Sunday, December 4, 2011

OWS and the Downfall of the Smartest Guys in the Room

    Sunday, December 04, 2011   No comments

by Sarah Leonard

The problem with Occupy Wall Street, an investment banker wrote to me, is that financial mechanisms are very complicated, and the protesters don't understand them. On the day that the New York occupation of Zuccotti Park spread to Washington Square, another visitor from finance looked out over the milling malcontents: "Things definitely went wrong, but you have to understand how the system works. Looking at these signs doesn't give me a lot of confidence."

And it was certainly true that, by themselves, the signs bobbing through the crowd urged a panoply of measures: Abolish the Fed! Tax the rich! Bail out the people! Lloyd Blankfein's head on a pike! Now! All this hectic sloganeering lent a sort of poignant sweetness to a placard that pointed out, reasonably enough, that "the economy could be more fair." But the mood got more rancorous the closer one got to the center of the action at Zuccotti Park, with anarchists, union folks, frustrated reformers, and hard-line anti-capitalists making up the bulk of the crowd. This was a far cry from a sensible policy luncheon at the liberal Center for American Progress.

And for some liberal critics of the Occupy movement, that's precisely the problem. The New Republic's first article on the movement by Mark Schmitt cautioned glumly, "Our Tea Party has come. And so all the good work and focused protests are tossed aside as liberals gravitate to the thing that looks and feels most like the early days of the Tea Party." The essay might have been called "Remember the Think Tanks!"

In a similar vein, consider the testimony of Peter Orszag, Obama's former budget director, darling of both the Democratic establishment and a media consensus uncritically accepting of his youthful good looks as telltale evidence of a fresh and creative interior. Rather than scolding the unruly masses at Zuccotti Park, Orszag hailed the virtues of the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street as generative of those experts who would provide the real solutions to economic crisis. After Orszag had left the OMB for the far grander emoluments on offer at Citibank he announced a paradigm shift in the making. "I am getting exposed to lots of different issues and problems, and that will then better inform my thinking and public writing," he informed New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman. "Direct experience need not undermine one's intellectual integrity; sometimes it can even bolster it." Article.
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