Friday, October 28, 2011

Choosing symbol over substance

Here's the conclusion to Conor Friedersdorf's excellent piece arguing that by taking aim at symbolic Wall Street (which many Americans see as synonymous with capitalism) versus actual Wall Street the Occupy folks are missing a chance to advance real reform.

What I wonder is how many of the protestors realize that the case against symbolic Wall Street is actually much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street. Symbolic Wall Street is the financial center of earth's most prosperous country. Actual Wall Street's most powerful firms bear responsibility for the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. At times, actual Wall Street violated the law. It squandered many billions of dollars, inflating the market for mortgage backed securities that the people in charge didn't even understand. Taxpayer money was subsequently redistributed to these firms. That is a powerful case that reform is needed.

There is, however, a robust market in America for ideological thinking, for turning every matter into an epic battle in the war between right and left, red and blue, "the 53 percent" and "the 99 percent." Doing so swells the profits of Fox News and the email lists of Occupy Wall Street organizers and their allies, among many others. They're all in theoretically defensible businesses; but perverse incentives are at play, and we ought to insist, regularly, that we won't go along.

We ought to avoid always treating politics as "an infinitely romantic notion," for while there is a time for doing so, it's too often indulged. We too seldom address problems with solutions characterized by pragmatism and narrowness; we too seldom celebrate a proposal precisely because it permits us to improve the status quo without having to grapple with the bigger questions.

In their own ways the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have drawn attention to some serious national problems. For that they should be thanked. Government debt, deficits, rising income inequality, lack of ethics in politics and business, and the shrinking economic prospects of low and moderate-income families are all problems that have the potential to sink us if not fixed. It remains for other voices to emerge with constructive solutions.

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