On The Suppression Of Protest And Debate

Posted by: Mark Gimein on October 27, 2011 at 6:20 PM

occupyinjury.jpg
The aim of this blog is, as for all of Bloomberg Businessweek, to give readers an understanding of business and the economy. Its title is “Occupy Wall Street: The Wealth Debate,” and that second part is just as important as the first. In general, I am most comfortable writing about economics. To some people details about Singapore’s GDP or financial transaction taxes are dull; to me they are important.

I disagree with many, or even most, ideas of the Occupy movement. This week I questioned the “Robin Hood tax”. In earlier articles—ones I wrote before coming to Bloomberg this month—I’ve objected strenuously to some of the witch hunts on Wall Street.

What, though, is a writer on business and economics to do when things turn violent? In the last entry, my colleague Dan Beucke considers the events in Oakland, and gives an insightful analysis of what images of disorder do for the perception of the movement. It seems to me, though, that this is jumping the gun a bit. Before moving on to how these things are perceived, it’s worth getting clarity on what happened.

As Megan McArdle has written at the Atlantic, there’s not a good reason why a protest like the one in Oakland should be broken up at all. The need to keep traffic moving and maintain the upkeep of public spaces are truly trivial compared to that of allowing public debate and assembly.


McArdle, though, couches her views in terms of advice to both protesters and police to avoid violence. That sounds reasonable enough, but the fact that the police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades at a crowd of protesters is not really debatable. It’s documented on video, and the resulting injuries are documented in photos, too.

The police assert the response was prompted by violence on the part of protesters. In one video of the arrests I watched, a cop’s helmet is marked with splattered paint. In at least one interview, a protester confirms that things were thrown. The police have mentioned plastic bottles, and rocks. For the rocks, there is so far no direct evidence—not a video, not a dent. And that leaves aside whether one protester throwing a rock is a justification to bombard others with tear gas and rubber bullets.

If there is information yet to be presented that the response by the police was provoked, or that the demonstrators injured were guilty of anything but refusing to move, the police should offer it. So far it hasn’t materialized.

Most economics bloggers (McArdle is an exception) have steered clear of directly addressing Oakland’s response to the protests. Part of me wants to do the same. I am a nerd.

But it seems to me that if largely non-violent demonstrations are broken up with aggressive police force, the idea of public debate is threatened. That is bad for policy, bad for politics, and in the long run very, very bad for those like me who make a living from analysis and commentary. And those who are in the business of contributing to that public debate, whether in economics or any other subject, have a responsibility to point that out.

Photographer: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images

Reader Comments

Elvis Jackson

October 27, 2011 9:31 PM

1. People that work hard should earn more.
Agree! Nobody doesn't agree. The question is, how much more? This exact mechanism for translating work into income is out of control.
A teacher earns $32,000 a year on average. Lloyd Blankenstein CEO of the investment bank Goldman Sachs earned $54,000,000 per year. That is about 1,600 times more than a teacher. Is he working 1,600 times harder (a day only has 24h)? Is he 1,600 times smarter and more valuable to society? This is what income should reflect at least to some extent.
So as he may have been better at school and worked harder, and was more focused on making money, and this should be reflected in higher income BUT only to an appropriate extent.

2. If we increase taxes of the rich they will lose the motivation to work or leave the country.
Disagree! We never claimed communism nor that people that work harder should not earn more. But again, it is all about the proportion. The psychological drive in humans to earn more than others is strong and important for economic growth. However, the motivational difference between making 1 million a year and making 20 million a year is marginal. Therefore a drastic tax on very rich people will not harm their motivation.
Furthermore, they earn that due to a specific system. A system btw that is not natural. In a natural society nobody would earn 1,600 times more than somebody else. So if they leave the system they would not earn as much. Thus, they will not leave the system.

3. Shouldn't we increase taxes on corporations instead?
Wrong! The corporations will lose in the competition with foreign corporations and that would be worse for all of us. We need competitive corporations. A corporation is not rich - their shareholders are. A corporation is not an abstract monster - it is a nexus of contracts between people. At the end, the corporations’ profits end up in the pockets of a handful of shareholders and managers. Thus, income taxes are a better tool to redistribute wealth while keeping corporations competitive.

