Saturday, October 29, 2011

The 99%

Say you wanted to build a Movement by appealing directly to the Cult Mind, that part of the brain that most desires to be part of a herd. You'd need a slogan to imply that following a crowd leads to Truth. Such a maxim would suggest that being in the majority, or having membership in the biggest tribe, somehow confers moral superiority. You'd want the slogan to be well-suited to sheep, while scrupulously avoiding any speck of human critical thinking.

I submit that "We are the 99%" fits these criteria perfectly.

For the benefit of readers who have been living in caves: "We are the 99%," or slight variations thereof, is a battle cry appearing on countless posters and placards in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests around the world, and used by its supporters in the media and blogsphere.

"We are the 99%!" is found alongside signs like "Eat the Rich," suggesting anger directed at the top 1% measured by finances. Demonizing the wealthy is hardly a new phenomenon.

It's also common in our history to aim derision at those at the very top of the intelligence/education pyramid. Think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or of George Wallace referring sneeringly to "pointy-headed intellectuals," those with too much book-learnin'. Anti-intellectual movements gain traction precisely because they're aimed at a minority.

Protesters with a lesser slice of the IQ pie could occupy universities. People with PhDs make up less than 1% of the American adult population; imagine mobs trying to disrupt doctorate programs while proudly shouting "We are the MORE THAN 99%!" How is that any less coherent than the Occupy Wall Street motto?

What's so special about the OWS number anyway? If it's OK to demonize 1%, why not 2%? There's ample precedence for slurring the Jews. Why begrudge anti-Semitic demonstrators the mathematically-accurate claim "We are the 98.3%!"

Where to draw the line? At what magic number is there a moral distinction? Aren't rallies against African-Americans entitled to the motto "We are the 87.7%!" And other than the need for larger signs, where's the problem with anti-gay mobs using slogans like "It depends on which study you believe, but we're confident that we're somewhere between the 87% and the 98%!"

Maybe there are some people carrying "99%" signs with the intention of attacking a relatively small number of people who have cheated larger numbers of people. If that's the case, if they're rallying against wrongdoing like lying or stealing, why not direct energy and anger against those specific behaviors? Aren't we rational enough to argue that a deception or theft causes harm, and condemn it whether the criminal is rich or poor, whether there's one culprit or ten thousand?

It's hypocritical to direct condemnation only at those we consider to be outside of the herd. There's little moral authority in "We're protesting against those who commit violent assaults... but only if they're a lot more attractive (or smarter, or stronger, or richer) than we are!"

Personally, I'd find the 99%ers a whole lot less creepy if they based the protest on a principle... rather than appealing to the lowest common denominator, using a mindless bandwagon slogan that relies on a dubious, self-proclaimed head count.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, here's the principle as stated on the OWS website:

#ows is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.

Does that work for you?

Doug said...

How is that a principle?

I understand where the discontent is coming from. Unemployment is high, people are suffering, struggling, sure, I get it. But these protesters... what do they want changed? The 1960's civil rights protests were against the nebulous concept of racism, but they also had specific, tangible aims: end segregation in schools & services, strike down Jim Crow laws. Success was achieved with the court rulings and legislation that accomplished those things. How exactly are we to measure the success of OWS's "fighting against?" When there are no more rich people? Banks & multi-nationals abolished? And we replace today's system with what? Some brand of socialism? Something else? The symbols, slogans, even color choices decorating "occupywallst.org" could easily be mistaken for a campus socialist club. "The only solution is world revolution!" Thanks, but no thanks.

Anonymous said...

While some OWSers are socialists, most that I know are capitalists. No, they don't want to eliminate rich people or institute socialism.

The anger is over corruption and fraud. "Corrosive power" means that banks and multinational corporations have near-total control over politicians and the financial regulatory agencies that are supposed to keep fraud in check.

The banksters nearly destroyed the entire economy three years ago... and yet not a single high-level financial executive has been prosecuted criminally. OWS wants these people brought to justice. We want the DOJ, the SEC, and other regulatory agencies to DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE GODDAMN FRAUD AND CORRUPTION. And we want our politicians to pass real regulatory reform laws that will prevent the same mess from happening again.

Why is that so hard to understand, and what in the world do you find objectionable about it?

I'm all for capitalism and free markets. But to work, the system requires a level playing field. Right now, all the power is in the hands of the banks and other big money corporations. That's not democracy; that's plutocracy.

Stuart said...

Anony wrote...
The anger is over corruption and fraud... OWS wants these people brought to justice.

