Occupied Washington

Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery write: A few weeks after the Occupy Wall Street protests began, we found ourselves having a random conversation with a couple of San Franciscans at a store counter. What were these kids going on about? they asked. Time was tight, the inquiry a pleasantry, really. Best to keep it simple. "Jobs, the economy, income inequality." Well, one offered, he knew the wife of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, and according to him, the reason companies aren’t hiring is because they are worried about the extra cost of Obama’s health care reform.

Stunned silence.

Because what can you really say to that, except…let them eat cake? Stumpf made $17.6 million in 2010—672 times what the average American takes home. And say what you will about Obamacare, but for large companies that already offer health benefits, it imposes pretty much zero costs and might even save money.

But why single out Stumpf, who actually sounds fairly cuddly for a bank CEO? (His hobby is baking bread, for Christ’s sake.) Let’s turn instead to John Paulson, the billionaire hedge fund manager who unctuously admonished Occupy protesters: "Instead of vilifying our most successful businesses, we should be supporting them and encouraging them to remain in New York City and continue to grow." Or how about the homeless-themed Halloween party thrown by an upstate New York foreclosure mill? Or the financier David Moore, who, having been dressed down by a panhandler for proffering only a dollar, took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages to bray about Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric: "The president’s incendiary message has now reached the streets. His complaints that rich people must ‘pay their fair share’ have now goaded some of our society’s most unfortunate."

Are all of the 1 percent so unmoored from the concerns of ordinary people? We’ve asked friends in high finance how their colleagues feel about the Occupy protests. Some, we’re told, see them as hacky-sacking WTO wannabes, but a more insightful contingent regards the movement as akin to Europe’s anti-austerity demonstrations: the understandable yet futile raging of people stranded by the shifting tides of the global economy.

This is a sentiment worth interrogating a bit, for it is a popular one among the Davos class. Sorry, American and European masses: We know you liked secure jobs that paid a living wage and held the promise of a cat-food-free retirement. But, well, that was then. The things you used to make are made elsewhere; now the knowledge economy the pundits wax about has gone global too. You’re up against a lot of bright kids in Beijing, Bangalore, and Brasília, and know what? You can’t compete.

There’s some truth to this. But let’s keep in mind that, globalization notwithstanding, the US economy is far wealthier now than it was a couple of decades ago—our GDP per capita is up 24 percent (PDF) just since 1995. The problem is not scarcity; it’s that a tiny number of players get rewarded no matter how badly they screw up. Recall that one of the things that gave Occupy Wall Street escape velocity was Bank of America’s decision to slap a $5-per-month fee onto everyone’s debit card—just as it handed a pair of hapless executives golden parachutes to the tune of $11 million.

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