4. The war of talent is responsible for excessive payments
Agree! But just because a very small circle decides what their colleagues should earn. Do you really think that if a bank offers a CEO 1 million instead of 10 million a year that they will have a lack of applicants? In a country with roughly 300,000,000 people there are more than just a few capable managers who can run a bank and would do it for (just) one million.
They argue: compensation plans are performance-based and this justifies the high bonuses. Yes, but in a way where you make a huge bonus if your risky strategy was successful and you make no bonus but still a considerable income if it fails. Thus, there are enough incentives to make risky decisions. If you gamble in a casino where you can only win but not lose your own money, I bet you would make very risky bets.

5. Everybody wants to live in a peaceful society?
Agree! That is why the 1% should consider these arguments. The only weapon the 99% have is their own mass. No law, no wall and no security system can stop the mass. We saw burning cars in Paris, broken shopping windows in London, injured people in Rome and angry shouting people on Wall Street. If you do not have anything to lose you will do risky stuff. What next? You, 1%, decide!

DanTe

October 27, 2011 10:33 PM

You like the loud dirty smelly protest? Than we should move them near to YOUR home. We'll see how fast your hypocritical tune changes.

TheraP

October 27, 2011 10:38 PM

Thank you for this wonderful essay! Especially in the light of your own personal views of OWS.

My background is in therapy, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (now retired). I am a supporter of the Occupy movement and I feel strongly that all its supporters must do so peacefully - as we did at our local Occupy on Sat. Nov. 15.

Now, like you, my primary concern has transcended the Occupy movement to a firm allegiance to the First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceful assembly in order to seek redress of grievances.

So thanks for seeing that! And writing about so well!

EdZ

October 28, 2011 1:19 AM

Break up the TBTF banks, and let the failures fail.

Hold white collar criminals accountable for their crimes.

Revoke freedom of expression from corporate entities.

We made the current rules, and we can change them.

mrleusk

October 28, 2011 3:57 AM

CALL THEM DEMONSTRATORS

It is important to call these people "demonstrators" instead of "protesters". "Demonstrator" is a more appropriate term because it indicates that they are not there to articulate anything. They are there to show the effect of current economic policies that are very profitable to banks. The effect being large unemployed angry masses of people. Unfortunately, most demonstrators and most people in the media don't really understand the problems on either side so no productive conversation is possible.

AVOID ESCALATION

These demonstrations will get increasingly violent. When a small group has to disperse a large group, it is almost impossible to not use force. Fortunately, it is fall and the crowd should thin as people get more uncomfortable. Suck it up and let them hang out until it gets colder, then it won't be as bad.

EDrews

October 28, 2011 8:52 AM

Just a few simple questions: Do you want to pay the taxes so that teachers cah make $1 million per year? Your salary example does not take into account other high paid entities in other businesses. There are no protesters in front of the houses of CEOs of Google, Facebook or eBay, nor are there protesters in front of the houses of Payton Manning, Alex Rodriguez, or other high paid athletes. Are they exempt from the wealth re-distrubution requests? If so, why?

We all make a choice of the professions we choose to make our own in life. I would hope that those headed for higher education, still involved in their higher education, or those already in the working world, take, or have taken, into consideration the fact that some professions, however noble and idealistic, don't have the compensation level of other professions. Each of us, as individuals, make our choices, and we have to live with those choices. Just because I don't earn what the CEO of Goldman Sachs, or Payton Manning, earns doesn't somehow entitle me to some of their income. I'm definitely not in the 1%, but I'm also not in the 99% that OWS claims to represent. OWS has chosen a path that involves confrontation with either corporate entities, and/or law enforcement, by ignoring the rules of behavior, ignoring law enforcement, or breaking the law. In more than enough cases, the arrest record for some of these protesters will exclude them from some of the jobs they might like, and even enjoy. Each of them should consider, or should have considered, that possibility before engaging in a confrontation.