One possibility is that Occupy Wall Street protests are filled with people who have seriously studied the law and financial system, and thus have a superior understanding of who has committed crimes like fraud and how they should be punished, so as to deter future wrongdoing.

After sober reflection, these protesters have decided that the best way to achieve this justice is to establish websites clamoring for Socialist revolution, camp out on public land, and join a mob rallying around inane slogans like "We are the 99%" and "Eat the Rich."

An alternate possibility is that when people are suffering, when they feel their life situations compare unfavorably with what they had in the past, what they've expected, and how they see others... it's slow and difficult to improve things.

Improving one's own life could require long hours of studying, or working at boring jobs. Improving the world could require educating oneself on how to intelligently make decisions about voting, doing business, taking risks, and communicating your conclusions in a rational way.

This is all so hard that you could choose instead declare your moral superiority, which requires demonizing an enemy. The scapegoat could be the rich, the intellectuals, the "banksters." There's always the danger that the scapegoat will fight back, so it's convenient to attack a minority like the Blacks or the 1%. Or even better, make your scapegoat a fictitious being, like the Devil, evil spirits, or a corporation.

Mobs of people righteously demanding punishment of their supposed enemies still gives me the creeps.

Anonymous said...

It isn't accurate to paint the protesters with a single broad brush, e.g. "socialists". It's no better than painting the "1%" with a single broad brush, which is what you are apparently objecting to.

Some of them are socialists, but a lot of them are not. There are quite a few who have enough sophistication to understand the problem.

But the details of the problems are also quite complicated, and not everybody gets the benefit of a quality education in life. So I don't hold it against these people when they resort to slogans and crude tactics to express what is an entirely justified sense of frustration and anger. It's a helluva lot better than apathy and laziness.

"Improving the world could require educating oneself on how to intelligently make decisions about voting, doing business, taking risks, and communicating your conclusions in a rational way."

None of which is incompatible with the idea of public protests.

Unfortunately, I don't think the things you suggest are, by themselves, enough to solve the problem.

"Mobs of people righteously demanding punishment of their supposed enemies still gives me the creeps."

You know what I find infinitely more creepy? The idea that allowing fraud and corruption to go unchecked is going to lead to an economic collapse that will not be so-closely-averted the next time around.

Seriously, are people just suppose to sit by quietly while the public fisc is repeatedly looted, and fraudsters go unpunished?

And since when are corporations fictitious?

Anonymous said...

What does OWS want?

Grand Juries.

Subpoenas.

Indictments.

Stuart said...

While I want to make commenting easy for anyone, I really wish people would give a name or Google identity or personal URL when they post. As anyone familiar with the internet or real-life mobs knows, anonymity often breeds bad behavior.

Anony wrote...
the details of the problems are also quite complicated, and not everybody gets the benefit of a quality education in life. So I don't hold it against these people when they resort to slogans and crude tactics to express what is an entirely justified sense of frustration and anger. It's a helluva lot better than apathy and laziness.

When complicated problems are addressed by mobs of people who pointedly lack the information to understand the issues (beyond expressing anger with crude slogans and tactics), the consequences historically haven't been so impressive.

When people have anger but lack a deeper understanding of the issues, I don't share your belief that it's a helluva good thing for them to take to the streets.

are people just suppose to sit by quietly while the public fisc is repeatedly looted, and fraudsters go unpunished?

...

What does OWS want? Grand Juries. Subpoenas. Indictments.

Since the masses of protesters don't understand the facts and the law beyond crude slogans, how could they possibly know who if anyone is guilt of fraud? It's as common as dirt for angry people to lash out at perceived enemies, even when scapegoating does little to improve the situation (beyond providing a stupifying rush of righteous feeling).

When dealing with the deadly serious matter of punishing people, locking them up in jails etc, I'd much prefer it be handled by knowledgeable people who weigh facts in a sober, objective way to determine if an individual has broken a specific legal statute.

I much less prefer it when punishment is demanded by misinformed mobs motivated by their anger, taking potshots at an ill-defined group for unproven crimes.

And since when are corporations fictitious?

A corporation is an entity created by law to have certain rights and responsibilities, as if it were a person separate from its members. By law and by common sense, the corporation isn't really a person. From wiki:

"a corporation is an abstraction. It has no mind of its own any more than it has a body of its own"

"The existence of a corporation requires a special legal framework and body of law that specifically grants the corporation legal personality, and typically views a corporation as a fictional person"

Anonymous said...

"When dealing with the deadly serious matter of punishing people, locking them up in jails etc, I'd much prefer it be handled by knowledgeable people who weigh facts in a sober, objective way to determine if an individual has broken a specific legal statute."

