Thoughts on the Ongoing Occupation, Etc.

In the middle of last week I spent a little time thinking and writing about the Occupy Wall St. movement (meant there and here to refer to regional offshoots as well) and how a lack of focus within the movement would likely spell its demise. Since then, it has gained far more momentum and press attention, and has even led to responses from the nation's leaders. I highly doubt that anyone among the protesters read my humble suggestion, but the media has since regularly decided to sum up the wishes of the throng in the simple phrase 'end corporate greed.' Though it was likely unwittingly, it seems that the protesters have had their focus sharpened for them.

In any case, it is interesting to note just how dynamic this situation is. From a few bedraggled twenty-somethings to the current network of protests nationwide, the movement has grown exponentially. Whether or not one agrees with the message or the methods, one has to recognize that Occupy Wall St. is not going away. Indeed, though I personally discounted this association as a bit presumptuous considering what the individuals who participated in the Arab Spring were up against and ultimately accomplished, it does have a bit of that type of feel to it. I am sure many of the participants of the current movement believe that there are more similarities than the dynamism of the two movements; like the folks in the Middle East were battling against tyrannical rulers, that they are battling against the tyranny of corporate America.

I personally don't feel that the banks of the US are single-handedly liable for the current economic malaise, or that corporations are entirely to blame for every ill of the American society. As a matter of personal philosophy I place the blame for the current financial situation in the US on all of us, from those who took on mortgages inappropriately to anyone who has charged something even once that they couldn't afford, yours truly included. Nonetheless it is also certainly true that the blind drive for short-term profits is a part, even a big part, of this puzzle. It is also true that the current political backdrop enables this to happen. As it seems that politicians will be unable to effect change to this system without a little push, maybe some help from the citizenry will get them moving in the right direction.

However, the big question that I have is 'what is that help from the citizenry.' What is that 'right direction.' What is the 'blind drive for short-term profits'? In other words, what does 'ending corporate greed' mean exactly? There is no doubt in my mind that many of the participants in the Occupy Wall St. movement think that banks should be broken up, that profits should be foregone or redistributed, that politicians should have no association with them. These more or less socialist (not intended to be pejorative here, merely descriptive) or liberal ideals are spelled out clearly enough in various social media tools members of the movement have utilized. Though I applaud their enthusiasm, I cannot agree with the protesters on these fundamental points. So what, then, would I consider to be ending corporate greed?

Greed, defined by dictionary.com, is an 'excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.' I would argue then that the statement 'ending corporate greed' is an oxymoron with the last two words representing a tautology. It is the aim of corporate entities to make profits for their owners. By nature, the more 'greedy' corporations are, the better they are fulfilling their function. If you 'ended' this greed, you would essentially be ending the corporate form as we know it. Of course, some in the Occupy Wall St. movement would applaud this boiled-down notion, but I for one certainly could not.

For all of their ills, corporations employ tens of millions of Americans. Their activities produce goods efficiently so that most Americans have a standard of living unparalleled in much of the world. Their profits drive the growth in retirement accounts of hardworking citizens. Their research and development produces drugs that cure cancer, materials which can go from the bottom of the oceans to the reaches of space and the food staples that feed the world. They drive charitable giving in the country and form part of the fabric of modern America. In short, they are here to stay, and I believe that is a good thing.

However, I believe that greed can be described in another way. In this other case, the greed isn't the greed of selling the most products possible, it is the greed of taking on imprudent risks. After all, selling more soap or tires or jackets hardly ever leads executives to cheat; rather it is the other 'stuff', the risk-taking without fear of failure. Maybe this is prop trading, maybe it is a new product line, maybe it is merely continuing as a going concern, it all depends on the industry.

There are a few reasons for this, or maybe a few factors which lead to it. Corporations have become more cozy with the politicians who supposedly oversee them than is prudent. I believe that banks and companies in certain industries have it on good authority that, if push comes to shove, that government will help them through rocky times. And I believe that these two factors combine to form an environment with little accountability and high moral hazard. Companies take on risks because the government allow them to, putting workers, shareholders and 'the sytem' at risk. This is not the invisible hand, it is borderline cronyism.

I would propose an end to bailouts among other things to end this moral hazard. Companies might fall in the short-term, which would of course hurt people. However over the long-term, this would provide a much healthier environment to do business in. Maybe we wouldn't have an auto industry, but maybe we shouldn't. Maybe a few investment banks wouldn't be around, but maybe they weren't functioning in a sustainable way. Maybe a lot of things would be different, but our society is close to being broken, and a change is clearly needed.*

I don't agree with the fundamentals of Occupy Wall St. I don't even wish the protesters success in many of their goals.  However, I hope that the Occupiers keep at it. I think that they are provoking thought in people, and that does not happen often enough. If they can manage to become part of the national conversation, this can only be a good thing. If it leads us on the road to a healthier economy, and my vision of a free market society (even if that is not the movement's goal) that is great too. In any case, it is nice to see that Americans, whether they line up on one side of the aisle or the other, care again. The situation is in flux, the outcomes are uncertain. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Americans thinking deeply about the society they live in is a good thing.

*  On a side note, ending corporate greed in this way would mean ending corporate reliance on the government. It is at least possible, though admittedly not likely, that government wouldn't have to be as large in such a scenario. In this hypothetical of means ends and results, some Occupiers and some Tea Partiers would have more in common than they would admit or like to believe. This makes it just one more example of a phenomenon we have noted in the past; political beliefs are more circular than continuous. The goals and policies of Republicans and Democrats are continuously blurred; notions of what is 'right' and 'wrong' for society are fleeting at best; the lines between capitalism, socialism and cronyism are never so solid as they seem. But I digress.

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