Colin Burn

October 28, 2011 9:25 AM

To Elvis Jackson, yesterday: Thank you for that statement ....absolutely, undeniably spot-on. Do the 1% have an atom of conscience? Oh dear no...so we know what's coming.

Richard Grelber

October 28, 2011 9:33 AM

The local government is politically sympathetic to the protestors. The whole political power structure in California, from the governor on down through the mayor and city council, is politically aligned with the protestors.

There are only two reasons I can see for a police crackdown in such a situation:

(1) the protestors were genuinely behaving badly

(2) somehow the crackdown is supposed to attract more attention to the protests and make us more sympathetic to these incoherent people, with their barely articulated envy.

(the top 1% need to pay more taxes, but they can't carry the other 99%. in social democratic countries, the 99% pay a lot more taxes than they do here. that's the only way budget math can add up in an industrialized country. these spoiled children just don't get reality.)

dm88

October 28, 2011 10:13 AM

Mr. Grelber,

Incoherent people during the French Revolution articulated their envy very clearly with a guillotine.

The 1% always seen to forget that it's in their interest to keep the rabble reasonably comfortable.

The "spoiled children" you are looking for are wearing the handmade suits.

ian wallace

October 28, 2011 10:44 AM

if people that work hardest should earn the most, then every farm worker in this country should be rich.

as too the police in Oakland:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEj_4fqDbnM&feature=share

pinkwillie

October 28, 2011 11:11 AM

There is unrest in the forest,
There is trouble with the trees,
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their please.

The trouble with the maples,
(And they're quite convinced they're right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light.
But the oaks can't help their feelings
If they like the way they're made.
And they wonder why the maples
Can't be happy in their shade.

There is trouble in the forest,
And the creatures all have fled,
As the maples scream "Oppression!"
And the oaks just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights.
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light."
Now there's no more oak oppression,
For they passed a noble law,
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw.

C65

October 28, 2011 2:29 PM

With respect to the OWS interaction with police remember that it is the job of the police to keep the peace in all situations. The cause that a group is promoting or protesting is irrelevant to the job of the police officers. In doing that job, there is never an excuse for misconduct by any officer, period. However, if an officer is asked to go out in a crowd and "control the situation" and they are surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of people and the situation starts to get out of control, what is the appropriate response? Easy to say "too much" or "too harsh" from your living room, but next time you go to a baseball game (a large group of nice well intended people) see if you can get a couple hundered of them to stop watching the game, listen to you and do what you want. Then think about an officer, in uniform, in the middle of a highly energized crowd of people trying to "control the situation". Sometimes a friendly suggestion just doesn't cut it. Furthermore, if people are pushing and shoving, is it not the officer's job to protect those being pushed and shoved? If people are throwing things, is it not the officers job to protect people from being hit? and if an officer is in the middle of a crowd of people and one of the people who is part of the crowd or from outside of the crowd declares an intent to commit violence, then what? wait until someone is hurt or worse, killed? Whether you agree or disagree with the OWS crowd is irrelevant to the question of whether you want the police to do their job, which is not simply to stand by and let people do whatever they want to do, nor is it their job to turn the other cheek; Protect and Serve. It is an extraordinarily difficult situation for the police and remember, they are not part of the "1%".

Tim

October 28, 2011 3:24 PM

This is an interesting essay. But the real issue now is that OWS is no longer representing the 99% or anything close to that.

It has now identified itself as a left-wing fringe group using demonstrations without focus or goals as its main 'message'.

The clashes with the police and the anti-capitalist signs and slogans suggest a warmed over version of the 1968 protests.

They might have attracted a majority, but they have lost their opportunity.

As a result they are no longer a significant story.

TVJohnLangworthy

November 15, 2011 11:19 AM

Please enjoy my music video made at OWS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hyppmMd8qw

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About

"The Wealth Debate" is a running discussion of wealth, poverty, the economy and income inequality in the U.S. and the world. It was started shortly after the Occupy Wall Street movement sparked a global protest about the fallout from the financial crisis and money in politics. You can reach the editors, Dan Beucke and Mark Gimein, by email, or follow BloombergNow on Twitter to keep up with posts.

Analyses or commentary in this blog are the views of the author and or commentators, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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