The point is that people want the government to do something about it. The "mob" (what a loaded term) is not proposing to bring the prosecutions themselves; they want the DOJ, the SEC, and other regulatory agencies to do their jobs.

You used the word "punish"; I used the word "prosecute". Not the same thing. Punishment only comes after the prosecution has proven someone is guilty in a court of law.

The problem is that the prosecutors and other investigatory agencies aren't really lifting a finger. (The SEC has obtained a couple settlements, but they have been slaps on the wrist.)

How would you feel if your home was robbed, and you called the police, but they never even showed up? That's what people are angry about.

"Fictional person" does not mean the corporation itself is fictitious. It means it has been given some of the same rights and status as a person under the law. But it certainly exists in any real sense. It has assets -- typically including physical assets -- people, and most importantly, its actions have a real impact on the real world.

Anonymous said...

"When people have anger but lack a deeper understanding of the issues, I don't share your belief that it's a helluva good thing for them to take to the streets."

Well on the issue of financial fraud and political corruption, they happen to be right.

Besides, it's not like they're out lynching people or burning down buildings.

This whole debate reminds me a lot of spring 2003. A lot of my so-called "progressive" friends refused to take to the streets to protest the Iraq War because they didn't want to stand next to those "smelly hippies".

A lot of the same people figured the war would be over in a few months...

Stuart said...

Anony wrote...
The point is that people want the government to do something about it. The "mob" (what a loaded term) is not proposing to bring the prosecutions themselves; they want the DOJ, the SEC, and other regulatory agencies to do their jobs.

If there are people who want to influence how the Department of Justice etc operates, and they feel that rather than the usual methods or organizing voting blocs and making reasoned arguments, they want to camp out and demonstrate... would you agree that the methods I wrote about in this blog (the anger directed willy-nilly at business and the financially successful, the socialist blather, the "99%" fantasies)... have got nothing to do with urging government agencies to do their jobs?

You used the word "punish"; I used the word "prosecute". Not the same thing. Punishment only comes after the prosecution has proven someone is guilty in a court of law.

Here in America, we usually wait till after an individual has been convicted before claiming he's guilty... rather than mudslinging about "fraudsters" as you have done, or the "Eat the Rich" nonsense of the OWS protesters.

Anyway I see that tonight's South Park is titled "1%". I have high hopes that Cartman and the gang will, as usual, finally provide some intelligent and incisive commentary on this issue, as they have on so many others.

Anonymous said...

You know Stuart... democracy is a messy process. Sometimes you have to stand together with others -- others you might not agree with 100%, but people who are sort of heading in the same general direction you are. Because there's power in numbers.

But you disagree apparently. So go ahead and form a bloc of high-minded, intellectually-vetted, infinitely-rational voters, only those who agree 100% with what you have to say. Let me how many people you can sign up, and exactly how far you get by doing so.

And then let me know exactly how much you accomplish in the course of that endeavor. Because I'm pretty sure you'll be lucky to get a dozen or so people together, and I'm pretty sure you'll end up accomplishing exactly nothing whatsoever.

Over and out.

Stuart said...

Ahh! It's finally all coming together:

http://www.minyanville.com/dailyfeed/2011/11/03/mtv-looks-for-ratings-gold

Stuart said...

anony wrote...
So go ahead and form a bloc of high-minded, intellectually-vetted, infinitely-rational voters

Mocking rationality and high-mindedness doesn't bode well. When people celebrate anger and herd mentality, while denigrating productive success and human intelligence, I don't expect it to lead to good things.

Doug said...

Anon, if you're still with us, what I find hard to understand is what specifically you want done. You use the phrase "do something" several times, and you offered:

"We want the DOJ, the SEC, and other regulatory agencies to DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE GODDAMN FRAUD AND CORRUPTION. And we want our politicians to pass real regulatory reform laws that will prevent the same mess from happening again" and similar iterations thereof.

But which laws are inadequate? Which statutes would you reform and how? Where are the gaps that need plugging, and what ideas do you propose to plug them? I don't object to the notion of reform, but the details are important! It is entirely possible to do more harm than good, in fact it's downright likely. There are many, many laws on the books regarding fraud and corruption, all of which are publicly viewable in an instant thanks to the internet. Point me to which ones you'd change and tell me how & why. I'm ready to listen.

Similarly, if you're going to prosecute people, then for what crimes, using what evidence? All 100% of us are constitutionally protected from being tried for breaking laws that were made up ex post facto. If we're going to criminalize something new for the future, then what?

