added a new item to its menu: the "OccuPie special."
Where the movement falters is in its demands: It doesn't really have any. The participants pursue causes that are sometimes quixotic -- like the protester who calls for removing Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill because of his brutality to American Indians. So let me try to help.
I don't share the antimarket sentiments of many of the protesters. Banks are invaluable institutions that, when functioning properly, move capital to its best use and raise living standards. But it's also true that soaring leverage not only nurtured soaring bank profits in good years, but also soaring risks for the public in bad years.
In effect, the banks socialized risk and privatized profits. Securitizing mortgages, for example, made many bankers wealthy while ultimately leaving governments indebted and citizens homeless.
We've seen that inadequately regulated, too-big-to-fail banks can undermine the public interest rather than serve it -- and in the last few years, banks got away with murder. It's infuriating to see bankers who were rescued by taxpayers now moan about regulations intended to prevent the next bailout.
And it's important that protesters spotlight rising inequality: Does it feel right to anyone that the top 1 percent of Americans now possess a greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent?
So for those who want to channel their amorphous frustration into practical demands, here are several specific suggestions:
• Impose a financial transactions tax. This would be a modest tax on financial trades, modeled on the suggestions of James Tobin, an American economist who won a Nobel Prize. The aim is in part to dampen speculative trading that creates dangerous volatility. Europe is moving toward a financial transactions tax, but the Obama administration is resisting -- a reflection of its deference to Wall Street.
• Close the "carried interest" and "founders' stock" loopholes, which may be the most unconscionable tax breaks in America. They allow our wealthiest citizens to pay very low tax rates by pretending that their labor compensation is a capital gain.
• Protect big banks from themselves. This means moving ahead with Basel III capital requirements and adopting the Volcker rule to limit banks' ability to engage in risky and speculative investments. Another sensible proposal, embraced by President Obama and a number of international experts, is the bank tax. This could be based on an institution's size and leverage, so that bankers could pay for their cleanups -- the finance equivalent of a pollution tax.
Much of the sloganeering at "Occupy Wall Street" is pretty silly -- but so is the self-righteous sloganeering of Wall Street itself. And if a ragtag band of youthful protesters can help bring a dose of accountability and equity to our financial system, more power to them.
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Nicholas D. Kristof's column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.
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