On Sunday morning, October 16, 2011, I taxied down to the Occupy Wall Street shindig from the 92nd Street Y where the Singularity Summit was unraveling as organizers scrambled to figure out how to work the wireless Internet system in the room while speakers boasted about how close we are to computers achieving human level intelligence. Human ignorance maybe, but intelligence? More on that topic later. (See my Scientific American column for January—out mid December—for my skeptical thoughts on when I think computers will achieve human level intelligence. Hint: We’re five years away…and always will be. But since I don’t want to sound so pessimistic, I have taken a cue from the singer/songwriters Zager and Evans, that the exordium and terminus of the singularity will be 2525 and 9595.)
When I posted some pics I snapped with my iPhone on twitter and made a couple of snide remarks, many of my fellow skeptics chided me for my insensitivity or berated me for my libertarian blindness to real social injustices being protested at the various “Occupy X” events. I call them events (or “shindigs”) because my general impression is that although there are some real issues being mentioned here and there in a desultory manner, for the most part I think most people I saw were in one of two categories: (1) onlookers such as myself snapping pictures and taking in the scene; (2) participants wanting to be part of what might turn out to be this generation’s (a) Woodstock or (b) Montgomery bus boycott. In my opinion it is neither, but I have to admit that I haven’t inhaled that much second-hand pot smoke since I was in college (yes, even at the staunchly conservative Pepperdine University, there were bountiful plumes of pot smoke wafting down the dorm room hallways!).
I have appended various photographs at the end of this essay to let the moment speak for itself, grammatically challenged signs and all, but let me first make a few comments regarding what might be gleaned from the party atmosphere of a few salient points of political and economic significance.
- Why has no one from Wall Street gone to jail for the financial meltdown? Bill Maher has asked this question several times on his HBO show Real Time. I have asked many experts myself, including economists, lawyers, and Wall Street traders. Answer: no one went to jail because they didn’t break any laws. Conclusion: If you want someone punished for the meltdown you have to first change the law. Perhaps these protests are the first step in that direction, although I doubt it because I don’t think Wall Street by itself caused the meltdown. It was a combination of many factors, primary being the removal of risk aversion from both Wall Street traders (and bankers) and Main Street home buyers. Still, if you want to blame Wall Streeters…
- What, exactly, did these Wall Street people do that was so wrong? Well, for one, the protestors seem to think that they are too greedy. This is like standing outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles to protest that Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are too greedy because they are constantly trying to win a championship and make a ton of money in the process. That’s the whole point of playing professional sports—to win and make a boatload of money in the process! Analogously, the only reason to work on Wall Street is to make a boatload of money. That’s the whole point of “playing the market.”
- The Wall Streeters accepted bailout money that they shouldn’t have gotten. Yeah, well, whose fault is that? What did you think they would do? Turn the money down? Heck no! You offer someone a handout and they’ll take it, whether it is a main street worker or a Wall Street CEO. The problem is that they should never have been bailed out in the first place. That happened because of crony capitalism, which is nothing like the libertarian vision of real capitalism. So here I’m sympathetic with the Occupy X protestors: no “in profits we’re capitalists, in losses we’re socialists.” Sorry. If you want to play the game of Risk you have to accept the losses as well as the gains.
- Wall Street CEOs and their resident COOs, CFOs, traders, and the like, make too damn much money, hundreds of times more than the gap used to be between the highest paid and lowest paid members of corporations. Emotionally I am once again sympathetic to the Occupy Xers: the amount of money some of these guys makes is obscene, and the income gap between them and us is Grand Canyonesque in yawning abyss. But what’s the number? How much is too much income? $1 million? $10 million? $100 million $1 billion? $10 billion? Is it really the job of some government agency to set a ceiling on how much anyone is allowed to make? Would any of my readers care to pick a number and defend it? And what if it is a number well under Bill Gates’ income? He’s giving most of it away to what most of us would consider very worthwhile causes (disease eradication in Africa, education in America). Is it okay to make $X if you give most of it away, or is it only okay if it is taxed away from you and spent on some cause someone else thinks is better than the causes you want to support?
- The government should regulate Wall Street more. I agree that all competitions must be regulated by a well-defined set of rules that are consistently enforced with penalties assessed without prejudice or bias, from sporting contests to stock market trading. That is what the SEC is for, among other regulatory bodies. But from where I sit as an average Joe the Skeptic position of modest income who tries his hand at stock market trading in figures infinitesimally smaller than the Big Boys, it all looks like insider trading to me—from the Wall Street CEOs to the Beltway politicians appointed to look after them, who seemingly trade jobs and hold their positions no matter who is in power, Democrats or Republicans. Obama has drunk the Wall Street Kool Aid no less than Bush did. They all do. The entire system is corrupt, in that sense. Once you allow the players to dictate who enforces the rules of the game, the game is over. It would be like Barry Bonds being appointed Director of the Steroid Drug Testing Agency overseeing baseball to insure a fair contest, while he is still playing the game!
Will anything come of the Occupy This protests? Probably not. If the President of the United States can’t institute changes, who can? Congress? Yeah, right, there’s no corporate money tainting those jobs now is there? So here’s one man’s simplistic answer: no more government bail outs for anyone for anything, either on Main Street or Wall Street. Bail out money corrupts, and government bail out money corrupts absolutely.