Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

A recent Hagar the Horrible comic strip shows Hagar, our Viking protagonist, walking into a bar, where he meets a man who dressed like Robin Hood – green tunic, green hat with a feather stuck in it, and a quiver of arrows. “So what do you do for a living, stranger?”, Hagar asks. “Well,” the man replied, “I rob from the poor to give to the rich”. An incredulous Hagar retorts - “What kind of business is that?

“It’s part of the banking business”, the man snaps back, taking a patrician sip of wine.

It’s amazing how public perception of bankers have soured in recent years, especially since the Lehman Brothers saga. The recent – and ongoing – Occupy Wall Street movement, which brought a taste of the Arab Spring uncomfortably close to Uncle Sam’s own financial heart, captures this sentiment perfectly.

The movement has been portrayed by its advocates as a protest by an increasingly disenfranchised ‘99%’ against the current form of capitalism and its elite Brahmin class on Wall Street. But it is so new that the media and its pundits, from ignoring it in its early days, still can’t make head or tails of this sudden outburst. Much less the general public. Or even the protestors themselves. It’s definitely not just about making the rich pay more taxes. The overall sense is one of a general malaise within the system that no one is yet able to put a finger on.

And what we can’t diagnose properly, we can’t treat properly. The importance of keyhole economics, instead of vague, reactionary measures, cannot be stressed more – not unlike effective surgery on a very sick patient. It would be na├»ve to presume that there are simple solutions to complex problems, much less problems we cannot even clearly identify yet. We know something is wrong, but what exactly? And is there a better alternative that we can turn to?

President Obama hit the nail on its head when he spoke of the frustration of the people at a recent press conference, and this is perhaps the closest we can come to making sense of the movement, in a single, simple word. Frustration.

Looking at fresh developments of similar protests sprouting up in major cities around the world, against a backdrop of growing economic uncertainty in the global economy and rather deep-rooted shortcomings in the US and European economies, one can’t help but wonder, if Marx had been right all along, that this system is increasingly unsustainable?

The feeling of frustration is perhaps one arising out of a sense of being stuck in a rut – that we are stuck with this system as far as we can see, with its increasingly obvious shortcomings. The sentiment that there is no proverbial light at the end of an increasingly long, and dark tunnel.

The real question that this movement raises is quo vadis, America? Where to, America? Less importantly (to us, but maybe not to the millions of Americans), can America, and the American Dream, continue to provide leadership and inspiration to the rest of the world into this new century?

This is a worrying question. The problems of the system are perhaps glaringly obvious, but can we come up with an adequate solution? Can we fix it through keyhole economics, or is an entire systemic overhaul needed? And is there a political will to see it through, above the pragmatic, short-term interests of partisan politics? Change, we can?

There already is a growing sentiment – and body of evidence - that change is a must. Real change, not superficial change. And within any change is both opportunity and risk, which have to be managed carefully, and conscientiously. Then there may be light at the end of the tunnel – we just have to plan critically, tread carefully, act decisively, and keep our fingers crossed that it is not a speeding train.