Monday, October 10, 2011

Talk is Cheap

The "Occupy Wall Street" protests are a major topic of conversation these days. Thus far, I haven't been able to discern a specific "cause" motivating the protests.

Some protesters are unhappy about "corporate greed," whatever that means. Some protesters believe that the government is not sufficiently focused on "creating" jobs for grad students. Some protesters want more subsidies for green energy. Some protesters want to do yoga in the streets. Some protesters are just unhappy with authority, like the guy who decided to express his outrage by defecating on a police car. Some protesters -- the college-age types -- are along for the ride, enjoying the privileges of youth, parental support, and the spontaneity that accompanies minimal responsibility. Ahhhh ... to be 20 years old with no bills, no kids, no pets, no mortgage payments.

The political left is struggling to articulate a credible narrative for OWS. Linda Beale linked to an editorial by Paul Krugman. Krugman believes that OWS represents a mass uprising against Wall Street oligarchs who bulked up their personal fortunes at taxpayer expense while triggering the Great Recession. But that's Krugman's gripe, with no connection to anything I've heard trickling up from the protesters themselves.

I've never understood why people invest so much time and effort into protests. In law school, I lived across from a Planned Parenthood center. Every weekend, from dusk until dawn, anti-abortion protesters with billboards and hand-outs marched the street, seeking to discourage young women from entering the center to discuss contraception and abortion.

The anti-abortion protesters were exercising a Constitutional right to express their moral convictions in public. However, it always struck me as a complete waste of time. Why not use the hours spent protesting to counsel at-risk teenagers? Or to help nurture foster children or other troubled children from unfit homes? Or to volunteer in a hospital to nurture babies whose mothers were addicted to drugs or alcohol? If you are opposed to contraception and abortion, and thus favor more children in unstable home environments, why not focus your time and energy to improve the lives of existing children who lack stability, guidance and love? And then, when all children are healthy and happy, living in stable and nurturing environments, get back to protesting against Planned Parenthood?

I have the same reaction to the OWS protesters. They got their message into the media. They are exercising a Constitutional right to express their outrage over the failures of our political and business leaders. But why are they devoting so much time to empty rallies? What is shouting whining, stomping and defecating going to accomplish, besides draining local security budgets? Isn't this the same crowd that protests "cuts" to "services" for "the most vulnerable Americans"? Shouldn't the able-bodied college and grad students be volunteering their time in public schools and after-school organizations? Or helping out underprivileged children as Big Brothers and Sisters? Or assisting non-profit organizations that provide meals to seniors and other individuals with limited mobility? Or cleaning up public parks? Any of us can think of hundreds of organizations that would welcome a small army of enthusiastic volunteers with open arms.

But talk is cheap, as the saying goes. Volunteering for a non-profit organization, or a run-down public school, or a foster home, or a senior center, requires people to commit time and effort. It's a drain, physically and emotionally. Let's face it, that doesn't sound nearly as appealing as a "spontaneous" street rave, fueled by Twitter and Facebook, to stomp around and shout about the Great Unfairness of the world. If you can't join Dumbledore's Army, perhaps the hippest substitute is Krugman's Army. But the hipsters aren't making a difference, and Dumbledore probably wouldn't be impressed.

So I'll keep half an eye on the protesters, to see if they develop a coherent message before the winter hits. Meanwhile, my respect goes out to individuals like Larry Powell, whose actions speak louder than their words.


  1. I think they are trying to protect their interests by spending time protesting that others spend money to try and protect their interests. But in terms of opportunity costs...time is money.

    The right to try and protect your interests is completely meaningless if somebody else can limit how much time/money you can spend doing so.