Monday, October 10, 2011

OccupyWallStreet - My New Year's Resolution

              Like all resolutions, the important ones most often fall away into the world of, “Well, at least I tried,” within a few weeks, if not days. So, in my effort to combat this natural regression into comfort and habit, I hope to, by the end of the next two weeks actually understand our economic crisis: How it started, how it can actually be fixed, how it affects us on a day to day basis, and what actually are these new protests about? For the life of me, I barely understand the parlance used in the arguments. I don’t really understand inflation, or derivatives, or bubbles bursting, or bailouts, or what a debt ceiling is, and though I regret my ignorance I do not feel alone in it. I imagine most of us don’t actually know the truth as to what happened. Instead, we rely on the haphazard reading we’ve done on the topic whether in one or two books, an article, or an intelligent friend or family member we trust to tell us the “truth” of this situation. Somehow, we believe that despite the pervasiveness of the economic crisis, in reality it doesn't actually affect us enough to learn about it. 
But still, after reading some articles, starting some books, and engaging in conversations, all I now know about the economy and its seemingly never ending troubles, is that it is complex, is that it requires a sort of Ph.D. crash course in both rudimentary and high level economic theory to gain a foothold in the conversation. In a way, this feeds into our current American climate in which we say, “Why should we worry about knowing the details, what can we do? It’s the experts’ jobs to fix this mess,” but the fact is that so many “experts” have gotten it wrong, and admitted to that fact (Alan Greenspan apologized!) Moreover, the more we allocate power to the experts, the less we learn about the crisis, and the more decisions will be made without our true consent, because, you can hardly consent to something you don’t actually understand, right?
This fact appears to live at the core of this nascent movement. As David Foster Wallace points out his posthumous book, the government, often, thrives on making controversial laws as dense as possible. (The Healthcare bill alone was 2,000 pages and many congress-people admit to not reading it at all, which is no surprise.) Take the IRS for example. The IRS in no way lacks transparency. Everything we could want to know about how it works, who gets audited and why we can learn, easily. But think about it, who would want to wade through tome after tome of tax law, of IRS policy when they can just trust those on top to make the right decisions, trust the experts that they know what they are doing. In that manner, the IRS being completely transparent lives in a world unnoticed by most. The same, though to a different extent, can be said about the economy. How many amongst us truly understand the spectrum of economic choices available to this country? How many of us instead just think to rely on the government, and Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve i.e. the experts on this topic to fix the mess they created, because that requires considerably less work, and come on, even if I did learn about it, what could I do, right? So with a mixture of laziness, boredom, and cynicism, the people stay out of touch with the issues that affect them the most, leaving the problems in the hands of those who stand to gain the most and lose the least.
Besides this aspect of comfortable ignorance, a heavy strain of unearned jadedness pervades the conversation about this protest. Many people, when they asked me why protest, explain that protests nowadays do nothing but attract the attention of the media to the fringe of the movement, to those who scream the loudest. With the proliferation of social media, everyone can speak, and the crazies tend to speak the loudest etc. But what does our generation really know about protests? What’s the last issue that has disrupted the normal flow of our lives? We have no Vietnam, no Russian Jewry, no huge Civil rights movement. True, protests contain elements that might scare us, but they need to be explored not shunned without a true inquiry into their purpose, their power, and their possibilities. Hopefully, this is another area I can begin to learn about, because besides learning, how many tools do we have left , as a generation, to make our voices heard?
And none of this takes a political stance, I don’t think. I don’t necessarily know that I agree with the occupywallstreet protest mostly because I don’t fully understand the economy, yet. I do realize though that for a generation that fights for little, that tires of two wars, that appears to grow apathetic with each year, a generation chastised for its narcissism, it's unearned and pointless cynicism, its lack of values or passion, well, on some level its heartens my idealistic self to believe that we still care, that as a generation we still cling to that cliché of hope, of real, deep, lasting change, despite all that we've seen. I’d rather choose to believe in this narrative at the moment, while I study this all, than the cynical one that tells me, come on, this stupid protests of hippies will not accomplish anything.
What remains clear through this fog of ambivalence is the inadequacy of the status quo, the frustration of the masses, but, yes, the movement still feels unformed, like clay not yet morphed into a sculpture, lacking self awareness into the issues of the world, or a certain naiveté about the complexity of all issues, especially those of economic nature. But why is that a problem?  
Because suddenly, the dawning of the pervasive and consistent threat of monetary inequality has provided a jolt to the withered, jaded heart of our generation. We care again, somewhat. About what, we need more time to figure that out, but sometimes circumstances simply demand a visceral protest to the current degeneracy before we can clearly delineate our plan to change society. If you see the world crumbling around you, you yell first, you call for an ambulance, you try to save those who are dying before you write your manifesto about why this happened. So many of us dismiss this protest because of its superficial exterior which looks like a bunch of lazy hippies, but we must delve deeper than this simplistic deterrence to our engagement with one of the biggest issues of our decade.  
So, please, if anyone has any suggestions for good books, or articles to help, anything ranging from the idiot’s guide to the economy to something a bit more sophisticated, let me know.
Thanks for reading,


  1. I recommend This American Life's series: 355 (The Giant Pool of Money), 365, 375, 382, 390, 405, 418

    Also Planet money has a 2-3 times a week podcast of about 20 minutes that is invaluable for keeping up after you have the base line.

  2. Scott sumners blog on monetary policy- themoneyillusion is must read for understanding fed policy and it's impact on the economy. He is a friedmanite liberatarian center sort and I'm a center left person but it's still essential reading.

    I'd also suggest and older book called secrets of TE temple that a rolling stone editor wrote ostensibly about the volcker era fed that also functions as a history of the federal reserve.

    Keynes' general theory is a bit dry and academic but still relatively approachable as far as these things go.

    I had a bit of Econ in college but not much and started reading after lehman collapsed. I think those three places are a good start.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. In regards to OccupyWallStreet and its social media elements, see Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker (10/04/10) about the inherent flaws of using twitter and other social media to spawn a "revolution"..