Anonymous said...

Specifics are easy.

What laws need to be changed, for starters:

1. Reinstate the Glass Steagall Act, separating investment banks from commercial banks.

2. Pass the Volcker Rule, prohibiting the banks from speculative investments using their customers' money.

3. Raise margin requirements for large banks.

4. Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

As for what existing laws need to be enforced through criminal prosecutions:

Securities Fraud
Wire Fraud
Mail Fraud
Bank Fraud
Mortgage Fraud
Tax Evasion
Bribery and Kickbacks
Conspiracy to Defraud the United States


You want specific allegations and evidence for them? For starts, I suggest you go look at the SEC's complaints filed against Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and the former executives of Countrywide -- all of which were settled for slap-on-the-wrist, cost-of-doing-business monetary amounts.

Stuart said...

A poster who wouldn't even give his name wrote:
1. Reinstate the Glass Steagall Act, separating investment banks from commercial banks.
2. Pass the Volcker Rule, prohibiting the banks from speculative investments using their customers' money.


Of the people marching downtown, shouting "We are the 99%!," trying to close down business... what percentage of them do you honestly think have even the most elementary understanding of the Glass-Steagall Act or the Volcker Rule?

When a common man sees these people occupying and disrupting and making unsupported claims to represent 99% of the population... do you think it's reasonable for him to interpret these actions as an argument against Glass-Steagall and for Volcker? Or does it seem more likely that the protesters are driven by self-righteousness, mob psychology, and personal anger unchecked by an objective consideration of facts?

Anonymous said...

"A poster who wouldn't even give his name..."

OK, you apparently don't want me posting here. Fine, it's your blog.

Goodbye.

Doug said...

Okay, now at least we're getting somewhere concrete...

"1. Reinstate the Glass Steagall Act, separating investment banks from commercial banks."

I'm not sure I agree that this will solve or improve anything. Many economists predict that doing so will just drive more capital into the "dark pool" trading, i.e. the making of non-public deals. That's bad for free markets and especially smaller investors, i.e. everybody except the "1%."

"2. Pass the Volcker Rule, prohibiting the banks from speculative investments using their customers' money."

I don't think that's preciesly what the Volcker rule proposed, but regardless, it's been passed already, anyway. See Dodd-Frank.

"3. Raise margin requirements for large banks."

I assume you mean capital buffer requirements, rather than margin limits? If so, then the same comment applies: capial buffer requirements have already been raised in both America and Europe to levels that - theoretically - would have weathered the 2008 crash.

"4. Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United."

On this I'm decidedly "meh." There are some aspects of that decision I agree with, regarding freedom of speech. I'm not convinced that restricting privately generated propaganda actually helps anything, whether by individuals or corporations. As for the corrupting influence of money in campaigns, the total spent may be staggering, but spread over hundreds of millions of vote-eligible Americans, it's actually somewhat paltry. The billions spent on the 2008 presidential election, the most expensive one ever, amounted to something like $3 per voter to educate this nation about it's choices for executive leader. And furthermore, several independent academic analyses have shown that funding is a poor indicator of election results, i.e. that money affects political outcomes a lot less than is commonly accepted.

"You want specific allegations and evidence for them? For starts, I suggest you go look at the SEC's complaints filed against Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and the former executives of Countrywide -- all of which were settled for slap-on-the-wrist, cost-of-doing-business monetary amounts."

From what I know, those settlements have been to the tune of hundreds of millions or billions haven't they? What punishments would have been acceptable to you, keeping in mind constituional guarantees of proportional punishment?

Take the case against Goldman. Investors alleged that GS bankers sold them investments in bad real estate if I remember right, but that's not the criminal part. There's nothing criminal about making business deals that end in loss. What was criminal was that those same GS bankers were also shorting, i.e. betting against, those very same products, and failed to inform their customers about what they obviously felt was a real risk that the value of the product would fall. And for that deception they paid $550 million in fines and reparations. So I ask again, if half a billion dollars is not a sufficient punishment for willfully failing to disclose some information in a business deal, what is?

The vengeful side of me does think somebody should have gone to jail, but (going off on a tangent) I tend to think prison should be reserved for the violent and otherwise worst of the worst. A good quote from a dubious source (see Pat Nolan): "We build jails for people we’re afraid of, and fill them with people we’re mad at."

And if Stuart doesn't mind me chipping in on his behalf, I doubt he wanted to drive you away, but he did ask for a moniker of some kind several times. How else do we tell one Anon from aonther, other than guessing at your writing style? :)